Sex panic: The war on sex offenders, public enemy number one

A longer version of Dr. Fortino’s piece is expected in the FEBRUARY issue of Criminal / Prison Legal News.

By Michael Fortino, Ph.D. . . . Fueled by a “moral panic” that evolved through the mid-2000s, the war on “sex offenders” paralleled the war on drugs and was slated to eventually replace it as our nation’s drug war began to wane in popularity. Congress passed a multitude of statutes establishing severe sanctions for all sex offenses in a “one-size-fits-all” initiative, and it did so without the support of empirical data. This movement, which expanded the sex registries around the country, fed off of a series of grotesque and sensational child murders that eventually culminated into the Adam Walsh Act and Megan’s Law. With the exception of property crimes and illegal immigrants, sex offenses have now become the fastest growing felony category entering the American prison system.

In a well-researched and comprehensive article, UCLA professor Catherine L. Carpenter detailed the world of injustice that has accompanied the crimes of “sex offense” where there exists little difference between offense context or condition. Her article, “Blanket Exclusions, Animus, and the False Policies They Promote,” deals primarily with the sex offender registries but also exposes a myriad other abuses associated with current sex offender laws.

These statutory acts, based largely on public fear and hysteria, were promulgated by our criminal justice system, then propagated by the media. In recent years, they serve to create a consensus in a bi-partisan society: Whether Democrat or Republican, man or women, liberal or conservative, this “frenzy of hatred” cuts across all party and ideological lines.

Of course, there is no greater cause than that of safeguarding the most vulnerable, our children, and violent, hands-on sex offenses should be regarded as both egregious and reprehensible and must be addressed appropriately, but even these crimes should be viewed as behavioral first and foremost. Studies show that non-contact “fantasy crimes” are the direct result of low self-esteem, stress, anxiety, or mid-life crisis. Much like the alcoholic who may reach for a drink the morning after realizing he embarrassed himself while drunk the evening before non-contact offenders, subject to public shaming, prison abuse, or societal discrimination, often slip deeper into the cycle of shame.

The term “sex offender” has become a catch-all phrase for a vast group of individuals with varying degrees of culpability, from the most innocuous (urinating in public, skinny dipping in a lake), to the most heinous (forced sexual violence against another). Unfortunately, the line between these extremes is not merely blurred, it is virtually non-existent. Court records show cases where possession of illicit images of teens have received nearly identical terms of imprisonment to that of violent sexual molestation crimes committed against infants or toddlers.

It is estimated that as many as 26% of the nation’s newly-minted “sex offenders” are under the age of eighteen, and minors, predominantly as a result of social media and “sexting” friends, are now the fastest growing segment to enter the sex offender registry roles. The youngest, a nine-year old boy, has been fated to registration for life after authorities determined that he was guilty of “playing doctor” with his four-year old sister. Then there is the teen couple who “sexted” naked photos of each other only to be prosecuted as adults for exchanging images of each other as minors.

There currently exists no empirical data to support the argument that viewing illicit pornography or other “fantasy crimes” qualifies as a “gateway” to “hands-on” victimization. For those signing on to a lifetime of sex registration, they are brandished with a scarlet letter and subject to social ostracism, banishment, and exclusion, not to mention risk of violence perpetrated against them. Studies show a far greater number of violent crimes transpire each year at the hands of vigilante neighbors lashing out against registrants than the number of documented re-offense cases each year perpetrated by a registrant.

The fact is less than 4% of all sex offenders go on to re-offend, and that number drops precipitously to 1-3% for those over 50 years of age. A significant amount of junk science has grown out of a multitude of flawed research such as the FMC Butner “Redux” study; using this flawed data, prosecutors and the media continue to tout unfounded and unsubstantiated statistics designed to further promulgate fear in exchange for power and control.

Consider an organization like the “National Center for Missing and Exploited Children” (NCMEC), an organization tasked with maintaining an expansive database of exploited or missing children, and one which works side-by-side with law enforcement to identify and recover child victims of violent crime. Ostensibly, NCMEC supports an honorable and worthy mission. The organization however produces some of the most shocking and outrageous statistics–one report suggesting more than 750,000 missing children are listed as possible abductions every year in the United States. At first glance, something does not seem to add up here. If this number was accurate, it would suggest that Amber Alerts would be blaring on street corners across the country, and every broadcast news channel would be dominated by reports of hundreds of neighborhood children snatched in broad daylight from parks and malls.

