If an 18-year-old high school senior has sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend, should he fall under the sex registration laws? How about the 13-year-old boy who is peeping in the neighbor’s windows? Streakers? Skinny-dippers?
As many well-spoken people have pointed out, current laws allow all of these to be designated as “sex offenders”, potentially required to register for the rest of their lives. However, there’s only one of the above that worries me: young Master Peeper, who may escalate to other behaviors and ultimately become a terrible danger to us all.
“Peeping” is the lay-term for voyeurism, one of several paraphilia. Paraphilia, at its most generic level, is a term encompassing many different sexually dysfunctional behaviors that replace normal relations. In addition to voyeurism, paraphilia includes exhibitionism, necrophilia, and pedophilia (and others). Paraphiliacs are obsessed with their fantasies, and require the dysfunctional behavior for sexual gratification.
This doesn’t mean that all Peeping Toms are sexual predators. A peeper could be a curious adolescent who wondered about the neighbors. To hit the danger meter, the voyeurism would replace normal sexual relations. Similarly, exhibitionism can be a paraphilia. Streaking does not qualify, nor does skinny-dipping (presumably) unseen at the local pond. Exhibitionism as a paraphilia, however, may escalate.
Some psychotherapists state that exhibitionism and voyeurism are harmless “nuisance” crimes. Dr. Mark Hillman, for instance, says that exhibitionists are “not assaultive”. However, research indicates that paraphiliac behavior can not only escalate, it has high recidivism rates. (See various G. G. Abel research, some of which is cited at the end of this article.)
So – how does this relate to the Sex Offender Registration Laws? A lot of hype surrounds them, and rightfully so. The danger to our children and our society is grave. But our children are not in danger from a high school boy who had consensual relations with his underage girlfriend. And frankly, I don’t care one whit about the guy who stopped on the side of the highway to relieve himself…. provided it wasn’t for sexual relief enhanced by people watching him. We really should not be interfering with these folks’ civil liberties (nor worrying overmuch about how someone responds to an emergent call to nature, for that matter).
The sex offender registries are well-intentioned responses to hideous atrocities, as illustrated by such recent infamous notables as Joseph Duncan and John Cooey. There’s a fundamental flaw, however, in how these registries are designed and utilized. The “one size fits all” approach is undermining the validity and acceptance of monitoring. It is also blurring the lines between the dangerous and the merely different.
I believe we should be pursuing and supporting classification of sex offenders in relationship to paraphilia. Paraphilia are deemed “incurable”, and control requires constant effort, support, and monitoring. To me, these are the truly scary people – and there are lots of them.
We, as a society, need to focus more tightly on the actual dangers and stop reacting with hysteria to all things that bother us. Not only is this not helpful, it is muddying the waters badly. We DO need the Sex Offender registries, and we need them to be useful.
I cannot hope to cover all the available research, data, and theories that are available regarding sex offenders. For more information regarding paraphilia and sex offenders, I strongly recommend the following articles and sites:
- The Future of Children: http://www.futureofchildren.org/
- The Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers: http://atsa.com/
- Sohopeful International: http://www.sohopeful.org/
- The Abel and Harlow Child Molestation Prevention Study
- The paraphilias. The extent and nature of sexually deviant and criminal behavior (Abel and Osborn, 1992) (abstracts available online via Google search)
Update (August 23): Texas (of all places) is also noticing this problem. I don’t know whether they have identified how to weed the registries, but at least they have noticed the issue. You can read about it here.