The criminal justice system has long relied on scientists—and especially psychologists—to make some of the most crucial assessments about defendants. Is this person fit to stand trial? Should the so-called insanity defense be applied? In many instances, the law lags far behind the science, with sometimes disastrous results. In “The Science of Sex Abuse,” Rachel Aviv details the troubling gap between the research on pedophiles and the draconian way these marginalized sex offenders are handled by prisons and courts. Specifically, Aviv explains the aftermath of a 2006 child-protection law that allows people convicted of sex crimes against children to be held indefinitely (via civil commitment) if it’s determined that they may have difficulty “refraining from sexually violent conduct or child molestation if released.” Her story focuses on John, an inmate who was originally arrested on child pornography charges. “The Science of Sex Abuse” appeared in the January 14, 2013 issue of The New Yorker. Here, Aviv tells Lauren Friedman the story behind her story. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
This is a difficult topic to tackle. Where did the idea come from?
I had a former tennis coach who I’d heard had been arrested for using child porn, and it sparked a lot of questions. I started thinking about the blurriness between having fantasies about forbidden things and actually doing those things. I also wondered how the Internet facilitates those fantasies and how online communities might reinforce and intensify those desires.
How did this develop from a general idea about child porn into a story that focused on a particular person?
I wanted to be able to write about someone who could really deconstruct his own fantasies, who could talk about what it means to be inappropriately attracted to young people. I wrote one prisoner at the Butner Correctional Facility [in North Carolina], where eighty civilly committed men were being held, and within a few months, I had dozens of prisoners writing me. They had all been held for months or years past the expiration of their criminal sentences without a hearing. They felt as if they had fallen off the face of the Earth.
How did your relationship with John develop?
John called me one to two times a week for four months. He had read a lot himself about child porn, so we ended up talking about various academic books and papers on the subject, which became a common frame of reference. I think that helped us in our early conversations.
Was it hard to get John to open up about these more personal things?
These guys who are civilly committed have been interviewed by so many psychologists that they’re used to responding to humiliating questions. I don’t think John was particularly surprised by any of my questions. When I went to interview him in person, I got there at 8:30 in the morning and didn’t leave until three. We sat in a small cinderblock room together. He was crying a lot, but the conversation just went on and on. … I don’t like doing phone interviews at all, except maybe with academics who are providing background or contextual information. I’m asking sources such personal questions. … In a lot of ways, there is no good response, and the only response I can convey is in my face.
Did your sympathies change at all as you reported the story? Did you feel sympathy toward John?
I felt horrified by the Kafka-esque nature of his journey through the criminal justice system. The helplessness that he was experiencing—I empathized with that. I chose someone whose crimes weren’t so monstrous that the possibility of empathy wasn’t immediately foreclosed. Generally, whenever I write about someone, they spend so much time describing their own perspective and worldview that it’s hard to not start to see the world through their eyes, at least to some degree.
Did you ever feel that you were being told a story?
John was a mildly unreliable narrator. He clearly had changed a lot of details about his life from one psychiatric interview to another, which got him in trouble and led to his civil commitment. He would even lie in ways that clearly went against his own best interest—there’s no reason to say you’ve had sex with more people than you have when you’re being accused of being a sexual offender. But he was candid about his own tendency to exaggerate. And we were with each other for so long at the prison that I could circle back to certain details and his description would often feel less adorned the second or third time. In the article, I also tried to convey that John was somewhat unreliable as a narrator. I wanted readers to be able to make their own choices about what to believe.
What kinds of records did you use to put together the details of John’s crimes and convictions?
I had a couple thousand pages of prison records, court records, probation notes, and transcripts. A lot of the records were available through PACER, but confidential records—like psychological reports and progress notes—those I got from John’s lawyer. What was most interesting to me were the reports written by prison psychologists. It was a window into the way they work. Also, once I knew personal and biographical information about John from the reports, it became easier to ask him specific questions.
The story raised a lot of legal issues. Was getting at the science behind some of this illegal behavior important from the beginning?
It became clear pretty quickly that everyone who studied this issue was frustrated that the science has become so politically and emotionally charged. In these cases, science is being used to achieve a particular end in the legal system, so I wanted to put this work in context and include the opinions of people not involved in the legal process.
What was the timeline for this piece?
I started thinking about it in August 2011, and a few months later I proposed a story about a man named Todd Carta. Originally the article was going to be due in March 2012, but by March I’d decided that Todd Carta wasn’t the right subject for the piece. I didn’t really connect with him on the phone. If I can’t connect with him, it seems unrealistic to expect that readers would. I threw out everything I’d done and started again.
What were the major challenges you encountered while reporting?
The prison posed a huge challenge. They held a lot of letters and denied my requests at first to visit prisoners. At one point, my number was blocked by the prison because I offered to send someone stamps (so he could send me his memoir), which is against the prison rules. A public information officer called me and read the transcript of my conversation aloud. Knowing that these interactions were so closely monitored definitely made the conversations more strained.
You wrote about some of the child porn subculture online. Was that a hard thing to explore legally?
I mean, I really couldn’t witness it myself—I’d be breaking the law. I had read about a journalist at NPR who got in trouble while trying to research child porn for a story. So there really isn’t much [available] about the subculture except via descriptions of people who’ve already been arrested.
Did your feelings toward child porn laws evolve?
The laws around child porn and particularly sex offenses are inconsistent. The population is so despised that we seem to take their rights to due process less seriously. With civil commitment statutes, I think one problem is that the laws are often passed as a response to the most gruesome acts. These extreme, horrific cases end up shaping the legal landscape for a much broader, more heterogeneous group of criminals.
Lauren F. Friedman is a writer, editor, and multimedia journalist based in New York. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Scientific American Mind, GOOD, OnEarth, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and other publications. She is currently a staff editor at Psychology Today and a member of Neuwrite. Follow Lauren on Twitter @fedira.