MySpace Banning Sex Offenders: Online Predator Paranoia

Update: If you’re a parent looking for advice, you’ll probably find my next post more interesting.

MySpace has removed profiles of 29’000 registered sex offenders from their site.

In a statement, MySpace said: “We’re pleased that we’ve successfully identified and removed registered sex offenders from our site and hope that other social networking sites follow our lead.”

BBC News, MySpace bars 29,000 sex offenders, July 2007

Sounds like a good move, doesn’t it?

Maybe not so.

First, what is a sex offender? A sex offender is somebody on the state registry of people who have been convicted of sex crimes. A sex offender is not necessarily a pedophile. And in some states… a sex offender might not have done anything really offensive.

Listen to Regina Lynn, author of the popular Wired column Sex Drive and the book The Sexual Revolution 2.0:

Lately I’ve been wondering if I’ll end up on the sex offender registry. Not because I have any intention of harming anyone, but because it has recently come to my attention that in a flurry of joie de vivre I might have broken a sex law.

You see, I keep hearing these stories of mild infractions that led to listing on the sex-offender registry alongside child molesters, rapists and abusive spouses. There’s the girl who bared her ass out a bus window in college and pled guilty to indecent exposure — and then couldn’t become an elementary school teacher because of her sex offense. Then there’s the guy who peed on a bush in a park and was convicted of public lewdness, a sex offender because he couldn’t find a bathroom.


But sometimes I do skirt the edge of the law when it comes to sex. And if you’ve ever ducked into the bushes for a little al fresco fondling, so have you.

Unfortunately, even in California, it’s not technically legal to make discreet love in public spaces, even in your truck, even if it has a camper shell with dark windows and Liberator furniture, even if no one can see you without pressing his nose to the glass or hoisting her children up over her head.

And if a passerby does intrude on your personal moment, it’s no longer a matter of “OK kids, pack it up and get out of here.” A witness’s cell-phone video could be on the internet within five minutes. A busybody might even feel justified in calling the police.

“If someone saw something that offended them and they wanted to sign a citizen’s arrest, the officer is obliged to take the citizen’s arrest,” says Inspector Poelstra of the Sexual Offender Unit of the San Francisco Police Department, who spoke with me by phone.

Regina Lynn, Could You End Up on a Sex Offender Registry?, April 2007

Critics of Megan’s Law, which requires convicted sex offenders to register with the state, have also put forward that the registries include people it would be rather far-fetched to consider a threat to our children’s safety.

But the laws have unexpected implications. Consider California, whose 1996 Megan’s Law requires creating a CD-ROM database of convicted sex offenders, available to the public. (The state has had a registry of sex offenders since 1944.) The Los Angeles Times reports that this new database is turning up many ancient cases of men arrested for consensual gay sex in public or semi-public places, some of them youthful experiments of men who went on to long married lives. One man, arrested in 1944 for touching the knee of another man in a parked car, was surprised when his wife collected the mail containing an envelope, stamped “sex crime” in red ink, telling him he needed to register as a sex offender. Many of these men are going through humiliating confrontations with long-forgotten aspects of their past, and complicated and expensive legal maneuverings to get themselves off the list. “It’s a real concern,” says Suzanne Goldberg of the Lambda Legal Defense Fund, which works on legal issues involving gays. “These laws have the potential to sweep in more people than they should. Laws requiring registration of people engaging in consensual sex are far beyond the pale. Those requirements can have devastating effects on people’s lives.”

Brian Doherty, Megan’s Flaws?, June 1997

These concerns about indiscriminate lumping together of “sex offenders” in the light of the online predator paranoia were already raised in January when MySpace handed over a database containing information about sex offenders to the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, on Violet Blue::Open Source Sex and Sex Drive Daily. (As an aside, I now find myself wondering if this post is going to get me blacklisted by internet security filters left and right… How ironic that would be.)

These are state registries, and depending on the state you’re in, you’re a “sex offender” under Megan’s Law if you get caught urinating in public, mooning, skinny dipping, or if you get busted having consensual sex in public. Think of how lopsided these charges must be in homophobic states. Also, it’s a lesson in what sites like MySpace can and will do with personal information. I’m definitely an advocate for speeding up natural selection when it comes to rapists and pedophiles, but I worry about what could happen to individuals and personal privacy when a questionably informed company casts a wide net, and turns it over to anyone who asks.

Violet Blue, MySpace and the Sex Offenders, Jan. 2007

In addition to that, we need to totally rethink the views we have on how sexual predators act online. The old pervert lurking in chatrooms is more a media construct and a product of the culture of fear we live in than a reality our kids are likely to bump into, as I said recently in an interview on BBC News. Remember kids are way more likely to be abused by a person they know (family, friends) than by a random stranger. I’ll assume you don’t have the time to read through the whole 34-page transcript of the panel danah boyd participated in a few months ago, so here are the most significant excerpt about this issue (yes, I’m excerpting a lot in this post, but this is an important issue and I know people read better if they don’t need to click away). Here is what Dr. David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes against Children Research Center and the codirector of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, has to say:

Now, on the case of internet sex crimes against kids, I’m concerned that we’re already off to a bad start here. The public and the professional impression about what’s going on in these kinds of crimes is not in sync with the reality, at least so far as we can ascertain it on the basis of research that we’ve done. And this research has really been based on some large national studies of cases coming to the attention of law enforcement as well as to large national surveys of youth.

