Please Think of the Children: Sex Offender Hysteria

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 isn’t 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.

Please Think of the Children: Sex Offender Hysteria

21 thoughts on “Please Think of the Children: Sex Offender Hysteria

  1. 1

    As usual, Greta, you hit the nail on the head. Despising “sex offenders” is something that is so simple “Think of the Children!” that nobody ever thinks to challenge the way in which they are tallied and treated.
    You have done a great job (well, maybe the article you cite has done the job, but I read your blog, not that article) at pointing out the difference, and why it is important. Why it is not only an invasion of privacy to keep track and publish the whereabouts of someone arrested for, say, urinating on a public street or skinnydipping, but why that also doesn’t do anything to protect the public.

  2. 2

    If someone physically attacks someone due to their presumption about his or her sexual preference, isn’t that sexually predatory too?
    I was “fag-bashed” years before I had any experience upon which to base my sexual identity. This seems as sexually predatory as anything described here. Who’s counting that?

  3. 3

    I knew that the Prop from last election was bad news and not going to help much, but I also knew it was probably going to pass because people are too scared to question a prop like that

  4. 4

    And in case any of you think this is just theoretical:
    Summary: A 17-year-old in Georgia has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old. (The Georgia Supreme Court has just turned down his appeal.) The sentence was for “aggravated child molestation.” And yes, he will be a “registered sex offender” for the rest of his life.
    Jesus H. Christ.

  5. 5

    As far as the “internet pedophile” (did you see that South Park episode?) – there is one SURE way to keep your children from being targeted. And it’s very simple, and very easy. DON’T HAVE INTERNET ACCESS IN YOUR HOME. Seriously, I just don’t get it. I had this friend who went out and bought a home PC, purchased internet service, and then nearly worried himself to a nervous breakdown that some pervert was gonna “find” his daughter. The man went nearly insane with constant worry. I said to him, “Why are you doing this to yourself?? Why don’t you just cancel the internet service, and take the computer back to the store?” I just don’t get it. There’s no LAW that you have to have a computer in your house, or that it has to be hooked up to the internet. Same thing for TV, for that matter. Parents worry about their kids seeing porn on cable TV. Well, duh, then JUST DON’T BUY IT. HEEELLLLLLOOOOOOO !!

  6. 6

    First off, what did “Law and Order” say that was wrong? It’s not exactly a cornucopia of correct information about criminal trial procedure, but its take on the broad outline of the law is usually amazingly accurate. Virtually every lawyer I know is an L&O junkie — a dirty little secret of the legal profession which they may have to hunt me down and kill me for revealing.
    Anyway, here’s a little anecdote from my brief sojourn with the Public Defender: kid is arrested for indecent exposure, a registrable offense (meaning that if he’s convicted, the judge has to order him to register as a sex offender). He lived in a mobile home with a large family, so in order to have some privacy to engage in self-pleasuring, he took to wandering down a hiking trail near his home, and sitting in a tree about 40 feet off the trail while he did his thing. A lady out walking her dog saw him, and she was so shocked at the sight that she came back on several successive days, with a friend, trying to catch him at it again. Finally, they both managed to catch sight of him, whereupon they reported him to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s office, and the deputies promptly went to the kid’s home home and busted him.
    So, he’s going to be on the Megan’s-Law web site for the rest of his life. His neighbors will sign petitions to get his landlords to evict him, perhaps — I used to see this pretty frequently when I did eviction defense, and if the landlord caves in to the pressure, that’s 100% legal. (Well, maybe not in places with rent control, but that’s about 1% of the state.) Potential employers can check him out there, college admission offices can check him out there — heck, ANYONE can check him out there. But thank God, the children will be safe from some guy whacking his weenie in a tree in the middle of a Sonoma County forest.

