Penn State Sex-Abuse Case Revives Issue of Using Chemical Castration

Chemical castration could be an option in situations like the Penn State sex-abuse scandal. By Michelle Cottle.

Eric Gay / AP Photo

It’s hard to wrap your mind around this nasty business at Penn State, in part because there are just so many people involved who need to have their asses kicked, from the defrocked JoePa to the university vice president to the assistant coach who, stumbling upon a 10-year-old boy allegedly getting raped in the shower, promptly scurried home to tell his daddy.

With such venality and stupidity swirling around, you risk losing sight of the figure at the center of all this: Jerry Sandusky, a 67-year-old alleged pedophile charged with spending the past 15 years preying on boys. Young ones. Not 17-year-olds with washboard abs, but smooth-cheeked preteens and young adolescents. Sandusky, it would appear, likes his playmates pliable and vulnerable, having allegedly plucked several of them from the charity for at-risk youth he has been running since 1977. Thirty-four years of hapless young boys reportedly drifting in and out of Sandusky’s orbit. Expect this scandal to get even more nightmarish before it’s over.

Sadly, if you strip away all the football and celebrity hoohah surrounding this case, it really isn’t all that special. There are far too many sick people out there who find nothing so irresistible as a barely pubescent boy or girl. And every time one of these guys pops up in the news, the same phrase pops up in my brain: chemical castration.

I realize that many folks get creeped out when you start tossing around the C word. The very subject evokes dark visions of forced sterilization and the eugenics horrors of the early 20th century. These days, the practice is overwhelmingly confined to individuals convicted of terrible sex crimes. Since 1996, nine states have adopted laws allowing for, and in some cases requiring, chemical castration of men convicted of certain offenses. In other states, offenders can opt for chemical castration as part of their court-mandated counseling, as a way to avoid or shorten time behind bars, or in hopes of improving their shot at parole. Every now and again, a high-profile case arises in which a conflicted offender pleads to be chemically castrated as a way to help him avoid repeating his crimes. The ACLU objects to the procedure on the ground that it violates offenders’ constitutional protection against “cruel and unusual punishment.”

The ickiness of this issue makes it a tough one for many people to discuss, which is a shame. Because, with certain breeds of offenders—including those driven to commit the atrocities of which Sandusky stands accused—there is a fair amount of data suggesting that such treatment can be useful not only in protecting children but also in helping save such offenders from themselves.

If you want to talk the pros and cons of chemical castration, the man to see is Dr. Fred Berlin, founder of the Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorders Clinic. Berlin has been treating people with “abnormal sexual cravings” for more than three decades and has prescribed chemical castration at least a couple of hundred times.

First things first: Berlin criticizes the way people typically talk about chemical castration as misleading and counterproductive. The term itself, he asserts, suggests you’re removing or destroying a man’s testes, as with surgical castration. Thus the extreme cringe factor.

“I tend to talk about it as providing chemical intervention for sexual-appetite suppression,” he explains. The procedure involves monthly injections of anti-androgens, hormone-blocking chemicals aimed at decreasing testosterone production. Observing that such drugs are more commonly used to treat prostate-cancer patients, Berlin notes dryly that “people rarely talk about ‘chemically castrating’ cancer patients.” He compares it to drug addicts taking meds to control their cravings.

Berlin stresses that the procedure is neither permanent (if injections are discontinued, the body will start churning out testosterone once more) nor something that should be regarded as punitive. “As a physician, the last thing I would be in favor of is using a surgical or medical intervention to punish people,” he says. The goal here, he asserts, is “to help people be in better control of themselves” in the hopes that they can ultimately “live a good life as free individuals in their community.”

Mental-health professionals emphasize that chemical castration is not appropriate for every type of sex offender. The consensus seems to be that sadists and people for whom sex crimes are an expression of violence or rage or a desire for power are not good candidates for this type of appetite suppressant.

That said, the accusations against Sandusky would place him squarely in the ranks of those for whom the procedure is indicated, says forensic psychologist Michael Davison, a professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology and the head of a community-based sex-offender program. Davison calls such offenders “true-blue pedophiles”—that is, people who are drawn to and aroused by prepubescent children, often to the exclusion of everyone else. (Another, perhaps unexpected, category of offenders for which anti-androgens are indicated: flashers.)

Raising the stakes, people with these sorts of abnormal compulsions tend to have high rates of recidivism, observes Davison. Worse still, he adds, pedophilia is “one of the types of criminality that doesn’t seem to slow down in the same way as, say, your classic rapist.”

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“With other categories of offenders you could say, ‘Yes, the risk does diminish as a person gets older.’ ” But with pedophilia, the fact that Sandusky is 67 years old means nothing, says Davison. He notes that just last month a 90-year-old man in a neighboring county pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a child in 2007, when he was 86.

Among this otherwise intransigent subset, Berlin notes, research indicates that those who undergo chemical castration have “an exquisitely low level of recidivism.” And while both Berlin and Davison point out that the research isn’t perfect—it’s hard to do a double-blind study on such subjects—it is promising.

Moreover, both men have found anti-androgens to be a useful treatment tool—provided, of course, that you don’t expect them to be a magical cure-all. In his 15 years of working with sex offenders at his clinic, Davison says, he has had a number of clients ask for something to help them “put out the fire.”

“I tell them, ‘Well, unfortunately, we’re not going to be able to put out the fire, but we can do a nice job of containing the fire so that it’s not igniting so quickly and so fully that it burns down the entire forest.’”

If Sandusky is truly the monster the grand-jury report paints him to be, this could be something to keep in mind—not only for those who care about his young victims, but for those, however few there may be at the moment, who care about the man at the heart of all this darkness.