I just returned from speaking at the 2016 Reform Sex Offender Laws (RSOL) National Convention where I learned that 25% of our nation’s 800,000 registered sex offenders are children! That’s right. Two hundred thousand children as young as 10 have been forced to register—many for life—under a failed system of laws designed to protect kids. This is what I had to say . . .
Good morning! I’m delighted to be here and have the opportunity to share with you some of the things I learned while writing THE DOLPHIN, my manifesto in opposition to sex offender registration.
Nine years ago this month, I was driving in Chicago, scanning the radio for jazz when I heard some guy say: “We oughta round ‘em all up and burn ‘em in ovens!” What? I couldn’t imagine who they were talking about. When I realized it was sex offenders, I thought, Of course. They’re the most hated group in America—so much so that radio personalities can attack them with the hateful language of Nazi Germany and actually get away with it! My instincts as a writer told me there might be a story in that.
After months of research, I discovered what you all know—that our country’s one-size-fits-all sex offender registry makes no distinction between violent predators and teenagers having sex on a warm summer night; or people who can’t hold it any longer, peeing along the side of the road; or my favorite—a man arrested for helping a girl get up off the street after nearly running her over with his car. She’d dashed in front of him on her bike. Heart pounding, he slammed on the brakes. “Are you alright? Are you alright?” Realizing she was, he helped her up, and holding her arm, told her to “Be more careful next time. You could get killed!” She sped off and he sat in his car, taking a few moments to compose himself. Five minutes later, the girl returned with a police woman who arrested the man for the “unlawful restraint of a minor”—in other words kidnapping! Not only was he convicted and forced onto the registry, but his conviction was upheld on appeal. Talk about no sexual intent! Normally, if you want to have sex with someone, you don’t try to run them over.
That’s when I knew there was a story. Registration, in my mind, harkened back to the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, the communist witch hunts of the 1950s, and the actual witch hunts in Salem Massachusetts. Sex offender registration seemed nothing less than an egregious violation of civil rights. So I began writing my book. THE DOLPHIN is a psychological thriller set in New Orleans with a sex offender as the book’s protagonist.
I coined the term “dolphin” as a metaphor to refer to offenders whose “crimes” are victimless and outside reasonable peoples’ judgement of what constitutes criminal behavior. In the book, the police detective acknowledges problems with registration, explaining to the protagonist:
“When the law goes fishing for sharks, it casts a wide net. Sometimes it catches
a dolphin. Not supposed to. Just happens. Unfortunately, after they’re caught,
most dolphins die in the net.”
When I started the book, my focus was specifically on “innocent dolphins” and their unfair treatment under registration. But by the time I was done, I came to believe that there’s no place for registration of any kind for any class of criminal, including violent offenders. That’s what prison is for . . . and therapy. Like many of you, I grew up watching westerns that occasionally dealt with the theme of a man getting out of jail, yearning for a new start. The bad guys in those shows weren’t the ex-prisoners. They were the townsfolk who bullied and blocked them in their efforts to “go straight.” Of course justice always prevailed, and by the end of the hour, the bullies got their comeuppance while the good guys, coming from a place of generosity and acceptance, helped the ex-prisoners re-establish their place in society. “He did his time,” the good guy would say. “That’s the American way . . . the Christian way.” Unfortunately, that’s not the way for sex offenders and others forced into various proliferating registries.
Nine years ago when I heard that broadcast, I was in the process of polishing an earlier novel. I immediately put that one aside and began work on THE DOLPHIN, reasoning that the window of opportunity was much shorter for the subject matter of THE DOLPHIN than for that of the other book. Registration seemed so absurd and so unthinkable that I was sure legislators would discover the errors of their ways and reverse them overnight, rendering my book obsolete. Yeah, right! Nine years later, registration has grown far worse. When I started THE DOLPHIN, registration was a 10-year stretch. Now it’s 25 to life. Sexting had yet to come on the scene. If you had enough money and political pull, you could get out. Today? Good luck with that. I was hoping my book would enjoy at least a couple of year run. Now I’m praying it becomes an historical oddity as quickly as possible.
