Pariahs among us: Sex offender laws in the 21st century

Stringent sex offender laws in the United States destroy lives and do little to mitigate repeat offences.

Sex offenders are often required to be tracked by a GPS bracelet and prohibited from living in certain areas [AP]

Maybe it is not so surprising that all we can think to do with a subject we are simultaneously obsessed with and repulsed by is to shout our alarm about it at every opportunity.

Sex crimes: The only kind of offence in the United States that compels all convicted perpetrators to register their name, address, date of birth, fingerprints and a photograph on a public website.

And what constitutes a sex crime? The breadth of this damning classification is alarming and includes public urination, consensual teen sex, sale of sex and exposure of genitals (including in the case of children) – as well as violent rape.

One poignant example of the irrationality and senseless devastation of overreaching sex offender laws is the story of Evan B, as told by Lara Geer Farley. When Evan was in high school he was arrested for exposing himself to a group of his female peers. A court sentenced him to four months in prison, but after he was released he was obliged to register as a sex offender. The stigma drove Evan to drop out of school, leave his home in Salina, Oklahoma and move to Tulsa, where the arduous requirements associated with his sex offender status meant that he could not maintain employment. A month before he should have turned 20, Evan shot and killed himself.

And this: A comprehensive Human Rights Watch report, published in 2007, draws attention to the common case of teenage boys aged 15, 16, 17, who have consensual sex with their teenaged girlfriends, finding themselves charged with pedophilia. They will be labelled and publicly registered as “pedophiles” for the rest of their lives.

In some states, boys as young as 10 who expose themselves to their female friends or relatives are forced to register as a “sex offender” before they understand what sex – or exposure – is.

In some states, boys as young as 10 who expose themselves to their female friends or relatives are forced to register as ‘sex offender’ before they understand what sex – or exposure – is.”


Additional laws that govern the lives of sex offenders after they are released from prison (if time is served) vary from state to state. But for all, surveillance and stringent notification guidelines are key. In addition to publicising one’s status on a website, some states require registrants (the preferred moniker) to inform their neighbours, future employers, landlords, delivery men – or any other solicitor or visitor who knocks on their door – of their status as a “sex offender”.

Some states require convicts to wear GPS devices, so that law enforcers can monitor their whereabouts at all time.

Louisiana requires registrants to advertise their status in large red type on their driver’s licence.

Other states require periodic plethysmograph tests, in which a pressure sensitive wire is connected to the registrant’s penis while being shown various sexual images. The test is designed to detect “sexual deviance”.

The registrant is required to attend therapy and “behaviour modification” sessions, check in with probation officers, as well as, of course, engage the services of an attorney, none of which is cheap. Most of these costs are carried by the offender, or as is often the case, his parents. 

In addition to adopting legislation that inverts the life of anyone cast as a sex offender – making him quite literally a public spectacle – hundreds of counties have established “exclusion zones”. These are areas that surround various public places – parks, schools, libraries, etc – where registrants may not live, work or even walk by.

The proliferation of sex offender registration and residency restriction laws began in 1994 when the US Congress and Senate unanimously passed the Wetterling Act, which required convicted sex offenders to register their information with the state of their residence. Over the past two decades, the federal government has passed law after law that publicised the registry, tightened its stringency and perhaps most crucial, broadened its domain.

In 2006, Congress passed the Adam Walsh Act, which aimed to eliminate the inconsistencies among different states’ sex offender laws. However, the ugly reality is that it expanded the “sex offences” that demanded registration and thus doomed juvenile, non-violent offenders to, potentially, a lifetime of registration. The law was easily renewed by the US House of Representatives this August – a true indicator of just how politically expedient these laws are.

Even Patty Wetterling, the woman responsible for the enactment of the Wetterling law, in 2006 lamented the direction the country had taken to handle sex offences: “People want a silver bullet that will protect their children, [but] there is no silver bullet. There is no simple cure to the very complex problem of sexual violence.”

As many as 90 per cent of sexual assault cases are conducted by family members or acquaintances.”

Advocates of “sex offenders” speak up

Hard evidence and reason suggest that registries and residential requirements do nothing to protect society from sexual assaults. Arguments in support of registration laws rest on a fear-based assumption that notification will protect children, but that assumption is baseless: As many as 90 per cent of sexual assault cases are conducted by family members or acquaintances. Furthermore, recidivism rates among sex offenders are under 25 per cent.

While sex offender laws provide the illusion of “security”, the reality remains that rapists continue to walk free. According to statistics compiled by the US Department of Justice, 91 per cent of rapists will never be prosecuted, and only a fraction of those will be convicted or spend time in jail.

Nevertheless, these laws keep coming.

This year in Southern California, as Halloween approaches, some counties have passed ordinances banning registrants from decorating their houses with cobwebs and pumpkins, instead requiring they post a placard that notifies all passersby that there are “No candy or treats at this residence”. Furthermore, registrants may have no outside lighting on October 31.

California’s branch of the national coalition, Reform Sex Offender Laws, has filed a lawsuit against the ordinance on behalf of five unnamed sex offenders, as well as three of their spouses and two of their children. The suit claims the ordinance violates the plaintiffs’ first amendment rights – by both forcing speech and denying their right to celebrate the holiday.

In the meantime, a San Francisco law firm has filed a case against the stringent residency restrictions placed on registrants in four counties in Southern California.

These lawsuits in California are some of the first legal challenges to the mounting set of restrictions placed on a broad class of “criminals” throughout the country.

News of lawsuits challenging punitive legislation is appearing next to headlines reporting that some states may well reject the Adam Walsh Act because they simply don’t have the funds to implement its burdensome requirements (Texas estimated it would cost $38m) or are ethically opposed to legislation that would place juvenile offenders on a registry for life.

The hypocrisy of sex offender laws that allege to combat sexual crime by pouring millions into surveillance and registry programmes is reflected in the difficulty experienced by rape support centres that are struggling to merely survive.

The National Alliance to End Sexual Violence (NAESV) reported in a 2012 Rape Crisis Center Survey that 67 per cent of rape crisis centres were forced to reduce the amount of hours they spend dedicated to prevention and awareness programmes; 50 per cent of programmes have eliminated staff in the past year; and 65 per cent of programmes have a waiting list for counseling services.

Sex offender laws have enabled the creation of a being – the pariah – the very notion of which is rooted in an unenlightened (and assumed by most of us to be discarded) view of humanity. A society must surely protect its vulnerable members from violence and assault. Draconian sex offender laws do not further that aim. They have simply accorded the state the power to brand an individual as undeserving of the most basic human and civil rights.

Charlotte Silver is a journalist based in San Francisco and the West Bank. She is a graduate of Stanford University. 

Follow her on Twitter: @CharEsilver