Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Moral Panic

Today’s topic may be a little more controversial than what I typically write, but I believe this topic is important. In the past couple weeks, a fellow blogger I respect a great deal, has been posting many stories and opinions regarding the way in which convicted sex offenders are treated in the United States. The reason for the interest is that there are recent laws coming into effect across the United States intended to create a uniform system and procedure for maintaining sex offender registries in all states. The original law is a federal law and states need to make new laws to be compliant with the federal regulations. The difficulty is that being on the registry makes it extremely difficult to get a job and the law also creates additional restrictions beyond those that already existed on where those on the registry may live (ie not near schools, playgrounds, etc.) The reason of course is to keep the public safe from potential predators, and to ensure that offenders continue to be monitored. To read a good selection of articles surrounding this issue visit Scottie’s Toy Box and scroll through. I have a link to his site on my sidebar or click here.

The point Scottie has been making is that this is extreme overkill and unnecessarily stigmatizes convicted sex offenders, making rehabilitation less likely. Also, many on the registry are either victims themselves or are not actually pedophiles or other sexual predators. He also claims that the public and the authorities seem to be putting more emphasis and severity of punishment on sexual abuse, than on other forms of abuse that can be just as damaging, if not more so. The post where he sets out his position on the issue can be found here ( Scottie recently asked me for my opinion on this issue and I decided than, rather than spend lots of time composing a response to him that he would be able to post on his site, I thought that I should at least get a post of my own out of it. Scottie, you may reblog this post in the Toy Box if you wish, with a credit to me and a link back. While I must acknowledge I am not very familiar with the exact nature of the US laws on this issue, I would say that I mostly agree with the statement that the sex offender laws are not well thought out and, in some cases, seem to be overly punitive. Still there are some differences of opinion I will address later.

The biggest objection I have with what is happening is that all criminal offenses that are sexual in nature seem to require being placed on the registry. While the new rules do create tiers of offender depending on the severity of the crime, the only difference seems to be the length of time they must remain on the registry. Most people think sex offenders are pedophiles and rapists. The reality is that a surprisingly large percentage is people on the registry are youth, who may have been having sex while underage and the partner’s parents pressed charges. Or, since there is no allowance for young couples who are close in age, it is considered statutory rape if anyone over 18 has sex with someone under 18. This is a predicament that can potentially face anyone who is sexually active and does not share the same birthday as their partner (that would be most people). While I imagine that making laws uniform is intended to change this, people have ended up on a sex offender registry for public urination. Scottie has recently posted a story about 2 14-year old boys that pulled down their pants and sat on another boy’s face. While this is obviously bullying and unacceptable behaviour, possibly befitting criminal charges, an appeals court ruled that this was a sexual offense and as such, the boys would have to be placed on the sex offender registry for life. The point is that the judges seemed to indicate that this was overly harsh but the law gave them no alternative. On what planet does this make sense?

Another big problem I have is that placement on the registry seems to be allowed to factor into employment decisions. Honestly, unless the job is as a school teacher or child care worker, I don’t see how this is relevant in any way. And I can also understand that a job that requires an employee to be bondable would entail that the employee could not have a criminal record (usually), so there would be a problem in those instances as well. But there are so many industries that don’t require contact with children or other vulnerable people or require security clearances that this shouldn’t be an insurmountable barrier to employment. Yet employers won’t hire sex offenders and so many in the public seem to agree with this. But if society rejects you on a permanent basis, what incentive is there to obey the law and get on with your life?

This issue brings to mind a paper I wrote in a first-year university sociology class about moral panics. This is the short paragraph, exactly as I wrote it in that paper, that defines what a moral panic is - I think you will see how well it applies to the situation with sex offenders.