If you think about what the public impression is about this crime, it’s really that we have these internet pedophiles who’ve moved from the playground into your living room through the internet connection, who are targeting young children by pretending to be other children who are lying about their ages and their identities and their motives, who are tricking kids into disclosing personal information about themselves or harvesting that information from blogs or websites or social networking sites. Then armed with this information, these criminals stalk children. They abduct them. They rape them, or even worse.

But actually, the research in the cases that we’ve gleaned from actual law enforcement files, for example, suggests a different reality for these crimes. So first fact is that the predominant online sex crime victims are not young children. They are teenagers. There’s almost no victims in the sample that we collected from – a representative sample of law enforcement cases that involved the child under the age of 13.

In the predominant sex crime scenario, doesn’t involve violence, stranger molesters posing online as other children in order to set up an abduction or assault. Only five percent of these cases actually involved violence. Only three percent involved an abduction. It’s also interesting that deception does not seem to be a major factor. Only five percent of the offenders concealed the fact that they were adults from their victims. Eighty percent were quite explicit about their sexual intentions with the youth that they were communicating with.

So these are not mostly violence sex crimes, but they are criminal seductions that take advantage of teenage, common teenage vulnerabilities. The offenders lure teens after weeks of conversations with them, they play on teens’ desires for romance, adventure, sexual information, understanding, and they lure them to encounters that the teams know are sexual in nature with people who are considerably older than themselves.

So for example, Jenna – this is a pretty typical case – 13-year-old girl from a divorced family, frequented sex-oriented chat rooms, had the screen name “Evil Girl.” There she met a guy who, after a number of conversations, admitted he was 45. He flattered her, gave – sent her gifts, jewelry. They talked about intimate things. And eventually, he drove across several states to meet her for sex on several occasions in motel rooms. When he was arrested in her company, she was reluctant to cooperate with the law enforcement authorities.

David Finkelhor, in panel Just The Facts About Online Youth Victimization: Researchers Present the Facts and Debunk Myths, May 2007

Let me summarize the important facts and figures from this excerpt and the next few pages. The numbers are based on a sample of law enforcement cases which Finkelhor et al. performed research upon:

  • most victims of “online predators” are teenagers, not young children
  • only 5% of cases involved violence
  • only 3% involved abduction
  • deception does not seem to be a major factor
  • 5% of offenders concealed the fact they were adults from their victimes
  • 80% of offenders were quite explicit about their sexual intentions
  • these crimes are “criminal seductions”, sexual relationships between teenagers and older adults
  • 73% of cases include multiple sexual encounters
  • in half the cases, victims are described as being in love with the offender or feeling close friendship
  • in a quarter of the cases, victims had actually ran away from home to be with the person they met online
  • only 7% of arrests for statutory rape in 2000 were internet-initiated

I find these figures very sobering. Basically, our kids are more at risk offline than online. No reason to panic! About this last figure, listen to Dr. Michele Ybarra, president of Internet Solutions for Kids:

One victimization is one too many. We watch the television, however, and it makes it seem as if the internet is so unsafe that it’s impossible for young people to engage on the internet without being victimized. Yet based upon data compiled by Dr. Finkelhor’s group, of all the arrests made in 2000 for statutory rape, it appears that seven percent were internet initiated. So that means that the overwhelming majority are still initiated offline.

Michele Ybarra, in panel Just The Facts About Online Youth Victimization: Researchers Present the Facts and Debunk Myths, May 2007

I digress a little, but all this shows us that we need to go way beyond “don’t give out personal information, don’t chat with strangers” to keep teenagers safe from the small (but real, yes) number of sexual predators online:

Our research, actually looking at what puts kids at risk for receiving the most serious kinds of sexual solicitation online, suggests that it’s not giving out personal information that puts kid at risk. It’s not having a blog or a personal website that does that either. What puts kids in danger is being willing to talk about sex online with strangers or having a pattern of multiple risky activities on the web like going to sex sites and chat rooms, meeting lots of people there, kind of behaving in what we call like an internet daredevil.

We think that in order to address these crimes and prevent them, we’re gonna have to take on a lot more awkward and complicated topics that start with an acceptance of the fact that some teens are curious about sex and are looking for romance and adventure and take risks when they do that. We have to talk to them about their decision making if they are doing things like that.

David Finkelhor, in panel Just The Facts About Online Youth Victimization: Researchers Present the Facts and Debunk Myths, May 2007

So, bottom line — what do I think? I think that MySpace’s announcement is more of a PR stunt than anything. This kind of action is the result of the ambient paranoia around sexual predators online, but it also fuels it. If MySpace are doing that, it must mean that we are right to be afraid, doesn’t it? I think it is a great pity that the media systematically jump on the fear-mongering bandwagon. We need more sane voices in the mainstream press.