In his blockbuster book, Sex Panic and The Punitive State, Roger N. Lancaster uncovers the fact that the actual number of real-life, “stranger-danger” abductions across the nation falls below 150 per year, a far cry from 750,000. This inflated NCMEC data it turns out, includes every call made to law enforcement by a worried parent when a child stays over at a friend’s without notice, or a non-custodial parent fails to return a child by 5:00 pm Sunday. Certainly, NCMEC is a needed and worthy organization, but like many other agencies, it exploits a mission of fanning the flames of fear and civil unrest.

The fact is, internet child pornography offenders are considered “low-hanging fruit” by many law enforcement agencies, and they have become “easy-pick’ns” for cyber task forces acting under the authority of the FBI, ICE, and even NCIS. Sex offenders account for about 10% of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ population, or nearly 16,000 inmates. In a recent FOIA request, it was discovered that the FBI has identified more than three million personal computers throughout the United States that contain some form of illicit imagery (child pornography). The Department of Justice simply does not have the manpower to prosecute them all so non-contact convictions have now become a matter of prison bed space and quotas.

Advanced nations such as Norway, Switzerland, and Germany, where sex offense incarceration is almost non-existent, follow counseling initiatives commensurate to the severity of victimization. The Netherlands seals criminal records from public purview so a returning inmate is given a true second chance. The American justice system simply refuse to consider the empirical data that remains at its disposal, and it turns a blind eye to the success of progressive systems around the world. It is for these reasons that I commend organizations such as NARSOL and the efforts of its many contributors, members and supporters for their courage during this era of systemic change.

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Michael Fortino

Michael Fortino is an acclaimed author and keynote speaker on Leadership and Change, having spoken before audiences as large as 14,000. Over his career, he appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and in countless publications. Fortino was featured on Good Morning America, and the Tonight Show, and he has the honor of interviews with two U.S. Presidents. More about him here:

  • This topic has 19 replies, 1 voice, and was last updated 1 month, 1 week ago by Michael FortinoMichael Fortino.
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    • #78521 Reply
      Ernest B Tucker

      I shared this same information with my family and friends while incarcerated in 2014 and no one would take me seriously.
      I wrote a letter to W.A.R. about this very thing and sent a copy to RSOL as it was called at the time.
      I guess I feel both pleased that someone esteemed finally published this and disappointed that no one would see it before.
      Thanks for the work you all do.

    • #78534 Reply
      Tim in WI

      26% of newly minted sex offender are no under 18 years of age.

      Therefore it must be asked!
      Who protects the children from the misuse of the database?

      • #78997 Reply
        Michael Fortino
        Michael Fortino

        Thank you so much for taking a moment to share your thoughts and your question. I agree, we need to find advocates that see the injustice in forcing minors onto a registry and treating this behavioral maladaptation as a criminal offense. We have a great deal of research in this area, and we hope to begin to educate Congress, the Commission, and the public on these judicial abuses. You will be able to learn more at our website –  and we encourage you to sign up for our newsletter which begins in 2021. Please let me know if you may wish to join our effort in moving this message into the mainstream. All the best, Michael

    • #78542 Reply

      -Michael Fortino

      Excellent post. You hit the nail on the head.

      It’s unfortunate that in American society, most people aren’t concerned with the actual statistics regarding SOs (primarily and often only the ones that are men). They are only focused on the fact that a crime was done at all, or at least in some cases, a falsely accused (yes, even by law enforcement and prosecutors) person is believed to have committed a crime and they’re focused on that.

      I have said something like this on this site before: that a society such as the one in America, Canada, or certain European countries (like the UK), which has this sort of hunt or vendetta towards SOs would “carry-over” that hunt or vendetta towards minors who commit crimes of the very same nature. The energy surrounding crimes of that nature would in turn, affect minors who do the same things that are deemed not only unlawful but the “worst.” It wasn’t really like that at 1st but things are catching up and the times are changing. It is expected that they would go to the extreme just as they did with the 9yr old boy. Though there are cases where the punishment seems really bad but not in comparison to what men have received which has been a lot worse.

