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Review of "Social Control of Sex Offenders"

By D. Richard Laws
Palgrave Macmillan, 2016
Review by Hennie Weiss on Dec 27th 2016
Social Control of Sex Offenders

In Social Control of Sex Offenders: A Cultural History, Richard Laws examines the last 100 years of procedures to contain sex offenders, focusing mainly on social, political and legislative ideas. Laws states that it is nearly impossible for sex offenders to achieve rehabilitiation due to the implemented laws when it comes to controlling such offenders. According to Laws, the system needs to change if sex offenders are to be successfully reintegrated into society.

Laws begins by discussing the notion of moral panic, the key attributes of moral panic, and the agents in society that perpetuate the notion of moral panic; the media, public, law enforcement, politicians and legislators, as well as various action groups with vested interests. With this notion in mind, Laws turns to discussing early historical treatments of social deviance and sex offenders, describing the various tactics to contain sex offenders, such as incarceration and separation from the public. During this time, sex offenders were treated more like "common" criminals, which changed with the medicalization of sexual deviance, when there was an increased focus on individual cases, but the sexual psychopath became demonized, view as genetically defect, and there was little treatment available, even though some efforts were made to integrate behavioral treatment. With the notion of the sexual psychopath, there were three different eras that arose during which various forms of treatment and containment were implemented. During the sexual psychopath era, the sexual offender was seen as mentally ill and dangerous and legislation focused on various ways to contain and punish such offenders. These views changed slightly during the rehabilitative era when the mental health of the sex offender became an increasing concern and attempts were made to treat offenders in order to reintegrate them into society. The containment era focused on incapacitation as the best alternative to treat, or contain, sex offenders. With various forms of legislature and laws attempting to treat, contain or incapacitate sex offenders, research was conducted to predict criminality and the risk to reoffend. Both actuarian (statistical) and clinical data was used to determine if an offender was going to reoffend.

As we are currently in the containment era, from approximately 1980 to the present, efforts are made to control and contain sex offender, and the legislature has focused much attention on the registration process in regards to sex offenders (Megan's Law is one example of such efforts). Laws states that such laws are often detrimental to sex offenders trying to reintegrate into society as it can be difficult to find employment and housing, among other issues, as well as the stigma that comes with community notification and registration. Laws focuses mostly on sex offenders and laws in America, but brings an international view to the issue when discussing various countries and their sex offender laws. Laws notes that many other countries are less strict when it comes to the notion of registration and community notification, and some countries do not have any laws restricting where a sex offender can reside.

In conclusion, Laws states that there is no single psychological treatment that is a golden standard in regards to sex offenders, and that most offenders do not receive treatment at all. Laws discusses two forms of treatment in more depth, RNR (Risk-Need-Responsivity) and GLM (Good Lives Model). Laws also reiterates the notion that simply containing sex offenders can have devastating consequences and that there is a need for changing the structure and legislature in regards to the treatment, or lack thereof, of sex offenders. Social Control of Sex Offenders: A Cultural History is an interesting read, in which Laws explains the history of sex offenders and the ways in which they have been viewed and treated over the last 100 years. The book provides a comprehensive yet concise overview of the culture surrounding beliefs about sex offenders, focusing on the notion of moral panic and how such beliefs permeate how we deem that sex offenders should be treated, dealt with and contained. The book works well in an educational setting and the main audience would likely be those in a criminal justice field.


© 2016 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.