I recently met Natalie, a woman who, in her words (and after investigating her case) “was pimped out for 13 years” of her life. When her pimp was arrested, she and the other girls he coerced to work as prostitutes were charged as well. This woman was convicted of crimes at age 30 that labeled her a sex offender; she and those who were also forced to work, were victims. Due to the nature of our present laws, Natalie and those who identify as victims of the crimes leveled against them in this case, are now registered and viewed as sex offenders.
That didn’t sit well with me. When I think of the term sex offender, the last thing I think of is someone like her. I decided to do a bit of research to see what can get you classified as a sex offender, because disturbingly, a lot of things can earn you that title.
Via a mass email and requests on social media, I asked what people think of when they hear the term, sex offender.
Monika Thomas: “I think of Pee Wee Herman, who ended up getting caught doing something that wasn’t that big of a deal given the context (masturbation in an adult theatre). I also think of the stereotypical, creepy, ex-con guy who people are trying to “protect children from” with the Meghan’s Law maps and I think of all the people who get caught up in the dragnet of “sex offenders” that don’t really belong there, like roommates of sex workers for instance.”
Craig Ainsworth, Esq. said, “The term sex offender creates a stigma, sometimes warranted, sometimes not.” Ainsworth feels perhaps a redefinition of the term is in order: “Not all sex offenders are created equal, but the registry system might not account for this.” Ainsworth suggested that perhaps the registry would work better, if it listed repeat offenders instead of every single case.
Kimberly Spillman shared her thoughts: “What I think of immediately: are they rapists/violent criminals? The term is too broad to know how dangerous a person with that title may be.”
Too broad is right. Do you know what crimes can get you labeled a sex offender? 18 year olds having sex or sexting with their 15, 16 or 17-year-old partners. Public nudity, flashing, public urination and mooning can also get you the label (which means, based on this definition, that people camping or attending an event like Burning Man, are potential sex offenders to anyone who disagrees with those behaviors and reports them). Those are not violent crimes, so why are these crimes ones that carry a label that will stigmatize your life forever?
I spoke to someone who has real experience with this – Karen Hammons,who has a website entitled The Offenders Wife. The Offenders Wife is an online community where women whose husbands or someone they love carries the label of sex offender.
Hammons stems from South Carolina and five years ago, her life changed forever. “I got called by the police and was told that my husband was being arrested. The charges were contributing to the delinquency of a minor and using an electronic device to do it.”
At the time, her husband worked for a mega-church as a member of the Facilities team; the 17-year-old girl in question was in the student ministry there. Not only was he arrested, but his arrest made headlines in the local media. An announcement was also made at the church he worked at and that their family worshipped at.
Once the news was made public, her husband was fired on the spot and many people cut all ties to the Hammons family. While she did have a few close friends who stayed loyal to their friendship, she said, “…it was a very lonely and traumatizing experience.” For reasons still unknown, all the charges were dropped and her husband did not have to register as a sex offender, but the damage was done and the effects still linger
The Hammons family still face discrimination five years later. It’s the little things; one of Hammons sons is autistic and needs to be walked to class. Her husband at times takes him to school. This seemingly normal parental duty was not viewed as acceptable by some of the other parents. Then Hammons found out that a number of parents, who had seen the news coverage years ago, called the school franticly, saying they had a sex offender wandering the halls and the school needed to put a stop to it.
Thankfully, the school told the parents that Mr. Hammons was not on the sex offender registry and he had every right to walk his child to class. This could have gone a few different ways and while Hammons husband does not carry the label of sex offender anymore, the stigma still haunts him and their family
Hammons believes that the sex offender registry is too overloaded to serve the purpose it was initially intended for. When you look up a sex offender, you are not shown what the actual violation was; it simply says, sex offender – and that can mean any number of things.
The other part of the problem, Hammon feels, is the isolation it creates. Most of these sex offenders and their families tend to isolate themselves for fear of harassment and discrimination. Jobs and homes are a hard thing for registered offenders to come by, yet studies have shown that employment and community help sex offenders to not re-offend. Instead of isolating sex offenders and publicly shaming them with a registry, what else can be done?
What’s not being done in a practical way, is rehabilitation and education. Benjamin Lopatin, Esq. said, “Our society is trying to sweep sex offenders underneath a rug and hope they disappear. However, this supposed solution merely gives a false sense of security. There should be a focus on those deemed sexual predators, based on risk assessment. Additionally, there should be mandatory mental health treatment aimed at rehabilitating these sex offenders so they will not re-commit crimes. There should also be more resources allocated for educating the public on sexual abuse prevention. Legislation that reacts on emotion and is based on fear and anger will not be effective in keeping society safe.”
When laws are created out of fear, folly is sure to follow. Our fears cannot and should not dictate how we treat people. While I understand how terrifying some sex offenders are, how can we be certain every person who we see with that label, fits that emotional trigger most of us feel when we hear that term.
Nothing is black and white. Everyone has a story and our laws should account for that.