The hidden curriculum of the registry


By Don . . . The registry has a teaching function, as do the laws that relate to the registry. The obvious message is to follow the rules that the laws prescribe. But little concern is given to a second message, the sub-text, conveyed to registrants in these laws because it is “hidden” in the assumptions of the law as well as in the process of following the law. There are messages, indeed an entire curriculum, that is conveyed to registrants of which they—and often the writers of laws— seem to be unaware.

The concept of a hidden curriculum comes from research of children in working-class schools compared with upper-class schools. Researchers found that children in upper-class schools were given more time to answer questions asked in class, communicating the expectation that they would answer correctly if given enough time. The body language of the teacher communicated the same expectation. In contrast, the amount of time given to students in working-class schools was shorter, subtly conveying the message that they were not expected to give the correct answer. The body language and tone of voice used by the teacher communicated that they were expected to take orders, not give then; they were to be followers, not leaders. If a person looked only at what was being taught, this hidden curriculum remained covert, but careful examination of how classes were taught revealed the assumptions behind the teaching (Gearing and Epstein, 1982).

While in therapy for the offense that resulted in being listed on the registry, I carefully tracked and recorded my thinking and actions involved in going to a nearby drugstore for a jar of mayonnaise. The account is filled with concern to spot any possible child so that they could be carefully avoided. The goal was complete avoidance of children, an idea regularly underscored by my therapist and probation officer. Every few feet I would scan the surrounding area for children and take an alternate route to avoid any possible contact. Even eye contact could be considered a violation of the law, I had been told. The scanning and avoidance continued, such as taking an alternate aisle when a child was seen in the aisle with mayonnaise, followed by waiting and checking to see if the child had moved on. Eventually I was able to make the purchase, but not without worry that someone in the checkout line next to me night have their child join the line.

I will admit that I was perhaps too careful, but I had heard repeatedly that jail could be the result of not being vigilant. The therapist once scolded me for not leaving a restaurant immediately when a family with two children sat at the next table. “All they have to do is accidentally touch you, and if an officer sees it and recognizes you, you can plan on a trip to the county jail.” It may well be that the therapist exaggerated, but at that point in therapy, I took everything I was told quite literally. I knew I did not want to return to the correctional system!

But what was the hidden curriculum of the rule to avoid children at all cost? Examining the results of such rules helps reveal what is being taught in a subtle manner. First, children must be “scanned” for and avoided constantly, for fear they might accidentally wave at you or say something to you. I had ignored children much of the time until I got into therapy, but now I learned they were dangerous and thus their presence must be monitored constantly. While done for a different purpose, this is of course the behavior of someone who solicits a child sexually. My actions and behavior were being subtly shaped into those of a pedophile actively seeking children.

I was not allowed to attend church. There were too many children there, I was told, and the possibility of accidental contact was too great. The therapist and probation officer worked with the pastor for me to have “chaperones” in church, observing me at least occasionally to be sure I did not get close to any children. There are two adult males in my church who have learned that I am potentially a reoffender, and their expectation now is that I will do so. This seemed absurd to me, since my original offense was not a contact offense. But the expectation of my harming a child is now in the minds of two leaders of the church and no doubt their spouses and other leaders in the church. I am expected to do something worse than my offense, which was looking at a computer screen.

The expectation influences perception. Anything that is deemed suspicious, such as a child entering the pew in which I am seated, is now a dangerous situation. As a result, I am instructed by the therapist and probation officer to move to a new row if this occurs. I must also move if a child sits directly in front of me or behind me, regardless of whether parents are present or not. This was for my own good, I was told, because anyone visiting could get the wrong impression. No doubt that was true, but particularly if the visitor was a police officer who knew my situation. Upon talking with the pastor, I decided to stop attending church.

It occurred to me that these rules were shaping me into taking the role of a deviant. These rules were written for people who are different from the average person, different in a sexual manner. Because a person is forced to take a deviant perspective to follow a rule, he or she tends to think from that perspective. The hidden curriculum gradually shapes the person into someone she or he is not. Any self-doubt that may exist is repeatedly confirmed by such laws. The message is, “You are abnormal.”

