Category Archives: sex offenders

Coming Soon …

I know, I know, I just got back, and now here I am headed out again for a couple of days. I thought it might be nice to let you know what I’m working on so that you’ll know what’s coming up when I return:

  • A discussion on the treatment of sex offenders, specifically dealing with the recent signing of a law in New York allowing for ‘civil commitment’ of certain sex offenders after their prison terms are up. I’ll be asking whether we should treat pedophiles like regular criminals or like people who are considered too disturbed to be responsible their crimes, but who need treatment and to be confined. It seems in New York we want to have it both ways.
  • Some happier posts! My mother says I don’t write enough upbeat stuff, so in the coming week look for a review of the book “Everything you never wanted your kids to know about sex but were afraid they’d ask.” And also look for an interview with the guys from Nekked, a great electronica/pop band that I first mentioned back in September. (I’m thinking about making book reviews a more regular feature of Sex in the Public Square. Feel free to send recommendations. I’m thinking about books that contribute something interesting and useful to public discourse around sexuality, and that have a down-to-earth, sex-positive spin.)
  • A first post in a series about monogamy. Specifically, I’m talking about the kinds of nonmonogamous commitments people make in serious long term sexual relationships. (If you have a nonmonogamous relationship you’d like to talk about, drop me an email using the link on the sidebar!)

So that’s what’s coming up. If you’ve had a comment moderated and posted already, you can comment without moderation while I’m away. (Otherwise comments will be held until I can get to a computer.)

I’ll be back soon. Be good! (That means you, JanieBelle!)
Elizabeth

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Filed under book reviews, marriage, nonmonogamy, polyamory, sex, sex crimes, sex offenders

Some light reading while I’m out of town ;)

It’s been awfully exciting around here since Tom Joaquin piped up! His fantastic post on what’s becoming known as the Alabama Vibrator Law brought a lot of new visitors, and a new liveliness to the comments. I’m very excited by both of those things.

And, as it happens, right in the middle of all this excitement I have to go out of town. Tomorrow I’m headed to Georgia, as a matter of fact, home of Genarlow Wilson and also a ridiculous proposal on keeping sex offenders from living near school bus stops (see the first post mentioned below).

What does this mean for you? It means no new posts, at least not from me. Tom, if you feel like jumping in again, go right ahead! It also means a slower moderating of comments. I’m going to visit my sister and her family, and I have two adorable nephews who will be taking most of my attention. Surely you will be understanding 🙂

Since we do have so many new and interesting folks here, though, and since you all have raised lots of interesting questions and issues in the comments, I thought I would offer a brief review of some past posts, related to the ones that have sparked so much recent interest. I’ve chosen five posts from the archives, one for each day I’ll be away. Pace yourselves!

Note: Some of these posts mention legislative attempts, or court cases, that may have been updated since I first wrote about them. If you have new information, please share it in the comments. (I will moderate comments at least once every day, and I’ll try for twice.)

So, here you go:

June 27, 2006 — The absurdity of sex-offender free zones: I admit that the title of this post is a bit awkward. Does it mean free zones for sex offenders, or zones free of sex offenders? (The second, of course.) But it was posted on my first-ever day of blogging, and it’s a good post for teasing out some of the problems with rules that restrict where registered sex offenders can live.

July 26 — Risks and complications (and necessity) of reconceptualizing sexual orientation: (I swear I’m going to learn title-writing skills from Tom Joaquin. I mean how can you beat “Q: When is a vibrator more dangerous than a gun?”!). This post argues that it is no longer helpful to retain traditional SO categories because they divide us much more than necessary and prevent us from seeing sexual diversity and civil rights clearly.

August 23, 2006 — Age, consent, position, power, agency and privilege: This post was written in my frustration about the way the New York Times was increasingly raising the alarm about sexual predators on the Internet. The post asks questions about sexuality and kids and teens and adults that are difficult to answer.

October 3, 2006 — Going out on a limb: Mark Foley is not a “Child Sex Predator” and then, So hard to talk about, but we must get it right! These two posts were posts were written during the fall out from the Mark Foley scandal. I was angry about Foley’s behavior, but I was even more angry at the way that people in the mainstream media talked about it.

