Today, the Supreme Court of CA decided, 4-3, that a legal challenge mounted by California therapists against a law requiring them to report patients who have admitted to viewing child pornography – in therapy – may proceed to trial.

The law in question, the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act of 2014, appears benign in that it merely expands the list of “mandated reporters” of abuse and neglect; however, it lists 46 categories of “mandated reporters”, many of which work in the therapeutic professions (including marriage counselors and drug and alcohol therapists) and listen to people who assume the information they provide is privileged. The definition of “child abuse” in the new law is very broad, and includes “sexual exploitation”, which in turn covers any person who knowingly “downloads,” “streams,” or electronically “accesses” child pornography.

As the plaintiffs–therapists and counselors–argue, this broad disclosure requirement violates the patients’  constitutional rights to privacy. No one, including the plaintiffs, doubts that child pornography is a serious problem, both on the production and on the consumption side; nor do the plaintiffs argue that viewing child porn in itself is shielded from prosecution by a right to privacy. But discussing this kind of behavior with your therapist is a different matter.

The constitutional analysis here is interesting, but what underlines the conversation strikes me as even more interesting. The plaintiffs declared that they “have treated numerous patients who are seeking treatment for sex addiction, sexual compulsivity, and other sexual disorders, many of whom have admitted downloading and viewing child pornography on the Internet, but whom [plaintiffs], based on their considerable training and experience, do not believe present a serious danger of engaging in ‘hands-on’ sexual abuse or exploitation of children or the distribution of child pornography to others. These patients typically have no prior criminal history, have never expressed a sexual preference for children, and are active and voluntary participants in psychotherapy to treat their particular sexual disorder, which often involves compulsive viewing of pornography of all kinds on the Internet.” Plaintiffs “have also treated patients seeking treatment because of sexual disorders involving a sexual attraction to children (including pedophilia), who have admitted to downloading and viewing child pornography, but whom [plaintiffs], based on their training and experience, do not believe present a serious danger of engaging in ‘hands-on’ sexual abuse or exploitation of children or the active distribution of child pornography to others. These patients typically have no prior criminal record . . . , no access to children in their home or employment, no history of ‘hands-on’ sexual abuse or exploitation of children, and often express disgust and shame about their sexual attraction to children for which they are actively and voluntarily seeking psychotherapy treatment.”

When I read this, I was struck by the similarities between this law and the criminalization of Brian Dalton in Ohio in 2003. Dalton, a registered sex offender, wrote (distressing, disturbing, horrible) fictional scenarios involving the torture of young boys in his private journal and–after the journal was discovered by his mom–found himself prosecuted for possession of obscene materials–the obscene material being his own journal. After much turmoil, the Ohio Supreme Court overturned the conviction.

I used to teach Dalton as a first case in criminal law, to remind my students that we do not criminalize people for thoughts–only for actions. Of course, the realities of internet porn make the actions required to participate in the crime so flimsy that the boundary between thoughts and deeds becomes pretty thin. But even so, I am struck by how both Dalton and Mathews highlight our tendency to persecute and hunt down consumers of child porn precisely at the point at which they are finding outlets for their propensities in an effort to get better. 

Underlying this appetite for criminalization is an assumption that propensities to be aroused by prepubescent children–which, as a society, we find abominable, a sentiment shared by many of the folks who harbor such propensities (and feel an incredible amount of shame about them)–overlap with the commission of serious crimes. This link is fiercely contested in the literature. Moreover, there’s an assumption that sex offenders are irredeemable–something that Danielle Harris shows is not true; desistance is not uncommon.

There is a difference between making a big show of protecting vulnerable children and actually protecting vulnerable children, and both of these instances–Dalton and the new CA law–are examples of the former, not the latter. I hope we can bring more facts and less revenge fantasies into our sex offender laws.

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