      It seems unfair that minors pay a price for SO crimes in a sense, but what of the minors who assault, shoplift, or murder? Should they be exempt from paying a price for crimes which are actually considered the worst of all crimes in America? Certain things like shoplifting are a whole different thing entirely, even when done by adults, in a society such as the one in America. I was just asking all that as a general question and I do agree with what was said in the post.

    • #78544 Reply
      H n H

      There needs to be a shift away from the phrase “empirical data”. It makes the facts sound like a phrase only used by people forced to register to skirt around the facts. There isn’t any other subject I’ve ever read about that uses “empirical data” as it is used here. The facts of sexual behavior needs to be brought to light in a manner everyone can understand, the first and foremost being shame or regret shouldn’tbe a platform for conviction.

      I seen on the Tube of You, a very strong argument against the registry and personal privacy on the channel called “common sense laws”. It was put together perfectly to show the ineffectiveness of the registry worldwide.

    • #78547 Reply
      Ernest B Tucker

      I have the answer to all of this. It will please the lawmakers and the liberal progressives as well. The Supreme Court should have no problem with it as it falls right in with many of their mindless decisions and goes right along with the puritanical attitudes that have been developed over the last 30 years or so. The puritans during the Salem witch trials could learn from these people.
      What we do is sterilize all babies at birth. That way sexual interests never come to be, and there will never pornography or any other attraction. In a couple of generations crime it’s self will no longer be an issue because WE WON’T EXIST !
      We as a society have outlawed basic human nature and curiosity.
      The education and morality should be taught in the home and not by some stranger with their own set of values.
      Parents need to be Parents not friends and get back to the home and be moms and dads instead of (career oriented ) professionals. Make a CHOICE. You can’t be both because one will always suffer. And in today’s society it’s the family that suffers.
      When it comes to sex I was raised on a farm and breeding of livestock was a matter of fact. We discussed it openly and when it came to human relations it was considered sacred. People recognized that kids will be kids and “Playing Doctor” was a natural progression. We were scolded for it and punished and warned not to do it again. Then they sat us down and we had that very important talk.
      Benjamin Franklin said that he who will give up his freedom for security deserves and will receive neither.
      That’s where we are today. With every law that is made another freedom and right is taken away. The more you give the government to control the less control you have.
      Thanks everyone. Larry keep up the great work and I ask God to bless us all.

      • #78604 Reply

        -Ernest B Tucker

        Just what type of society is this, where on Reddit there are comments from people describing sexual experiences from when they were minors, which garnered thousands of upvotes?

        • #78610 Reply
          Edward Easton

          Spot on, Earnest-

          For your most succinct and relevant argument for not trying to legislate morality, for one man’s morality is another’s amorality, and still another’s prosecutable immorality. It’s just unfortunate that the latter’s morality is the one causing most of the misery in the world.

    • #78578 Reply
      nobody in particular

      Ernest B Tucker – There’s a point there: in a society trapped within a seemingly endless and ever intensifying “moral sex panic”, the “final solution” would be some kind of physical, irreversable modification at the onset of birth, followed by a lifetime of constant ‘programming’. I disagree that humanity would end, however…just the society twisted and backward enough to actually institute such practices—ours, namely. Alternatively, all reproduction could be handled artifically, involving no pleasure or actual attraction whatsoever, which seems to be what the ‘moral majority’ may eventually prefer. About *25%* of the registry is comprised of *children*, yet people still defend it as a means of “protecting the children”, which allows legislators to get away with literally *anything* when it comes to registrants/”sex offenders”. Rather than evolve safer, more informed, and more desireable sexual practices and policies, the direction we are literally headed at this point is complete annhiliation of even our most basic, natural sexual instincts and drives, the complete sterilization of an essential aspect of ourselves, something which makes us *human* in the first place. It’s true what they say: Americans, collectively, are lazy, and will always opt for the fasted and simplest solution, or “quick fix” to every problem, esp. when panicked. But eventually, this country is going to run out of its proverbial ‘bandages’, and every decision regarding “sexual offenses” has done nothing but open up more and more wounds.

