A distorted view of sex offenders

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We’ve long treated sex offenders as a unique type of criminal, separate from your everyday robbers and physical assaulters.

That’s becoming even truer in recent years, as we have struggled to figure out how to punish and rehabilitate people convicted of sexual assault.

There’s good reason — sexual assault can be a devastating crime, deeply disturbing to the victim and casting long shadows in our communities. Victims are disproportionately young — children, teens or young adults. Iowa’s not alone in targeting sexual offenders for special punishment — we’re the norm.

But in our zeal, we’ve created a distorted popular image of the sex offender — a caricature composite of Roger Bentley and the boogeyman — the type of monster who can’t be trusted to walk on the same side of the street as a park or elementary school.

That skulking, shadowy serial rapist exists, but he’s the exception.

More often, he’s the adult who seduces underage victims online. She’s the teacher or counselor. He’s the family friend or funny uncle, the guy from psych class that you run into at the bar.

Nearly always, a sex offender is the person you thought you knew and could trust.

But the boogeyman myth of the sex offender that we’ve created has led us to pass laws that lump together vastly different offenders — like the Internet predator and the twenty-something youth counselor who kisses a 16-year-old client. Both face prison or probation, 10 years on the state’s sex-offender registry.

If their victim was a minor, they’ll face additional restrictions, will be barred from school grounds and parks, from libraries or any places where minors frequently gather.

At least one University of Iowa researcher questions whether that law is even constitutional, arguing in a recent article that it’s “overly broad, vague and interferes with the offenders’ fundamental rights.”

She is suggesting the state amend the law to be more specific about those forbidden areas, and to allow more people to grant exceptions to those restrictions. That’s probably a good idea.

But the bigger problem is that the myth of the monster sex offender actually makes us less safe.

Many get-tough punishments we’ve devised — isolation, public shaming — actually work against rehabilitation. Keeping one eye peeled for the boogeyman distracts us from the real issues surrounding sexual assault.

OK, you say, so what do we do? Ban fraternities? Don’t laugh — it’s recently been suggested.

I’ll tackle that question in Saturday’s column.

Comments: (319) 339-3154; jennifer.hemmingsen@sourcemedia.net

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