Even though I'm an extremely sensitive person (some might say oversensitive), I learned very quickly when I became involved in reforming sex offender legislation that a thick skin was a requirement. I've surprised even myself in the ways I've learned to respond to stupidity, rudeness, and overall misinformation with articulate, factual responses and just the right amount of passion. The more I learn about how and why the legislation is ineffective, the easier it becomes. Sometimes I allow myself to get sucked in to a futile debate with someone whose only goal is clearly to upset me; other times, the personal attacks strangers spew at me start to hurt just a bit. On those occasions, I have to step away. On every occasion, I remind myself that the truth is on MY side and that's the most important thing. Though I've long since learned that the truth doesn't mean jack to some people, and that the world isn't necessarily based on truth, even now after being exposed to so much ignorance I am genuinely baffled as to why the truth is so often ignored.
"Sometimes the truth hurts" is an overused quip for a reason - it's true. Finding out you've been lied to, intentionally or by omission; discovering a loved one is someone or something much different than you believed; even receiving a grim or ambiguous diagnosis, or the answer to a lifelong question doesn't always result in total clarity and relief. Often, it's the opposite.
A few weeks ago, a fellow RSOL "pal" directed some of us to an article out of Massachusetts, which was nothing unusual. It included a large mug shot of a 24-year-old man, convicted of a sex offense, who had recently been released. Other than providing the name and address of the man's employer, there was no information other than what I've already mentioned. Unfortunately, articles such as this are common; after reading hundreds of them in the past several months, I've noticed that if there aren't enough sex crimes being committed, the media will instead focus on where sex offenders are living, working, and if any of them are not updating their addresses with law enforcement when they should. At first I was confused as to why the article had been brought to our attention at all.
The answer was in the comments. Several other RSOLers had gotten there before me, and were conversing back and forth with a fellow who lived in the area and clearly was not happy that the 24-year-old sex offender was working and living in the vicinity. He spoke of his young children, whom he understandably wanted to protect from potential abuse, and that he didn't feel able to do that with an individual like that around.
Others had presented this man with facts regarding the low recidivism rates for sex offenders, the likelihood of children being abused by someone they know not already on the registry, and the negative aspects of articles such as that one, seemingly printed only to scare concerned parents and make it that much more difficult for the offender to re-integrate back into the community. Links to several government-backed studies were provided, and the information was presented politely. Sadly, as I read on, the man's responses to the statistics indicated that he either did not read them or did not care to.
Because my comrades had already provided the man with compelling evidence that his view was based on a personal fear, not facts, I took it upon myself to look up the 24-year-old sex offender's registry entry. There, I found the information the article did not provide: he was convicted in 2007, which would have made him 17 at the very oldest at the time of conviction, and possibly younger when his crime took place. His victim was listed only as "a person younger than 17".
Having scoured countless registry entries in various states, I know that if the victim was a young child, it will be made painfully clear on the entry. "Person younger than 17" and similarly worded phrases usually refer to teenage "victims" over the age of 15, depending on the state. (I put the word "victim" in quotes because it is maddeningly common for consensual teenage sex to be criminalized and typically, the older teen gets slapped with a lifelong label and in many cases, jail. No, I do not advocate or support violent, forcible or non-consensual teenage sex; however no distinction is made between the two on the registry and it becomes the public's job to assume all offenses were violent.)
I pointed out to the man that the offender was 17 when convicted and the specifics of his actions were not provided; that based ONLY on the information we had, between the article and his registry entry, there was no way for us to accurately judge him or know his precise actions or intentions. I also challenged the man to ask himself what he would do if one of HIS children was accused of a sex offense, if he would support the prosecution of his child as an adult with adult consequences, or if he would see his child for what he was - A CHILD - and recognize the dire need for treatment and a support system. He clearly had not considered that possibility - but ultimately responded that he would likely sever ties with his child if he committed a sex offense.
I guess I am lucky to have grown up in a fantastic family, with awesome parents who supported me during a very dark time in my life, beginning around age 15, and struggled to get me the treatment I desperately needed to eventually understand my behavior and learn to control it. Maybe until my involvement in this movement, I did not appreciate the rarity of such understanding and unconditional love and support. I was unaware of how willing some people are to live in ignorance, as long as it does not inconvenience them or cause them hardship; how some people would rather ignore and abandon their problems, even if those problems are their CHILDREN, if that's the easier thing. But more than anything, I am genuinely shocked at how eager otherwise "normal" people are to eradicate others who are different from them, have made a mistake, or don't share their opinions; even those who simply challenge them. I've begun to feel as though our society, that prides itself on being the most advanced, the most humane and the most successful, is only that way when it is convenient. There are more parallels between the present and some very dark periods in history than most would like to admit.
