Beyond The Headlines: How We See Sex Offenders


The Google Alerts await me in my inbox every day: hundreds of new suspects, crimes, and mugshots ready to sift through. As someone who works with and advocates for the civil rights of people convicted of sex crimes, the language and sheer frequency of the headlines has become repetitive and mundane. One twenty-four hour period alone has shown “Most Wanted Sex Offender Arrested in South Side,” “Sex Offender Returns to Otsego County,” “Wanted Jacksonville Sex Offender Captured in Central Florida.” The media’s obsession with sex offenders is palpable, and newsmakers pander to our deeply ingrained fears of the contemporary bogeyman. Every arrest, conviction, accusation, and violation is painstakingly reported, the text always juxtaposed with a stark mugshot to lock eyes with.

You might be asking: Why shouldn’t the news be reporting this? Don’t I have the right to know about dangerous sex offenders? Won’t it make me and my family safer?

Perhaps surprisingly, studies have shown that sex offenders have the lowest recidivism rate of any criminal class. Acknowledging their inefficacy and inhumanity, judges are now reversing harsh residency restrictions imposed on sex offenders. The reality is that community notification systems like public sex offender registries haven’t been proven to work, and might even encourage reoffense. Publicizing sex crimes only exacerbates the problem—shouldn’t we question the fervor of reporting on them? Despite this, the headlines continue.

Sex sting coverage provides the most apparent example of these fear-mongering headlines, such as “Disney World Employee Among 101 Arrested In Prostitution And Child Sex Sting.” Thanks in part to lurid shows like To Catch a Predator, many people think sex stings rightly target lecherous men trawling the internet for underage sex. In reality, however, to carry out these stings, law enforcement resort to a number of morally and legally dubious practices. Often, undercover law enforcement officers chat online with men who aren’t even looking to connect with minors. The men are convinced to meet the fictional minor at a house or a public space, and they are instead met by a handful of armed police officers.  As a result of what is essentially entrapment, scores of men are arrested despite no actual minor existing or an actual sexual offense being committed. Nevertheless, sex stings and the headlines they inspire appeal to the decades-old notion of stranger danger, as well as exploit suburban anxieties about those who have access to children. The police obviously benefit from these articles too, as the accounts publicize their efforts, making it seem as if they are creating a safer community. While the numbers might be impressive, there is no evidence or study proving stings help keep children safe.

A close examination of sex crime coverage reveals patterns of scare tactics utilized by the media to generate interest in their stories. “Firefighter, Band Director Among Arrests in Child Sex Sting in Montgomery County”: In this headline, familiar faces suddenly become sources of anxiety, danger, and potential abuse. Firefighters, symbols of heroism and community safety, now shouldn’t be trusted. This headline and others like it deliberately work to undermine that sense of safety for clicks and page views. According to them, no child or environment is free from the ever-present threat of sexual danger—not even the band room is safe anymore. Threats of danger extend to the corporate world: “American Airlines Exec Busted in Undercover Child Sex Sting.” Cultural anxieties about corporations and capitalist hoarding of wealth are used to sell this story. A different headline for the same incident cheaply invokes the societal trauma of the World Trade Center attacks to amplify the magnitude of the crime: “Airline Ops Manager Working on 9/11 is Charged in Sex Sting.”

“Homeless Sex-Offender Arrested In Petaluma For Failing To Register”: This headline elicits widespread cultural fears of the homeless and indigent, despite the fact that the byzantine restrictions on sex offenders only worsen and even engender homelessness. The article stokes the flames of fear and makes us think twice about leaving our doors unlocked, despite studies showing that homeless people are less likely to commit violent crime than non-homeless people. Additionally, this headline doesn’t take into account the vast and confusing laws, restrictions, and regulations sex offenders must abide by, as seen in the case of one man’s legal battle over registering a few days late. A simple scheduling error can result in 25 years in prison for people who are trying their best to comply with sex offender laws. Headlines about failures to register, like the prolific “Operation ‘Summer Heat’ Nabs 42 Sex Offenders,” conveniently omit any of these details and contribute to the unfair stigma surrounding people on the registry.

Another popular category of sex-crime headline involves “peeping Toms”: “Church’s music minister jailed on Peeping Tom conviction,” “Wig-wearing Walmart ‘Peeping Tom’ Wanted,” and “How ‘Britain’s worst’ peeping Tom spied on women using public toilets in 10-year campaign.” Three separate incidents all reported on the same day, the headlines want us to believe that there is a pervasive threat of lascivious men lurking outside our windows and violating our space. “Peeping” absolutely crosses a boundary of consent; these acts of voyeurism, however, are hands-off crimes. Nevertheless, the news makes it seem as if this is an omnipresent, dangerous threat worthy of frequent reporting despite the lack of evidence linking voyeurism to hands-on offenses. The concept of strangers lurking in the night who pose a threat to women and children is largely based in myth. Sex crimes against children are most commonly committed by family members or friends of the family, and cases of missing children rarely involve strangers. Sex crimes become newsworthy not because of the seriousness of the crime, but because of their ability to shock and generate views.