To pigeonhole people as perverse, and to influence them to act in an abnormal manner, is likely to create people who are in some ways abnormal and at the very least increases the likelihood of other problems.

As a society, we have created a nightmare for the many who will never reoffend and are not a threat to communities. Fortunately, many registrants refuse to let their status define who they are. Those who do succumb to the hidden messages do not always reoffend. They may commit suicide because they are convinced they lack worth and value. They may give up on a society that has rejected them and turn to criminal behavior in order to survive, a decision that supports the image they now hold of themselves. Interestingly, that behavior rarely involves any sexual component. They may survive for a while following this track, but when caught, they are now “recidivists” (at least as some count recidivism), and most everyone assumes they have reoffended sexually.

But the registrants I know stubbornly resist the labels and the hidden agendas of registry laws. They want to prove them wrong, because they are wrong. But such restrictions are in essence an additional sentence for registrants, forced on them after they have “served their time” and paid the prescribed penalties.

It may be that some who favor such harsh laws see something of themselves in those who break society’s laws. They may, at some unconscious level, see the shutting away of the “deviants” as a way of avoiding their own struggles with sexual attraction to children. It is easy to project deep fears about self upon others, and what group is more vulnerable to this than those who are on the registry?

For the most part, though, such harsh sexual offense laws are the product of sheer ignorance. There is a great deal of research that reveals the many misconceptions about registrants. Perhaps one day that work will receive the recognition it deserves. Perhaps someday there be justice for those on the registry. And perhaps our grandchildren, or their children, will ask us how it was that people could assume such terrible things about others without really knowing them. What will we tell them?

In the meantime, we who are registrants who are not reoffending must reject the “sex offender” label and status. We are not sex offenders if we have changed. It is an identity that must be categorically rejected. It is true that at some point in the past we have offended. But that is what we did, not who we are. It is the past, not the present. We have learned to be better, even if society fails to recognize that fact. And thus we must—when possible—become educators who, by the way we live our lives, reveal the lies hidden in the registry laws.

We must stop letting the worst of the past define who we are in the present. We choose life by being the best people we can be, by being trustworthy neighbors and friends who do not fit the stereotypes that others have designed for us. We must be who we were born to be, not what laws imply that we are. We are worthwhile. We are valuable. We do not deserve injustice from unfair laws and the pre-judgements of people. We deserve justice. All of us. Every one of us.


Gearing, F. and Epstein, P. “Learning to Wait,” Spindler, G. Doing the Ethnography of Schooling: Educational Anthropology in Action, New York, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1982.

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7 Thoughts to “The hidden curriculum of the registry”

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  1. Tim in WI

    The hidden agenda of electronic imperialism. The concept of Sex offender registration was infact the birth of electronic imperialism, where humans first became subservient to the needs of the machine by law.
    Where human value (HV) is outweighed by (MV) machine value.
    MV>HV= NULL – Asimov. A death nail to any human republic.

  2. nobody in particular

    The ‘hidden curriculum’ concept was very informative, and I believe that it doesn’t end with school, but continues throughout life, becoming more apparent and ‘assertive’ the more mature (or at least, the older) we grow. I think one of the many reasons that laws and policies are so brutal when it comes to anything even remotely ‘sexual’, is not only animus, and not only the drive to protect the vulnerable, but also a persistent, subconcious self-awareness of unspoken, and undesirable thoughts and feelings inherent in everyone to some extent, which both frighten and repulse, and having the option to project that ugliness, imperfection, and vice onto another, and then remove that vessel of corruption from the world forever, as a ‘purification’ ritual. Every ‘sex offender’ has become the walking embodiment of aspects which people deny, and despise most about themselves, resulting in all the anger and vengeance directed at any ‘unclean creature’ that ever attempts to become anything other than ‘what it is supposed to be’. In a bizarre twist, then, through current laws, policies, and actions, it seems most people would rather a ‘sex offender’ re-offend or recidivate, than live a productive, fulfilling, and harm-free life…all efforts are made to reproduce the exact consequences that very well may have led many to commit a crime in the first place, as if saying ‘go on, we dare you…’ every minute of every day.

