Suggesting solutions to a problem is generally better than purely complaining about the problem. However, when the problem is one that is nuanced and easily misunderstood, suggesting solutions can actually make enacting effective policies more difficult. Here’s a list of some of the more common policy suggestions on sexual assault and why they don’t work.
Suggestions on enacting a death penalty against people convicted of sexual assault or rape are understandable. It is a sensitive and highly emotional topic. However, these suggestions fail to take the dynamics of how and why sexual assault happens into account.
Many people who sexually assault a child are juveniles themselves, and the recidivism rates for juveniles are usually less than 10%. Killing juveniles when we know how to ensure they behave appropriately is lazy and cruel policy.
The recidivism rates for new sexual crimes perpetrated by existing sex offenders is likewise low, with large meta-analysis putting the figures around 12%. We also know that people are erroneously accused of sex crimes, or the government prosecutes crimes as if they were much more severe than the actual circumstances were.
Even aside from all this, the common theme among sexual assault victim/survivors is that they want the abuse to stop and the perpetrator held accountable in ways that push them towards better behavior. We know from research that taking a trauma-informed approach to offenders assists in this.
We also know that in most sexual assault cases, whether the victims are adults or children, the victim knows and trusts the person who assaulted them. Advocating death for perpetrators without consulting victim/survivors or empathizing with what they go through is irresponsible and cruel.
While it may be tempting to advocate for physical or chemical castration, these procedures are medical and require the consent of the patient. It is unethical to force someone to undergo a medical procedure without there being an existing risk to their health.
Even if this weren’t a concern, sexual assault and rape do not require sexual attraction. There are many different motivations for sexual assault and rape (entire books have been written on the subject) and sexual attraction is just one motivation out of dozens of motivations. It is not a reliable method of ensuring that a perpetrator will stop, and the research shows that cognitive behavioral therapy helps most perpetrators desist from offending.
Shunning or ostracizing and deliberately excluding offenders from normal social functions is a policy some suggest as a solution. The methods usually vary, from restricting where offenders can live to what jobs they can take.
These methods may make sense at an emotional level. Who would want a ____ offender living in their neighborhood? Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) is a tempting take. However, the reality is that in most cases, these are not hardened criminals who will simply reoffend the first chance they get, these are typically human beings who did not have the resources or support they needed to make better decisions. In many cases, getting that support to make better choices and get better jobs, housing, and relationships assists in solving the issue of recidivism.
When people’s basic needs are met and they are engaged in meaningful work that suits their skills, people are much less likely to commit crime of any kind. For example, restricting people from getting a basic office job that pays well when someone’s offense did not involve an office setting is not a policy that works, it is simply a barrier to ensuring someone’s basic needs are met.
Shunning people can also have consequences for an offender’s friends and family in ways that can severely impact their mental health. Policies that shun people when the evidence shows this puts them at higher risk of recidivism are policies that are aimed at returning people to prison, not public safety.
Reactive policies like the ones just mentioned may seem “tough on crime” or feel like we’re doing something productive. However, it is essentially “security theater,” a production that has no real benefit aside from making us feel like we’re safer.
In reality, reactive policies that focus on what happens after a child is abused – while to some extent are necessary – should not be the focus of our spending or our attention. If the goal is to reduce crime and ensure social harms don’t happen, we need to spend our money that way. The money needs to follow the evidence.