Reform of sex offender legislation will most likely not take place in the courts. Real change will come in the form legislation. Lawmakers need to be taught the consequences of the laws they pass. They need to learn these lessons from those targeted by the laws. Hence, I say every lawmakers in the United States, that includes lawmakers at the state and federal level, should be mailed a copy of Lynn Gilmore’s Consensual Consequences.
Gilmore is married to a registered sex offender. Her book is the story of how one family lives on the other side of the libidinal line separating offenders and their families from the rest of us. The genius of this work is that it shows the line to be arbitrary and therefore harmful: there are plenty of people who are registered as sex offenders, held out to the scorn of their community, but yet are hardly different from the rest of us.
The crime that put Gilmore’s husband on the other side of the line was a one-night stand with a minor. The girl was below the age of lawful consent; she consented as a matter of fact, but was incapable of lawful assent. One night. One mistake. A lifetime of sorrow, and horrendous stigmatization.
Those affected by sex offender registration laws know that they are over-inclusive, failing to distinguish genuine predators from folks who made an honest mistake. Law enforcement officers know it too. Just how are lawmen stretched to the breaking point in tough times to keep track of all the folks labeled sex offenders in a violent community? Does anyone really believe that there are 705,000 dangerous sexual psychopaths in the United States wandering the streets? We add to the list of those required to register daily.
"[M]ost registered sex offenders are one-time offenders who simply made a bad mistake," Gilmore writes, "either by having consensual sex with an underage victim, sexting, urinating in public, streaking, mooning, etc.... Most are not violent and most are not child predators. Unfortunately, the state registries portray all of these people as if they are, and this only creates fear among the public."
Until I read the preceding, it had not occurred to me that an over-inclusive sex-offender registry can contribute to a climate of moral panic. Most Americans are too pre-occupied with the troubles in their own lives to investigate what is said about their neighbors. When the government posts the name of a man on a public list as a sex offender, folks rightly suspect the man must be a threat. Why else would the government post the information. In an odd kind of way, posting name after name on a public list, whether they belong their or not, is like screaming rape in a day-care center. No wonder the nation is on edge, teetering on the edge of a sexophrenic madness in which the image of a 14-year-old runway model can be used to entice consumers through slick fantasy, but must be considered off limits in every other way.
I don’t expect judges to do much about these insidious laws. That’s because judges are inherently politicians, but they are the very worst sort of politicians, lacking, as they do, any real constituent content. A judge’s world is colored by the trappings of power. We use special salutations to speak to them. We stand when they enter the room. They sit behind elevated benches wearing funny-looking robes. They impose laws provided by others and often lack the discretion to do what they think is right; when they have the discretion, many worry about the consequences of getting it wrong. Not one judge in 100 has the courage to look public hysteria in the eye and declare to those possessed of moral panic: You are wrong.
Real change will come from lawmakers, lawmakers who are compelled to sit with people like Lynn Gilmore and listen to what the consequences of their legislation does. Yet it takes a lot of courage to do as Gilmore has done. Many registrants and their families live lives of shame and fear.
So here is a proposal to those of you who care about reforming sex offender laws. Buy four copies of this book. Send one each to your state and federal senators and to your state and federal representatives. Send it without a note, if you will. But make sure they get copies of the book. Who knows, they might read about one family’s struggle to live decently while stigmatized as indecent. You can send four copies of this book to these lawmakers for a total cost of $75, and that includes shipping and handling. I’ve included a link to the publisher, Robert D. Reed Publishers, at the end of this post.