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Harsh Sex Offender Laws Make Worst Crimes Easier

September 2, 2009

Laurie Essig, Class Warfare: Why harsh sex offender laws made Garrido’s crimes easier to commit.

The case of Phillip Gariddo, accused of kidnapping then 11-year-old Jaycee Lee Dugard and holding her hostage for 18 years, sexually abusing her and fathering two children with her, has revealed the paradox at the center of America’s unusually tough sex offense laws. The harsher the laws get, the more people who are caught in the ever-expanding net of offenses, the easier it is for the real child abusers to go undetected.

Phillip Garrido is a case in point. Although forced to register as a sex offender, Garrido was just one of several living in his area. According to an article in today’s Times:

“The sheer numbers of sex offenders on the registries in all 50 states — an estimated 674,000 across the country — are overwhelming to local police departments and, at times, to the public, who may not easily distinguish between those who must register because they have repeatedly raped children and those convicted of nonviolent or less serious crimes, like exposing themselves in public.”

Abduction Case Shows Limits of Sex Offender Alert Programs – NYTimes.com.

This contradictory situation, where the harsher we are on sex offenders, the less likely we are to catch them, was the subject of an August 6th article in the Economist.

US laws are so incredibly harsh as to merit a plea from Amnesty International to rethink them. For instance, regardless of the act or whether it was consensual and between people of roughly the same age, once convicted of an offense, you’re on the registry and barred from ever being in a school, even if you have children. A recent Illinois law has barred sex offenders from social networking sites, like Facebook and LinkedIn. That might seem reasonable for someone like Garrido, but what about the 17 year old girl who becomes a “sexual predator” for having sex with her boyfriend who is very nearly 16? Or consider the fact that a Human Rights Watch report found

“at least five states required men to register if they were caught visiting prostitutes. At least 13 required it for urinating in public (in two of which, only if a child was present). No fewer than 29 states required registration for teenagers who had consensual sex with another teenager. And 32 states registered flashers and streakers.”

I have most certainly urinated in public (if national parks are public) with children, had sex as a teenager, and gone streaking (as a teenager). What that means is that even more of us could be registered sex offenders than the 675,000 Americans already on the registries. That means our photos could be on there, our addresses, we could be targeted for harassment, threats, and in a few recent cases, vigilante-style executions. Because so many offences require registration, the number of registered sex offenders in America has exploded.

According to the Economist article,

“As a share of its population, America registers more than four times as many people as Britain, which is unusually harsh on sex offenders. America’s registers keep swelling, not least because in 17 states, registration is for life.”

How did this happen? How did America become both so obsessed with “sexual predators” and simultaneously unable to make children safer? It no doubt started with the Victorians, as James Kincaid suggests in Erotic Innocence- the conflation of childishness with sexual innocence at the same time “ladies” were imagined as innocent as well- so that wanting a sexually innocent lady became entangled with a sexually innocent child.

But more recently, starting in the 1980s, with a Conservative Revolution that included all things sexual, Americans began to worry about “stranger danger.” Instead of focusing on where children are most likely to be abused (in the home, by someone they know), we began to focus on preschools as sites of mass violation of children’s innocence, the stranger behind the bush, and the internet as a site of particular danger.

Laws were passed (in fact, most states only got sex offender registries in the 1990s after the federal government threatened loss of funding if they weren’t established), TV shows and movies were made, educational programs were invented. The result was panic. Panic in Congress and state legislatures as everything from sex between teens to naked photos of one’s children were criminalized. Panic in schools as children were taught that they should worry about abduction all the time. Panic in the homes as parents chose “safety” over “health” and “well-being.”

Not only did it not work since most children are still abused by people they know and this issue wasn’t ever really addressed. But the net’s so big that too many people are being named sexual predators and too few actual sex criminals are being monitored. The latest expansion of this ridiculous net is about “sexting”- when consenting teens send naked photos of themselves to each other or post them on their Facebook page.

According to Judith Levine’s blog,(she’s the author of Harmful to Minors- a book that brilliantly exposes this panic), a proposed Massachusetts bill would make it illegal for minors AND for people 60 years and up to send or post naked photos. So if you’re 61, don’t send photos to your 62 year old lover. And if you’re 17, do not snap the photo of yourself nude for your 16 year old lover.

This sort of sexual panic is so ridiculous that it seems barely worth a comment. But the truth is, people get caught in this awful net and their lives are ruined for committing the most victimless of crimes. Worse, the real creeps, the ones like Garrido, can operate amidst the confusion with little chance of detection.

Oddly, the real lesson from the tragedy of the Jaycee Lee Dugard is that Americans need to lighten up on sex laws in order to keep the public safer from sexual predators.

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