My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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prisoner 24601: teenage sex offenders

If you believe in the sex offender registery (and even if you don’t), i’d really like you to read this article in the Atlantic Monthly: Why Is Genarlow Wilson in Prison?

It is the story of a 17 year old “good” kid who will spend 10 years in prison for child molestation and be forever on the sex offender registery for having consentual oral sex with a 15 year old. One of the interesting twists in this case is that this would not have been his fate had he had vaginal sex with her (oral is a felony; vaginal is a misdemeanor). This kid had no prior runins with the law; he was a football and track star, homecoming king, honor roll student. He was your picture-perfect kid who fought the law and the law won. Imagine if he was your kid.

Now, think for a moment about what it means that this sex offender list is being put to other purposes. Does this kid deserve to be banned from MySpace (or the numerous other spaces that are seeking to build restrictions based on this flawed list)? Does he deserve to be limited from living close to a school or park? Does he deserve to have to wear a tracker for life, to be permanently branded? This list is not being scrutinized; it is inherently flawed. We are punishing people over and over again. Double jeopardy was set up in the constitution so that we would not repeatedly try someone for a crime but this list is double punishment all the same. What happened to the belief that people can change that is at the root of our modern prison system? What happened to the Judeo-Christian value of forgiveness for ones sins?

The law has ruined this kid’s lives. They have made him a criminal. It is one thing to believe in justice; it is another to turn people into slaves of the law.

Now every door is closed to me
Another jail. Another key. Another chain
For when I come to any town
They check my papers
And they find the mark of Cain
In their eyes I see their fear
`We do not want you here.’

Look down, look down… you’ll always be a slave.

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19 comments to prisoner 24601: teenage sex offenders

  • This is indeed insane. I wonder if legislators have taken note of the contrast between sentences (and misdemeanor/felony status) for vaginal and oral sex, and if so whether they’ve agreed with it or simply failed to fix it. I think that the current acceptance of casual oral sex among young people, though sometimes exagerated in the media, may well contribute to a situation in which legislators should recognize standards have changed and adapt. Oral sex was considered deviant, but is now widely considered normal; I wonder when each of these laws was passed as well.

    I’m also commenting, though, to question your use of the phrase “Judeo-Christian.” While forgiveness has a role in Jewish thought, it is much more muted and disputed than in Christian ethics; I think this is a case in which the value is legitimately Christian by history and consensus but Jewish by neither. This is not to say that contemporary Jews don’t believe in forgiveness, but merely that this belief is not central to the religion in the way that it is to Christianity. The phrase seems often to gloss over important distinctions between the two traditions, usually in favor of Christianity, and I think this is one such (unintentional) case.

  • Peter – perhaps you are right. I guess i’ve just grown up around Jewish folks who are just as likely to spout off about forgiveness as Christian folks (albeit, not citing the Gospel of Matthew’s “turn the other cheek” reference). I originally just wrote Christian to reference Jesus’ speeches in the New Testament but changed it to Judeo-Christian to not ignore my experience with contemporary Jewish culture’s respect for forgiveness. My apologies for appearing to blur the cultures as this was not what i intended. But you’re definitely right that the two religious cultures’ views of forgiveness are fundamentlly different. (As a pop culture fiction example, i love The Autobiography of God.)

  • I’ll take that as a recommendation, as I don’t think I knew about the book before. The title reminds me of The Astrological Diary of God, a book that I disliked enough not to finish by the author of a book I really liked, but I won’t hold that superficial similarity against it. In any case, thanks for the thoughtful reply.

  • Peter – definitely don’t hold the title against it. It’s quite unlike what you might expect but i found it to be a pleasantly thoughtful book, showing the complications of religious emotions.

  • In related news, do you know about this story?

    http://web.archive.org/web/20050901035749/http://www.suntimes.com/output/news/cst-nws-molest01.html

    It is another case of the sex registries being completely diluted. I mean, if people like this are in it then how is it meaningful to know that someone is on the list? Of course, the repercussions for the individual are devastating. What I’m suggesting is that these instances also make the registries useless to the community given that people no longer know why someone might be on there in the first place. (Of course, one of the problems is that most people will assume the worst, which is why it is so devastating to these people.)

  • There are so many people on the registries for the most ridiculous actions that no sane person would consider a real “sex crime” – like relieving oneself on the side of the road when there was no rest stop for miles – not a sexual act, but according to the law: a sex crime.

    The author is right – this seriously dilutes the registry to complete uselessness. First, the police-only registries were supposed to protect us, then the public registries, then the community notification was supposed to keep us safe… now total banishment from society is supposed to work. Well, since the majority of actual offenses are committed by someone NOT on the registry (i.e., not previously convicted of a sex crime) who is most often a family member or close family friend, this is completely wrong-headed! These policies will never work because they do not educate the public and they do not prevent offenses, neither do they deal with the root of problem.