  7. 7

    Jon asks: “First off, what did ‘Law and Order’ say that was wrong?”
    It wasn’t wrong about the law (at least as far as I know). It was wrong about sex offenders and repeat offenses. “Law and Order,” along with “CSI,” along with pretty much every other crime show I’ve seen lately, has parroted the myth that sex offenders are far more likely to repeat their crimes than other types of criminals. They said it so often, and with so much casual conviction, that I figured it was a well-known statistic. I didn’t know it was complete and utter bullshit.
    And that’s an awful story. How many more stories are there like this? This is now the second I’ve seen in as many days. Is this something that happens a lot — people getting put on sex offender registries for essentially harmless “crimes”? Yuck.
    BTW, Nurse Ingrid is a medical-show junkie (although she usually goes for Discovery Health reality shows instead of dramas, especially since ER jumped the shark). So it doesn’t surprise me that lawyers are fiends for Law and Order.

  8. 8

    Well, you must have seen some episodes I haven’t — which surprises me, since I watch it quite a lot. Or maybe you really mean “CSI,” which I’ve never watched; to me, the only L&O is the original one, and the others are just pathetic wannabes. But I honestly can’t remember any episodes about sex offenders and recidivism, much less lots of them. Not saying you’re wrong, I just can’t bring any to mind.
    And sure, this stuff happens all the time. Talk to anyone in criminal defense; sex-offender registration for people who really didn’t do anything all that bad is common as dirt. Oh, hey, and do you know about the wonders of Penal Code section 290(a)(2)(E)? It was a little extra feature added to the registration law in 1994: it allows the judge to order sex-offender registration for ANYONE convicted of ANY crime, any crime AT ALL, as long as the judge is persuaded that the defendant “committed the offense as a result of sexual compulsion or for purposes of sexual gratification.” So, in theory, someone who shoplifts a pair of shoes could end up being a registered sex offender if the judge thinks that he did it to gratify some sort of shoe fetish. (Thanks to Kalia for that example, which I used in a brief. I lost.) Just one example; you can probably think of plenty of others. And notice that I keep saying “the judge thinks”: this is NOT something that the prosecution has to convince a jury about; this is a call that gets made by the judge even if the defendant was convicted by a jury.
    And then there are the “sexually violent predator” laws. Don’t even get me started. Ok, I guess I’m started: basically, they mean that if the judge can get a shrink to say the right thing, he can commit sex offenders to a state mental hospital AFTER they’ve served their complete prison sentence, and keep them there, basically, for life. Up until Prop 83, they were at least guaranteed a court hearing every two years on whether they were still so mentally ill that they had to be locked up, but Prop 83 changed that: now, they have to convince the Department of Mental health that they’re no longer mentally ill BEFORE they’re allowed to challenge their commitment in court. So it really is a life sentence. And all it takes to get it (again, as of Prop 83) is one conviction of a fairly broad range of offenses — some of which aren’t even directly sexual, for example assault with INTENT to commit a sex crime.
    Oh, and has anyone mentioned that Prop 83 requires all registered sex offenders — well, all of them who were registered for committing a felony, which really brings home the point that quite a few are registered for mere misdemeanors — to wear GPS ankle bracelets for the rest of their lives? Nice windfall for the GPS-ankle-bracelet manufacturing industry — and you probably think I’m being sarcastic, but no: they were major contributors to the campaign.

  9. 9

    “Well, you must have seen some episodes I haven’t — which surprises me, since I watch it quite a lot… I honestly can’t remember any episodes about sex offenders and recidivism, much less lots of them. Not saying you’re wrong, I just can’t bring any to mind.”
    I’m pretty sure I’ve seen at least passing references to sex offenders being more likely to repeat their crimes on more than one “L&O.” But I’m not positive, and I could be wrong. It may have been “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” the one that’s all about sex crimes. Alas, I’m not familiar enough with the show to cite chapter and verse. (It’s not like “Buffy,” where I can say, “Oh, yes, such-and-such happened in the ‘Tabula Rasa’ episode.”)
    And the stories you’re telling chill me to the bone. It’s such an awful situation — no politician in the world wants to speak out against sex offender laws, no matter how (a) draconian and (b) ineffectual they are.
    I think the only way to fight this stuff is to put a human face on it. And the Genarlow Wilson case may be one of the best examples. The idea of having to register as a felony sex offender/convicted child molester for the rest of your life for having sex with a teenager when you were a teenager yourself… I think that’s something a lot of people can identify with.

