As the sentencing hearing for Gordon Stuckless, one of Canada's worst child sex offenders, came to a close last month, Crown prosecutors asked for a 12-year jail sentence.
Stuckless pleaded guilty to sexually abusing 18 boys while working as a minor hockey coach and doing maintenance at Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens from 1965 and 1985. Despite describing Stuckless as a "prolific serial pedophile," the Crown did not seek a dangerous offender designation, which could have landed him an indefinite prison sentence. In part, that's because Stuckless's lawyer, Ari Goldkind, argued his client has not committed a crime since he began chemical castration in 1997.
But what exactly is chemical castration?
While the term itself may conjure up horrific images involving syringes, pain, and deflated male anatomy, the actual process can be as simple as taking pills every few months, according to Scott Woodside, head of the sexual behavior clinic at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).
Woodside administers chemical castration to "people who've been convicted of sexual offenses, most commonly involving contact with children."
He currently has about 40 patients undergoing the treatment and another 20 to 30 taking antidepressants to curb their sex drive; 25 to 30 percent of his caseload at any given time is comprised of people who are addicted to porn or struggle with chronic infidelity, while the rest are convicted sex offenders.
"Most of the people referred to our clinic are referred through probation and parole."
Woodside, who has been a resident at CAMH's sexual behavior clinic since 1995, said chemical castration refers to anti-androgen medications, taken in pill form or via injections to the buttocks, that reduce testosterone levels in men.
The vast majority of men on anti-androgen meds report an "enormously diminished sexual interest," according to Woodside. Studies have shown surgical castration (removal of testicles) in sex offenders can reduce the risk of reoffending to 2–5 percent, down from 50 percent, while chemical castration is believed to achieve a similar effect.
"They report stopping masturbating, losing most desire to have sexual [intercourse] with others, having very significant difficulty having an erection, and even more difficulty reaching orgasm."
While to most people, this sounds like a pretty shitty deal, Woodside said his patients often express relief because they're no longer thinking and obsessing over sex all day.
Research shows that pedophilic disorder—or having a sexual attraction to children—is often outside of a person's control, Woodside said. CAMH takes various factors into consideration when making a diagnosis, including self-reporting, criminal convictions, and using "phallometric testing," to measure the penile response to images of kids.
While chemical castration can crush a sex drive, there's no evidence it can change or eliminate a pedophile's underlying preference for children. However, Woodside said his patients are encouraged to have sexual relationships with adults, which most of them are still capable of doing.
"Let's say I really like mint chocolate chip [ice cream]. If I go to Baskin-Robbins, I'm getting that every time. But if I go there, and they're out, can I make do with chocolate or even vanilla? Sure, because it's still ice cream."
In the (rare) cases of men who have no desire for anyone but children, Woodside recommends stronger drugs.
"If it's only being expressed toward kids, that's only going to get them in trouble."
He said convicted pedophiles are generally not court ordered to undergo chemical castration (side effects include bone loss, aching joints, weight gain, and breast tissue development); the strongest mandates he's come across compel a person to follow their doctor's recommendations. Part of Woodside's job is to assess the risk men have of landing themselves back in jail if they commit an offense while they're on parole or probation.
Woodside said there's a debate in his field as to how long patients should maintain chemical castration. Once a person stops taking the drugs, their testosterone levels return to normal within about a month.
"If you're a very, very high risk, my recommendation is to continue with this medication for the foreseeable future," he said. "Too much is at stake for both society and that individual." But, in reality, he said many men stop treatment as long as they're no longer on parole or probation.
For "relatively low risk" offenders, taking antidepressants, which reduce the sex drive as a side effect, is an alternative to chemical castration
If a person happens to be depressed as well, which isn't uncommon among sex offenders, "it can kill two birds with one stone." But Woodside said there's a dearth of clear evidence that shows people who take these drugs, known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, are less likely to reoffend.
Woodside said many patients, including convicted criminals, are in deep denial about their sexual attraction to children and that group therapy helps them to cope with some of those issues.
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