Here is a collection of links related to this issue. Some I have mentioned in the body of the post, some I have not.

note: comments are moderated for first-time commenters.

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This entry was posted in Connected Life, Digital Youth, Technology and tagged children, Citations, Cyberspace, Digital Youth, Education, Essay-Like, fear, Media, meganslaw, myspace, offenders, online, Online Culture, paranoia, Politics / World News, predators, Psychology / Sociology, registry, Research, safety, sex, sexoffenders, sexualpredators, Technology, teenagers, teens. Bookmark the permalink.

44 Responses to MySpace Banning Sex Offenders: Online Predator Paranoia

  1. Ric Hayman says:

    So in some states of the US, my younger daughter (who most would have assumed was a TARGET of online predators) would have had her MySpace account terminated because she mooned some friends from a bus window on a sports trip … d’uh!

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  3. Parents, Teenagers, Internet, Predators, Fear……

    I was just interviewed by BBC World Have Your Say (radio, links will come) about the MySpace banning sex offenders story. (They didn’t find me, though, I sent them a note pointing to my blog post through the form on their site.) Here’s a bi…

  4. Stephanie says:

    Manual trackback: (wondering if trackback is broken around here)

  5. Hi, Stephanie

    Thanks for a really informative and interesting article. I’ve commented on it, and what I think it means, here:

  6. Mr. Cavin says:

    Ah, I see that you might be having issues with your trackbacks. Thanks, by the way, for the clearly-written and superbly well-linked coverage of this issue. I was directed here from danah boyd’s site; and I thought I should mention that I’ve also promoted your page here. Excellent work.

  7. Pingback:

  8. Maria says:

    Hi Stephanie!

    Really great article. I commented on the MySpace announcement, as well, but poked holes in it from an entirely different angle:



  9. Mike says:

    Can I post this on my MySpace page? The real issue is the kids doing things online that will impact their future ability to get in colleges and jobs based on online behavior. On the site (the one owned by the adult entertainment company), it is common for girls to masturbate for boys and end up with their video posted on the web. The various chan groups of boys make a hobby of it.

  10. Astraea says:

    Found this through the Boing Boing. What a great article. I really think that if we weren’t so paranoid in the US about teenagers’ sexuality and encouraged healthy expression, these teens wouldn’t be so vulnerable to older men.

  11. Stephanie says:

    Well, oh my:

    Yep — I go offline 48 hours, and what happens? I get boingboinged. So, hello to all boingboing readers, and sorry for not being here to welcome you as I should have. (I’ve been thinking about a follow-up to this post, and I think the time is ripe to write it. Hang around.)

    Mike: you can definitely link to this post and quote parts of it — just make sure the quotes are visible as such and credit the author (me!).

  12. dede says:

    Stephanie, I want to thank you for tips on internet safety. I am doing a project on internet safety for east lab class so they can know what risks are for giving out there number their address etc.hopefully this infomation will help us be safer while we are on the internet. Thanks for the information

  13. Pingback: Climb to the Stars (Stephanie Booth) » Daily Mail Shocked by Teen Cleavage

  14. Pingback: Climb to the Stars (Stephanie Booth) » Reading the Ofcon Report on Social Networking: Stats, Stranger Danger, Perceived Risk

  15. Pingback: Climb to the Stars (Stephanie Booth) » Ressources for Parents and Teachers (ISL Talks on Social Networking)

  16. This has helped me to further refine my knowledge on why this whole “Internet predator panic’ exists and where the true blame for the real problems lies. Give me a little time, Stephanie, and I’ll send you some “link love” to this most excellent compilation of information. I’m hoping to publish a book on this very subject one day after reading enough excellent tidbits like these and getting the wording right.

    Best regards, The Angry Offender

  17. As a Lawyer for close to 15 years I have seen many cases involving internet predators. Many are true dangers, some are not and are simply entrapped by police.

  18. Mike says:

    Everyone is too afraid to be themselves online, because of a “Dateline Effect”. Instead of
    doing pages, sites, blogs, etc., alot of people assume that the Internet is a toy, or a place
    that is for being fake or perverted… Whatever happened to bringing normal behavior to
    the Internet?!

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  21. Dan McDermott says:

    I wonder if it’s legal for MySpace to have done that. The sex offender registry in my state clearly states that it’s for public awareness only and not to be used to retaliate or punish offenders in any way.

    Since I find MySpace a WasteOfSpace, I sort of hope they get sued out of existence over this or something else.

  22. Dan McDermott says:

    Additionally, their cute little counter labels all registered sex offenders as “predators”. I hope that each non-predatory, non-violent person caught up in this Stalinesque purge sues MySpace for libel.

    (And wow, I should read the date on articles before commenting. Better two and a half years late than never?)

  23. If you don’t watch your childrens computer activity on a regular basis, they may expose themselves to serious harm or worse. With online predators & Cyber Bullying running rampant it’s time parents took back the protection of their kids before it’s to late!

  24. Grey: clearly, you didn’t really read my article, did you, if you’re here to promote your “invisible computer surveillance” system? ;-)

  25. Pingback: MySpace and Sex Offenders « General / Parenting «

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