The debate between freedom and security is a major theme in modern civilisation. On the one hand security is what makes our freedoms possible. On the other, what is the point of that security if it denies us the very freedoms it seeks to protect?
But there’s one thing even the most staunch libertarian or social justice campaigner will agree on: pedophiles are the exception.
Pedophiles are the exception to just about everything really. They are the lowest of the low in society – rapists that specifically target the weakest and most vulnerable to attack. Is there anything so awful that they don’t deserve it?
So while the freedom vs security debate rages on over internet access, terrorism laws and wearing burquas in public buildings, no one, anywhere, is going to step in to argue that pedophiles deserve more freedoms.
It’s hardly surprising then that support has been building in Australia for sex offender registries to be made public. Readers in the USA will already be familiar with the concept; rather than forcing only an overworked police force to keep tabs on convicted sex offenders, the public can check the database and see where those offenders are living at any given time. In some system those offenders are in fact required by law to knock on all their neighbour’s doors and inform them that they are a convicted sex offender, every time they move somewhere new.
The rational is simple and extremely attractive; if you have kids, wouldn’t you want to know if someone convicted for sexually attacking children was living nearby? As a parent (or even just as a general upstanding citizen), isn’t your first duty to protect children from such utterly heinous attacks? And when the police can’t be monitoring every ex-con 24/7, isn’t it then your right, indeed you duty to know where those perverts are so that you can take the extra precautions necessary to protect your children?
On paper it’s the most sensible thing in the world, so it’s no surprise that such a scheme is becoming quite popular, with parents, family group and faces like Neil Mitchel (a popular shockjock) and blogger Mia Freeman (of Mamamia.com.au) leading the charge for public access to these registers.
Now as USA readers might point out, this proposal is hardly without potential problems; a major one being that what qualifies you as a ‘sex offender’ is insanely broad in some cases. In 13 states of the US of A for example, you go on the list for being sprung urinating in public – which would make me and pretty much everyone I know a ‘sex offender’ about 1000 times over.
Worse, if a minor under the age of consent takes a nude photo of themselves and sends it to someone else, that minor is now a sex offender. Why? Because they just produced and distributed child pornography. Not, I’m sure you’ll agree, the outcome we were looking for here.
But these are all just practical problems, right? Issues not with the concept itself, but with how it has been implemented. We can learn from these mistakes and make sure our public sex offender registry offers all the protection, with none of the collateral damage.
And yeah, sure, these sorts of laws might cause a lot of suffering for sex offenders who have, let’s not forget, done their time and been released from prison just like any other criminal. But no matter how you slice it, the ethics on this one are clear: from a hard and fast deontological angle, these offenders had their chance and threw it away in the most horrific way imaginable. And even from the usually more understanding cost-versus-benefits utilitarian perspective, any post-jail injustice a pedophile might suffer as a result of public knowledge of their crimes and their location, is clearly outweighed by the safety benefits for children and the community.
Or is it?
What if I was to tell you that making sex offenders registries public would, in all likelihood, actually make life LESS safe for everyone involved? What if I were to tell you that such a plan would actually make it MORE likely that your children will be attacked, even if you hound Mr Pedophile out of town?
Public access to the location of criminals that might pose a risk to the public is one of those ideas that seems sensible on paper (not to mention emotionally satisfying), but which falls apart extremely fast the second you apply some serious critical thinking to it.
Forget pedophiles for a second; imagine you’re a car thief that’s just gotten out of jail. You’ve done your time, you’ve been cleared by the parole board and you’re keen to make a fresh start of it if only to avoid going back to prison. But straight after you move into a new rental, you’re informed by the cops that you now have to go around to everyone’s house on your street and tell them to their face that “I am a convicted car thief”.
Imagine the reaction you’re likely to get to this announcement; ‘There’s a car thief living on our street! We own cars and we don’t want our cars stolen. We should do something to protect our cars from this criminal!’
Best case scenario, you’re immediately ostracised from the community and watched like a hawk, just in case you get the hankering to pinch another car. Worst case scenario, you get harassed by both the community and the cops until you pack up and move – and repeat the entire process somewhere else.
If you were genuinely trying to make a fresh start here, at what point would you just give up? Pretty quickly if you ask me. What is the point in trying to rehabilitate when everyone already assumes you’re going to reoffend, and treats you like you already have? Why bother going through the effort of remaking yourself as a person to fit into society, when that society is already rejecting you pre-emptively? Why not just fold and do what everyone already acts like you’re doing anyway?