The comments back and forth in regards to the article out of Massachusetts, while frustrating, were not overtly inflammatory or personal. Although we were unable to change this man's mind, armed with a very obvious truth as we were, the worst thing he did was essentially ignore us. Last week, I commented on an article out of California, where a registered sex offender had been arrested for (and I quote): "annoying or molesting a child under the age of 18". His previous offenses were for indecent exposure, there was no mention of any previous victims of any age, and the action which ultimately led to his re-arrest was an incident in a dollar store where he "followed a 13-year old girl up the aisles" and "attempted to talk to her". When confronted by the girl's mother, he "fled". The article itself was probably a paragraph in total length. The incident had occurred over the summer and the article was printed because he had recently been sentenced.
There were several individuals who had already commented by the time I read the article. The man was accused of being a pedophile, a pervert, and a sick freak. A couple of people commented that they hoped he enjoyed the prison justice he would inevitably experience while incarcerated, that perhaps he would be "crippled" so badly he would be unable to "go out and molest more victims" or maybe he would even be killed. While public disgust with sex offenders and even mentions of "prison justice" is nothing new to me, there was something about the way these individuals were so freely, unabashedly, and even gleefully expressing their hopes this man would experience violence that struck me deeper than these types of comments normally do. It was also frustrating that there were so many accusations of "pedophile", when there was nothing in the article OR on his registry entry that indicated he presently or previously had an attraction to pre-pubescent children (which is the definition of a pedophile).
I called out those wishing violence upon the man, asking them what made them any better than the man they called a "freak". I reminded those that labeled the man a pedophile what the term actually means, and how important it is to understand the difference. I pointed out to those who referred to "other victims" that no other victims existed. I finished my thought by asking people to remember that not all sex offenders are pedophiles and that treating them all as such is detrimental, as it allows the few who are truly dangerous to slip through.
What happened next was an onslaught of personal attacks and wild accusations by those who had been called out, and others who were just reading the article for the first time. I was accused of defending pedophiles, being ignorant, not caring about children, that the man who had been arrested must be my boyfriend, that I don't know the first thing about sexual abuse, and why don't I care about the victims? One man laughingly said that I was like the girl who got beat up by her boyfriend and then defended him; one was an abuse victim calling me "silly", "uninformed", and using God as her excuse for wishing death upon the man. People questioned why I would care about sex offenders, how they were treated and why was someone from New York commenting on an article out of California? They spoke about me as though I weren't reading their comments, saying I clearly had issues and really needed to get some help.
I explained that I wasn't an advocate or supporter of sex crime - that I support effective legislation that actually helps prevent abuse; I stressed the importance of educating yourself on the facts about sex crime and provided several informative links; and I told the man who made light of domestic violence that yes, in fact, I am just like that girl - not because I defend what my abuser did, but because I WAS a victim myself and have turned my experience into an empowering one focusing on the truth and not on hatred or anger. I assured them I had no personal connection with the man, nor had I even heard of him before that day. I was not even saying he was innocent, just attempting to point out that a large group of people were not only making some deplorable judgments about a human being based on very little evidence, but their own behavior and comments were bordering on barbaric. After being cut down by over twenty people who do not know me, what I have been through or why I feel the way I do - not because I did not inform them, but because they did not care to find out - I forced myself to step away from the onslaught and stop engaging.
The experience left me feeling disgusted with our society, scared that there was no hope for our cause, and personally hurting at some of the comments that were made, which is not something that happens often. On one end of the spectrum, I wasn't surprised that things had gotten so out of hand, because that is precisely the reason we have the broad, ineffective legislation we are so diligently fighting. But at the same time, I was scared that lurking just beneath the surface of a seemingly civilized and open minded society - where gay marriage is being legalized and championed; where racial equality has made leaps and bounds in the past several decades; where large corporations and powerful individuals are being challenged and held responsible for their actions - there is actually a torrent of heathens ready to tear down anyone who doesn't agree. All of the things I mentioned were once things that were looked down upon by the majority of society; it hasn't been without excruciating suffering, widespread pain, and countless innocent victims that these issues have finally reached the status of socially acceptable. It's wonderful that we're finally willing to take on these difficult and complex issues, but why must it be at such a cost? I'm not one to suggest dwelling on the negative, but I think we need to look at how we've gotten to the point we're at before touting ourselves as a progressive, open-minded country where everyone is equal and accepted. Why does our society require so much suffering before a cause is taken seriously?
The next time you have an urge to tear someone down, claim you hate someone or laugh at someone's misfortune - and we ALL do this - don't. Instead, challenge yourself to find the truth, the root of your feelings. Find it, accept it, and learn from it. Help others to do the same. Love the truth and let it heal you. Only then will we become a society to be proud of.