Penile Plethysmography, or phallometry, is a procedure used to determine sexual arousal by measuring blood flow to the penis. This invasive procedure is most often used on so-called sex offenders by showing them sexual material while they are measured. Despite its current use on sex offenders and in determining attraction to youth, it gained popularity through its role in the detection of homosexuality, and attempts to treat it.
History and Founder
In 1953, Czech-Canadian Physician and sexologist Kurt Freund began to develop Penile Plethysmography. Originally, he was commissioned to determine the true sexual orientation of those using their homosexuality to avoid military service. Over time, he would broaden his horizons to general male sexual interest. Despite the fact that 17% of homosexuals and heterosexuals could fake their sexual orientation on these tests, he continued to encourage its use.
In 1957, Freund would support the decriminalization of homosexuality as he realized not only were attempts to convert gay people useless, but that all distress felt by a gay person may be fixed with "reasonable social changes." Though this was an important progression given the time period, his shifting attitude would simply move his focus onto others. Although showing more attention to 'transsexuality' and 'paraphilia,' he would gain a particular eye for pedophilia.
Current Day: Use as Trial Evidence
Currently, this procedure is most commonly performed on "sex offenders." It is used to monitor one's risk of breaking the law again and is frequently mandated by USA courts. Despite this, when the procedure is brought into further scrutiny by the courts, it is often deemed unreliable. Some have argued it does not meet USA courts' standard of scientific validity: the Daubert Standard. For example, in United States v. Powers, it was argued that false negatives and lack of regard among the scientific community meant it failed to meet the Daubert Standard.
In the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, Barker James G. and Howell Robert J. would argue that phallometry fails to meet legal standards due to false negatives and positives, lack of standardization, ability to fake results, and the openness with which the results can be interpreted.
Some argue that phallometry is both unreliable, degrading, and unethical. For example, in the case of U.S. v. Weber in California, Matthew Henry Webber appealed that he be released from the condition of his supervised release that involved the use of this procedure. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in his case that the procedure was an "unreasonable and unnecessary deprivation of a defendant's liberty." They would compare the procedure to a device from a George Orwell novel. The court would even admit that the accuracy was low and the validity academically controversial, yet still upheld its use if it could be proven that there was evidence of efficacy over less intrusive methods.
Such criticism has been restated by scholarly journals, such as the William & Mary Journal of Race, Gender, and Social Justice, which stated that the results of this procedure are of no use in the courtroom, display obvious gender disparities against men that require analysis under the Equal Protection Clause, and that its use in supervised release require a more stringent standard. Similarly, writers like Robert Todd Carroll have questioned the morality of the procedure, and a 2009 report by Robert Clift on its use on adolescents referred to phallometry as "problematic ethically" and only to be used "after therapists have carefully weighed the benefits versus the negatives."
Though a less common use, the Czech Republic has used this procedure to determine the sexuality of gays seeking asylum. This sparked controversy and condemnation within the EU, but the Czech interior minister insisted upon its usage.
Use in research
Phallometry has been used in multiple research studies of the general and criminal (CSO) populations, particularly by Canadian Sexologists such as Michael Seto and Howard Barbaree. These studies tend to show equal or preferential arousal to preteen girls, of around 20% in the general population, and only double that among adult-minor sex offenders.
- Paper by Diederik Janssen.
- 2006 court ruling: "A prisoner should not be compelled to stimulate himself sexually in order for the government to get a sense of his current proclivities" [...] "There is a line at which the government must stop. Penile plethysmography testing crosses it."