Why Aren’t We Talking About Chemical Castration?

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By David Byrne


On June 10th a law was signed by Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey that compels people convicted of sexual offenses on victims under 13 to be chemically castrated prior to and post release to the community.[1] Chemical castration is the usage of pharmaceuticals to reduce sexual functioning in men. The drugs used in the procedure are associated with numerous side effects including loss of bone density, gynecomastia and liver damage. While the impact on sexual functioning is reversible, the side effects may not be. Despite the popularity of chemical castration as a ‘tough on crime’ public safety strategy for offenders who are considered the highest risk to our communities, we know little about its impact on recidivism, with no community-based studies existent that measure this. The risk/reward of chemical castration is further problematized because, despite popular belief, rates of recidivism for sex offenders are very low. In addition, as chemical castration targets biological functioning and not other factors that lead to the sexual assault of children, it may not impact a person’s likelihood harm another.


The limited response that this new law has received reveals a lot about how we think about people who have sexually offended against children and what are acceptable responses to their crimes. This is not a surprise, as sex offenders historically have been subjected to more severe penalties than any other offending group. The silence of Christian theologians and ethicists, who have been quite vocal about other recently passed, controversial laws, is to be expected. After all, in coming to terms with the depth and breadth of sex abuse scandals in their churches, it is hard to make space to consider the treatment of perpetrators while attempting to address the complex needs of victims. But this new law, as it pertains to significant questions for theologians and ethicists on justice, human dignity and the common good, is of grave and immediate concern, even though the discourse presents a mine field of challenges.


Academic critics in the US and the UK argue that compulsory chemical castration violates an individual’s rights, including the right to not be subjected to cruel or unusual punishment.[2] In Canada, where chemical castration is regularly employed as a ‘treatment’ for sex offenders, we avoid human rights challenges through a mechanism known as ‘legal coercion.’[3] As part of the Neurointerventions in Crime Prevention[4] project a group of researchers at Oxford University argue that these human rights challenges are null because, as evidenced by the wording in chemical castration statutes, chemical castration is punishment and as a form of punishment, is not more restricted or harsh than imprisonment. This begs the question, if we know so little about chemical castration’s effects, to what end might we employ it as a punishment for sex offenders?


Psychologist Marty Klein[5] argues that chemical castration is revenge, where children’s safety is sacrificed “…on the altar of rage and bloodlust.” He juxtaposes populist, punitive offender management strategies like chemical castration against proven therapeutic approaches. This is insightful, but I argue that there is another dynamic at play here.


In ten years of experience with sex offenders in the Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA)[6] program, I spent time working with countless men who were chemically castrated. Many of them displayed the harmful, aforementioned side effects. The dual goals of CoSA are ‘No More Victims’ and that ‘No One is Disposable.’ Rooted in restorative justice, it accomplishes the first goal through dynamic engagement with sex offenders, insisting that the best way to protect public safety is through the building of safe communities that are inclusive of all, including those who have harmed others, through a dynamic process of support and holding people accountable for their actions. In numerous studies, CoSA has been shown to reduce rates of recidivism in sex offenders by as much as 90% – and is very much one of the proven, therapeutic approaches to which Klein refers.[7]


In my experience of working with CoSA I have often considered the notion that what chemical castration represents is not a tough on crime response to sexual offending, but a form of scapegoating.[8] In the naming and castrating of the sex offender, we cast them aside, labelling them as the ultimate ‘other.’ As a result, we refuse to encounter them, neglecting our responsibility to victims that entails working with perpetrators to promote desistance from harmful behaviors. This is insidious, especially as our eagerness to cast aside the sex offender, given the sexual abuse crisis, may reveal a deep need of Christians to escape responsibility as we are happy to name someone who is more complicit in the sexual abuse of minors than ourselves.


It is my experience in CoSA of building community with those who have sexually offended, many of whom became my friends, that has led me to challenge chemical castration – both here and in my doctoral work in theological ethics at the University of St. Michael’s College. As we face the tragedy of the sex abuse crisis in the church, I acknowledged that it is a difficult time to also discuss the sex offender as a dignified person, as a figure who needs and deserves our love and inclusion in our communities. But it is precisely the gospel call to encounter those at the margins of society. It is time to challenge chemical castration – not as opposed to necessary conversations on safeguarding potential victims of sexual violence, but as part of a process of challenging harmful criminal justice practices and building safe communities.

David Byrne
David Byrne [Photo courtesy of David Byrne]
David Byrne is Professor in the Community and Justice Services program at Centennial College in Toronto, Ontario. Previously David served as Executive Director for Peterborough Reintegration Services, an organization whose mandate is to assist offenders in their transition from federal institutions to the community. David is currently working towards a Ph.D. in theology (ethics) at the University of St. Michael’s College while concurrently completing the Collaborative Specialization in Bioethics at the Joint Centre for Bioethics. Both schools are located within the University of Toronto.  In his doctoral project, David is exploring ethical issues in the treatment of sexual offenders after their release to the community. Follow him on Twitter at: @davidbyrnetwo.


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/11/us/politics/chemical-castration.html

[2] Bernadette Rainey and Karen Harrison, “Human Rights and Human Wrongs: a rights-based approach to the punishment and treatment of sex offenders,” Contemporary Issues in Law 13, no. 3 (2014).

[3] Colleen M. Berryessa, Jennifer A. Chandler and Peter Reiner. “Public Attitudes Towards Legally Coerced Biological Treatments of Criminals.” Journal of Law and the Biosciences 3, no. 3 (2016): 447-67.

[4] http://www.neurocorrectives.com/

[5] https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/sexual-intelligence/201906/sex-offenders-is-revenge-better-child-safety

[6] http://cosacanada.com/

[7] Prescott, Robin J. Wilson and David. “Community Based Management of Sexual Offender Risk: Options and Opportunities.” In Responding to Sexual Offending Edited by Kieran McCartan. London: Palgrave McMillan, 2014.

[8] Kirkegaard, Hugh and Wayne Northey. “The Sex Offender as Scapegoat: Vigilant Violence and Faith Community Response.” Prison Service Journal 132 (2000): 71-77.