In US v. Comstock, decided on May 17, the Supreme Court held that it is constitutional to order the civil commitment of a mentally ill, sexually dangerous criminal beyond the date he would originally be released.
I have no beef with this decision, constitutionally, legally, ethically, whatever. (However, this future lawyer reserves the right to change her mind once she’s $200,000 into her legal education.)
Instead, let’s think on this: why do we, as a society, deem it necessary to single out, punish, and/or be scared of “sexually dangerous” criminals more than just plain ol’ non-sexually dangerous ones? Why is it that we publish child molesters’ addresses, but not domestic abusers’, nor bank robbers’, nor arsonists’, nor murderers’?
For example: rape. When I was younger, I thought rape was just about sex — that some really horny asshole is too much of a complete evil asshole to control himself. However, (I believe) the common consensus is much more that rape is about intimidation and control; it’s an instrument of coercion, punishment, domination, frustration, and fear. It’s a way for the perpetrator to exert dominion over others and the world; a way for a really fucked up asshole to manipulate others to boost his own damn ego.
Why don’t we classify rape under plain “torture?” After all, “torture” is a pretty big umbrella — emotional torture (threatening loved ones), social torture (generally not criminal, but might include civil action like defamation), and, of course, physical torture (thumbscrews, waterboarding, crucifixion, that weird Bond knotted rope thing, anything depicted in Schindler’s List, etc.).
I’d like to pair that food for thought with how we treat rape victims. We don’t require them to reveal their identities to the public, because we have a need to “protect” them. (Though, you’d think it would’ve been nice to protect them before they were raped.) Why do we feel more compelled to “protect” adult rape victims than adult kidnapping victims, or torture victims, or Ponzi Scheme victims?
Again, I don’t really disagree with today’s policy, but it also seems that this soft paternalism not only protects rape victims, but also victimizes them further. We’re not-so-subtly coding that being a rape victim is an especially shameful life event — more shameful than being a kidnapping victim, for example. That said, doesn’t requiring shame connote that the person who feels shame is at fault? So, by encouraging rape victims to remain anonymous, do we not only blame them, at least a little, for their victimhood, but also weaken them by confining their horrors and stories to rumor and shadow?
Furthermore, in the rare instance in which rape allegations actually go to trial, and the even rarer one that the victim testifies, juries often don’t trust her account unless she bawls on the stand, or otherwise demonstrates some innate weaknesses and irreparable destruction. We’ve seen, time and time again, when juries, and even sometimes judges, don’t trust the victim’s story unless she communicates that she thinks her life is just ruined, completely over, by this rape. (Weirdly enough, if a witness whose husband and children were brutally murdered takes the stand, we don’t require her to cry or freak out to be trustworthy.)
This societal expectation is yet more proof that our society is much more puritanical than either the right or the left would like to admit. Frankly, by requiring women to publicly fall apart if raped, we communicate that their worth is inextricably tied up with their sexual purity. Somehow, torturing me sexually must be more soul-wrenching than torturing me non-sexually physically, or emotionally.
To circle back: why did North Carolinian legislators write this law specifically for “sexually dangerous” criminals, and not all dangerous criminals? Do they not want to reserve the right to commit ANY mentally ill and dangerous prisoner? Why the hell not? (If you comment based on just this paragraph, you kinda missed the point of this whole post.)
In conclusion (I actually typed “confusion” first — Freudian slip), today I have a lot more questions than I do answers. To be perfectly explicit, though, I think we have a chicken-and-egg conundrum, involving both society’s fear of sex and fear of women. What’s the cause and what’s the effect is beyond me, for now.
A quote I ponder often, that’s fairly relevant today:
“[Sexual] appetite is in ludicrous and preposterous excess of its [biological] function.
“…You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act — that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you come to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food? And would not anyone who had grown up in a different world think there was something equally queer about the state of the sex instinct among us?”
— C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (originally a BBC radio series during World War II — things haven’t changed much)