  10. 11

    It seems everyone using “the internets” is a suspected child molester now:
    From the Seminal:
    A bill introduced last week by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) is beginning to raise eyebrows.
    [It] would require ISPs to record all users’ surfing activity, IM conversations and email traffic indefinitely. The bill, dubbed the Safety Act by sponsor Lamar Smith, a republican congressman from Texas, would impose fines and a prison term of one year on ISPs which failed to keep full records. (emphasis mine)
    This is a terrifying development and it must be stopped before it gains any significant momentum. Background, Action items and contact information below the fold.
    Under the guise of reducing child pornography, the SAFETY (Stopping Adults Facilitating the Exploitation of Today’s Youth) Act is currently the gravest threat to digital privacy rights on the Internet. Given the increasing tendency of people, especially young people, to use the Internet as a primary means of communication, this measure would affect nearly all Americans in ways we are only beginning to understand. Also, given the fact that the Act requires all Internet Service Providers to record the web surfing activity of all Internet users, this amounts to the warrantless wiretapping of the entire Internet.
    …. read more about it (including what you can do about it) at :

  11. 12

    But I honestly can’t remember any episodes about sex offenders and recidivism, much less lots of them. Not saying you’re wrong, I just can’t bring any to mind.
    Seems to me every other episode of L&O SVU has Benson (unwanted rape-child) and/or Stabler (gung-ho concerned dad with teen daughters) going on about how the suspect du jour had a sex crime on his record, ergo he can’t possibly resist doing the same thing again, ergo he’s guilty until proven innocent. Most of the time he turns out not to be guilty, but the party line is the same: “If you did it once, you’re guilty of whatever we want to pin on you, unless you can help us finger someone else.”

  12. 13

    I hope to God you do not live in Arizona. Otherwise, they can, and will, put you in jail for 10 years for the picture of the nude girls you have above sitting on the boat or dock, and make you register for a long time after that.

  13. 14

    Thanks Greta – the more this information is posted, the more reasonable people will see that we are not protecting children, we are ruining the lives of over 1/2 million convicted sex offenders and their families (many of whom are also children and are often the victims!). My son is one of the teenagers who will have to endure registration and restrictions for life for having consensual sex. What threat will he pose to kids on the playground in 20 years? None, yet depending on where he lives, he may not be able to go near one … or his children’s schools … or the neighborhood ice skating rink. He may have to sport a neon green license plate so that others can see what a danger he is to society. When released from prison at age 20, he will be unable to use “social networking” sites where his friends are, because that, too, is banned.
    Research has PROVED that these laws and restrictions are ineffective and actually INCREASE the danger to children by destabilizing moderate level offenders. Yet, instead of trying to figure out what works, we just keep throwing new laws at all types of offenders while the hysterical public screams that we should just kill them all instead.

  14. 15

    This is such a tricky subject.
    I think what we need to recognize is that some people have a sexual orientation that causes them to be attracted to children, just the way mine makes me attracted to women and a gay guy’s makes him attracted to other guys. In the case of me and the gay guy, there’s no problem: we’re inclined to form appropriate consensual relationships with other consenting adults. (Some religious fanatics may have a problem with the gay guy, but they need to get over that.)
    But I think that treating pedophiles like other criminals is a mistake. They aren’t otherwise bad people; they simply have a sexual orientation that produces unacceptable consequences. I don’t think they can be reformed–either by the penal system or by psychotherapy–any more than I can be reformed to sleep with guys or a gay man can be reformed to sleep with women. We simply have to recognize what they are and keep them from harming potential victims.
    We also need to recognize that most other sexual offenses are really pretty harmless. If some guy exposes himself, he may be offending someone’s sense of decency, but he’s actually doing less harm than a smoker exposing someone to second hand smoke. If he does it in a threatening way, that’s another matter, but you don’t need to expose yourself to be threatening. Threats should be treated as threats whether sex is involved or not.

  15. a.