  3. H n H

    Wow, not a single reply to anything here? This entire post hits the nail on the head in regards to the harm the registry hands down to those forced to be on their precious hit list. It speaks first hand of the far reaching effects of situations blown way out of proportion just to satisfy the urges of a greedy prosecutor or judge hell bent on finding guilt, no matter how they have to twist things to suite their narrative.

    I know first hand the feeling that I don’t belong to society, that I am not allowed to function or engage in any kind of life all for fear that some stupid kid might be around somewhere, and I’m portrayed as the creepy monster lurking in the shadows.

    Oh, and love? No one here ever talks about it. Does anyone stop to consider all the hopes, dreams and good faith love provides individuals with? Yet, that is an aspect of life I’m also cut away from. Every love song on the radio is written for the rest of the population on the planet, even drug dealers… But not me, not now, not tomorrow, not ever. Just remember, all this harm is justified as it might somehow “protect just one girl”.

    1. A Mistake They Made

      Nice comments HnH I agree!

    2. Tim in WI

      Obviously the author is in pain, most of it mental anguish. Shrinks do great harm sometimes. But hey, the job pays well. He hints to his no contact offense yet accepted and implemented the prescriptions set forth by the treatment providers by his own volition. He did so in misguided good faith. The problem is with the errant prescription and not his cognitive dissonance- from sexual aggression. Humans intentionally avoiding humans is ANTISOCIAL BEHAVIOR! Nothing connects humans more than eye contact between humans. Avoiding children equates to less empathy for them and does not make more cognitively. Furthermore, the prescription of avoiding diminishes by atrophy the muscle used to impose self control of impulse! To change context only slightly, consider Cesar Malan, ” the dog whisperer” and his approaches to canine avoidance and aggressive behavior. Dog owner who avoid other dogs because their hound lacks self control does little to resolve the underlying cause. Cesar correctly points out this is the owners doing and stems from poor pack leadership. America suffers the same dissonance. These treatment providers have convinced this man to torture himself. But he does so by his own volition.

  4. Ed C

    This is a wonderful article touching on some ideas that have occurred to me only in nascent forms. The concept of a hidden curriculum was totally new to me and I find the analogy to hidden effects in the educational system to be spot on. This article is going to my group therapy session tomorrow, and the facilitator (MS degree in counseling) will not be able to discredit the author’s bonfires, as is frequently the case.

    I had a couple of take-aways from the article. In therapy, I’ve been admonished for refusing to refer to myself as a sex offender. When asked why, I responded that this was a present tense term which I refuse to internalize. This was considered as denial; one of the go-to responses used by therapists when they have no real response. The answer to my question as to why I was not referred to as an Army officer was that I’m not an Army officer. True, but I was.

    In one paragraph, the author speculated that some may take solace in the belief that those with sex offense convictions are somehow deviants or monsters. That is a form of denial. I’ve thought of this as pushing away the mirror to a comfortable distance. Sexuality is deeply rooted in humans and not simply some secondary characteristic of the species. The expression “we tend to hate what we fear most in ourselves” is applicable here. These fears may not necessarily involve children, but can be any sexual thought or speculation that causes personal panic, e.g. a brief homosexual thought, or admiring the neighbor’s wife.

    This is a very insightful article, an I thank Don and NARSOL for publishing it.


  5. Dwight

    Toally agree with the article. The registrion act was the first step to make anybody who dont tow the line of the time will be on a list, ie vaxxed and unvaxxed, we had a chance to stop this evil but instead the dumb sheep of america thought this was a jewel and it kept you safe from from the evil man that either was lied about or commited a past sin. This will only get worst the training from what this article is saying is going on today in america not just drug and sex offenders but now what the current line is. We have truly fell and losing this country