You’ve got nothing to lose anyway.
“Hmm… be attracted to adults, who I can legally hire for sex for around $50 at a variety of convenient locations? Or children, which will earn me the unending hatred of literally everyone in society? Decisions, decisions!”
The obvious answer is someone who is in fact, not in their right mind to start with. Imagine then what you’re asking from a pedophile who is attempting to rehabilitate – the total rejection of their sexuality and suppression of a serious mental disorder is not exactly a walk in the park. Know what’s going to make that a whole lot harder? The automatic assumption that they are not just going to fail, but that it won’t even matter if they succeed. The second a community learns someone is on their street is a pedophile, no matter how rehabilitate, there will be no rest until the pervert is driven from their community.
So what is the point in them even trying to rehabilitate in the first place then?
But who gives a damn! Yeah sure a public register might make rehabilitation impossible, which in turn might make pedophiles more likely to reoffend, but so what? That just goes to show that we shouldn’t let them out in the first place! Hell, let’s sterilise them automatically, or just hang them outright. They sure as hell deserve that and worse for the horrific crimes they committed. As it is, they should be thanking their lucky stars they ever get released at all!
And this brings us to our second, far more serious problem with a public register; as I mentioned before, pedophilia is a psychiatric disorder and as with any psychiatric disorder or psychological issue, the single most important thing when it comes to treatment is early intervention.
This simple step can be the difference between a mild, highly manageable condition, and a full-blown, permanent, life-destroying breakdown. And in the case of pedophilia, early intervention can easily be the difference between an unfortunate but never indulged sexual preference, and a child rapist that is so far gone that they have convinced themselves that what they are doing is actually a good thing.
But early intervention requires early detection, and since the early stages of most psychological conditions aren’t obvious from the outside, this means that the only real chance we have of early intervention for pedophilia is if those afflicted with it come forward voluntarily for treatment, before they offend.
Wanna take a guess at what the single biggest roadblock is to that happening?
Think about everything I’ve just said about pedophiles in this article; they’re the lowest of the low; they are rightly universally hated; they are predators of the most weak and vulnerable in society; and there is nothing so bad that they don’t deserve it to happen to them. Look at the crusades lead against them by extremely high profile figures on national television and radio, to have them “named and shamed” and hounded out of every community they ever try to live in.
In this sort of climate, who in their right mind would ever admit to being sexually attracted to children even to themselves, let alone to a stranger? Such is the incredible social hatred of pedophilia that even the most fair minded person can’t help but be repulsed by the very idea, and to put it mildly, the vast majority of people in society are not going to approach the topic objectively.
And that’s the subtle poison of the proposal to make the sex offender registry made public: it feel right. It feels like justice. It feels like a strong, straight forward step by the forces of Good to control and defeat the forces of Evil. So powerful is this feeling that even the suggestion that there might be unexpected side effects to such a proposal is guaranteed – GUARANTEED – to be howled down as ‘protecting pedophiles at the expense of my child’s safety’. If I don’t get at least 4-5 emails saying exactly that (or the equally irrelevant ‘you’ll feel differently once you have children’) then I will eat my hat.
This is not to say that these feelings are misplaced exactly; pedophilia is indeed a horrific act, possibly the worse thing an individual can do. If there were ever an issue to be angry about, this is it.
But this same emotional response also swamps any effort to point out the simple fact that, no matter how satisfying this proposal might be, it will not work.
In fact by simultaneously making rehabilitation impossible and further reducing the likelihood of non-rapist pedophiles coming forward for preventative treatment, this proposal will actually make life far, far more dangerous for the same children it seeks to protect.
All of this is an extension of the ever-lasting, ever-stupid debate about whether we should be aiming to rehabilitate or punish criminals. I say ‘ever-stupid’ because the facts have only ever supported one side – by targeting the causes of crime, prevention and rehabilitation have been proven to decrease crime rates over the long term.
But the ‘tough on crime’ mantra never seems to die, no matter how many facts are thrown at it – emotional self-righteousness is just so damn sweet (not to mention the opportunity it presents for an unscrupulous politician to win a few votes).
At the end of the day this issue really has nothing to do with pedophilia at all; it is and always will be a horrific crime. What is in question here, is how best we can purge this crime from the face of the earth, and on that score public access to the sex offender registry will not help and will likely make things worse.
Want to protect your children from the horrors or the world? Best you understand those horrors, lest you end up working on their side by accident.