    • #78605 Reply

      -nobody in particular

      Just what kind of society is this? On Reddit, there is a certain post which has a number of comments describing weird sexual experiences that people have had from when they were minors (not all of the comments are like that, some people described experiences they have had as adults too). The comments have thousands of upvotes.

      One in particular, which involves an animal, has among the most upvotes of all the comments. There is feedback from people making jokes and whathaveyou.

      I guess most people aren’t as high and might, and good as they make themselves out to be.

    • #78620 Reply

      -Ernest B Tucker

      Maybe the only way to stop both the crimes themselves and the irrational fear the public have for them is people become mindless robots. Without any sense of will there could be no crimes of any nature, nor a vile and foul porn industry, and there wouldn’t be a terrible and unfair justice system. It would probably make a utopia for everyone.

      I have warned others on this site, several times of the terrible and horrific justice system, where even certain people who are involved in the mental health system would work against SOs any chance that they would get. Hopefully some have listened and took what I have wrote to mind.

      Such a thing had happened to me, where some therapist and other person who worked in the place I had been staying at out in the community, had conspired against me and had me remanded, or cuffed inside of a courtroom in front of a number of people.

      The fat lard just stood there and let the man tell the judge that he had “heard” me tell some other female worker that I was “going to ra** her.” At some point, the judge, despite the horrible lie he had been told (which he didn’t seem to believe or at least didn’t play into it) and by his good nature, had asked if I would have been able to stay in the program to which the therapist blatantly shook her hideous head and said “No, no, no.” After that, the judge angrily had me remanded in front of a number of people that were in the courtroom. Those two individuals, had almost murdered me indirectly, as that would have caused a more terrible outcome of that horrific case/situation that I was in. They knew very well, the deep trouble that I was in and I had told the therapist my side of the story regarding the female worker the day before that court appearance. She was adamant that I was going back to jail and even mocked me. I cannot warn people enough. I swear, it is truly, truly, truly by the grace of God that I’m alive and could post comments on this site.

      They had used my charges against me, which only involved stuff on a PC. They also used the general public’s overall ignorance, fear, bitterness, and hatred towards men who commit SO crimes and the way they feel about minors and women who are victimized specifically, not men. It was no coincidence that the lie involved me “telling” a woman this and this. They had to say what was more “believable.”

      In American society, such a plot could never have involved a lie, where I or some other man telling another man such a thing or attempting to do so or even succeeding in doing the horrible act. No would would have been fooled or worked up by that. They knew this and knew it very well. The same applies had a woman been in my shoes and the lie involved her saying such a thing to a man or another woman, or attempting to do the act or succeeding in committing the act. Americans are fools and it took a so-called “scum” to piece these sorts of things together.

      Those individuals were pure evil, and that man had given me plenty of awful experiences several times before the incident with the female worker and that court appearance afterward. Something was off about him just as something was off with the detective who arrested me. That man was under an evil influence. I am haunted to this day, which is a couple of years later, by what those two individuals had done. Can you imagine a female victim whether she was under 18 or not, crying her eyes out to that same therapist another day, completely unaware of the type of woman the therapist really is? Now ain’t that something?

    • #78623 Reply
      nobody in particular


      Norm Pattis describes this phenomenon as a kind of ‘sexophrenia’

      “Despite a generally permissive culture in which sexually suggestive photographs were used to advertise products ranging from toothpaste to cars, 21st century Americans nonetheless harbored draconian and puritanical laws involving sexual misconduct. It is almost as though they were afraid of the very desire they relied upon to entertain and to titillate themselves.”

