If you use social media enough, it’s not that uncommon to come across ‘memes’ about how sex offenders should be maimed or killed in some horrible fashion, memes involving ideas like “Why use animals for laboratory research when there are so many sex offenders available?” or ugly, violent images tagged with bombastic proclamations of homicidal ideation toward anyone who would “hurt my children.” Now, I understand the desire for a simple solution to a complex problem, but is there really some ‘debate’ about whether any of us want somebody to sexually abuse our children?
Arguably, the source of such black-and-white statements is a lack of knowledge, even a commitment to ignore any real information that might lead to a greater understanding of how to address the problem of sexual abuse, or even what is encompassed in the term “sex offender.” “Sex offender,” to the oversized segment of the population desiring to eradicate problems through violence, is synonymous with “rapist/murderer of children.”
But the reality of the term “sex offender” is that it applies to plenty of people who have never had any sexual contact with a child, let alone murdered anybody. I don’t say this to minimize the seriousness of sex offenses, but to point out that, unlike the term “serial killer, “ “sex offender” does not have a single, well-defined meaning. What’s legal in one state based on, for instance, the age of the participants, can be illegal in another. What is normal, adult sexual behavior may be criminalized in a state, while much worse forms of sexual abuse are not defined as crimes, or are given much lighter penalties.
For example, if your 16-year-old son’s 16-year-old girlfriend sends him a nude or semi-nude photo of herself via phone, even if it may be legal for them to be having sex in your home state, your son may now be in possession of a depiction of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct, aka child pornography, which can lead to being charged with a crime and labeled a sex offender. The label “sex offender” is also applied to exposers, who in the not-too-distant past were characterized as oh-so-comical ‘flashers’ and given a slap on the wrist.
The sex offender label includes those convicted of statutory rape, which can include people who, if they had waited a few months, or lived in a different state, would have been having perfectly legal sex. A 35-year-old software engineer engaging in a sexually-charged chat with a 38-year-old insurance salesman pretending to be a 13-year-old girl is disturbing and isn’t going to lead anywhere positive. A 35-year-old software engineer engaging in a sexually-charged chat with a law enforcement official posing as a 13-year-old girl could lead to being labeled a sex offender under charges of communicating with a minor for immoral purposes, or attempted rape of a child–if the police can get the engineer to take the admittedly-twisted fantasy a bit further.
To be sure, those convicted of sex offenses have almost certainly done things that range from the unsettling to the unthinkable, things that provoke reactions from disgust to outrage, things that require some form of restitution to the victims and to society at large—forms of restitution that are provided for in law. But to lump ‘sex offenders’ into a uniform group whose members are all deserving of murder is to take the Carl Spackler approach to problem-solving: blowing up the golf course to get at the gopher, ultimately making the problem worse. And, no, I’m not suggesting that the gopher was a pedophile. I am saying that outright hostility toward “sex offenders” ensures that we will never get to a point of dealing with the problem in a way that might eventually reduce instances of sex offenses—but that’s an argument for another day.
For now, what most baffles me is how the self-righteous anger of those who would annihilate all sex offenders can so quickly reverse itself from being focused on the offender to being aimed at the victim. While there are numerous recent and not-so-recent examples of this, Steubenville immediately comes to mind as a town that is now synonymous with rape and rape cover-ups. It is also synonymous with blaming the victim. And blaming the victim is just a different way of saying “siding with the sex offender.” Let’s be clear about that: to whatever degree one blames the victim, one is, to that same degree, siding with the sex offender.
So how does the threat to smoke out and crush every evil, lurking sex offender get transformed into threats of violence against sexual abuse victims? Well, when the offender is no longer some random, unshaven, greasy-haired creep in an arrest photo shown on the local news, but instead a high-school football star who is well-known in the community; and when the victim is no longer an unquestionably-innocent seven-year-old, but a 16-year-old girl who got drunk at a party; large swaths of the public suddenly decide to love the sex offender and hate the victim.
In such situations, all of the Internet-clogging-bravado that fuels adolescent fantasies of being the slayer of sex offenders suddenly gets channeled into death threats and, astonishingly enough, rape threats aimed at high school girls. Justifications are created to excuse the ‘dumb mistakes’ made by the teen sex offenders who apparently no longer deserve any consequences for their behavior. And the Internet equivalent of pitchforks and torches are taken up in service of ridiculous arguments about how teen girls need to recognize that if they are going to behave like drunken sluts, they have to accept the responsibility for being sexually assaulted.
So, if you’re going to be all black-and-white about how much sex offenders deserve to be burned at the stake, then don’t pull them from the fire so that you can toss their victims in. If you so enjoy black-and-white thinking, the only absolutes involved are that nobody deserves to be sexually assaulted, and that nobody has the right to sexually assault anyone.
If things are so black and white, then ask yourself why you would ever choose to side with sex offenders against their victims.