January 15, 2007 — Don’t panic about teen sex: This post tries to counter some of the media inspired panic about what teenage girls are doing, sexually, with teenage boys. As an aside, isn’t it interesting how we’re always concerned about the girls, but very rarely about the boys?

So, there you are. I said there would be five and there are actually six (because I’m giving you the Mark Foley ones as a set).

Read, think, comment, enjoy. Talk to each other. And I’ll be back on the 5th.

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Filed under culture, moral panic, News and politics, public discourse, sex, sex and the law, sex crimes, sex offenders, sexual orientation, sexuality, sexuality and age

NYT Editorial Page Gets It Right On Sex Offenders

The New York Times this morning ran an editorial “Sex Offenders In Exile” that is about the most sensible thing they’ve written on the topic. In it, they rightly point out that driving sex offenders underground by overly restrictive policies about where they can live is a dangerous and misguided tactic.

They also rightly point out that such policies — which have effectively made some entire cities and towns off limits to sex offenders — are often made because we are justifiably afraid. That our fear is justifiable does not mean that it is a good driving force for policy-making. Fear leads to irrational decisions.

(Note: This is not the first time I’ve written about sex offender policies. See here and here for other posts on the topic.)

Sociologists are big on discussions of unintended consequences. Policies like those that bar sex offenders from living within 1000 or in some cases 2000 feet from a school, playground, place of worship, etc., are rife with unintended consequences, as the editorial points out. For one thing, they often push sex offenders into margins where they are harder to monitor. They also make it harder for offenders to hold jobs and become integrated into the kinds of social networks that would actually support their rehabilitation. Remember not all sex offenders are hard-core recidivists. But even those who are less likely to re-offend become more likely to do so if they’re only friends and neighbors are also other offenders.

Another unintended consequence of these policies is that they lull us into a false sense of safety. For one thing, the majority of sex offenses against children are committed by people known to the child, not by strangers. For another thing, simply making a likely re-offender live farther away from children does not keep them from traveling into circles where children will play. And there is a class-injustice here as well: poorer families are more likely to live in the places where sex offenders are allowed to live, making their children more likely than wealthier children to be the targets of registered sex offenders.

I am easily frustrated when I see irrational decisions being made. I am prone to outbursts like “Why don’t people think rationally about X,” whatever X might be. This editorial points out that people don’t make decisions based on how they think. They make decisions based on how they feel. And this is a very important insight.

Recently, I had a chance to talk with Judith Levine, a writer whose work on sexuality and the perils of “protecting” children in ways that do them more harm has been very influential in my own thinking about sex policies. Judith reminded me that the important work that we who write about sexuality or politics or any sensitive issue need to take up is not to change how people think, but rather to change how they feel.

It is hard to imagine how to change people’s feelings about sex criminals or about children. We have made children into frail and sacred objects and have projected onto them so many of our fears about so many things.

How do we make ourselves less afraid? How do we make ourselves care enough about safety and justice to get it right? How do we get ourselves to be outraged at the effects of our fear-based decisions?

Consider the impact of these policies on the life of Genarlow Wilson, who, three years ago when he was 17 had consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl at a party. He was convicted of molesting her and sentenced to 11 years in prison. She never filed a complaint about the sex. Even prosecutors in the case wish that the outcome had been different. They had originally been bringing a rape charge against a group of boys, including Genarlow, and Genarlow was found to be not guilty of that charge, but videotape evidence presented in that case showed him having oral sex with the 15-year-old-girl. In explaining why he would not accept a plea deal offered to him, which would have cut his prison time, he said:

“Even after serving time in prison, I would have to register as a sex offender wherever I lived and if I applied for a job for the rest of my life, all for participating in a consensual sex act with a girl just two years younger than me,” he told a reporter for Atlanta magazine last year, adding that he would not even be able to move back in with his mother because he has an 8-year-old sister. ”It’s a lifelong sentence in itself. I am not a child molester.”

Nobody intended for an outcome like this to occur. Nobody intended for a bright, successful, promising young man’s life to be ruined because he was sexually active and had consensual sex with a girl just a few years younger than himself.

