British Columbia

B.C. used penile teen sex test for decades

Young B.C. sex offenders were subjected to controversial testing with a genital measuring device for more than two decades, despite regular concerns from within government.

Young B.C. sex offenders were subjected to controversial testing with a genital measuring device for more than two decades, despite regular concerns from within government.

Government officials, clinicians and researchers within the B.C. Children and Family Development Ministry were often at odds over the continued testing with a genital sensor device designed to measure arousal rates.

Mary Polak, the B.C. children and family development minister, pulled the plug on the penile plethysmograph last month. ((CBC))

Children's Minister Mary Polak pulled the plug on the penile plethysmograph last month. She acted not because of objections to the program but because one of the medical technicians administering the tests on young offenders had been charged with an unrelated sexual assault.

Alan Markwart, director of youth forensic psychiatric services, said in an interview that some government officials considered the use of the penile plethysmograph on young sex offenders invasive. Others argued its use could prevent future sex crimes as well as provide a measure of what turns on young sex criminals.

Under the program, sex offenders as young as 13 were required to look at images of nude and semi-nude children and listen to audio descriptions of forced sex while their physical responses were measured.

"It's been long recognized that the procedure is quite intrusive," Markwart said. "It's been a matter of a kind of ongoing internal discussion about, 'Is this really merited, given the level of intrusion and the effectiveness versus the potential benefits?"'

'Results and benefits'

He said the continued use of the penile plethysmograph on young sex offenders was permitted because those arguing for the testing consistently won out over those raising objections.

"That's the primary consideration — the results and the benefits from those results," said Markwart, who would not say whether he personally supported or opposed the testing.

"Do they outweigh the intrusiveness? Quite obviously, because it was continued, the answer in the past has been 'Yes.' "

The penile plethysmograph is used in prisons in Canada and the United States to monitor adult sex offenders, but its use on young people is not widely known.

That's the primary consideration, the results and the benefits from those results. Do they outweigh the intrusiveness? Quite obviously, because it was continued, the answer in the past has been Yes.

A spokeswomen for the Mental Health Centre at Penetanguishene, Ont., said a public investigation is underway into whether the penile plethysmograph was used on young people there. She would not comment further.

The penile plethysmograph was developed in the 1950s by East Bloc Cold War scientists to determine whether officers refusing military service on claims they were homosexual were telling the truth.

The penile plethysmograph is a mercury-in-rubber strain gauge that is placed around the base of the penis and measures minute changes in penis circumference.

Adult prisoners have referred to it as a "peter-meter."

Polak noted the charge against the medical technician was not related to his work, but it was the last straw for her for a program that raised deep concerns about the treatment of youth in British Columbia.

She said the benefits of the testing results don't outweigh the test's "potential to be harmful to the young people on whom it is administered."

The program was mentioned in the 2008-2009 annual report for Youth Forensic Psychiatric Services, which said debate about the use of the device continued within government, as did discussion about trends in treatment of young sex offenders.

Further research warranted: report

A July 2009 report examining 132 B.C. youths involved in penile plethysmograph testing concluded that further research on the device with young people was warranted.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.'s representative for children and youth, has launched a full-scale investigation into the program.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association and Vancouver-based youth advocacy group, Justice For Girls, called the testing primitive and abusive towards young people.

When the ministry announced the program would be dropped, it also said the data that had been collected would not be used.

Asia Czapska, a spokeswoman for Justice for Girls, an organization that lobbies primarily for the rights of young women, called the testing a human rights abuse. 

"This was just egregious," she said. "It's shocking."

Czapska said the presence of the sex testing in B.C. youth custody facilities shows a need for more independent oversight of youth jails.

Corrections

  • It was a medical technician who was charged with a sexual offence, but that offence was not related to the penile plethysmograph program.
    Aug 23, 2010 12:00 AM PT