Sex Fiends, Perverts, and Pedophiles: Understanding Sex Crime Policy in America

Article excerpt

Sex Fiends, Perverts, and Pedophiles: Understanding Sex Crime Policy in America. By Chrysanthi Leon. New York: New York University Press, 2011. 444 pp. $70.00 cloth, $23.00 paper.

At the crux of the current crisis of mass incarceration, increasing punitiveness, and alarmist politics, is the heated controversy about sex offender policy. Current policies create the impression that sex offender policy has always consisted of lengthy, incapacitating sentences and pervasive post-sentence supervision; moreover, many previous studies have focused on the punitive discourse surrounding sex offenders, thus blurring the line between perceptions and representations of the problem and the methods adopted to address it.

Chrysanthi Leon's new book is a welcome and knowledgeable addition to this debate. The book thoroughly analyzes sex offender policy, challenging the existing academic and practical discourse in two important ways. First, it offers a much-needed historical perspective, breaking the timeline into roughly three periods: the sexual psychopath era, featuring a plethora of approaches toward sexual offenses; the rehabilitative era, during which the belief that propensity to commit sex offenses was curable led to a focus on clinical approaches; and the modern containment era, in which mass incarceration and numerous restrictions are related to a belief in incurability. In doing so, the book reveals nuance and layers that existing scholarship tends to mask and compress.

Second, the book analyzes both discourse and policy, drawing on an astounding variety of sources, including interviews with practitioners, field observations, quantitative databases of arrest, conviction and civil commitment rates, academic sources, newspapers, and popular culture. In doing so, it provides a more complete perspective on the relationship between academic opinions, political initiatives, professional practices, and public discourse and perceptions.

The conclusions Leon draws from this extensive inquiry are nuanced and sophisticated. The most noticeable trend is a unification of the sex offender category. While the sexual psychopath era and the rehabilitation era (to a lesser extent) feature efforts to distinguish sex offenders from each other, in the containment era sex offenders are perceived as a monolithic category of "monsters." This trend has disturbing, and sometimes surprising, implications: Our ability to properly assess risk is hindered by our perception of propensity to offend as static and unchanging, therefore leading to an overbroad category of monitored and controlled sex offenders, but simultaneously diverting our attention away from sexual offenses committed within the family.

Leon also problematizes the usual explanations for sex offender incarceration, which focus on moral panics and regard sex offenders as a unique category of subjects, separate from general criminal justice trend. Instead, she offers an integrated explanation that sees sex offender incarceration as part of the general trend toward more frequent and more severe incarceration. …