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Should sex offenders face chemical castration as legal punishment?

National outrage has ensued in Italy after the horrific gang rape of a 19-year-old girl which took place in Sicily this summer. One far-right politician has put forward a controversial punishment for sex offenders – chemical castration.

TW: This article contains mention of sexual assault.

In early July, a 19-year-old girl was gang raped by seven men in the city of Palermo, Sicily.

The group of offenders, who were between the ages of 18 and 22, had filmed the attack which led to six of them being arrested. One offender was a minor at the time of the assault and walked free after confessing to authorities.

As the trial of the six men commenced, local news media reported details of the incident including text message conversations between the attackers. Upon hearing the story, Italy’s citizens immediately erupted in outrage, fury, and disgust.

An intense, nationwide debate is now ongoing.

A large portion of citizens say that this case is just one horrific incident that adds to a long, systemic history of violence against women in Italy. They have drawn attention to the country’s active track record of femicide and abuse of women.

Meanwhile, others have responded with the popular phrase ‘not all men’.

Now joining the public debate is Italy’s far-right politician Matteo Salvini. He has suggested a serious and controversial solution to stop sexual violence against women: the forced chemical castration of male offenders.

Castration, in the traditional sense, involves removing a man’s testicles in order to lower testosterone levels and obliterate their sexual libido. Chemical castration, on the other hand, is a medical treatment completed via injections or pills in order to achieve the same goal.

Observations of chemical castration have shown that the intended effect — reduced seminal fluid and reduced libido — is usually achieved without having to physically remove a portion of a man’s sex organs.

Speaking in a press conference on Tuesday, Matteo Salvini said, ‘If you rape a woman or a child, you clearly have a problem. A prison sentence is not enough.’ He has stated that he intends to present his controversial proposal before Parliament.

However, many experts are not convinced that chemical castration is the right solution.

Although it’s true that individuals are less likely to repeat their offences after receiving constant doses of the treatment, experts say it does not ensure that they will never go on to harm another individual ever again.

They point to the aggression and power dynamics involved in an assault, whether it be violent or sexual in nature. Another argument is that chemical castration does not adequately get to the root of the social and psychological problems that are still present in society.

The limitations of chemical castration have been brought to light, too.

It is known to only be effective when an individual is actively receiving medication in the form of pills or injections. It is essentially reversed once an offender stops being administered with either of these, meaning missed doses or cessation of treatment could result in urges to commit violent sexual acts re-emerging.

Other academics in the field of criminology remain highly sceptical that the drugs involved in chemical castration are capable of resolving the deep-rooted psychological and social problems that plight sex offenders.

‘People do not become sex offenders solely because of certain hormones or hormonal imbalances,’ Dirk Baier of ZHAW Institute of Delinquency at Zurich University in Switzerland told Euronews.

‘The development into a sexual offender takes place in a longer-term socialisation process. The personality that is formed through this process cannot then simply be changed through drug treatment.’

Not to mention, there is a major ethical debate around the process that is worth considering.

Medical experts and human rights campaigners warn of the moral issues surrounding chemically castrating human beings. The chemical cocktail is known to cause depression, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, hot flashes, infertility, and anaemia.

And although many people would have zero sympathy for a violent sex offender who was experiencing this as part of their punishment, any country run under a democracy is legally obliged to maintain the well-being of its prisoners as a matter of justice.

That said, this hasn’t stopped some nations – including some members of the EU – from adopting it.

Chemical castration is already the legal punishment for sex offenders in Pakistan and Indonesia. Russia is also considering it as a preventative measure administered to paedophiles before they are released into society at the end of their prison sentence.

In Germany and the UK, chemical castration is legal on a voluntary basis for mentally ill sex offenders. In Moldova and Ukraine, it is used on a case-by-case basis, depending on the age of the victim or the age of the perpetrator respectively.

At present, Poland is the only country in the EU which has made chemical castration compulsory for rapists and child sex abusers.

There is sure to be an intense moral, social, and cultural debate around legalising chemical castration in Italy. Left-leaning politicians have already answered by saying that cultural attitudes surrounding violence in Italy need to be shifted, starting from school.

It’s likely that many against chemical castration as a punishment will advocate for rehabilitation programs and therapies that help sex offenders consider their own behaviour, encourage them to take responsibility, and learn to develop and practice alternative coping strategies.

We’ll have to see how things unfold. However, a heated debate is sure to continue not only in Italy, but in other EU countries struggling to address the problem of sexual violence within their own borders.