British sociologist Stanley Cohen, an acknowledged authority on moral panic, is credited with coining the phrase, although it actually made its first appearance in a colleague’s paper (Burns & Crawford, 1999; Thompson, 1999). Despite this technicality, it was Cohen who fully defined the term. In the classic definition, someone identifies an issue as a problem; it is reported in the media so as to influence the general public; the public develops an outrage against the issue; the authorities respond in some way; and the issue will finally either fade in importance or corrective action will be taken (Thompson, 1999). More recently, sociologists have attempted to specify the conditions that give rise to a moral panic (DeYoung, 1998). There has to be a pre-existing worry about the issue (DeYoung, 1998), and it must have the ability to create hostility among the public (Burns & Crawford, 1999). The media must be able to identify what Cohen calls a “folk devil”, a scapegoat upon which the public can easily place blame. These folk devils are very often marginalised members of the community (DeYoung, 1998).

One of the examples I had mentioned, though it was not central to the paper, was the allegation of satanic ritual sexual abuse in day care centres in the United States. In the 1980's there were claims that at least one (and later others) day care centre was sexually abusing children in their care using satanic symbolism. The only evidence was the claims of the children, many of whom were under 4 years old at the time and, even when questioned years later, were still young children. It later came out that these stories were all pure invention, but a large number of day care centres had come under suspicion and were shut down in the interim and forever casting suspicion upon their operators.

But looking at that definition above, I’m sure you can see how well our current hysteria regarding sex offenders fits the pattern. The pre-existing issue is obviously those cases of child abduction and molestation that make the news, everyone is outraged and demands horrendous penalties for the perpetrators and there has been a large quantity of legislative response, mostly ill-considered. This building of a moral panic is why you see so much of a push to have a public registry of sex offenders. While anyone who looks carefully will know that most registered sex offenders are not accused of a crime stemming from pedophilia, this is the offense most people imagine when discussing sex offenders. The actual occurrence of child abduction is very rare (although child sexual abuse is not - it is more often perpetrated by family and/or friends) but a whole variety of sexual indiscretions can result in mandatory registration, from brutal, violent rapes, to in some places, indecent exposure. Also, the part about the folk devils being marginalised members of the community is especially obvious here: the focus is exclusively on pedophiles, since adults having sexual desire for children is considered so revolting and incomprehensible to most people. These people also tend to have histories that involve abuse and neglect, meaning they are even further marginalised. Putting them on a “list” underscores this separateness from society and makes it easier to create laws that would be considered excessive and cruel for any member of the “normal” society. For this reason, I am strongly opposed to the way in which congress develops these laws. The laws are supposedly about all sexual offenses, yet they name these laws invariably after victims of child abduction (Adam Walsh, Megan Kanka, etc.) The way I see it, if there are so few victims of a particular crime you know all the names of the victims, is so much social and legal change really needed? In Ontario in the early 1990's there was a serial killer on the loose, raping women and abducting, abusing and killing girls. Eventually the perpetrator was found to be Paul Bernardo and his wife/girlfriend Karla Homolka. While some may argue that Homolka was not sufficiently punished (she testified against him, striking a deal for 12 years in prison and has already served the full sentence), Bernardo was rightly identified as a dangerous menace, was convicted of many charges. He received life in prison and was declared a dangerous offender, rendering him ineligible for parole. Because we have dangerous offender status and a somewhat lesser status of high risk offender, this means that if an individual is too dangerous and at too much risk to re-offend, we have methods to keep such people off the streets but only on a case by case basis, and it is not an easy designation to get. We also do have a sex offender registry, but it is not generally available to the public but only to the police. Maybe this is a better way to go, as there is still monitoring and tracking of potentially dangerous people, but does not have the high potential for vigilante justice as in the US where the registry is available to any member of the general public, some of whom have questionable motives.

Then there are the issues over which I disagree with my friend. First there is the nature of the crime and the prospects for rehabilitation. While it may be true that sex offenders, as a group, are the second least likely class of offenders to reoffend, I think this has a lot to do with grouping all kinds of tenuously related offences together, from child abuse, to young love, to rape, to a domestic dispute. Age of consent issues will of course not result in a re-offence, since once the “criminal” ages a bit, the crime can no longer be committed. For some who use force in sexual situations, therapy and rehabilitation is possible and effective. The same can be true when the crime happened as a result of substance abuse. So why is there an impression that sex offenders cannot be rehabilitated? Because some - those that get most of the press but make up a very small percentage of the offender population - commit crimes that are usually the result of a very serious compulsion for which an effective rehabilitation has not been found. Pedophiles are extremely likely to re-offend, as are some serial rapists. But even though they are a small percentage of all sex offenders, these are the most serious crimes in the category, and the fact that treatment and rehab is highly unlikely in these cases is a concern we need to take seriously. This is why the strict conditions, reporting requirements, and tight restrictions are in place. These people are known to be dangers and in all likelihood will remain so unless carefully monitored. Now, why every other sex offender is subject to all the same restrictions is beyond me, but that does not mean that we throw out the baby with the bathwater (is it inappropriate to use that phrase here? Oh, well). While this means convicted pedophiles are going to have a hard time finding a place to live and a good job, safety is a very real concern, and no they should not be working with kids if they have molested children before. And if they live near playgrounds and such, they will be too hard to keep track of and they will be too close to temptation. But for other sex offences that have no relation to children, especially for those who can be rehabilitated, I do agree that all those restrictions are draconian, not to mention pointless.

Finally, there is the issue of damage caused by sexual abuse as compared to other forms of abuse. I think the key thing to remember here is that everyone is their own individual and reacts to the events of their lives in different ways. Also, having not been abused myself, I don’t really have a frame of reference. Although from what little Scottie has shared with the reading public on his blog, I get the impression that the sexual abuse he suffered was not as extensive or painful. Also, something that I believe makes a bit of difference, he seems to suggest that those who abused him physically were more direct family members than those who committed the sexual abuse. I apologize if I got this wrong, and if it is, just take this as a theoretical example of someone else for whom this was the case. If someone very close, such as a parent, abuses you in ANY way, I would think that this abuse would have longer-lasting psychological effects, as there is also a deep betrayal of trust that goes along with the physical pain, guilt and/or shame suffered. For others, the sexual abuse could be worse. And while physical abuse may be more likely to cause long term health effects, the same thing can happen if a sexually transmitted disease is contracted as a result of a molestation. Several months ago I was following the blog of a young man who had been sexually abused by the father of one of his friends. Because of this, he contracted Hepatitis and HIV and died last winter. Sexual abuse can have horrific consequences as well, it is just a matter of what happened in each individual case.

To summarize, I think that the biggest problem with the manner in which sex crimes are dealt with in the United States is the failure to separate the more serious crimes from the less serious ones.


  1. Thank you Evan for the wonderful post, the effort involved and the time it took. I greatly enjoyed reading this. Lots of good points and things to think on. I am going to direct people from my blog to here , then head off to work this Saturday morning. On another day, I will gladly sit and answer any questions about my past you wish to know, but your assumption is mostly correct. For me the physical abuse left me with 40 years of trauma and troubles, the sexual abuse, by both family and neighbors did not leave much of an emotional least as far as I can tell. Hugs, Scottie

  2. I totally agree with everything. I have been following Scottie's blog for some time and have read everything he posted on this issue. Our constitution forbids "cruel and unusual punishment". A person can make the case that definitely falls under those terms and could thereby be unconstitutional. I would love to see somebody fight it to see how our supreme court rules over it. I am sure the great justices will find it that way and force changes.

  3. Hi Evan;
    I wanted to let you know that I read what you wrote, and I agree with much of it and learned a great deal as well. I am currently working on a "response", a post I'll put on my blog, but it is difficult to order my thoughts for this topic.
    One thing I think is downright stupid: if a teen, in love with another, they get together and take off their clothes in mutual admiration, it is thought sweet, gets the "awwws", and called romantic. If a teen, in love with another teen, takes off his/her clothes and sends a pic of self to that loved one in mutual admiration and love, it is thought pornographic, a sex crime, and the teen is labled and placed on a registry. There is no difference of intent, recipient, emotion. How is one a crime and the other is sweet? What's worse, the fools will call that same teen a predetor and a victim at the same time and see nothing wrong with that.
    Laws that remove reason and thought are foolish and need to be removed.
    I'll let you know when I finally get done with my post. Thank you so much for taking up this interesting and difficult topic.

  4. Hi Evan;
    Finally posted my thoughts on this. fyi