I named this talk “The Emperor Has No Clothes” because everywhere I turned as I looked at registration, I was confronted with lies. Registration is a house of cards built on lies. Yet that doesn’t seem to matter. No one seems to care. If there’s anything to glean from our current, outrageous political season, it’s that truth no longer matters. Lies are convenient and often carry the day. It’s no longer a matter of who’s lying and who’s telling the truth. All that counts is whose lies we want to believe. The reasons the lies continue are both economic and political. Cable news relies on sensationalism, distortions, and lies to meet shareholder demands, while politicians look the other way to avoid appearing soft on crime—sex crime in particular.
Lie Number 1 . . . “Thousands of kids have gone missing!”
How many of you remember when the faces of missing kids began appearing on milk cartons? The 1980s witnessed the onset of a high-pitched hysteria, propagated by cable news, that radically changed the face of America. So desperately did cable news in its infancy want to compete head-on with the networks, that it was willing to jettison the kind of balanced, non-biased news we’d come to expect from Walter Cronkite at the “tiffany” network. With the disappearance of 6-year-old Etan Patz from the streets of Manhattan in 1979 and the abduction of 6-year-old Adam Walsh from a Florida shopping mall two years later, cable news commentators wildly proclaimed: “Thousands of kids have gone missing!” Joe Sterling, in his 2012 CNN report, Missing child case “awakened America” wrote: “The cases received increasing news coverage in a fast-changing landscape that saw a proliferation of media outlets with growing interest in compelling visual images—such as a heart-rending photo of a smiling child or video of parents pleading for their child’s safe return.” The fear cable news stoked launched the missing child phenomena that continues to this day.
According to Wikipedia sources, CNN contributing commentator, John Walsh, father of Adam Walsh “was heard by Congress on February 2, 1983, where he gave an unsourced claim of 50,000 abducted and 1.5 million missing children annually. He testified that the U.S. is ‘littered with mutilated, decapitated, raped, strangled children.’”
The hysteria that ensued resulted not only in kids’ pictures appearing on milk cartons and grocery store bulletin boards, but also in parents putting kids in harnesses attached to dog leashes and taking them to police stations to be fingerprinted and given special ID cards. Thirty years later, the child protection industry is alive and well with talk of having GPS chips embedded in kids’ arms. Hysteria led Americans to believe that child molesters were lurking around every corner, lying in wait to steal their kids. What parents didn’t realize was that they were being anesthetized to what was really going on.
During that same time—the mid-1980s—my brother and I published a national magazine called People Finders. Its purpose was to reunite old friends, lost loves, military buddies, and adoptees with their birth parents. With all the talk at the time about missing kids, we decided as a public service to include pictures of the missing kids as well. So we contacted the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children who in turn sent us dozens of pictures each month—that’s dozens, not thousands. My brother and I kept asking, where are the rest? We suspected even then that there was something rotten in Denmark.
Eventually, the Justice Department got around to analyzing the data, and found that in fact thousands of kids were reported missing to local police around the country every year. But—nearly all such reports were from anxious parents whose kids either “ran away” for a few hours, or failed to show up when and where parents expected due to communication glitches between parents, or between parents and babysitters. In either case, the kids were back home within minutes or hours. Yet every such call to the police became a “missing kid” statistic.
By contrast, what the Justice Department found when they tabulated the number of kids taken by strangers—which had been the point on which all the hysteria was based in the first place—wasn’t thousands a year as cable news led parents to believe, but . . . Does anyone know the real number? 100 A YEAR!—the same number of kids who had gone missing every year going back decades. In fact, nothing had changed in the early 1980s except the advent of cable news and the hysteria it engendered in parents. Did cable ever correct the gross error in its reporting? Admit that it wasn’t thousands but rather 100 stranger abductions a year? What do you think?
Here’s the bottom line . . . Parents have as little chance of their kids being abducted by strangers as they do of them being struck and killed by lightning! (which, by the way, also occurs at a rate of 100 a year). Yet to this day, imprinted deep within parents’ brains are those decades old headlines: “Thousands of Kids Gone Missing.”
