US sex offender registries now list nearly one million people. Federal, state, and local ordinances prohibit convicted sex offenders from living within a certain distance of schools, parks, day care centers, and other spaces where children might congregate. In places like Miami–Dade County, these restrictions have rendered hundreds of individuals effectively homeless. Only by building and inhabiting makeshift encampments in sparsely populated areas can offenders comply with such residency requirements.
Following the passage of an especially punitive county ordinance — still on the books as of 2020 — a veritable refugee camp of registrants appeared under Miami’s Dolphin Expressway. Facing eviction and possible arrest, residents of the encampment moved to an underpass before encountering similar resistance and decamping in 2014 for an industrial area near Hialeah, a Miami suburb. In the summer of 2018, city and county officials — under pressure from area residents and business owners — applied the same punitive tactics to disband the encampment, once again displacing and dehumanizing its inhabitants. And the cycle remains unbroken: last June, registrants occupying a makeshift “colony” in Miami’s Brownsville neighborhood were forced to vacate.
Such measures might seem sensible to a broad swath of the American public. Indeed, as Judith Levine and Erica Meiners argue, sex offenders’ very humanity remains an open question. Yet these sorts of steps misrepresent the scope and nature of sexual harm in the United States, fueling mass incarceration while doing little to actually help survivors. At a time when demands to dismantle the police and unmake mass incarceration are reaching a fever pitch, we must target these myths and directly challenge the sprawling system of sex offender registration that they have produced.
Sex offender registration and surveillance rest on the flawed logic of “stranger danger.” By design, they locate sexual threats (especially those facing young people) outside of the idealized, dual-parent home and thus outside of the idealized family unit — even though about three-fourths of child sexual assaults are perpetrated by family members or acquaintances. (Only 18 percent of those who sexually assault children are “complete strangers.”)
Registration systems, in particular, deem certain places dangerous (on account of their inhabitants) while marking others as safe — sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly, by requiring offenders to live a certain distance away from schools, playgrounds, childcare centers, and other sites. But the vast majority of child sexual assaults go unreported, and many take place in ostensibly safe spaces at the hands of purportedly trustworthy individuals (like coaches, teachers, and priests) who have never been accused or convicted of misconduct and are thus not required to register.
Finally, the category of “sex offender” not only fails to account for the vast range of offenses for which one might be forced to register (from streaking to rape). It also implies an indelible, untreatable predatory impulse that must be vigilantly policed and suppressed, even though those convicted of sexual offenses have lower recidivism rates than those convicted of virtually any other offense. . . .
But sex offender registries do nothing to prevent abuse or reduce harm. Studies have found that sex offender registration protocols and other laws have “no discernible impact on the incidence of sex crimes.” In fact, the “sex offense legal regime” actually perpetrates its own violence.
A society cannot legitimately claim to detest sexual violence when it builds and maintains a system that perpetrates such violence. And a society cannot legitimately claim to value the protection of its children when millions of young Americans go hungry and confront abject poverty daily.
Only by dismantling the registry and, in its stead, assembling a more equitable, less punitive society — devoid of the racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and material deprivation that enable sexual violence, immiserate young people, and encourage children to run away from home — can we actually end the phenomena of sexual harm.