I don’t normally expect to get interesting sex news from the Skeptical Inquirer. But they had a recent article about sex offenders and sex offender hysteria — a fascinating and important article, with info that surprised even me.
Now, some of the stuff here is just obvious — or should be. You’ve seen those billboards about how 1 out of every 5 children/teenagers will be approached online by a sexual predator? My first reaction to them wasn’t, “Oh how terrible, won’t someone save the children?” My first reaction was, “That can’t possibly be right. How exactly are they defining ‘approached by a sexual predator’? Are they including every piece of Viagra and porno spam that lands in the kids’ mailboxes?”
Turns out my instincts were pretty much dead-on. No, they didn’t get the “1 out of 5” figure by counting Viagra spam. They got it, among other things, by counting unwanted requests for sex or sexual information that teenagers got — FROM OTHER TEENAGERS. In other words, if you’re 16, and your 16-year-old best friend emails you asking if your honey has ever gone down on you, and you think it’s none of their business — that counts as an act of online sexual predation. The pertinent quote: “When the study examined the type of Internet ‘solicitation’ parents are most concerned about (e.g., someone who asked to meet the teen somewhere, called the teen on the telephone, or sent gifts), the number drops from ‘one in five’ to just 3 percent.”
Some of the article’s other revelations are also not entirely surprising — although it’s fascinating to see these myths ripped up in such vivid detail. There’s a lot of stuff about how many of the sex offender laws — notification laws, sex offender registries, laws banning sex offenders from living in certain areas, etc. — bear no relevance to the reality of how sex crimes are committed and by whom, and are almost entirely ineffective in preventing further sex crimes. And the article has a marvelously clear-eyed analysis of how both politicians and the news media have taken people’s real fears about sex crimes and run with them screaming into the night — all the way to the bank. Pertinent quote: “Nobody really wants to go on the record saying, ‘It turns out this really isnât a big problem.'”
And the article’s most crucial conclusion — that sex predator hysteria diverts attention and resources away from efforts that might actually be effective — while it’s extremely important, is also not entirely surprising. Pertinent quote: “The resources allocated to tracking ex-felons who are unlikely to re-offend could be much more effectively spent on preventing child abuse in the home and hiring more social workers.”
But this article doesn’t just confirm the obvious (or what should be obvious). There are some very commonly-held myths about sex offenders that turn out to be total bullshit — myths that I believed myself until I read this piece.
And the one that surprised me most was the one about repeat offenders.
If you’ve watched any crime shows ever (fiction or non-), you “know” that sex offenders are more likely than any other type of criminal to repeat their crimes. This “fact” is what’s used to defend practices like monitoring and registering sex offenders. And it is apparently completely untrue. Pertinent quote #1: “In the largest and most comprehensive study ever done of prison recidivism, the Justice Department found that sex offenders were in fact less likely to reoffend than other criminals.” Pertinent quote #2: “A study released in 2003 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that within three years, (only) 3.3 percent of the released child molesters were arrested again for committing another sex crime against a child.”
I really need to stop getting my legal information from “Law and Order.”
There’s just one important piece of information missing from this article. It has to do with how “sex offender” is defined in the first place — and in my opinion, it’s central to this discussion.
Here’s the thing. When you see statistics on how many sex offenders there are, or what percentage of people will be victimized by one, you should know this: In many states, including California, “sex offender” statistics include people who have committed consensual sex crimes. Depending on the state you’re in, it can include prostitutes, johns, gay men arrested for cruising in public parks, teenagers arrested for having consensual sex with other teenagers, etc.: folks who are totally not what people picture when they’re getting freaked out about how the streets are crawling with sex offenders. (An old friend of mine is very likely being counted in sex offender statistics due to a public indecency arrest — not from flashing women in dark deserted streets, not even from getting a blowjob in an alley, but from a midnight skinny-dipping adventure with friends when they were in college.)
So when you see statistics in the paper about how many convicted sex offenders there are, or how likely it is that there’s one in your neighborhood, remember that they’re not just talking about rapists and child molesters. They’re also talking about people like you and me.
Of course we should be upset about rape, child molestation, and other violent, invasive, actual sex crimes. But let’s aim our anger and fear in a direction that makes sense, reflects reality, and might actually make a difference.