Rethinking the ‘Sex Offender’ Label

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Photo by Remain Anonymous via Flickr

Last week, on Nov. 19, members of the Colorado Sex Offender Management Board (SOMB) took a critical first step in altering the language used to label those convicted of a sexual offense while in treatment towards a “person-first” perspective.

This effort was not without opposition.

The victim advocates and representatives from county prosecutors unsuccessfully attempted to table the vote and even accused members of the SOMB of not following protocols. Ultimately, the SOMB settled on the phrase, “adults who commit sexual offenses.”

This change does not go far enough.

In the words of one prosecutor who testified at the SOMB hearing, it was just a “longer way to say sex offender.” I agree. Furthermore, the phrase implies the SOMB clients are continuously committing offenses.

Victim advocates and prosecutors argued that replacing the term “sex offender” with different terminology “minimizes harm.” Victim advocates, including those currently on the SOMB, had argued they suffer lifelong consequences as victims and therefore those who have committed an offense should also suffer for life.

But this argument merely proves the intent of sex offense treatment schemes and post-conviction laws are to dehumanize and cause enduring harm to those who have committed offenses in the past.

The Limitations of a ‘Victim-Centric’ Approach

The SOMB is “victim-centric,” and is heavily slanted in favor of those who want to use their position to cause harm to people convicted of sexual offenses.

Three of the 21 members of the SOMB are victim advocates and four others are members of various criminal justice agencies; not a single board member directly represents people convicted of sexual offenses.

When asked why, a SOMB board member responded they only act as advisors and that the state legislature must approve to allow a Registered Citizen group to have a representative on the board. In other words, the “clients” of the SOMB have no voice by legislative fiat.

This proposal is a game-changer as well as a name-changer. As noted by the SOMB, the language change issue has long-reaching implications because they are aware of the power of labels and repeated that mantra throughout the meeting.

In covering the SOMB meeting, the local news media and the social media comment boards provided ample support for the need to discourage the use of the “sex offender” label.

The Colorado Springs CBS affiliate KKTV 11 asked for public comments through their Facebook page while adding a graphic with “SEX OFFENDERS” in all caps along with the SCOTUS building and an ankle monitor, which visually reinforces the belief that every Registered Person is a constant threat in need of constant monitoring.

Unsurprisingly, the comment boards were filled with hateful language, including memes encouraging vigilante violence. In an email, Anthony Keith, KKTV 11’s “Digital Content Manager,” denied the picture was fearmongering and added, “A convicted sex offender is still a convicted sex offender at this time.”

An article by Denver CBS 4 initially added a graphic of a crying child with his head between his knees. In response, I sent BCS 4 an email stating the image was “irrelevant to the issue at hand and only serves to inflame readers and promotes the very imagery that the meeting is trying to change.”

CBS 4 responded by removing the image. But a second image shows a shadowy figure within the graphic of the Colorado state flag.

Independent and right-wing media proclaimed the SOMB ruling was part of “efforts” to “normalize pedophilia,” an internet buzzword used as ad hominem to silence anyone who says anything besides “kill all sex offenders/pedophiles.”

Why is ‘Humanizing’ So Offensive?

The mere thought of humanizing people convicted of sexual offenses is offensive to the general public and leads to reactionary results. Earlier in the week, Old Dominion University suspended college professor Allyn Walker for performing research on and use of the term “Minor-Attracted Persons” (i.e., those who suffer from pedophilia but often do not act on their inclinations).

Walker, who is transgendered, stated the goal was to prevent sexual abuse by removing stigmatization of those who struggle with abusive thoughts so that they may seek help.

Walker’s response was not enough.

Some students protested on campus, holding signs like “Protect the Children” and “Speak for those who can’t.” (The latter is an ironic statement given the fact many victim advocates have a very influential voice in the Colorado SOMB and the national narrative, while “sex offenders” have no voice.)

A Change.org petition called for Walker’s ousting, and ODU later placed Walker on leave to appease the growing mob. Society would rather dehumanize people with sexual deviancy than learn from them to help prevent future abuse.

Americans appear to think that individuals labeled as “sex offenders” label cannot be rehabilitated, and are irredeemable monsters.

“Sex offender” and “pedophile” are used interchangeably, and that sentiment was reflected in the debate over language at the SOMB meeting. Victim advocates and prosecutors claimed multiple times during the SOMB meeting that most people convicted of sexual offenses repeat the same offenses, a claim thoroughly debunked by numerous state and federal studies over the past quarter century.

Yet, the very term “sex offender” encompasses a variety of actions from the serious to the mundane. Most Americans do not realize that teens who landed on the registry for consensual relations with a classmate is listed on the same registry as a teen who violently raped a classmate.

In Colorado, college kids who engaged in a short-lived event known as the “Naked Pumpkin Run,” where runners would wear nothing but a pumpkin over their heads during a cold weather run, were in danger of landing on the same registry as a flasher.

Words matter. Labels matter.

derek logue

Derek W. Logue

The label change at the Colorado SOMB is a major victory for those who are stigmatized by the term “sex offender.”

Still, this only the smallest of steps, since the SOMB will still keep “sex offender” in its name.

It does not change the language in the media or the Colorado statutes. But if we are serious about preventing further abuse, we need to change the narrative in American society.

Derek W. Logue is a Nebraska registrant and activist for the rights of returning citizens, and founder of the sex offense education and reform website OnceFallen.com.

16 thoughts on “Rethinking the ‘Sex Offender’ Label

  1. The crying child with his head between his knees? That’s the child of a dad who has to register for a crime he committed as a teenager.

    The community believes the dad is a chomo, so the child gets excluded from birthday parties, holiday parties, parks.

    So it’s a fitting graphic, but not for the reasons you’d think.

