Hopefully you have seen some of the comments that were posted beneath the letter to the editor entitled “Sex Offender Awareness Needs to Improve” by Suzanne Arena. I am one of the commenters and felt compelled to write a letter in the hopes that it will be published and receive the same consideration and attention that Ms. Arena brought to the issue.
Ms. Arena is right about one thing: awareness is important. Sexual assault of children and adults is absolutely something that not just Cranston, but the entire country needs to manage better. It’s clear by the steady yearly increase of registered sex offenders – nearing 750,000 at the end of 2011 – that despite constant, stricter sex crime legislation, sex crimes continue at the same rate. We need to re-examine our approach.
Sex crime isn’t prevented by talking about how bad it is, putting up posters of convicted offenders, or ensuring lifelong punishment for registrants. Sex crime is prevented by becoming aware of the facts. A US Department of Justice Study cites that 93-97% of children under 17 know their abuser (the younger the child, the higher the likelihood). 73% of victims 18 and over know their attacker. Another US Department of Justice Study puts recidivism rates of convicted sex offenders between 3.5 to 8.5%, and these numbers are confirmed by many additional state and independent studies.
By focusing all of our resources, efforts, and attention on registered offenders, we are ignoring the overwhelming majority of current and future victims. Community notification and posters only work if that individual is going to re-offend, and statistics from many different sources say that’s extremely unlikely. Community notification and posters, along with every single sex crime law that exists in this country, singularly target the group of people who are probably the least likely to commit a new sex crime. Those who have never been reported or caught carry on with their lives, untouched and unscathed by any of the laws created to keep predators at bay. How will printing flyers and posters help the child being abused by the beloved baseball coach, youth minister or favorite uncle who looks and acts just like everyone else, never accused of a crime in their life? Or the woman whose successful, sociable ex-husband who has learned to hide his rage issue seeks revenge by raping her? NOTHING. Sexual assault of any kind, on any human is horrifying and elicits many strong emotions. That is precisely the reason we must be careful to separate emotions from effectiveness.
Lastly, it is a flat-out insult to victims of any kind of traumatic experience to insinuate that they are left with a “life sentence”. Just like victims of a bad car accident or natural disaster – who aren’t at fault in any way for their experiences – recovery should not and is not dependent upon punishment of someone else. Recovery is something that depends solely on the victim’s desire to become a survivor and allow themselves to be empowered by what they have been through. Holding on to anger and the need for revenge forever is a “life sentence”. There is a line between being supportive and passionate about healthy recovery for victims, and keeping them in a constant state of powerlessness.
If you want to help prevent sex crimes, learn.
– Shana Rowan