When the state becomes church: America’s obsession with prosecuting sex

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By Chase Madar . . .

Rape and sexual assault often do not get the police attention they deserve in the United States, whether on college campuses, in the military or in major American cities. This isn’t arguable.

But sex is vastly overpoliced in this country, and this ought to concern us too. The combination of steroidal law enforcement, puritanical fear of the genitalia and a constant need for political scapegoats has led to ferocious police overreach on sex. The consequences are neither moral nor just. In fact, they’re frequently horrific.

Branded for life

Sex offenders are commonly regarded as outcasts in the United States. This might change if it were more widely known that children as young as eight have been put on sex offender registries, where many will stay for decades, if not their entire lives. Some of the offenses that get minors listed are serious and (obviously) require a law enforcement response. But many, from streaking at a high school football game to consensual sex between randy teens, do not.

A Human Rights Watch report released last year documented the lasting damage done to kids put on these publicly available registries. Most are barred from attending school and restricted in their daily movements and where their families may reside and travel; their chances at employment are wrecked. Such ostracizing of minors must end.

But ways to punish kids for various sex “crimes” keep proliferating. Sexting is a common teenage pastime, but many states see no legal distinction between this act and distributing child pornography. Earlier this year police in Manassas, Virginia, got a warrant to photograph a 17-year-old’s erect penis so they could compare it to the photo he had sent his 15-year-old girlfriend. Fortunately a national outcry put an end to this inquisitorial prurience. (The young man still got charged with distributing and possessing child pornography and was slapped with a year of probation.)

This unwholesome propensity dovetails snugly with our national habit of prosecuting children as adults as often as possible.

Sex offenders everywhere

But what about the adults — won’t someone please think of the adults? Sex offender registries in the U.S. have expanded massively, to about 747,000 in 2011, the last year of available data. It’s a lot easier than you might think to get put on a registry (for, say, public urination) and exceedingly difficult to get taken off it. But contrary to myth, the majority of adult sex offenders have not committed any offense related to children, and the rate of recidivism is lower than that for other offenses. One federal study from 2002 found that people with no sexual offense history are more likely to commit a sex crime than convicted offenders. But rational evidence is not a part of our punishment regime, where panic rules.

Leading the way in punitive excess is California, where roughly one in every 375 adults is a registered sex offender, creating an entire class of pariahs. This isn’t because Californians are especially sexually deviant. According to Chrysanthi S. Leon, a law professor and expert on sex crimes at the University of Delaware, it’s just because the Golden State set up its registry first, which means that pretty much every state in the union is heading towards this high density of officially stigmatized sexual criminals. That these registries have no visible deterrent effect on sex crimes, according to one recent Department of Justice analysis (PDF), doesn’t seem to matter.

We need reasonable off-ramps from these registries and must distinguish between those who pose a risk to children and those who do not. We might also knock the age of sexual consent nationwide down to 15, as it is in France and Sweden, while considering the German model where the age of consent is 14, but sex with anyone under 18 can be judged a crime if it is found to involve “taking advantage of an exploitative situation” — a far better use of judicial resources than our system of punishing everyone to the max.

There is mounting pushback against such overreach. The group Reform Sex Offender Laws (RSOL) launched in 2007 and has been honing its advocacy skills ever since. Still, according to Leon, who spoke at RSOL’s annual conference in July, the penal winds have not yet shifted — the California legislature saw nine new measures expanding sex offender punishment proposed last year — and vindictiveness and banishment are still our default settings for sex offenses.

(See america.aljazeera.com for full article)

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4 Thoughts to “When the state becomes church: America’s obsession with prosecuting sex”

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  1. The Doctor

    The most psychologically revealing aspect of all of this regarding American society as a whole, is the need to have a scapegoat. Only a society whose current mode of operation is based upon a fallacy needs and will employ a scapegoat wherever it is necessary. Fix your house America or your days are numbered! And it will happen by your own hand.

    1. Your totally right doctor. Church and state may be separated, but God and Man aren’t. At least I hope there are some God-fearing people left in America. Man has always had pride and has always loved his power. Were there not sex immoralities in the bible? So why not here? Are we not suppose to use examples in the Bible to guide us through this life?

      Sure, you are right. These registries don’t do all that much. If crime is going to happen, then it’s going to happen. Its called the nature of the beast and unfortunately man cannot stop nature. Sure, they can keep the sex offender in bondage, lock him up for the rest of his life, brand him or kill him and I wouldn’t want any part of that as we are all accountable to the Supreme Authority.

      They have taken an issue and as always blown it out of proportion as always that is the way man is because they want your vote, they want to be proud, they want for Americans to think that sex offenders are no better than trash. How does man dehumanize people? Well, for starters, the registry is one way.
      Do you not think there was sexual immorality in the Bible? And isn’t the Bible suppose to be used for examples to help man in his plight of sin?
      Sin is sin no matter how you slice it, and the registry is no more than a sinner’s list which we all should be on if push comes to shove. Even the ones who make these laws still have a beam in there eye.

      I could go on and on, but as long as man is making laws, he is proud of himself. Look what Megan’s law has done for us. That was an isolated case so was the Adam Walsh case. We have had murders since than but nothing like this registry.

  2. The Doctor

    One last thought on registries

    Lately in the movement there has been a trend toward a registry for wrongful prosecutors. I am vehemently opposed to such a thing on ethical grounds. We oppose the SO registry but we want to keep one for bad prosecutors? Really? Can we say hypocrisy? How can you oppose on ethical grounds in one place and support it in another? What is really desired here is retribution and I can have no part of that.

  3. Mike

    What I am curious to know, a question I’ve asked numerous times – the one which brought me to this article is… Why is it Anglo countries only – ONLY – who have this visceral and intense paranoia about sex, sexual offending and the people who do?

    No other group of societies has this issue: They have sex crimes but they deal with them normally. Yet, all and only, the Anglo societies seem to freak out with registries and over policing (USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Scotland, etc…)