Sex, Hysteria and the Law
Vanessa Place knows most of her clients are guilty, if not factually, then legally. As a criminal defense appellate lawyer, she’s seen their files, the crime scene photos. She’s read the transcripts of their court cases. She knows most are very bad men. She goes to great pains throughout The Guilt Project: Rape, Morality and Law (Other Press, $16.95) to describe the senselessness and violence of their acts and she does not attempt to explain or contextualize their motives.
All quotations below are from this book.
Unlike The Innocence Project, which works to vacate false convictions, Place is concerned with how our society treats what it sees as its most vile criminals, sex offenders and sexually violent predators, and the laws we enact to protect ourselves from this dangerous, and supposedly evergrowing, population.
There is no question that rape and sexual abuse are serious crimes that, like murder, call for serious punishment and Place is not a weepy dramatic but a clear-eyed rationalist. Her compassion, while directed to her clients and their victims, is also directed to us, both for our own fears and our willingness to violate our humanity for the illusion of safety. In the same way James Baldwin understood racism to be dehumanizing for both the oppressed and the oppressor, Place posits it’s our own humanity that’s at risk in the way we respond to certain crimes.
“There will always be people guilty of great evil. But evil is an act, not a cultural metaphor, not a social backdrop, and not entertainment. As a people, we have to resist the temptation to make our morality contingent on anybody’s innocence.”
The concern here is not with the heinous nature of these acts. That is a horrifying given. Without mediating the horror, Place asks us to consider the roles our fears and confusion play in what we see as justice and if the things we offer as assurances (DNA testing, mandatory sentencing, sexual predator registries) are actually assurances at all. She achieves this not by minimizing the crimes””she relates them in brutal detail””but by accepting them.
It’s the sexual nature of these crimes that moves them into a different cultural sphere from others. Our ambivalence as a culture means we react with guilt and shame when the blind subconscious of sexuality makes itself felt. We instantly push it away.
We are victims of our own hysterias around sex. In a media culture working very hard to keep the consumer in a state of near orgasmic titillation, we are 12-yearold children, excited, deeply confused, and frightened by the sexual. We want our vicarious sex but only in proscribed ways. We’ll take a James Bond, Christian Grey, or Edward Cullen as long as we agree not to call them rapists or predators.
Symbolic sentences of thousands of years, vague legal definitions of rape and sexual assault that allow consenting adults and petting teenagers to be prosecuted, set the stage. Add the politicalization of judicial offices, and the elevation of rage as a social bond, our shared Two Minute Hate, and we create a culture of inchoate fear and reaction.
In the end, the sexual criminal, more than the murderer or bank robber, becomes an ‘other’ like the jihadist terrorist, someone supposedly so essentially unlike us that they are no longer human. Our hysteria to keep the frightening things away converts them to “animals”, a word used loudly and often in the context.
“In a democracy, the law is supposed to pour cool impartiality over hot situations, orchestrate agreements between opposites, and correct imbalances between the powerful and the voiceless.”
Richard Beck’s We Believe the Children:
A Moral Panic in the 1980’s (PublicAffairs, $26.99), although not as morally astringent as Place’s book, is nonetheless a fascinating look at the hysteria around daycares and sexual child abuse in the 1980’s. It’s focused primarily on the McMartin Day Care case.
This case became the longest and most expensive trial in California history, sprawling over six years from 1984 to 1990, ultimately yielding no convictions. Over-eager District Attorneys, using coercive psychologists, accused the McMartins of abusing over 360 children in bizarre satanic rituals that involved underground tunnels, hot air balloons, ritual sacrifice of both animals and children and, possibly, Chuck Norris.
The “cool impartiality of the law” failed the McMartins. There was never any compelling evidence that a crime had been committed and the stories of the children grew more ridiculous as the interviews dragged on, yet the McMartins were jailed for years and essentially asked to prove their innocence. Assumed guilty as soon as they were charged and relentlessly tried in the media long before court, the McMartin’s lives were utterly destroyed in the service of a cultural catharsis.
Daycares across the country were swept up in the storm and others were arrested (most often gay or male), convicted, and sent to prison for very long jail terms. Police Departments set up Satanic Group Task Forces that saw witches and signs of demonic sacrifice everywhere. Laws were changed to make the testimony of younger and younger children admissible in court, often without the possibility of cross-examination.
Place restricts herself to the criminal justice system. Beck digs deeper into the California politics that fanned the McMartin fires and made the careers of prosecutors and therapists who believed the children because it suited them, and because they couldn’t imagine the children were lying. And the children weren’t exactly lying, they were simply being children, trying not to displease the adults.
Mandatory sentencing laws, that are supposed to prove how dedicated we are to fighting crime, instead give judges no choice but to impose harsh, life-altering penalties on a partner in a consensual relationship, a college kid who moons his classmates, or two 15-yearolds fondling each other in a parked car.
We are left with questions about justice and the law, questions about whether our legal system should be a rational instrument or a careening mob, and how our own fears can feed the weakest parts of our government.
At heart, mercy is simply the steady responsibility to safeguard the humanity of all, including those we hate”¦ You might hate my clients, and you might be right. My clients routinely disprove God. But we can’t use them to undo our own humanity.’ As we enter an election year, these aren’t bad things to consider. !