One “peeping Tom” article brings in child pornography possession: “Peeping Accusation Leads to Child Porn Conviction.” Here, the peeping Tom’s act of voyeurism leads to further investigation and an arrest is made in the burgeoning war against child porn. Convictions for child porn possession have exponentially increased in the last 20 years, not because of a booming industry, but because sex-crime convictions fill prison beds and make lawmakers and politicians look tough on crime. Child porn possession requires a mandatory minimum of 5-10 years in prison, with some judges handing out sentences of centuries, as in the case of one man who was given 200 years for possessing 20 images.

A Baltimore man was sent to prison for allegedly downloading one image of child pornography, despite police providing no concrete evidence and the man having no knowledge of the image they claimed he downloaded. Another gay man in Ireland was arrested for child pornography possession, even though it turned out to only be “twink” porn, which depicts adults who look on the younger side of legal. The credibility of celebrities can be easily damaged with even a cursory association with child porn: “Authorities raid home of Subway spokesman Jared Fogle in child pornography investigation,” “John Grisham apologizes after troubling statements about child porn,” and “Elton John admits owning pics that may be child porn.” Even though child porn convictions are rife with inaccuracies and overblown repercussions, the papers imply that anyone even accused of child porn possession is a monster beyond redemption. In reality, child porn possession is not a risk factor or predictor of future sexual offenses.

What about sex offenders already behind bars? “Sex Offender Frederick John Nash Makes Creepy Calls From Prison”: According to this headline, even the sex offenders who are locked up pose a threat, despite the near impossibility of an incarcerated sex offender committing a crime against someone on the outside. The headline’s diction is carefully chosen to tie the offender with cultural notions of “creepiness,” a common tactic used to foment fear of those accused of sex crimes. An offender presumed to be creepy is further criminalized through media representation, not actual lawbreaking. Another article titled “Peeping Tom Spooks Woman at Fifth Ave Restaurant” uses similar tactics. Sex offenders are equated with ghostly supernatural forces, dehumanizing them in the process, eliciting fears of the bogeyman, and elevating them to an even more frightening class of criminal.

This amorphous creepiness is literally given a face in the visual element of sex offender reporting: the ubiquitous mugshot. There is sadness, surprise, boredom, and resignation in the eyes of the exposed. These conflicting expressions somehow make sense in this context. It seems that these men, too, are aware of the pervasiveness of the sex crime industry, and are quick to realize their fate—public shaming, widespread humiliation, and ruined careers.

Paradoxically, their faces undermine the sensational headlines. Although the media tries their hardest to remove any empathy for the accused, the mugshot offers a glimpse of the offenders’ palpable humanity and desperation. The photos remind us that these men cannot be reduced to monsters, but should be understood as actual human beings deserving of compassion.

We can no longer afford to buy into the media’s scare tactics. If we perpetuate the myth of sexually deviant men who lurk outside our windows, teach our children, and work at our theme parks, then we are doing a disservice to those we are actually trying to protect.

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  • George Willis

    This is an important essay highlighting an overlooked dimension in of the privatization of justice in the U.S.

    What’s the significance of privatizing criminal justice? Let’s step back.

    A basic purpose of having government run a criminal justice system is to deprivatize the pursuit of justice and stop the plague of vendetta and endless cycles of retribution. Just as described in in Rousseau’s ‘Social Contract’ or Hobbes’s ‘Leviathan’, individuals cede some of their power to the state to allow this to happen. In exchange, the state prosecutes wrongdoers in the name of the public, not the victim, and brings closure. It’s a sleight-of-hand, but administration of justice ends up being a public utility. Jared Diamond observes that people in small-scale, stateless societies — where vendetta runs rife — usually welcome colonial police forces because it allows breaking free of the terribly costly and violent cycles of multigenerational retribution.

    Public utilities are like the commons — it’s always tempting to overgraze, or tap the electrical mains on the sly for free power. An ideal world for me would be where I can pursue my vendettas freely, but when anyone tries payback against me, I can call 911 and enjoy effective police protection. Of course, in violating the Golden Rule, that approach won’t scale.

    One of the hallmarks of neoliberal governance is privatization public goods — from water mains to criminal justice. Nothing could violate the principle that ‘justice is blind’ more than civil suits — why should a wrong suffered at the hands of a rich person or institution result in a big prize, whereas, one committed by a poor person win the victim nothing? Why should victims ‘win’ anything from the bad things that happen to them? Either you have a justice system, run in the name of the people, or you have an unholy siamese twin of private vengeance joined at the hip with a state lottery. In expanding the realm of stakeholders for privatized justice — trial lawyer, victims with dreams of riches, media looking for hyper-stereotyped stories — neoliberalism has sunk a drain into the criminal justice system, down which the whole structure all tends to spiral.

    A central purpose of criminal justice systems in to bring conflicts to an end — ‘closure’ in the tired cliché. Because multigenerational vendettas are so costly, not least to those most would consider non-culpable. Because even wrongdoers and lawbreakers usually end up back in the social fold. But privatized ‘justice’ (essentially an oxymoron) rekindles the deep human yearning for eternal damnation.

    That’s what’s being described so eloquently here — the privateers in the scare-mongering ‘background check’ businesses and their partners in media and government, perpetually demonizing people, continuing to dial-up the knob on the inflammation of passion, fear, and hate. That’s what totalitarian regimes discovered in the 20th century as a basic strategy of governance. That’s where neoliberalism has taken criminal justice.