By Lisa Anne Zilney . . . It is often said that the media doesn’t tell us what to think; the media tells us what to think about. The media frames our understanding of public issues and informs us which public issues should be at the forefront of our minds.
For 8 years I have taught a college course entitled Sex Crimes. The course uses history and theory to critically examine sex crime laws and sexual offending behavior. In the course, I aim to provide an in-depth examination of the causes and responses to sexual offending and engage students with a non-stereotypical view of offenders as well as an understanding of the many legal controls with which individuals must comply.
Each semester teaching this course, I struggle with the extreme views that students have of individuals who commit a sexual offense: the individual is a pervert, a monster, a stranger waiting to kidnap and rape a child. Students remark that individuals who commit a sex offense are sick and cannot be cured, deserve to be castrated or executed, and should be locked away forever.
What students don’t realize at the start of the semester is that a sex offender in the eyes of the law can be someone who urinated in public in a school zone, a 21-year-old who had sexual relations with his 15-year-old girlfriend whom he later married, an individual caught viewing online child pornography, an individual conversing in a chat room with someone who they think is a minor but is actually a cop, or an individual that kidnapped and raped a child (to name only a few). These are extremely varied acts in their impact, but they all fall under the umbrella term sex offender. . . .
Society refers to those who have committed a sex offense as a sexual offender as if that person is always an offender. If you played sports in college, are you considered an athlete still at 50? If you stole a candy bar from a convenience store as a child, do you remain a thief forever? If you cheated on one of your partners, are you an adulterer for life?
Part of understanding the stigma against people who have committed a sex offense is understanding language and labels. These are individuals who committed one bad act, one mistake, at one period during their life, with significant variance in seriousness across individuals. This should in no way dismiss the powerful impact of a sexual offense on the victim! An understanding of labels is simply to contemplate the social and psychological impact of a lifetime scarlet letter. So instead we talk in class about a person required to register rather than a registered sex offender as if this is their only identity; we talk about a sex offense registry instead of a sex offender registry. . . .
Overwhelmingly, Americans get information regarding crime from the media. Consequently, what is portrayed as reality is reified and disseminated by viewers. When assessing media representations of sex offenses and offenders, the result is fear, the reinforcement of stereotypes, and the perpetuation of misinformation. Representations of sex crimes have more to do with journalistic appeal than facts.
Typical sexual crimes, those that are not sensational or violent, or crimes that involve a known perpetrator to the victim, are viewed as routine and not worthy of media coverage. The media has a way of transforming atypical crimes into a perceived major societal epidemic. [emphasis is editor’s]
In the U.S., we punish harshly with minimal attempts at rehabilitation. Yet this has proven unsuccessful. The media provides distorted and salacious coverage of sex offenses, leading the public to believe they are at serious risk of a sexual violation by a repeat offender, which has a direct impact on the continued passage of harsh policies. . . .
Education may serve to influence public perception of sex offenses, offenders, and, in turn, of appropriate criminal justice responses. Research suggests that educating the public and dispelling myths regarding sex crimes may lead to support of less harsh, more rational legislation. . . .
What society needs is a basic factual understanding of sex crimes and a media that correspondingly reflects these facts. Education can translate to laws that increase public safety, maximize taxpayer dollars, and increase the potential for those convicted of an offense to live productively upon release. . . .