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.
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.”
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.
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.
- MySpace bars 29,000 sex offenders
- Could You End Up on a Sex Offender Registry?
- MySpace and the Sex Offenders
- Megan’s Flaws?
- Just The Facts About Online Youth Victimization: Researchers Present the Facts and Debunk Myths (see danah’s post for YouTube video)
- Video: BBC Interview (Teenagers, Facebook)
- Adolescents, MySpace, internet: citations de danah boyd et Henry Jenkins (quotes are in English)
- De la “prévention internet”
note: comments are moderated for first-time commenters.
- Reading the Ofcon Report on Social Networking: Stats, Stranger Danger, Perceived Risk (2008)
- Ressources for Parents and Teachers (ISL Talks on Social Networking) (2008)
- Parents, Teenagers, Internet, Predators, Fear… (2007)
- MySpace supprime les profils de 29’000 “délinquants sexuels” (2007)
- First Draft of Book Presentation (2007)
- Daily Mail Shocked by Teen Cleavage (2008)
- Teenagers and Skyblog: Cartigny Powerpoint Presentation (2006)
- Video: BBC Interview (Teenagers, Facebook) (2007)
- LeWeb’09: danah boyd (2009)
- Technological Overload or Internet Addiction? (2007)