Starting in the 1980s, fearful parents began curtailing kids’ activities that for a hundred years had fostered the development of emotional maturity and independence in kids—delivering newspapers, biking around town, visiting the nearest big cities on their own, and simply walking to and from school. Today, 30 years later, so entrenched is parental hysteria that books such as Lenore Skenazy’s FREE-RANGE KIDS are necessary to pry parents out of their cocoons of fear and teach them how to let kids be kids. ((Somehow, I must have missed the memo, because when other parents were hollering “Stranger Danger!” and “Never talk to Strangers,” I was telling my 5 kids: “Always talk to strangers. How else are you going to learn anything?”))
As the hysteria grew, parents began demanding of legislators that they keep kids safe at all costs. In response, legislators passed sweeping laws requiring registration on top of the sexual assault, statutory rape, kidnapping, and murder laws already on the books, granting police the power—while saddling them with the responsibility—to keep track of offenders and monitor their activities.
There were other factors as well that lead to registration as we know it today, but none was more central than cable TVs profit-driven sensationalism leading to parental fear and demands, leading in turn to legislative overreach.
Lie Number 2 . . . Recidivism rates
You all know that recidivism rates—the argument on which registration was based—are bogus. California was the first state to institute a sex offender registry in 1946 based on the myth that sex offenders were more likely than any other criminals to repeat their crimes. This is SEX after all, people argued. When it comes to SEX, people can’t control themselves! In our puritanical culture, it was a convenient lie to propagate and nearly everybody bought in.
What we now know is that non-violent sex offenders re-offend less than any other class of criminal—in single digits as opposed to 55% or higher for other types of crime.
Lie Number 3 . . . Registration keeps kids safe
Give us the proof. Show us one study that supports that claim. It seems like it should be true, but it isn’t. Just as the Earth once seemed flat. At a recent book signing, a women spoke up, telling me how important it was that a policeman had pointed out years earlier that the man living behind her and her kids was a sex offender. Her possessing that knowledge, she believed, had kept her kids safe. I attempted to explain the difference between a public registry and a European-style police-only registry that doesn’t publicly shame registrants. She wasn’t buying it. It was our onerous variety of registration that had kept her kids safe.
Those are the big lies but there are many smaller ones too. For instance, “Police are in favor of registration.” No they’re not. Police view registration as a mostly unconstructive set of procedures that they’re burdened with administering.
Another lie is that all sex offenders look like old bald guys with skinny legs protruding from beneath open raincoats. Wrong. Sex offenders look like us—nice people with generous smiles. Unfortunately, the public remains wholly unaware of that fact. In their minds, sex offenders are the lowest of life forms, replacing previously hated groups, including communists, queers, Negros, attorneys, and used car salesmen. No one knows what you look like or that you have a kind heart because you’re invisible.
As I’ve come to know you, I understand that you live in a crazy-making world that’s filled with shame—the shame of policemen showing up at your door in the middle of the night; the shame of having to explain to your wife, husband, kids, and friends what you did to get your name in the newspaper; the shame of having to endure being pointed at and whispered about in public. As a psychologist, I know that shame is unhealthy. Moving beyond it is a goal you must embrace. Here are a few tips as to how.
First . . . Honestly address and take responsibility for the decisions and behaviors that led to you being here today—and just as importantly—let everything else go. The phrase we use around our house is “letting others peoples’ craziness be their craziness.” You might have to comply with the crazy-making dilemma you find yourself in, but you don’t have to own it. It’s not yours. It’s somebody else’s. Learn to separate your mistakes from 40 years of hysteria and legislative overreach. Once you’ve forgiven yourself, move on.
Second . . . Know who you are . . . by reading, reflecting, taking classes, and attending counseling. Out of that knowledge, confront lies with truth. “This is who I am. This is who I’m not.” Discover your truth and live by it.