  2. What happens to survivors who seek reform (or abolition) of the registry because it doesn’t work?

    Do those survivors have a voice?

  3. As a fellow registered person, I have personally encountered the same hysteria that this article presents. In the state of Louisiana, such individuals classified as a tier II is prohibited from being within 1000 feet of any primary or secondary education school. The requirements for the restriction: being convicted of any covered offense where the minor was under the age of 13. Not all of these covered offenses involves actual contact or communication with such minors. But it is presumed that such offenses by such individuals are a threat to any child that crosses their path and this fuels hatred towards such individuals.
    This discriminatory impact rivals that of african americans in the civil war era. Myself included, there are a number of so called “sex offenders” who actually did not have any sexual conduct with a minor and are not a threat to any minor. Yet, we are not viewed in the narrowly tailored capacity that represents such a subclass, but are put into perspective by a broad class of individuals who really do have extremely severe problems. And I blame congress and the states for this because they have not fostered this narrowly tailored balance to address the problem. In fact, I am of the opinion that they too encourage vigilantism against “sex offenders.”
    Congress and the several states has the ability to present legislation that ends this disparity between “sex offenders” and the public, but they choose not to because of the voter fallout. It is quite a shame because some of these “sex offenders” have enough sanity to hold jobs and do other things that promotes the prosperity of this country like a normal person does and could conform to such standards.

  4. Mr. Logue is spot on. Recidivism amongst registrants is lower than any other felony crime. The numbers suggest that recidivism for a second sex related offense is between 5 and 10 percent. The
    Colorado decision has basically changed the pronunciation of the phrase, much like tomato/tomato.
    If Colorado wants to create change, science based terms and laws, not fear based ones need to be introduced.

  5. If everyone is a “victim”, ask Priscilla Presley how she felt like such a “victim” of Elvis since she was only 14 and he was 24 at the time.
    She doesn’t see herself as a “victim”, but by the language of the laws, she is.
    Both liberals and conservatives embrace the idea of victim hood. It’s what gets their voters to the polls.

  6. My comment is about the sign in the park you posted. It says it all.

    #1 We are ALL sex offenders still committing offenses every day

    #2 The registry is not punishment and yet we are banned from and can be arrested for taking our grandkids to the park?

    #3 As a parent / grandparent of a child, how do you explain that sign to a child without upsetting or confusing them?

    #4 Where are the signs banning ex murderers, Thieves, Scammers, Hit and runners, and other ex felons. Or according to the Government, once a felon, always a felon.

  7. I work for an extremely successful nonprofit that specializes in reentry support services and programming for individuals who were serving life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles. We enjoy an impressive amount of community and donor support. Our clients are simply referred to as “clients” or occasionally, “justice impacted,” “formerly incarcerated,” or returning citizens. I am trying to imagine what it would be like if our clients were referred to as “murderers.” How absurd and outrageous would that be? No one I work with is currently causing harm to anyone much less murdering people! I’m trying to imagine the horrible impact that such a label would have on our work with legislatures if “juvenile lifers” were called murderers. I’m trying to wrap my head around what our donor support would be if we had to ask for funds to help murderers. It’s all too absurd to even contemplate. So why do we accept the label of Sex Offender? The Justice Reform Movement needs to wake up and start demanding second chances, protections and fairness for EVERYONE instead of everyone BUT citizens forced to register.

    • Flossy

      If you ever get a chance, you would be a good testimonial at a hearing for any of us as a collective for battling lifetime registrations. I wish more people were like you and had their eyes open to what is happening and how it effects more than just the ex offender. It hurts our families, our bosses (if you are fortunate enough to get hired anywhere) our friends, loved ones and our neighbors.

    • I want to thank you for your work. I can assume it is a tiring task, but be diligent. If there is any chance for returning to society, it starts with individuals like you.

  8. I don’t quite understand how perpetuating the ostracization, harm and suffering of others after justice has been served would be viewed objectively as victim-centric. I doubt any legitimate form of therapy would encourage malice as a means of finding healing for a past offense. I’m pretty sure it would do just the opposite.

  9. Sex is an act, it cannot be offended.
    The victims are offended, just like they are in any crime.
    Therefore the term, “Sex Offender” is not even grammatically correct.

    “Adults who Commit Sex Offenses” is at least grammatically correct however, there are still problems with it. First off, not all the crimes that require registration are even sexual in nature. In addition and as you have pointed out, the term implies a person is still engaged in the activity. “Adults who Committed Sex Offenses” would have been the correct term but does that really reduce the stigma attached to it. Of course not.

    I guess one could give them kudos for trying but all they have proven is, government at every level is pretty much worthless.

  10. “Victims” can also get therapy to no longer feel like victims in this prevailing victim culture. It is called maturation and becoming a better self for yourself. However, SOMB could not have that because it would not help their victim narrative for funding purposes.

  11. There have been largely two media responses. The first has been to merely to pass along the already published coverage by the Denver CBS 4 station. The second response has come from independent right leaning media in which the discussion is mocked and ridiculed as a “leftist attack on traditional values.” Watching the same political group that would rather lick horse paste than take a life saving vaccine so badly misinterpret this issue is laughable.

  12. Women Against Registry has a moratorium underway to change the derogatory term to a more respectful and person centered approach. This is the focus of two documents released by the American Psychological Association (APA); Promoting Accurate and Respectful Language to Describe Individuals and Groups and the other is Why call someone by what we don’t want them to
    be? The ethics of labeling in forensic/correctional
    psychology.

    We educate media, organizations, legislators, vigilante actors, but we need an ‘all in’ collaboration effort by all male registered citizens, female registrants, teen individuals required to register and diminutive human offender. Please practice using the terms or something close instead of the derogatory terms.

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