What Labels You a Sex Offender? You Would be Surprised

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.

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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

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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.

***

About Vanessa L. Pinto

I am a journalist based in San Francisco, best known for my blog on The Huffington Post and SF Weekly. My platform is multi-faceted, just like those I write about.  I hold my B.A. in Political Science, with a concentration in pre-law from Cal-Poly in San Luis Obispo and am always game for an adventure...!
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6 Responses to What Labels You a Sex Offender? You Would be Surprised

  1. Very nicely written and thought provoking. The number of registrants, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) is edging toward 800,000 men, women and children.
    Unfortunately, every time there is a highly profiled case, more laws and restrictions are imposed punitively to registrants and their families because legislators don’t want to appear “soft on crime” when it comes to the young. If we were more pro-active and put that effort into prevention and education imagine the difference it would make.
    Another sad fact is the violence directed at registrants and their families which includes children being beaten up, harassed, homes set on fire, well-meaning teachers isolate a child when printing a registry photo to “warn” their students, signs placed in their yards, police come to their residence to do compliance checks alarming the neighbors. Then there are the murders which are increasing and in some instances include a family member like Gretchen Parker of Jonesville, S.C. in July.
    So, it is up to us to educate the public, legislators and media about what they are doing to our families.
    Vicki Henry
    Women Against Registry dot com

  2. FMaC says:

    I’m concerned. This piece has a similiar tone as politicians who tout, not all rape are created equal, that non-violent rape is not as bad as violent rape. Where is the line? If sex offenses are not created equal and some sex offenders are not really “sex offenders”?

    • Vanessa L. Pinto says:

      I think you misunderstood my point. I am saying we cannot lump everything into one category. I do believe we need some sort of registry, but the one we currently have is not effective.

  3. The “crimes” range from urinating in public (indecent exposure), sexting, incest, mooning, exposure, false accusations by a soon-to-be ex-wife, angry girlfriend, or spiteful student, viewing abusive OR suggestive images of anyone18 years old or younger, playing doctor, solicitation, Romeo and Juliet consensual sexual dating relationships, prostitution, rape and many others.
    Many sexual offenses are committed within the family unit, by their acquaintances or those having access to the children and “never get reported!”

  4. Stand 4 truth says:

    My nephew was a victim of the hysteria surrounding an accusation of child molestation. Even the newspaper article reported that the accuser, a 12 year-old disgruntled boy, coerced his little sister to pull down my nephew’s pants and open the shower curtain while he was taking a shower. None of the statements accused my nephew of attacking anyone. There was just the slight possibility that the children might have seen something lewd when all of this occurred. However, both my nephew and the alleged five-year-old victim said that didn’t happen. Even so, the local sheriff gets more money for his budget if he can convince the citizens that he needs to lock away dangerous predators; the lawyers enjoy their lucrative businesses of defending these poor guys and the police detectives and prosecuting attorneys quickly climb the ladder of success. The lies and salacious remarks in the courtroom and the local newspaper convict the accused in the court of public opinion. The accused is denied bail, and after sitting in jail for a year, usually accepts the plea bargain and a life of shame and isolation. In Florida, this usually happens to young men, especially between the ages of 13 to 19. Not only is this bad for the families involved, but it hurts our society to have so many men locked away, unable to find work and/or complete their education. So many of these men could contribute to the general good, but they become dependent on welfare and social security instead.

  5. Guest says:

    http://www.sgvtribune.com/technology/20111114/victim-13-pleads-in-bellflower-court-to-give-convicted-molester-what-he-deserves

    http://abclocal.go.com/kabc/story?id=8347625

    BELLFLOWER — A 13-year-old molestation victim pleaded with a judge Monday to give Kumon Math & Reading teacher who molested her “what he deserves.”

    “I’m not confident, I’m not comfortable socializing with anybody and it’s hard to trust people,” said the girl, whose name was withheld because she is a victim of a sex crime by her Kumon teacher.

    Her statement came at the sentencing of her attacker, Frank Chung, a 63-year-old Kumon teacher who molested her and allegedly two other girls at his Norwalk Kumon Math & Reading tutoring business.

    “I just want what he deserves,” the victim calmly but quietly told Bellflower Superior Court Judge Leland Tipton moments before Chung was sentenced to eight years in prison.

    The 13-year-old victim is one of three girls who told authorities they were attacked by Chung at the Kumon learning Center, and she was the first victim to come forward, said Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Detective Rudy Acevedo.

    Kumon teacher Chung was arrested Sept. 8, and charged with lewd acts with a minor based on the allegation he molested the 13-year-old on a number of occasions at the Kumon learning center.

    When news of his arrest broke, the other two victims came forward and additional counts were added to the charge, Acevedo said.

    As part of a plea agreement reached last month, Chung pleaded no contest to a single count related to the first victim in exchange for eight years behind bars.

    Defense Attorney Rayford Fountain noted at sentencing that his client received a number of letters of support from colleagues and friends and asked the prosecution and the court to consider lowering the sentence time.

    “Many people have stood up for him,” Fountain said.

    Deputy District Attorney Nicole Vo said all the mitigating circumstances were taken into consideration when the eight-year plea deal was offered and therefore it would not be reduced.

    The prosecutor explained outside the courtroom eight years is the maximum allowed by law for the one count. She also noted Chung will have to serve the time in state prison and he must serve at least 85 percent of the time before he can be considered eligible for parole.

    The plea, she and the detective said, was effective in a number of ways.

    “I think he accepted responsibility very early in the proceedings and … we’re seeing a resolution that includes state prison time and he will have to register as a sex offender for life,” Vo said.

    Acevedo added the early resolution also spares the victims the difficulty of testifying in trial.

    “The benefit of the plea isn’t for the defendant, it’s for the victims,” he said.

    Upon his release, Chung will be placed on three years parole and the charge, considered a violent sexual offense, leaves a strike on Chung’s record, said Acevedo, who is assigned to the Special Victims Bureau.

    The defendant is the owner of the Kumon math and reading learning center and worked there for five years with children providing after-school Kumon Math & Reading tutoring, according to the criminal complaint.

    He worked in a similar capacity at Kumon math and reading centers in Northern California for the past 25 years, bringing him in contact with countless children, detectives said.

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