Phrenologists on sex crime: recalling early neurodevelopmental anticipations of 'paraphilia'

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Early to mid-nineteenth century phrenological texts advanced primitive neurodevelopmental theories of sex crime and of what would later be called sexual perversion. Sporadic phrenological observations on "pedophilia" (avant la lettre), specifically, long preceded its nomination as a distinct perversion in the early 1890s. Systematic studies on the neurological characteristics of sex offenders were not undertaken until the early 1980s, however. These historical facts raise the question of what was driving the will to understand "the libertine" and eventually "the pervert" (later to be rechristened as "paraphile") in terms of not only "mental disorder" but even of organic disease. Was it transpiring fact or the durable prescientific imago of a metaphoric beast whose very material core - its constitution, its design, its blood - would prove different from, and inferior to, that of a morally sane human being? The sex offender's brain, genes, and hormones seem to be objects of fascination for reasons that remain as extra-scientific as they were long called "pseudo-scientific". The question of what to make of neurology in this context warrants historical as well as anthropological answers not to be expected of neurologists and quite regardless of their findings.[...]

How then to understand today's neurology of paraphilia in the light of the phrenological trope of perverted amativeness? Considered historically, nineteenth century's phrenology may have been easing a new liberal consciousness the dawning of which was coeval with a still far from complete weaning from scriptural guidance on what is natural, and what unnatural, to Man. Communal disparagement of erotic investments judged incompatible with the nuclear family and with the modern bourgeois constructions of the society of self-governing individuals that family was to nurture, always seemed more dignified and more effective when construed as, if not a divine Law, a science-dictated caring for the neurologically or neuro-cognitively alienated. It was to the liberal, nineteenth century, inquiring mind that sins increasingly occurred as distinct departures from nature (however still largely a nature as God intended). And it was in the nineteenth century that "sexual perversions" were first specified, classified, and theorized.

This had distinct, regulatory implications (Foucault, 1976). In any case, the more neurological a sex offence could be made to seem, the less it would have to appear as a disloyalty to arguable social conventions. Treatment sounds more civil, sophisticated, and necessary than punishment - which becomes all the more relevant where punishment has come to risk being widely considered as grossly disproportionate. Modern sex-forensic sciences may have been uniquely instrumental in the disavowal of guilt arising from the barely concealed (and thus unstable) scapegoat dynamic informing the social status of any offender against naturalized sexual mores (Janssen, 2013). Neurological etiologies have had the concomitant capacity to rekindle ancient but increasingly arguable taboos (such as incest taboos: see e.g. Connolly, 2014), to preempt ethical discussions, naturalize legal conventions, honor psychiatric categories, and locate "disorder" deeply inside the opaque mind of non-conformists in one factual sweep. Whatever their empirical status, the work of these etiologies is ultimately and irreducibly regulatory. It invites a kind of cultural or anthropological introspection precisely evaded when looking at brains - or bumps on skulls.

source: Article < Phrenologists on Sex Crime: Recalling Early Neurodevelopmental Anticipations of "Paraphilia" > by Diederik F. Janssen;; Sexual Offender Treatment, Volume 10, Issue 2; 2015