Don’t be so hysterical about sex crimes, April 11, 2015
A study on offenders that indicates a genetic tendency has some sinister implications
By Lionel Shriver
In the film Minority Report, police employ psychics who foresee offences before they’re committed. The special unit “PreCrime” swoops down to arrest citizens before they break the law. We’re not there yet, but a large Swedish study has nudged us an inch towards Philip K Dick.
Across more than 20,000 cases of male sex offences in Sweden 1973–2009, men with brothers or fathers convicted of sex offences were five times more likely than average to commit the same kind of crime. (The chances were 2.5% if sexual predation ran in the family, 0.5% among the general male population.) The study’s authors brandish numerous disclaimers: they’re not giving offenders an excuse, proposing male relatives of rapists be imprisoned or isolating a sex-abuse gene. But they believe the finding of a broad genetic proclivity paves the way for prevention strategies. As one forensic psychiatrist put it: “If interventions can be provided that are not harmful, this is an opportunity.”
Imagine being the son or brother of a man imprisoned for sexual assault – traumatic in itself. A social worker rings the doorbell. She offers therapy, anger management or gender–sensitivity training – when you’ve done nothing wrong. Wouldn’t you slam the door in her face, after telling the busybody from PreCrime where she can shove her “prevention strategies”?
It’s challenging to conjure any intervention that would not be stigmatising and insulting. One could even risk planting a seed of fatalism about the inevitability of giving into a base nature.
Previous research has hinted at a genetic component of criminality, particularly at the possibility of a heritable predisposition to violence, which reminds us of the problematically thin line between explanation and excuse. Instead of insisting that their client was dominated by a dark-hearted older brother, maybe lawyers for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev could have argued that the males in his family share a tragic genetic marker that inclined both young men towards terrorism.
Lawyers might look before they leap at this novel line of defence. Criminality being partially preordained may seem to let culprits off the hook. Yet it also makes the proclivity seem ineradicable and suggests that reform is unlikely: once a baddie, always a baddie. The prospect is sci-fi for now, but picture a population whose DNA has been identified as antisocial, kept in vast, isolated camps to protect the virtuous, whose inclination to decency is also genetically certifiable.
That vision is only preposterous to an extent. Because we already treat sex offenders as if they’re genetically marked. There’s no other crime on the books that you never live down and for which you never finish paying your debt. Released sex offenders must lodge their whereabouts with the police, whether their offence was violent rape or mere voyeurism, and may be electronically tagged.
They’re required to inform police if they leave home for a week or more, and to ask permission to holiday abroad (sometimes denied). Police are licensed to identify sex offenders to members of the public. Those given sentences of more than 30 months are put permanently on the sex offenders register, like Santa Claus’s list of who’s been naughty and nice.
We don’t treat these people as folk who’ve done wrong, but as folk who are wrong – hopelessly and irredeemably dangerous because of what they are.
In this sense, the Swedish study’s results are unwelcome. If anything, we need to dial down the hysteria over sex crimes, increasingly regarded as more horrific than murder, and allow for the possibility that some people make a mistake and don’t repeat it, even if that mistake is of a sexual sort.
We could also allow for the possibility that a conviction was itself a mistake. Take the case I heard of anecdotally recently of a man whose secondary-school girlfriend was in his class, and barely below the age of consent, which he was barely above. Her angry father had him arrested. With a sex offence on his record, the poor guy’s life is ruined. Does he really belong on that register? Perhaps in future we could have his DNA tested for whether he’s one of those “monsters” after all.
We’re rounding on that hoary old “nature versus nurture” debate, always artificial. Common sense dictates that neither influence is absolute; the question is one of proportion. (Those Swedish scientists gave it a number: for sex crimes, the risk is 40% nature.)
Besides, both “nature” and “nurture” arguments are deterministic. One casts the self as an inert entity that emerges fully formed, like a product; the other casts the self as shaped wholly by outside forces. Both extremes seek to explain character by eliminating the autonomous self altogether. They regard the self as a dumb object, which either does what it’s programmed to do, or reacts robotically to exterior circumstances.
Perhaps scientists will eventually discover that we are all clockwork bunnies, and our experience of volition is an electro-chemical illusion. Yet until we have proof, we cannot know to what degree we control our destinies. Given that uncertainty, it’s logical to presume that we have free will. If we don’t, it doesn’t matter what we presume. If we do indeed enjoy agency, acting like passive automatons would renege on our personal responsibilities – even if those responsibilities can be mitigated by abuse in childhood, or a cold mother or genetic predisposition. After all, on a casual cultural level, we recognise that a measure of character is predetermined with the concept of “temperament”.
As individuals are best off believing they control their behaviour, the judiciary is best off imputing that control – barring powerful extenuating factors such as mental illness. This study may be scientifically interesting, and anyone who’s pored over 21,566 case histories would hope the results of such hard work would have practical applications. But these findings are no basis for social policy. If it’s finally revealed that my 87-year-old father has long been a secret paedophile, I don’t want my brother getting a knock on the door from PreCrime the next day. I'm with TE Lawrence: "Nothing is written".