      On the surface Americans uphold an image of purity and innocence, and an agreed upon universal “normality”, however, when the culture is examined and exposed on the ‘street’ level, this nation is far from saintly or uniform in sexuality. It’s not really what you *do* anymore, but *who you are*, and how shielded you are from scrutiny. Anyone behind the velvet rope and in positions of power and privilege engage in whatever sexual behavior they please, including the abuse and exploitation of those who are most vulnerable, and may never be held accountable in a court of law because they protect their own. My bunky in prison routinely condemned homosexuals for being attracted to members of the same gender…while he himself confided in me that he had been an avid ‘sex tourist’ in Cambodia. But, as a soldier, his proclivities were overlooked because he was still ‘useful’ and ‘highly skilled’…for some time, at least. He maintained that his sexuality and interests were ‘normal’, and ‘morally superior’ to those he lumped into the trash heap as ‘deviants’ and ‘perverts’. I’ve come to understand that most Americans exhibit the same mentality, where ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are just a function of ego, popular opinion, majority vote, and whatever is trending at the moment, and those making the rules never question their own reflection, even when peering into a metaphorical funhouse mirror. “Sex offense” policy is an insatiable beast, and adolescents/minors/children are fed into it just as enthusiastically as adults now, if not more so. Even a parent who would never subject their own child to the horrors of the registry and prison, wouldn’t flinch at throwing another child into the meat grinder.

      -Edward Easton-

      “Everybody’s sin is nobody’s sin, and everybody’s crime is no crime at all.”
      — Alfred Kinsey

      P.S. Sorry for rambling, I don’t speak much to anyone these days, and don’t really have the opportunity to ‘vent’ to someone that I’d trust as a friend, so when I do start on a subject, I tend to go on awhile. I leave the soapbox to the next, more concise, interesting, and coherent speaker. *drop the mic* … *pick it up and gently place it back down where it belongs*

      • #78626 Reply
        Ed C

        People tend to hate what they fear most in themselves. Homophobia is most often manifest in persons who have at least a bit of bi-curiosity that terrifies them. Otherwise there would not be such visceral and violent responses. It is comforting to pretend that what I want to obscure in myself is a characteristic only of some deviant “others.” Most people don’t fear that they could become, for example, carjackers. So there is no carjacker registry nor increasingly draconian punishments.


    • #78630 Reply

      -nobody in particular

      Every civilization and society has had it’s fair share of “bad guys” for people to look down upon and feel high and mighty, and better about themselves. In essence, the overly negative ways people have felt or acted towards the “bad guys” are similar. The energy surrounding what had happened to those who were rightly or falsely accused of being witches at the Salem Witch Trials, Africans who were forced off their land and forced into slavery, the racism, bigotry, and discrimination towards blacks; and the racial or ethnic tensions foreign nations have, is the same energy surrounding the negativity in regards to SOs.

      I don’t know about you, but I believe there is no coincidence, that not only would there be an abundance of SO crimes committed in America and mostly by men but also that those same crimes would be considered the worst of all crimes by the majority of people year after year. It is as if these thing were “pieces together” or “orchestrated” by forces we are not aware of. Physical or not.

      Strangely enough there is this talk of a so-called “elite” on several YouTube channels, who do the very same “scum of the earth crimes” that the majority of people get worked up over. Those individuals are said to have a hand in banking, politics, television etc. It is clear that the videos are meant to stir or tile up the viewers, with a certain word which starts with the letter p, being said by whoever is in the video and written by viewers in the comments. The viewers of those videos would never consider that maybe the irrational fear and hatred they have towards SOs is exactly what the elites want. Also strange, is how people believe these members of the “elite,” perform dark rituals and whathaveyou but the same exact things that they are supposedly doing, are glorified in numerous TV shows, movies, videogames, music videos, and music awards shows involving magic, the occult, otherworldly creatures etc. But that is all for another discussion.

      The thing is that sex is a “forbidden” thing. It cannot be discussed in public, parents can’t speak to their children about it and have to hope that they don’t hear about it from friends and family members, and it is a big no-no in church for anyone to have it, unless it is with their spouse of the opposite sex. That’s just for sex as it is, putting aside the sexual crimes. It is already ingrained in society to be this bad and “forbidden” thing that cannot be spoken of or something to feel bad or ashamed of.