Third . . . Live your life to the fullest. I understand that for many registrants, life revolves around survival, at least at the beginning. But once your feet are on the ground, it’s time to attend to personal goals and all the other things that make life worth living. Some of you have told me that under registration, living life to the fullest is impossible. But you’re wrong. Another expression around our house is “Everybody has something to contend with.” One of my kids has autism, another has ADD, my ex-wife could only see out of one eye, and I have migraines, food allergies, and a terrible fear of flying. Various things hamper everyone’s existence. The challenge in life is to embrace who we are, and love ourselves with all of our scars, imperfections, and imposed limitations.
Registrants tell me it’s particularly troubling how debilitative guilt sabotages sex and relationships. Well I’m here to tell you that we all deserve to be loved and to revel in socially-appropriate, joyful, blissful sex. Remind yourself of that ten times a day, and if anyone suggests you deserve anything less, let their craziness . . . You suffered a shameful moment in your life. You dealt with it. You’re dealing with it. Despite registration, there are ways to move on and fill your life with joy. If you don’t know how, there are people available to show you the way.
Fourth . . . advocate for change, make friends, and develop allies. That’s what RSOL is all about. I watched gay men at the height of the AIDS crisis reach out for the first time to lesbians, bisexuals, and transsexuals for help. Then parents and friends got involved, formed PFLAG, and the LGBTQ movement’s numbers swelled significantly. With those numbers came political strength, recognition, and a sizable war chest. In record time, their world shifted.
You might be only 800,000 strong, but when you add in families, friends, and countless yet-to-be-identified allies, your numbers can skyrocket. Organize. Build coalitions. And let your voices be heard.
And fifth . . . Come out of the closet. I know this is a tough one and not for everyone. You’ve told me your reluctance is based on the fear that you or your family might in some way be targeted. But there’s a healthy reason to shed secret lives. Secrets kills—both physically and emotionally. Disclosure, on the other hand, allows us to live out of our truth. Also, if you stay in the closet, you’re one more sex offender who’s remaining invisible. Lack of familiarity promotes ignorance and fear. There was a time in this country when many whites had never met a black person. That changed when Bill Cosby hit the scene in 1965—first as a charming young comedian, then as an equal partner with a white guy on I Spy, then as a pediatrician and father in a loving, well-to-do household. Suddenly white folks felt as if they “knew” a black person. There was a time as well when most straight people were oblivious of the gay people living all around them, similarly assuming they didn’t know any. Then came Friends, Will and Grace, and Glee, and for the first time, many felt like they knew—and liked—a whole bunch of gay people. With familiarity comes acceptance and often appreciation.
Today, no one knows a sex offender. They don’t know that the charming kid who plays guitar at Starbucks is, or that the guy in the office who hands them their paychecks is, or that the actor on stage who wowed them for the past two hours is. Few sex offenders are out by choice. On top of that, Norman Leer has yet to write a sitcom about a loveable 30-year-old, forced to register years before for having mutual sex with his slightly underage girlfriend. In the pilot episode, Leer would have him and his friends want to move in together. The others, doing well financially, envision an above-average house in a fairly well-to-do part of town. When he reminds them of his restrictions, they defer to him, assigning him the task of choosing their new haunts. We see him being shut out of one place after another. Finally, he lands one. As his friends arrive one at a time at their new home—a dilapidated structure under a freeway—their reactions are hilarious. The female friend says, “I didn’t . . . really need a bedroom of my own.” A male friend holds up a coffee cup. “According to Dr. Oz, lead paint is good for digestion.” A third weighs in. “In case any of you are trans, there’s no issue with the bathroom. We only have one. Anyone can use it.” Our hero looks forlorn as he reads the disappointment in his friends’ faces. They notice and surround him in a heart-felt hug, reminding him that the point of the whole venture was living together with the people they love.
Watching the pilot, viewers are stunned to learn that sex offenders are both loved and lovable—that they have friends who have their backs. For the first time, viewers feel like they know one.
Every one of you is likable, caring, and loved by others. Do the people who know that, also know you’re on the registry? Coming out of the closet is risky, but history shows it’s essential to moving forward.