    It is actually a huge disservice to the public for those reasons. Not to mention that states actually get federal funding dependant on HOW MANY people they can get on their registries. This is a perverse incentive to get as many as possible on the registries, which again, is a public disservice and has nothing to do with child safety. Even Hitler knew and stated publicly that the people would do anything for the sake of their children. They are just the handy political tools used to enact these failed policies.

    And yes, listing as a dreaded sex offender makes everyone automatically assume the worst. People are programmed to be afraid to even ask what happened to necessitate the label. Those convicted as juveniles will be adults some day, and will be assumed to have committed their offense against a child recently, not some time in their distant past. There is no forgiveness, and these juveniles are frozen in one moment of bad judgment forever, with this damning and debilitating label.

    So these RSOs and their families (including their wives and children) live in isolation and terror of vigilantes, kept constantly on guard and off-balance, as the new lepers of our society. And worse still, the label of sexual “predator” applied for a mundane act that was neither sexual nor predatory! People are murdered all over the US and the world due to this growing hysteria fomented by politicians and the media.

    But I ask you, the author and all the readers – If you engaged in underaged, consensual sexual activity, would you consider yourself a sex offender? According to the laws now – YOU are! Consent is irrelevant in this matter, according to the law. Neither force nor duress is required.

    I wonder if the lawmakers considered that this can apply to them? Especially since there is effort to remove the statute of limitations completely. This would make many granparents, parents and lawmakers (and us, the general public, even my very religious mom, with 5 kids) automatically sex offenders. Were your grandparents imminent threats to ALL women and children on the planet? Probably not. Neither, probably are you. Neither are the little children being put on the registry across the US today, but they are treated as such (for example: the two 14-year olds who got caught in the act of coitus and were charged with, and convicted of rape of each other), neither are many, many thousands of others. This is an epidemic of national insanity and hysteria that is consuming our youth!

    SOhopeful International has a lot of good information on not only this situation but the much larger issues, including a large library of documents about it that is open to the public. SOhopeful is comprised of families, professionals and citizens who can see that this is going in the wrong direction and want to help change it. After all, your son/daughter, neice/nephew, grandson/grandaughter could be swept up in this terrible, destructive net so easily, and there is virtually no escape once caught up in it.

    On another note, let’s not forget, Yashuha (Jesus’ original name) was a Jew!

  • bd

    Well I read the article and I agree that the laws imposed in that case need to be redefined. However, you need to keep in mind that at there has to be some limit set as to appropriate sexual conduct regarding persons over a certain age. You simply have to be accountable for your actions at some point.

    As for the sex offender registry well I think I can speak to a real world example about that. Two years ago my stepdaughter who was 32 and divorced started dating a man who was 37. Since she has two daughters (then 10 and 14) I checked the guy out on the sex offender registry and felt good when I did not find any record of him. Approximately 9 months later he was caught in the act having sex with my 14 year old granddaughter. During his trial it was revealed that 12 years earlier he had been convicted of molesting a 10 year old boy. However at that time there was no requirement to register as a sex offender in our state, had there been my granddaughter and my family would not have had to go through this. He is a career criminal who had literally spent more of his life in jail that out with over 26 charges on his criminal record, 6 of which were violent offences. What made this situation even more twisted is that the molestation of my granddaughter had gone on for about 3 months before he was caught. Why, because this guy was a very calculating and polished sexual predator. He had convinced my 14 year old granddaughter that he was in love with her. Told her how very mature she was for her age and that theirs was a true love that would last forever. How, that they could move to a place of there own and she wouldn’t have to deal with all of her mom’s shit anymore. He is now serving an 8-10 year sentence. To really add some joy to the situation he writes love letters to my granddaughter from prison about how when he gets out they can be together again.

    Fortunately and unfortunately my granddaughter has come to understand that she was not in love but was being molested. I’m not sure if she will ever really trust anyone again after the mind f*ck she’s been through.

    I agree that our justice system needs to be refined. However, I’m just a little bitter from my recent experience and so if you decide that the whole system is so wrong that you just want to tear it all down. Ok that sounds fine to me just as long as you agree that in 8-10 years when my personal predator gets out he can move into your neighborhood. That way since you�re so certain he will be rehabilitated you can forgive him in person and give him a big ole hug. I’m sure that will make him full of joy and feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

  • BD – first off, i believe that repeat offenders of child rape like the one you know should be put away for life. Plain and simple. 8-10 years horrifies me. I would like to see reform on this regard and reform on the ability to get these guys. It’s horrifying to realize that something like 10% of the guys who get reported are investigated, prosecuted, and convicted.

