Collateral Damage in America's War on Sex Crimes

The New Science of Addiction Shows Reducing Sexual Abuse Requires a 180-Degree Turn From What We’re Doing

A recent TED talk by journalist and author Johann Hari offers an overview of the latest research on the science of addiction–and some devastating implications for how we handle those who have committed sex crimes involving children. Hari spent three years researching the drug war and questioning the ways we treat addiction for his 2015 book Chasing the Scream.

A minority of those on state sex offender registries are people who do truly struggle with an attraction to children. And if we’re serious about keeping them from harming kids, Hari’s book suggests that we need to do precisely the opposite of what we’re up to now.

One caveat–the concept of addiction applies to only a minority of those on state sex registries. Registries cast a wide net in defining who has offended against children. They include young men convicted for sexual involvement with a younger girlfriend (see last week’s post “Hazel and Rick’s story” for example). They include teens busted for consensual sexstreaking and public urination, and sexting. Seventy-seven percent are first-time offenders, according to University of Washington professor Alissa Ackerman, who with a team of other researchers put together the first descriptive analysis of registrants in 2011.

But back to the drug war. Johann Hari points out that the science of addiction has changed dramatically since that policy started:

It’s now exactly 100 years since drugs were first banned in the United States and Britain, and we then imposed that on the rest of the world. It’s a century since we made this really fateful decision to take addicts and punish them and make them suffer, because we believed that would deter them; it would give them an incentive to stop…. 

Almost everything we think we know about addiction is wrong, and if we start to absorb the new evidence about addiction, I think we’re going to have to change a lot more than our drug policies.


He notes that researchers have concluded that addiction really isn’t about a chemical or physical dependency but about the need for connections. And that means the conventional wisdom on how to turn around problem behavior couldn’t be more wrong:

Human beings have a natural and innate need to bond, and when we’re happy and healthy, we’ll bond and connect with each other, but if you can’t do that, because you’re traumatized or isolated or beaten down by life, you will bond with something that will give you some sense of relief. Now, that might be gambling, that might be pornography, that might be cocaine, that might be cannabis, but you will bond and connect with something because that’s our nature. That’s what we want as human beings. 

In Arizona, I went out with a group of women who were made to wear t-shirts saying, “I was a drug addict,” and go out on chain gangs and dig graves while members of the public jeer at them, and when those women get out of prison, they’re going to have criminal records that mean they’ll never work in the legal economy again. Now, that’s a very extreme example, obviously, in the case of the chain gang, but actually almost everywhere in the world we treat addicts to some degree like that. We punish them. We shame them. We give them criminal records. We put barriers between them reconnecting. There was a doctor in Canada, Dr. Gabor Maté, an amazing man, who said to me, if you wanted to design a system that would make addiction worse, you would design that system.


There was one country that decided to try something different—Portugal. Here’s the way Hari describes what its leaders did:

Let’s take all the money we used to spend on cutting addicts off, on disconnecting them, and spend it instead on reconnecting them with society.” And that’s not really what we think of as drug treatment in the United States and Britain. So they do residential rehab, they do psychological therapy, that does have some value. But the biggest thing they did was the complete opposite of what we do: a massive program of job creation for addicts, and microloans for addicts to set up small businesses. So say you used to be a mechanic. When you’re ready, they’ll go to a garage, and they’ll say, if you employ this guy for a year, we’ll pay half his wages. The goal was to make sure that every addict in Portugal had something to get out of bed for in the morning. And when I went and met the addicts in Portugal, what they said is, as they rediscovered purpose, they rediscovered bonds and relationships with the wider society. 

It’ll be 15 years this year since that experiment began, and the results are in: Injecting drug use is down in Portugal, according to the British Journal of Criminology, by 50 percent, five-zero percent. Overdose is massively down, HIV is massively down among addicts. Addiction in every study is significantly down. One of the ways you know it’s worked so well is that almost nobody in Portugal wants to go back to the old system….


Why not apply those lessons to our own policies on preventing sexual abuse and assault?

It’s past time for lawmakers, judges, and prosecutors to reassess how we handle those found guilty of sex crimes. Our laws are explicitly designed to isolate them—to destroy any possibility they can make connections.

They’re publicly branded on Internet sex registries. They’re often restricted from living in large swaths of towns and cities. When they’re released from prison or move to a new neighborhood, they’re compelled to foot the bill for sending out notices to all the neighbors that they’ve moved in (with predictable results).

Re-offense rates among those on registries already are low–a 2003 government study concluded that only five percent of registrants were rearrested for another sex crime within three years. But for those few who are prone to reoffend, isolating them will make them more likely, not less, to commit another crime.

Expanding the Circles of Support and Accountability programs operating in just a few places around the country would be a good place to start changing direction. These pair ex-offenders with volunteers who support them in finding jobs and housing and getting social support. The early research on the program shows that they’ve achieved dramatic reductions in re-offense rates among offenders (also here).

It’s high time to consider at least diverting some of the millions spent on registries and residency restrictions—which don’t work, according to multiple studies–to approaches like Circles that have a track record of promising results.

2 thoughts on “The New Science of Addiction Shows Reducing Sexual Abuse Requires a 180-Degree Turn From What We’re Doing

  1. Dolley

    I believe our programs in the United States are missing something else that must be significant to recovery. I say this because it has been my experience that even once trained, and, or a former addict is given an opportunity to become gainfully employed, they commonly relapse. We have programs Nationwide that offer this same type of philosophy-shared parties (employer and government funded program) that provide training and jobs, yet the success rates are much lower compared to that of Portugal’s reported achievements. I also find that most registered sex offenders maintain their employment when given the opportunity to become gainfully employed and are drug addiction free. I in no way am contradicting the idea of support and recovery being attained through treatment and opportunities allotted, I’m trying to understand what Portugal has included in their method that we have not. It is likely that their success might include a more holistic role in the addict’s life. Our motives are both politically and monetarily driven which equates to as many numbers coming through the doors of an alcohol & drug agency as the level of care actually provided. Take for example, most outpatient counseling centers see the client or patient for an hour, talk to them about a relapse prevention plan, and off goes the client back into the possibly jobless, homeless, or unhealthy home environment from where they came from, with little regard to their immediate basic needs being met. Individuals may be referred to another program such as for training & employment but again, they are expected to navigate much of what they’ll face independent of ongoing support beyond a check in once they’ve obtained employment, and an hour or two a month with a counselor. And most will either not have the insurance available to them once working or the monetary means to pay the cost of seeing a counselor on a frequent or ongoing basis. I tend to believe that a program resulting in success allows for greater accountability for the addict by their being more led or ‘hand held’ to ensure their success. Perhaps our system is so filled with policies and regulations that must be followed (from the limited time professionals have with clients to billing standards) that it muddies the actual intent. I am not sure what the answers are, I am sure that the majority of drug addicts repeatedly reoffend because of the missing community and professional system that promotes the long road to recovery, and yet these same systems typically disallow and exclude sex offenders all together, even though they typically have the best outcomes.

  2. Paul Yoder

    This sounds like a very positive approach, and one that could work much better then what we do with sex addicts, and especially with those who for whatever reason were isolated from society for some minor infraction when they were young.


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