by Michael McKay
Many people subscribe to the belief that the sexual offense registry consists exclusively of the names and addresses of rapists and child molesters, but the reality is quite different from that commonly accepted myth. In fact, there is no such thing as a typical registrant and many of the people on the registry are there for offenses that most people would consider to be non-sexual or, at the very least, non-criminal.
Why is it important to shine a light on this subject? It’s important because the practice of painting all registrants with the same wide brush can lead to grave injustices in our communities. It can harm registrants, their families, associates, and employers, and can lead to terrible decisions on the part of lawmakers and the courts.
The average person likely has no idea that they have probably engaged in multiple activities that could have landed them on a sexual offense registry. Perhaps this list can help them to avoid such a fate in the future or, at the very least, inculcate some compassion for those who have already run afoul of these ten surprising ways you can end up on a sexual offense registry:
1. Be a kid engaging childish behavior or normal sexual exploration when some over-zealous adult decides you’re a deviant and must be punished.
New Yorker magazine highlighted one such incident in their article, “The List: When Kids Are Accused of Sex Crimes:”
In Charla Roberts’s living room, not far from Paris, Texas, I learned how, at the age of ten, Roberts had pulled down the pants of a male classmate at her public elementary school. She was prosecuted for “indecency with a child,” and added to the state’s online offender database for the next ten years. The terms of her probation barred her from leaving her mother’s house after six in the evening, leaving the county, or living in proximity to “minor children,” which ruled out most apartments. When I spoke to the victim, he was shocked to learn of Roberts’s fate. He described the playground offense as an act of “public humiliation, instead of a sexual act”—a hurtful prank, but hardly a sex crime. Roberts can still be found on a commercial database online, her photo featured below a banner that reads, “PROTECT YOUR CHILD FROM SEX OFFENDERS.”
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, juveniles are responsible for 25.8% of all known sexual offenses and 35.6% of all sexual offenses against children. With 904,000 registrants currently listed by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), a quarter of that total would be almost impossible to contemplate. The actual number is likely much lower than that, and many juvenile offenders eventually age out of the registry requirement eventually. But still, even if the actual number is a small fraction of that 226K, that’s still a hell of a lot of kids on the registry.
Why don’t we know the actual numbers? One reason is articulated in bureaucrat-speak in a report by the DOJ: “Known juvenile offenders who commit sex offenses against minors span a variety of ages. Five percent are younger than 9 years, and 16 percent are younger than 12 years. Although… records include a small number of children [offenders] younger than 6 years of age, the notion of very young children committing sex crimes is problematic, so these children were excluded from this analysis.”
In other words, if the statistics were disturbing, the researchers didn’t report them.
Most states have laws prohibiting “open and/or gross lewdness,” which can be defined by law enforcement and the courts in a variety of ways ranging from simple nudity to “lascivious” behavior. Some states limit charges of lewdness to situations involving exposure to minors, or when it involves prostitution. Regardless, the charge invariably hinges upon the circumstances and who saw you, which isn’t always something you have any control over. There have even been numerous instances of people being arrested for public lewdness in their own homes because they were visible to individuals outside through a window.
3. Urinating in public.
At least a dozen states have laws on the books that can result in criminal charges and the sex offender registry for public piddling. The charge is typically lewd & lascivious behavior or exhibitionism. As long as someone says they saw your naughty-bits (whether they actually did or not) you can be charged. While some states allow a lack of sexual motivation to be presented as a defense in court, others do not.
4. Consensual sex between teenagers who are under the age of consent.
This is one area where our sexual offense laws get especially tricky. For example, many states have an age of consent of 16 or 17, even though federal law still defines a minor as someone who is under the age of 18. So even if you think you’re legal in your home state, that doesn’t mean the FBI or Federal Marshals can’t come knocking on your door.
Some states have what are called “Romeo and Juliet” provisions which make certain exceptions for juveniles who are close to the same age. Even so, the registry has literally thousands of people listed on it who were convicted as teens of engaging in consensual sex with other teens.
