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.
As the American criminal justice system continues to strengthen laws against individuals who have committed a sexual offense, it is important to understand how attitudes toward controversial criminological topics can be altered based on scientific understanding rather than a media frenzy.
So, what do I convey to students to help them understand the nuances of sexual offending in America?
It Starts with Language
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.
Subtle changes in language can help acknowledge that a crime by an individual does not determine their whole identity and should not be a label that negatively impacts an individual for life. For just a second, think about if you would want to be judged and labeled by the very worst thing you’ve ever done?
Moving Beyond Media Misinformation
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.
One’s fear of crime is more closely related to television viewing (types of programs and hours of programming watched), than with actual crime trends.
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. Despite that research demonstrates the overall sexual offender recidivism rate is less than the recidivism rate for nonsexual criminals. According to a Bureau of Justice Report, the recidivism rate for individuals convicted of rape or sexual assault was 6 percent over a 5-year period.
While sex offense recidivism rates vary in the research, between less than 5% and about 9%, what is clear is that the longer an individual remains in the community offense-free, the less likely they are to commit another offense.
As the media routinely show sex crimes committed by strangers, the American public is likely to experience increased stranger-danger, despite that one is far more likely to be victimized by an acquaintance or family member.
97% of victims under the age of 6 are victimized by a family member.
More than 3/4 of adult sexual assaults involve an offender known to the woman.
Yet at the state and federal levels, legislation is passed quickly on the heels of high-profile sex offenses. And once these laws are passed, no politician wants to be the one to pullback on sex crime legislation. The result would be a public outcry.
So instead, we have laws for those convicted of a sex offense that restrict where individuals can live and congregate, laws about attending school functions for their children or grandchildren, travel restrictions, employment and licensure restrictions, designations on passports and driver’s licenses, mandatory minimum sentences, and a public registry that labels individuals for life. Despite this legislation, the public only feels safer, as these laws do not actually decrease sexual violence.
Moving beyond media facts is important because education regarding the realities surrounding sex offenses can decrease public lobbying for harsh policies that have proven ineffective but are politically popular.
A female student in my Sex Crimes class commented:
I think that the sex offender registration laws are harsh. I don’t understand why sex offenders should have to do this when all other criminals, like murderers, who are just as and even more dangerous, don’t have any laws like this.
Can Education Make a Difference?
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 I have found is that students with extreme views about sex crime legislation at the start of the semester, move to hold more moderate views by the end of the course. This is especially true for females. Students come to realize that individuals who commit a sex offense are individuals who have made a mistake and this mistake should not define them for the remainder of their lives. A male student commented:
Sex offenders are people who suffer from many different problems and in most cases need help. I realize that they are not all harmful to the community or society. Sex offenders are regular people who made a mistake in their lives.
A female student suggested:
My views on community notification laws have changed. Before this class I thought it was a good idea, but now I realize that it doesn’t serve its purpose and it makes things worse. The community doesn’t focus on protecting their children, instead they focus on harassing the offender. If these people were released, they deserve a chance. If the community keeps harassing them the stress could push them to offending again.
A Bureau of Justice Statistics report revealed that prisoners released in 2016 served an average of 46 percent of the maximum sentence; compared to those convicted of sex offenses who served an average of 62 percent. After learning about the disparity in offenses considered sex crimes, some students altered their perception of appropriate punishments. A female student commented:
In the beginning of the semester, I thought all sex offenders should be locked up for life with no second chances. Last night in another class, my professor gave us a scenario about a sex offender and the penalty we thought he deserved. Every single person said from 20 to 30 years or the death penalty. At the beginning of the semester I would have said the same. I now believe some — not all — offenders can be rehabilitated . . . and I can see why Megan’s Law may make it harder to stay on track.
Another female student was perhaps the most elucidating in her remarks:
This course has definitely changed my opinions regarding sex offenders. I feel that the restorative approach to handling the problem of sex offending is the most effective. It allows everyone to get the necessary help needed and work collectively to end the cycle of violence. I have certainly learned more about myself and come to terms with the fact that I was sexually victimized as a child by my cousin from the material this semester.
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. My Sex Crimes course is one way I counter disinformation. The course moves students toward rejection of the erroneous portrayals by the media and the resulting ineffective, panic driven policies. This course is one example of the potentially powerful impact of education to overcome media misrepresentation regarding issues of crime.