After decades of quietly subjecting youth sex offenders to erection testing, the BC government suddenly called a halt to the program on July 29, two days after the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) and the province’s top child advocate got wind of the project and objected.
“Like most British Columbians, I was immediately concerned to learn of the testing being conducted involving young offenders, which is hard to fathom,” BC’s Minister of Children and Family Development, Mary Polak, said in a press release.
“I believe most citizens would agree that the questionable nature of this procedure outweighs any possible medical benefits,” Polak continued. “This type of procedure will no longer be used.”
The test, conducted by the government-sponsored Youth Forensic Psychiatric Service for the last 20 years, purported to measure arousal by attaching a device to each youth’s penis to note stiffening when shown images of adults, children and babies in varying degrees of nudity. The test subjects were simultaneously read porn featuring coercive sex while being shown the images.
BCCLA president Robert Holmes says the province has acted in the best interests of youth in ending the program.
“With this precedent in hand, the BCCLA will continue our work to make sure this program is not resurrected, is ended across Canada, and that whatever ethical protocol deemed this research appropriate for vulnerable youth is amended immediately,” Holmes says.
The very existence of the program for 20 years raises questions about government operations, the BCCLA says.
“It shows a complete absence of oversight about how we’re treating youthful offenders and how we’re treating adult offenders,” says BCCLA executive director David Eby.
The public deserves an explanation for this practice, Eby adds.
“The public places a lot of confidence in our government to make sure operations are not abusive to the human rights and dignities of people they interact with,” he says. “That’s especially true in the case of youth who are in the care of the government.”
The Czech army once used the same type of test on men seeking a discharge on the basis of being gay, Eby notes. The men were hooked up to the device and, if they did not respond to homoerotic images, denied a discharge.
The same device was also used in aversion therapy in attempts to ‘cure’ gay men in the past, adds Gary Kinsman, co-author of The Canadian War Against Queers.
If a test subject stiffened to homoerotic imagery, he would receive aversion or even shock therapy, Kinsman says.
“In light of that, this is horrific,” Kinsman says.
That device is not quite the same as the so-called “fruit machine” used by Canadian authorities in the 1960s, he says.
Kinsman’s book describes that machine as “an Orwellian-like project” whereby a machine would monitor eye movement, pulse and sweat reactions to a series of racy or art pictures shown to suspected homosexuals.
The project, headed by Frank Robert Wake, a University of Carleton psychologist, was approved in 1963 by the Security Committee in the presence of then-Minister of Justice Donald Fleming.
Eby says the ‘fruit machine’ project came to mind when he heard of the BC project.
Justice For Girls director Annabel Webb calls the BC tests abusive.
“We welcome an independent investigation and hope that it will not only address the specific harms of these tests, but also include a comprehensive review of the ethics surrounding all assessments, treatment, and research carried out by Youth Forensic Psychiatric Services,” says Webb.
Kinsman agrees the test is abusive. He doubts he would be able to get such methods past a university research ethics board.
But the provincial director of Youth Forensic Psychiatric Services maintains the practice is not abusive.
“It is quite benign,” Andre Picard says.
“This is one assessment tool of many that was utilized to gather information about adolescents that have been convicted of a sexual offence,” Picard says.
He says it is used in conjunction with many other tools such as interviews and family histories to gather information on patients so they can be treated with a view to not reoffending.
“We want to make sure they come out of the treatment program and never reoffend again,” Picard says. “What are we going to be treating if we don’t do an assessment? That is what this tool is about.”
He adds the youth were not shown porn, and says any children used in photos were partially clad with no genitalia exposed.
It’s what one would see in a Sears flyer from a newspaper, Picard says.
“What is suggestive is the narrative on audio tapes,” he says. “This is not about experimenting with children with porn. It is about providing testing and treatment.”
Picard says out of a daily number of open files, there are about 1,000-1,3000 patients at eight clinics in the province. Of those, 75-125 may be in the sexual offence program where the age range runs from 12-17 years.
Contrary to media reports saying the testing was mandatory, Picard says all patients and parents opted to participate on an informed consent basis.