Sexual assault ruins lives. The psychological damage it causes is devastating to the millions of men, women, and children who are its survivors. This damage is exacerbated by feelings of guilt and shame that accompany the abuse and that prevent the victims from reporting the offences. Because most sexual offences go unreported, it is troublesome to approach compassion for the perpetrators accused of assault – it could perhaps enhance the feelings of guilt that underlie the silence that surrounds sexual assault. Still, the way North American society treats and punishes sexual assault unjustly ruins the lives of many alleged sex offenders.
Every state in the U.S. has a sex offender registry. In many states, registration is for life. Some states require registration for soliciting sex and indecent exposure. Public access means anyone can readily access the name, address, and photo of the registered individuals online, subjecting them to vigilante crimes, which have, in the past, included murder. Restrictions limit where they can live and work. In Florida, registered offenders cannot live within 2,500 feet of places children may gather – this leaves almost nowhere in the state for them to live. In 2007, CNN reported a group of convicted child abusers that the Department of Corrections moved under an overpass. Their reported situation is shocking; however, little follow-up attention was given to this marginalized community.
Canada created its own registry in 2004. It is thankfully not public (although some lobby groups argue it should be). Still, it is part of a worrisome trend in Canada’s corrections system. Under Stephen Harper’s administration, sentences have been increased for serious and violent crimes, which include sexual assault. Presently, a lack of funding threatens to close Alberta’s only sex-offender rehabilitation program. Nationwide, the focus seems to be mistakenly placed on punishment rather than recovery.
Registries fulfill the admirable task of keeping the public – especially children – safe. Measures undoubtedly must be in place to protect children. However, policies are often passed following highly publicized violent and disturbing crimes taking advantage of fervent emotions, and little research is done to ensure their efficacy.
Recidivism rates prove that Canadian prisons often fail to rehabilitate sex offenders. The Correctional Service of Canada notes the inherent difficulties in calculating “overall” recidivism rates due to the varying nature of offenders and their offences; often misdemeanours like parole violations skew these statistics. The John Howard Society of Alberta (a non-profit agency concerned with crime prevention) reports that 42 per cent of child molesters in Canada were re-convicted of a violent or sexual crime within a 15- to 30-year follow-up period. Even taking into account the problematic nature of these sorts of statistics, this number suggests recidivism is real threat, especially for children.
However, the thinking behind registries paints all convicted sex offenders as monstrous perverts eager to return to the bushes around schoolyards the instant they get out of prison. In fact, the nature of sex offences varies drastically from case to case. Wendy Whitaker is an extreme example of how measures taken to protect can cause only harm. As a 17-year-old, Whitaker performed oral sex on a consenting classmate, who happened to be weeks away from 16. She was charged with sodomy, which in Georgia included oral sex even between willing spouses until 1996. Because of a change to a clause that makes sex between two teenagers a misdemeanour, not a crime, her actions would not be illegal today. She is still registered as sex offender. A local television station broadcasted a map of where she lived. Restrictions bar her from living within 1,000 feet of any school, park, library, or swimming pool, and working within 1,000 feet of a school or child-care centre. Consequently, she was evicted from her home, and her husband lost his job and health insurance.
Whitaker is an easy example of the inhumane treatment of sex offenders. However, all sex offenders should be given basic human rights, such as a place to live. The way our society dehumanizes perpetrators of sexual assault is unacceptable and unproductive – from the language used in media that essentializes them as “rapists” or “child molesters” to the restrictions registries impose on them that breach their privacy and subject them to violence. This does not prevent sexual assault; nor does it not compensate for the damage abuse inflicts on its survivors.
Whitney Mallett is a U2 English Literature student and The Daily’s Features editor. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.