The Soapbox: The Case Against Sex Offender Registries

There’s no defense for rape. And there’s no defense for defending rape — be that minimizing the crime, blaming the victim or focusing so exclusively on the perpetrators that the victim is rendered invisible, as in CNN’s coverage of the Steubenville guilty verdict. As I read over the case, the verdict, the media response and the backlash to it, I feel sick and I feel sad. Like the rest of you, I want these boys to be made to understand exactly what they did. I want everything that was taken from the victim to be restored to her, somehow. There is no defense for the crime of rape.

There is, however, a good argument against sex offender registries.

This past fall, I had the privilege to attend at the Sex and Justice Conference at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The conference brought together academics, legal experts, and activists invested in issues related to the stigmatization and criminalization of sex, focusing critical attention on the many forms that sexual injustice now takes in our society. I had been invited to speak on what I’m always speaking about— how I’d lost my career as a public school teacher after it had become known to my former employer, the NYC Department of Education, that I was writing and speaking openly about my past as a sex worker. The argument that sex workers are human beings, just like everyone else, and that we all have the right to do with our bodies what we choose to, and consent to sex as we choose to — even when that means sex in exchange for money —  seemed to mesh well with the other speakers. Speakers like Jay Borchert, who shared his research on the criminalization of consensual, same-sex sexual activities of men in prison (did you know that prisoners aren’t allowed access to condoms?). Or Alice N’Kom, who spoke vis-a-vis a translator on the criminalization of homosexuality in her home country, Cameroon (in Cameroon, as in 76+ other countries, you can be jailed for the “crime” of being gay).

And yet, when I heard there were also a good number of speakers representing organizations that were working fervently to clear the names of registered sex offenders, I was more than a little offended our issues were sharing the same stage. I certainly didn’t put myself in the same class as these people — not until I found out that, in the eyes of the law, I could have been put in exactly the same class had I been caught and convicted of my crime of prostitution in a state that considers prostitution a felonious sex crime.

At the conference’s opening plenary, Deon Haywood, executive director of the New Orleans nonprofit, Women with a Vision, described her organization’s successful campaign to end sex offender registration for New Orleans residents convicted of “crimes against nature” (meaning oral and anal sex). Rather than being charged with the misdemeanor crime of prostitution, Haywood explained how police were exercising their discretion to charge certain sex workers with the felony — a conviction resulting in their having to join the sex offender registry. The populations being affected, according to Haywood, were mostly women of color, including trans women of color— individuals with so few resources that they were compelled to sell sex on the streets.

Women with a Vision is a social justice organization founded in 1991 by a grassroots collective of African-American women in response to the spread of HIV/AIDS in communities of color. They work to rebuild the lives of individuals — sex workers, drug users and other criminals — by empowering these individuals to make better decisions concerning their own bodies and lives. Social justice organizations like Women with a Vision focus on rehabilitation over incarceration and harm reduction philosophies meant to benefit not just the individuals but society at large.

Being a registered sex offender, according to Haywood, creates an almost insurmountable barrier to much-needed housing, employment, treatment, and services. If I remember Hayworth’s presentation correctly, registration also meant an initial $300 fee. And just how does the state of Louisiana expect the poor sex worker to earn the money for that?

By the end of the two-day conference I had learned that of the more than 705,000 people on sex offender registries in the United States, not all of them were violent offenders. What’s more, sex offender registries disproportionately target and stigmatize poor people of color, particularly LGBTQ folks. According to Judith Levine, another Sex and Justice presenter, the typical convicted sex offender is not the violent and/or pedophiliac white man in a trench coat that haunt society’s imagination. Of course, Levine concedes, those individuals exist — but the information on the registries makes it hard to distinguish one from the other. And even in those cases, there’s no hard evidence that the sex offender registries do anything to prevent such people from committing further crimes.

Most compelling at the conference was the testimony of Robert Suttle from Sero Project, an organization focused on ending inappropriate criminal prosecutions of people with HIV. Suttle spoke of his personal experience becoming a registered sex offender after inadvertently infecting his then-partner with HIV. (He knew he had HIV, his partner did not. The sex was consensual, his partner chose to report him only after they had broken up.) Suttle described how the conviction meant having the words “sex offender” printed on his ID, how he can’t live within a certain proximity to a school or day care center and how, when he first moved to his quiet town in upstate New York, he had to go door-to-door informing his neighbors about the conviction, as if being a gay black man living in a predominantly white town wasn’t alienating enough.

To be sure, there is a difference between consensual sex and nonconsensual sex. But, as it stands today, the laws make no distinction. For the advocates and activists working on this issue, eliminating inequity means working to eliminate the registries altogether. From this view, any guilty verdict that involves registering people as sex offenders is, in some sense, a loss.

Sexual violence is horrific. Rapists are fucking scary. This article is not a call for us to ignore the actions of these men or anyone responsible for sexual violence. Rather, it is a call for a different response. However, blogger Mia McKenzie said it best when she argued that “while Ma’Lik Richmond and Trent Mays need to be held to account for what they did, and that the girl who was sexually assaulted by them deserved justice … justice does not and cannot exist in the system of incarceration.” She ends with a call for us to find better and more effective ways to deal with violence within communities, which I am here to echo.

Those who care about ending sex crimes must demand that policymakers reject one-size-fits-all laws to address sex abuse and begin to invest the political and financial resources in policies and programs that actually work. We need to pay attention to programs like Women with a Vision and other community-based organizations taking a comprehensive, human-rights-based approach.

It feels impossible to imagine interventions beyond what currently exist. But it’s not impossible. Certainly, it’s no less impossible than imagining a world without rape.