But that is what has happened, and it has happened because of policies made in fear. I will refrain from my ordinary appeal to reason. I take Judith Levine’s point. People act based on their emotions. So instead I will appeal to compassion. How do we generate compassion such that it puts our fears in their proper perspective? And how can we moderate our fear so that it matches our actual level of risk?

One way is by reducing our exposure to fear-inducing media and increasing our exposure to more sensible opinions. I’ve written before about the damage done by such popular programs as Dateline’s “To Catch a Predator.” Certainly programs like that one do much to make us afraid and little to make us truly safer.

But we should also be talking to each other more honesty about how we really do feel and what we really do think. It is incredibly difficult to speak up against injustice or irrationality when sex offenders are the target of the injustice or the irrational policy. But it is important to do it. It is important not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because it is one of the few things that can change our feelings, lead us to make better policy, and really make us safer.

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Filed under Education, News and politics, public discourse, sex, sex and health, sex and the law, sex crimes, sex offenders, sexuality and age

So hard to talk about, but we must get it right!

It is so important that we get questions of sexual policy right. The Mark Foley scandal demonstrates how hard this is for us to do. It is so important that we be able to talk about sex offenses, about age of consent, and about sexual harassment in the nuanced terms that those discussions require. If we are not about to talk in reasoned and nuanced ways, we will continue to find ourselves faced with policies that result in ridiculous outcomes.

Some examples:

Imagine for a moment that I’m 17 and my partner is 22. (This was the case in my first serious sexual relationship, and I was fortunate to have such a wonderful partner to introduce me to heterosexual intercourse!) In many states we would be within our legal rights to have a sexual relationship. I would be of an age to consent. And yet, should my partner send me sexually explicit messages using the Internet, he or she could be in violation of federal law. And should I take a nude photo of myself and give it to my partner, he or she could be in violation of child pornography laws.

Does this make sense?

And, a person who is arrested and found guilty of public urination in some states lands on the sex offender registry (for lewd behavior). That person, while not a child sex predator, will be stigmatized by his registry status and might be prevented from living in vast swaths of some towns. And many laws that restrict the movements or actions of registered sex offenders don’t specify level of offense, though some do. Now let’s assume this person was a father out with friends at a baseball game when he took a leak on his way to his car. Not only is he affected by his new status as a sex offender, but his wife and kids are as well.

Does this make sense?

Here’s the problem. We can’t have reasonable discussions of these ridiculous outcomes because as soon as a person raises one in debate, there is general panic and outrage that the objector is “defending sexual predators.” It is not even safe to have the discussion!

How can we make smart policy that truly protects people if we can’t raise such questions without fear of being labeled predators or defenders of predators?

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Filed under News and politics, public discourse, sex, sex crimes, sex offenders, sexuality

Should violent offenders have to register separately?

In my last post I made reference to violent offenders being able to live where sex offenders cannot. This apparently is not true everywhere! In Illinois, apparently, people convicted of violent crimes against minors have had to register on the sex offender list when they get out of prison. They have been subjected to the same restrictions that sex offenders have been living with. Illinois General Assembly recently passed legislation that would require these violent offenders to register on a separate list. An Associated Press article on the Yahoo! News page noted some interesting reactions:

1. A recently released convict is relieved that he will be able to get off the sex offender registry. He says “It’s a big weight off my back” when explaining his relief at only being considered a violent offender (this may in part be because people on this new list will not be subject to the same residency restrictions as sex offenders).

2. An advocate for sex offender registries believes that they are more effective when plain old violent criminals are not on them: “Somehow if it’s not (only sex offenders), it takes away the impact and the ability for the community to really recognize the type of danger that they’re dealing with,” she said. (Note to self: It’s much more serious to be sexually assaulted than to be murdered as a child).

And it’s also interesting that only those whose violence is directed at children who will be required to register. Assault an adult and you serve your time and its forgotten. But if you’re 19 and you beat up a 16 year old, you go on the list.

What would it take to get sensible, consistent policies passed that put sex, violence and lifestage in rational perspective?

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Filed under News and politics, News..., public discourse, sex, sex crimes, sex offenders