Consider this hypothetical scenario: While your 15-year old son is scrolling through the pictures on his phone, you catch a brief glimpse of a nude photo and ask him to hand the phone over. Reluctantly, he does, and upon inspection you discover that his girlfriend – who is also 15 years old – has recently sent him a couple of nude photos. Would you call the police and report it?
If you’re like most parents, the answer is probably going to be no.
Most parents would likely confiscate his phone, revoke all privileges for a reasonable period of time, and continue to lecture him until his head explodes. You might even contact the young lady’s parents to ensure that an adequate level of “boom lowering” is taking place in that household, as well. Naturally, they self-righteously proclaim that their innocent little angel would never do such a thing! So, to prove your case, you send them the photos. That’s when “Murphy’s Law” begins to exert its awful influence.
Instead of thanking you and nominating you for “Parent of the Year,” the young lady’s parents are suddenly and inexplicably angry about the fact that you’ve seen naked pictures of their little angel. They rant and rail at you over the phone, calling you a pervert and plenty worse. You hang up, your head reeling from the unexpected attack. You shake your head, mumbling to yourself, “No good deed goes unpunished!” You delete the offending photos from your son’s phone and go back to your daily routine.
Within a couple of hours, there are a two police officers at your door with a search warrant. After talking to your son (who is still mad at you) and seizing all phones, tablets, and computers in the house, they inform you that you are being arrested for possession of child pornography, exploitation of a minor, distribution of child pornography, destruction of evidence, and obstructing an investigation. They explain to you that some of those charges carry a potential twenty-to-life sentence and that it’s their fondest wish that you’ll grow old and die from scabies in prison. Then they give you a scribbled receipt for your stuff, which you’ll never see again.
Months later, while still in jail, you have several meetings with your attorney where he explains your choices. You can fight these five charges, but the prosecutor only needs to convict you of one of them to put you away for a long, long time. Sure, he says, you can definitely beat some of the charges, that’s not a problem. But expecting to beat all five charges – especially when prosecutors have a 97% conviction rate – is unrealistic. He tells you that your best bet is to plead guilty to a single charge that will result in a maximum sentence of five years in prison. In return for your plea, the prosecutor will drop the other four charges. With luck, he says, you’ll be home in a year or two. He says this with a used-car salesman’s grin and pats you on the back as if you’ve just won the lottery. As much as this plea agreement goes completely against the grain of everything you’ve ever believed in, you agree to do it. It isn’t until three months later, at your sentencing hearing, that your attorney whispers to you, “Did I forget to mention that this plea agreement means you’ll be listed on the sex offender registry?”
Welcome to the never-ending hell that is life as a registrant. Even if you are lucky enough to be removed from the registry someday, you’ll always be referred to by the authorities and the media as “a sex offender who no longer has to register.” That label has a special kind of glue.
Perhaps that hypothetical scenario is a little too far-fetched for you to believe that it could ever happen to you. Maybe you can’t really relate to it because you don’t have kids, or you simply can’t imagine our judicial system being so fatuously dysfunctional. Fair enough. Let’s talk about some things that you may have actually experienced in real-life.
Have you ever sent a nude photo of yourself to another person without first getting permission to do so from the other person? In most states, without explicit prior consent, that’s considered a sex crime. And if you didn’t verify that the person was over 18, you may have unwittingly committed a sex crime against a minor. Ignorance of the person’s age is not a defense, nor is being lied to by the minor.
Have you ever engaged in a sexual act while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or with someone else who was under the influence? An inebriated person cannot legally give or get consent. How do you know if someone is too inebriated to consent? That’s a very good question! Police officers regularly resort to breathalyzer or blood alcohol tests to determine if a person is too drunk to drive. So, how is an average person supposed to know if someone is too drunk to engage in sex?
Speaking of consent, this bears repeating loudly and often: Minors cannot consent to sex under any circumstances, even with other minors. A person who is asleep or unconscious cannot legally consent to sex. A person with a mental illness that impairs his or her judgement is cannot legally consent to sex. A person who is restrained by bondage or handcuffs cannot legally consent to sex in most states. Generally speaking, students cannot consent to sex with their teachers, prisoners cannot consent to sex with their jailors, patients cannot consent to sex with their doctors, and clients cannot consent to sex with their lawyers.
Ever pinched, patted, or swatted someone on the behind without first getting his or her permission to do so? That’s considered a sexual assault just about everywhere. Maybe you’re thinking, “No worries, I’ve only ever done that to my wife.” Sorry, there’s no spousal exemption from the law.
Do you ever watch porn? How do you know for certain that the porn stars you’re ogling are of legal age? More to the point – how could you possibly know? In 1987, porn super-star Tracy Lords was a coast-to-coast sensation with dozens of films to her credit when it was discovered that she had used false identification to get hired when she was just 15 years old. Retailers nationwide scrambled to pull her films off the shelves to avoid child pornography indictments, and several industry moguls went to prison.
Consensual sex between teenagers under the age of 18 is a registry offense in twenty-nine states. Cohabitation with a member of the opposite sex is still illegal in four states. Being HIV-positive can result in involuntary civil commitment after incarceration or being placed on the sex offender registry in six states, and thirty-three states have HIV-specific criminal statutes. Soliciting a sex-worker can land you on the registry in five states, even if you never had sex. Sodomy (defined as “unnatural sex,” which can include oral and anal sex) is still illegal in twelve states, despite a Supreme Court decision striking down state anti-sodomy laws. Urinating in public can land you on the registry in thirteen states. Exposing yourself, even if there is no sexual or lascivious motivation – such as when streaking, flashing your breasts, or skinny dipping – is a registerable sex offense in thirty-two states!
The average person – unless he has spent his entire life in a cave on a remote, deserted island – has probably committed at least a few of these “sex crimes” and yet most are spared from being chewed up by our crapulously obnoxious legal system.
It’s easy to imagine that every person who is listed on the sex offender registry is a monster who is an imminent danger to the community, but that simply isn’t the case. While there will always be a small percentage of registrants who recidivate, the overwhelming majority of registrants live quiet, lawful lives, harming no one in the process.
Those people deserve a chance at redemption – just as you would, if you were on that list.