    The majority of the sexual not agreed upon things to children happen HOME. It’s not the Unknown from the Net. It’s mum, dad, siblings, relatives, friends, neighbors. The most horrendous estimates I’ve seen is 1 of every 3 children would be molested in their childhood, more often the girls than the boys.
    So what is again the likelihood of being molested by mum compared to an Unknown? Err, tenfold? 20fold?? Something like that, at least…

  16. 17

    The livejournal link is down.
    As an adult male, this whole sexual predator thing weighs heavily on me; in terms of worrying about it and fearing that anyone can claim that i raped them (even if i don’t even know them!) Think about it this way, if you’re on trial for raping someone and you’re found innocent, you still were tried for rape. thanks to the huge amount of publicity that celebrities get, they think that anyone that got “away” with such crimes either beat the system, or paid enough to beat the system.
    I had to seriously get out of california because it was getting to the point where college girls weren’t old enough to consent yet, and would refuse to show ID. And they don’t seem to understand (the girls) that it’s not THEM that would be pressing charges. or even their parents. anyone can complain and it’s the STATE that presses charges (California vs genewitch, etc).
    The whole thing is to portray all males as sex addicts with a penchant for chasing younger women. it just isn’t true. and no thanks to the porn industry perpetuating the myth. (“100% teen cams, live for your pleasure”)
    then again, this is the same crap as has been haunting black americans for years. Constant demonizing because of some physical trait. (skin color, gender).
    I’m really beginning to think that congress, state legislature, judges – the whole of the legislative branch of the state is just projecting. Maybe we should start stirring the waters of their backgrounds and see what buried treasure lies beneath the surface?
    oh and as an anecdote for something i said earlier, one of the radio personalities in los angeles was promoting the idea of legal consent forms (which i’ve actually used once before) – that is, before you have any sort of spontaneous sexual relations with anyone, to both sign a form saying that it was consentual. funny right? ha ha ha. almost NECESSARY.
    Except for one thing: either party can withdraw consent at any moment for any reason they want. without warning. Which makes a paper signed at the beginning worthless for any reason! you’d literally have to have a lawyer there videotaping the entire activity while constantly asking both parties if they are still consenting! (“now, miss G, are you still giving consent?”)
    Preposterous and unnecessary.

  17. 18

    Thank you. Thank you for bringing this to light. I knew it already, but I got a nice reference point now for anyone who questions me when I bring it up again.
    As with any hysteria things are blown out of proportion. Whether its environmental hysteria (which in some cases usually is valid just not as bad as they say), epidemic hysteria, or sex offender hysteria or anytype of hysteria you have to look deep under the surface to see what’s really going on.
    And for people, like that guy from Georgia, are going to have completely different lives because of something completely innocent and hysterical people with knee-jerk reactions to a problem that isn’t that bad. I really feel sorry for people like that.

  18. 19

    For me, as a Scandinavian, these stories are not only shocking, but bizarre and difficult to believe. It certainly reinforces my prejudiced view of US culture as completely insane… and strongly pro-violence and anti-sex. No wonder you have a higher % of your population in prison than anyone else, if kids can get a 10 year sentence for something that, over here, would not lead to anything more than possibly being looked at sternly by the other kid’s dad.

  19. 20

    We recently had a neighborhood scare when a parent discovered that a “sex predator” lived in the apartments down the street. She discovered this because our state is mandated to list the addresses of released “predators” on a website.
    I actually called the probation officer to get more details about the case. It wasn’t as benign as skinny dipping or such — the man (then a teen) had touched some kids in his mom’s day care in a sexual way. That’s pretty horrible and I hope my kids never have anything like that happen to them.
    BUT, there could be murderers and other released criminals living in the same apartment and we wouldn’t know. It seems off balance to me.

  20. Tim

    Thanks, Greta. I KNOW about this all too well. Being the “Big Brother” as a teenager I babysat my two younger sisters, and often their best friends (3 or 4 other little girls. Myself being a teenager, and fairly responsible, and them being between 4 and 6). Needless to say, in the summer I would fill the kiddie pool in the back yard to let them splash around. Well, little kids being little kids, it was only a matter of moments before the swimming suits came off and near half-a-dozen screaming, giggling little girls were running bare-butted through the yard, With me trying to corral them like so many stray calf’s… Of course the neighbors saw this, and cops were called (one of the girls was the daughter of my Dad’s best friend, a Sargent on the Police force), and I was summarily restricted from babysitting. It was, thankfully, all straightened out, eventually. This was some thirty-five-or-so years ago. Had this happened recently, I’d probably be locked up!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *