Posts Tagged ‘sex offenders’

No group is more feared or reviled in American society than sex offenders.  As a result, both state and federal laws have become more and more harsh over time. This hasn’t necessarily been in response to the need for harsher sentences, but reflects more of a political response to high-profile tragedies that stoke the flames of hatred and paranoia about sexual predation (PDF).

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Although they are also driven by fear, sex offender registries in particular have been a favored community response to sexual crimes, and many believe that they are an important instrument for preventing sex offenses.

What we know, though, is that this isn’t necessarily the case.

Most offenders (approaching 90%) are known to their victims. Stranger assaults are one of the rarest forms of sex crime, so knowing where a sex offender lives does little in the way of preventing these crimes from occurring.

Even those who have suffered most directly, such as Patty Wetterling, have come to recognize that draconian laws, including sex offender registries, are not the only or best way to move forward.

This hasn’t stopped one community in New York, though, that has decided to privatize monitoring of registration compliance in ways that are neither useful nor rational.  Known as “Trackers,” employees of a private non-profit are paid to monitor the locations of certain sex offenders in the community.

Although it receives $1 million dollars in public funds, the agency that employs the Trackers won’t disclose exactly what their procedures are for monitoring.

It appears, however, their tactics mainly involve harassment and intimidation intended to discourage sex offenders from living in their community at all.

While no one is arguing that sexual offending is a minor concern, or that such crimes should go unpunished, jurisdictions around the country are beginning to recognize that harsh laws alone are not the primary answer.

According to Alissa Ackerman, a criminal justice professor quoted in an NPR story on this issue:

…while there are many jurisdictions like Suffolk County still creating broad, harsh restrictions against sex offenders, the national trend is the other way. More and more communities are creating nuanced laws that attempt to match restrictions with the likelihood an offender will commit another offense.

Instead of lumping all offenders into the catch-all category, “sex offenders,” and then treating them all as being equally dangerous, there’s a recognition that some are more dangerous than others.

The most dangerous and predatory are likely in need of closer monitoring, supervision, and management (PDF).

But, private agencies intent on engaging primarily in harassment are less than helpful, and may even be creating additional risks without intending to do so.

Again, Professor Ackerman:

When we are destabilizing offenders, when we’re making it very difficult for them to find housing or very difficult to find work, we’re causing more stress, and that may in the future lead to recidivism.

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According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, approximately 80,000 to 90,000 forcible rapes are reported to law enforcement each year in the U.S. and, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey, over 243,000 individuals reported having been raped or sexually assaulted in 2011.

That’s a lot of pain, misery, and tragedy.

The overwhelming majority of these offenses are committed by men against women and children, which contributes to the stereotypical image of the sex offender that’s reinforced almost every night on the news – middle aged, meek-looking, bespectacled men stare out at us from jail mug shots.

Unfortunately, men are not alone in this type of dysfunction, though. Female sex offenders not only exist, there are even female sexual predators out there as well.

We don’t hear too much about them in the media, primarily because women account for only 1% of arrests for rape and 6% of arrests for other sexual offenses. It’s notable, however, that approximately 1,500 women were incarcerated for sex offenses in the U.S. during 2007.  That represents a lot of offending and a lot victims, even if the numbers are small when compared to male offending in absolute terms.

And, when we look at the facts of these cases, other interesting information emerges.

Cases of female teachers sexually abusing students, for example, exhibit many of the same patterns of sexual predation that are typically associated with male offending. For example, a 28-year-old high school teacher was arrested for having sex with a 16-year-old student in an unoccupied classroom during school hours.

The reported facts of that case, if true, demonstrate not only considerable planning, but also grooming and manipulation of the victim by the alleged perpetrator, as well as a certain amount of sexual objectification of her victim as well. These are all characteristics that we typically associate with male offenders.

In another case from 2008, a teacher at an alternative high school in Mississippi helped one of her students purchase a “secret” cell phone so that they could communicate privately. As their “relationship” developed, she later performed oral sex  on him in her car while the student was on a break from work. (Teacher To Student: “You Were Good”)

In another case from 2013, A Georgia math teacher was accused of having sex with 7 of her students over the course of a year.

And these cases are not as anomalous as perhaps we might hope, either. There are at least two websites, one an About.com page with photos and case descriptions of over 190 other women arrested for indecent behavior with kids, including many offenders who were teachers, and a second site that’s dedicated solely to the topic of female sex offenders. The details of their cases show similar patterns of identifying, grooming, and violating children for sexual purposes.

Even more disturbingly, in a 2012 interview one incarcerated female sex offender, who admitted to molesting as many as 100 children, describes a pattern of grooming the parents of her victims in order to gain access. Her comments raise questions of whether such offenders use gender as a smoke screen, blinding parents to the possibility that a woman might harm their children sexually.

In looking at these cases, one offense factor that often appears to be missing – and one that makes female predation distinctly different from that of men – is a typical lack of overt violence or force. Some women appear to rely on their status as an authority figure (in the case of teachers or babysitters), subtle emotional manipulation, and the naivete (and likely immature sexual-emotional development) of the victim, as leverage.

The point of comparison here is not to make women out to be somehow worse than men in terms of sexual offending. That’s clearly not the case in any event. The point is to open the exploration of sexual offending up to a broader understanding of gender and the real role it may play in sexual offenses of all types.

Understanding these variations, and the difference that gender makes in terms of sexual offending, may enhance safety for both children and adults and potentially prevent sexual victimization.

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