5. Having sex while you and/or your partner is under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
The law in all fifty states is pretty clear on this: a person who is drunk or high cannot give or get sexual consent. So, even if your partner is verbally saying, “Yes, yes, yes!”, their blood alcohol content may actually be saying, “Go directly to jail; do not pass go. Do not collect $200.” This law applies equally to anyone who is sleeping, unconscious, developmentally impaired, or has low intellectual capacity.
The elephant in the room: If a police officer can’t tell if a person is too drunk to drive without administering a sobriety or blood alcohol test, how is an average person supposed to know when a person is too inebriated to engage in consensual sex?
6. Having HIV, usually in connection to some other crime.
According to the Center for HIV Law & Policy, “[Sex offender] Registration, which in some cases can be life-long, is another consequence of state HIV criminal laws that treat health status as evidence of wrongful intent. Currently, six states can require an individual living with HIV who is convicted under an HIV-specific criminal statute to register as a sex offender. In Louisiana, Ohio, South Dakota, and Tennessee, conviction under the state’s HIV-specific criminal statute requires registration. In Arkansas, though the HIV-specific criminal exposure statute does not require registration, a sentencing court may order registration. Washington is a state where a general criminal law statute that includes an HIV-specific provision (within the assault offense) can require registration if there is sexual motivation.”
7. Hiring a prostitute, working as a prostitute, running a brothel, or acting as a pimp.
Several states consider prostitution a sex crime worthy of inclusion on the sex offender registry for everyone involved, including the “johns.” Even more alarming, state and federal prosecutors are increasingly treating certain aspects of sex-work as “human trafficking,” which often results in more serious charges, much harsher penalties, and tons of media hoopla.
8. Sexting unsolicited nudes (or any “offensive material,” for that matter) to anyone, but especially a minor.
This is another area of the law that can be especially convoluted and confusing to some people. The definition of “offensive” can vary widely from state to state and can change significantly in relation to the age of the recipient. While one thing may be considered offensive regardless of who sees it, something else may only be considered offensive when sent to a minor. The material need not always be photographic, either. Text-only messages can qualify as offensive, depending upon the state and the whims of law enforcement and prosecutors.
In Florida, 18-year old Phillip Alpert shared a nude photo of his 16-year old former girlfriend with his friends. As a result, he was charged and convicted of disseminating child pornography and is now on Florida’s sex offender registry.
9. Deleting and/or failing to report your child’s sexting to the authorities.
In a 2008 study of high schoolers reported in Psychology Today, 50% of the teenaged boys reported having received a sext, while 30% of girls did. In that same study, 27% of the boys and 21% of the girls reported that they had forwarded a sext to someone else. This suggests that parents of teenagers are quite likely to encounter this problem at some point while raising teens. The “sixty-four million dollar question” then becomes, what will you do about it when it happens?
Most parents will confiscate the cell phone, delete the offending material, and deliver some sort of age-appropriate discipline to their child. If that is the course you take, you will be committing one or more crimes which could put you on the registry. Depending on the state, you could be charged with interfering with a police investigation, tampering with or destroying evidence, or even possession of child pornography.
According to most law enforcement agencies and the courts, the only “correct” response to such a situation is supposed to involve a parent turning his or her child over to the police – an option that very few parents are willing to contemplate.
10. Practicing bondage or using restraints in the bedroom.
Plenty of couples have tried adding a little “spice” to their sex lives by experimenting with various forms of bondage or restraints. Obviously, the overwhelming majority of these folks consider what they’re doing to be 100% consensual, but what most of them don’t know is that in practically every state, a person who is tied-up or otherwise constrained physically cannot legally consent to sex.
Contrary to popular belief, District Attorneys aren’t constrained by whether or not someone wants to “press charges.” They can choose to prosecute someone even if both partners in the kinky connection claim that the bondage session was consensual. While this is relatively rare, it does happen, and is most often used to prosecute members of “bondage clubs” or in cases where relationships have ended on bad terms.
The bottom line:
Not everyone on the sex offender registry is a child molester or rapist. Many of them are simply people who happened to get caught up in a crazy hodge-podge of sexual offense laws that are long-overdue for revision or repeal. Don’t let fear, media hysteria, and mob sentiment overrule your common sense and belief in basic human rights for everyone, even for those convicted of sexual offenses. Someday, perhaps even your life and well-being could depend upon the cultivation of rationality in our country’s sexual offense laws.