      For decades men in particular, simply for being heterosexual and male, have been perceived as or referred to as “perv@@@“ by both teens, women, and other men alike. That part itself has already sealed the deal or fate in some cases, for men who would commit SO crimes as a general fear and dislike of men already exists in society, even for men who haven’t and will never commit any SO crimes. Homosexual men, not women, are shunned by both men and women of whichever sexuality, and men who are sexually victimized by women are disbelieved, maybe even mocked/ridiculed. So there is something significant, perhaps even very wrong, surrounding men and sexuality that is prevalent in American society. All those things I spoke of apply to teen males too but mostly men.

      When it comes to sexual crimes, the protection of the most vulnerable is very important and the way people feel towards them is understandable but things have gotten exaggerated to the point where the law has been used to exact cruel and unusual, and for a number of SOs, unnecessary punishment. Average, everyday “law-abiding” citizens come to desire the terrible crimes they despise when it comes to SOs. I don’t believe the registry does much of anything but helps people sleep better at night.

    • #78637 Reply

      One day long after I’m dead and turned into dust by fire; my Great Grandchildren, MAY finally see the end of this ‘Media Sensationalized-Draconian-Witch-Hunt Syndrome’. I’ve said this before, and will continue to say it over and again: Watch what happens when the very grown-or almost grown children of the Politicians, Judges, District Attorneys, and Media Stars, also get found out for committing some of the same Sex Offenses that We have. You can Bet And Win Every Time, that NONE OF THEM, will ever do ANY time in a State or Federal Prison…especially after Multiple Offense Convictions! Why? You ask? Simple. These same people will Work The System-and pay enough money-to ensure the protection of THEIRS, while continuing to ensure this same System KILLS THE REST OF US OFF! Furthermore; when the children of enough Men and Women forcibly separated from their families because of Past Convictions finally Grow Up, two things will happen if they haven’t already begun: One; many of them will decide to begin killing the Legislators, Judges, District Attorneys, Corrupt Cops, Corrupt Media Stars, And Equally Corrupt Treatment Staff that took their Fathers and or Mothers from them out of Revenge. In addition. Two; Many of those Grown Up Children will become Legislators, Judges, District Attorneys, Cops, Media Stars, and Righteous Treatment Staff, that will use True, Science Data and the results it presents, to finally give the Country-in the words of The Late, Great Radio Man Paul Harvey-THE REST OF THE STORY! Then, and ONLY THEN, will this thing called The Registry be laid to rest. It’s too bad I will never see it happen for the rest of My Life, but then again, after I’m dead, it won’t matter to me personally anymore because once a man is dead, what more can they do?

      • #80018 Reply

        (Awaiting moderation)

    • #78654 Reply

      I pray to God that someday a good sum of these pee bag wearing octogenarians finally die off and we can get younger people running government who have a less conservative way of running the country.

      • #78998 Reply
        Michael Fortino
        Michael Fortino

        Dear R. Arens:
        I enjoyed your brief comment regarding the octogenarians. Our goal is to try to reach those legislators that seem to be a bit more in touch with today’s computer culture and the injustices that seem to be associated with offenses they do not fully to understand. We hope to introduce a great deal of data, as well as real-life stories showing the collateral damage caused by these draconian laws. I would enjoy receiving your input or any guidance you may wish to offer as we move forward with our initiative. Please feel free to share this with those you interested in these issues, and you can reach me at I look forward to hearing back from you. All the best, Michael

    • #78660 Reply

      Sometimes I don’t know if today’s youth will save the day regarding these laws. My sister in law is 20 and believes when a guy asks her out it’s assault. On the other hand how many youth or their friends will be caught up this never ending punishment. Time will tell long as it’s soon.

      • #78999 Reply
        Michael Fortino
        Michael Fortino

        I enjoyed your brief email and I can relate to your concerns regarding societal perceptions, and specifically, those of our youth who seemed to be armed with today’s narrative, but few facts. We hope to address your concern by reaching out to that demographic with statistics, data, and real-life stories of collateral damage inflicted upon young people who may simply not be paying enough attention to what is happening around them. I would enjoy having your input and guidance as we move forward. Out goal is to reach out to Congress, the Sentencing Commission, the Judiciary Committee, state legislators, and of course, mainstream media, including those venues that cater to a younger demographic. Please feel free to share our plans with others in your circle, and let me know if you may wish to assist in this important initiative. I look forward to hearing from you. All the best, Michael

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