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by Chrysanthi S. Leon
NYU Press, 2011
Review by Hennie Weiss on Aug 14th 2012

Sex Fiends, Perverts, and Pedophiles

Focusing mostly on the state of California, Chrysanthi S. Leon analyses contemporary sex offender punishment based on a historical context in Sex Fiends, Perverts, and Pedophiles: Understanding Sex Crime Policy in America. In doing so, Leon employs triangulation methodology by using descriptive statistics, archival research and participant observation.

Leon starts by describing the various classifications and images of sexual predators, such as the monster (the dangerous stranger), the patient (with an amendable pathology) and the nuisance (the bothersome child molester). Leon then discusses fallacies (deeply held beliefs) of sex crime, such as the stranger fallacy (that sexual offenders are mostly strangers), the singular sex offender fallacy (that all sex offenders are alike) and the new law fallacy (that new, increasingly punitive laws will deter and prevent offenses).

Leon then traces the "sexual psychopath era" from 1930 to 1955 when the dominant theories in criminology included the "sex fiend", a deviant person with a compulsive sex disorder. During this period, sensational stories of child victims were covered extensively, which resulted in the creation of educational short films focusing on the dangerous and monstrous stranger as offender. The focus of the sexual psychopath era was on "...incapacitation, biological research, public education or awareness, and rehabilitation" (p. 29). Incarceration rates did not change much during this era, but sex offenders were no longer viewed as suffering from biological defects (as described by earlier researchers, such as Lombroso), but rather mental illness. Civil commitment was therefore utilized quite often in comparison to criminal sentencing. In 1947, as a means of responding to the needs and concerns of the public, California implemented the nation's first registration law.

Rehabilitation became the focus from 1950 to 1980 during the "rehabilitation era". Published material during this period focused on sexual behavior (the Kinsey study among others) while books were written portraying the struggling sexual offender protagonists trying to live a "normal" life. Treatment and discussions concerning levels of harm and dangerousness of offenders were assessed. Civil commitment was often implemented, as was the restriction of obscene material even though registration with police, the death penalty and castration were also used.

Did rehabilitation and civil commitment work to amend sex offenders? Leon states that some sex offenders were screened out of the process while the more "useful citizens" received rehabilitation. Psychiatrists greatly influenced whether an offender should receive rehabilitation or prison. Violent offenders were often viewed as too problematic for rehabilitation, while child molesters made up a large percentage of both the civil commitment and the prison population. Nonpenetrating child molester often received civil commitment. Focusing much on diagnosis, little rehabilitation or treatment actually occurred, and individual treatment was extremely limited, while many offenders viewed as a "nuisance" and those who committed misdemeanors were sent to prison due to the fact that they did not "fit" the rehabilitation criteria.

The decline of civil commitment also marks the end of the rehabilitation era, and the beginning of the "containment era". Leon therefore discusses sex offender policy from the 1980s to present day. Rather than focusing on civil commitment, the containment era is characteristic of penalty enhancements and strategies to prevent and punish offenders. This is done through incarceration, castration and execution, but also by expanding the range of offenses that are required to be registered (such as indecent exposure), allowing public access to the registry of sex offenders, and implementing banishment zones.

In order to increase our understanding of sex offenders, Leon states that more studies and knowledge development is needed. The increasingly punitive programs are often spurred by single-victim organizations focusing on particularly heinous cases, especially those involving young children. Leon states that some of these policy implications result in unwanted consequences. Many sex offenders cannot find housing, and are therefore living in motels and half-way houses together with multiple other sex offenders, or they are concentrated in high crime and high poverty areas. The restrictions also make it difficult for the offenders to find employment and receive treatment. 

Leon states that there are few changes in sex offending over the years. What is different in the containment era is the rate of incarceration, the implementation of longer sentences, and the belief in the predatory stranger (or bogeyman). The increased discretionary power and charging decisions of prosecutors (such as wobbler crimes that can be charged as either a misdemeanor or felony) and the removal of power from judges also serve to increase the sex offender prison population. Since the 1980s, Leon states that the focus of the containment era includes the notion that we should aid the victims and punish the offenders (rather than also treating the offenders). It would be interesting if she elaborates on how victim treatment is implemented to aid the victims as she gives examples of treatment for sexual offenders.

Leon ends the book by discussing how we tend to treat those who commit sex offenses as a particular type of people, rather than looking at their behavior. In doing so, we look at "species" rather than "conduct". The notion of the sex offender as a stranger also ignores the notion that sexual assault often takes place within families and by authority figures. The unintended consequences of policy implementations also result in creating an automatic pool of suspects (through the registry laws), while often causing much suffering to the families of the offender. Leon states that it is necessary to differentiate between sex offenders in order " guide discretion and to recognize institutional constraints and budgetary limits..." (p. 196).

The intended audience is scholars and students in criminology and sociology as the book seeks to explain the history and sociology of sex offender punishment, crime legislation, public awareness and public discourse. The book is well written and informative, but also rather technical. Therefore, a general knowledge of the criminal justice system, criminology and the implementation of law on the books, law in action and judicial decision-making is highly recommended.


© 2012 Hennie Weiss


Hennie Weiss has a Master's degree in Sociology from California State University, Sacramento. Her academic interests include women's studies, gender, sexuality and feminism. 



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