    Second, there’s a huge difference between the variety of people listed under the registry. That’s the problem. The registry makes everyone look the same and that’s not the case. Yes, i want to know if someone is a repeat child molestor. No, i do not want to know if an adult male had sex with another adult male in the park. I do not believe that we can build on an inherently flawed sex offender list. I want to see reform in the laws and information, not a building on something that is very broken. I know too many people who are on that list whose “crimes” are social transgressions (homosexuality, BDSM) not non-consentual harm.

  • Hmm, I believe all sodomy laws in the US that applied unequally to homosexuals were struck down under Lawrence V. Texas? I would have hoped that that would lead to prior convictions being voided 🙁

    As for BDSM, I’m unaware of the situation with that, and I would suspect how different activities would be viewed by prosecutors in different states would differ. That’s just my intuition, and I am sorry to hear that people you know have suffered.

    On another note, in case it’s not obvious to anyone, Wilson is Black. Anyone care to take a guess at the odds that the girl involved was White, especially with a first name like Michelle? I really hope something can be done – is there any option, other than a pardon, in a case where a conviction was reached in accordance with the law, etc, but simply is not right? Especially now that he is out of appeals apparently?

  • A quote from wilsonappeal.com:

    On July 1st, the new Romeo and Juliet law went into effect in Georgia for any other teen that engages in consensual sexual acts. That change in the law means that no teen prosecuted for consensual oral sex could receive more than a 12 months sentence or be required to register as a sex offender.

    Had this law been in effect when Genarlow Wilson was arrested, or had been done after the Marcus Dixon case, Genarlow would not now be in jail.

  • tasha

    i am very much wanting to date this guy and he is listed as a sex offender. his charge was statutory rape. the girl lied and told him she was of consensual age and then framed him. he has very strict conditions of his probation, it is ridiculous. he is not allowed to be around children while he is on probation. he was sentenced to 11 years and has 7 left. i have a 4 year old and am pregnant and i cannot bring my four year old around him. it’s really frustrating. he also has to go this sex offender class once a week in which he has been going to for two years. at that class, they tell him he is not allowed to have sex or engage in any sexual activity. he takes polygraphs on a weekly or monthly basis to see if he has been having sex or doing anything else wrong that would violate his probation. what i want to find is a loophole on how to get these strict ridiculous rules removed from his probation conditions. i want to know why he has these strict rules and how me and him can still date like a normal couple could. please help me find a solution. i also want to know if anyone has ever heard of such strict conditions on a sex offender. i just need answers, please.
    tasha

  • aridia

    Take note that sex offender laws effect child custody. My ex was able to get sole custody based on a relative in my family being a sex offender. This relative was given a pardon and a cert of rehabilitation and had committed the crime 17 years ago. At the time he was not aware of the register laws and took a no contest to get no jail time. Regardless my child was never permitted unsupervised contact with him and still the family courts force me to therapy (if I want to keep unsupervised visitation with her) and took my rights away.
    The worst part is I found out after my daughter was born that her father, my ex, had sex with a minor he was 5 years older than her and was able to get a plea bargain (contributing to delinquency charge PC 272) and is not required to register and is able to get sole custody. And his brother lives with them and molested him as a child. Also, my ex’s church let him be a lead youth pastor and overnight camp counselor. But again because he was able to get away with it legally with a plea bargain – he has no duty to register.
    Some definition on the laws is needed. Just like in prison they should have classification of parolee to provide the public with a better ledger for reading the register. Society should not accept that someone dangerous is lawfully allowed to be released unless certain there is no risk to the public. From what I read above the government is using victims fear and anger to make themselves a new opportunity to get funded. Perhaps the victim should have an option to have a say or an advocate at the SO’s parole hearing as to weather they should be released.
    That way if a guy is just caught peeing in the bushes on a dark freeway by a cop maybe the trees won’t mind if he’s released. However, if the guy really is the real deal SO then the victim whom is still suffering due to the crime should be allowed to keep the sexual predator in prison. That or give flat time -full long sentence – up to death row for predators.
    About the mom who wants a normal relationship with RSO – why are you willing to risk your relationship with your kids for any man – even if he was a saint now- once registered your life with him will never be normal. He will have to register every year if he is able to not violate parole.
    Just trying to understand an imperfect system and society.

  • FriendofSO

    I have a very good friend that is a registered Sex Offender. Several years ago when he was in his 40s he had consentual sex at a party with a girl that said she was 19 (and dressed like she was in her 20s). He found out after the fact that she was actually 17. She threatened to turn him in if he didn’t “date” her and even “marry” her. She even threatened to shoot his family if he didn’t do what she said. Yes, he shouldn’t have been with with a very young girl. Good looking men that have received attention all their lives from women and gotten away with getting what they want will keep getting and getting until they get “caught”. This situation was wrong and it got out of control. If he wouldn’t have been having sex with a young girl, then this wouldn’t have happened in the first place. However, with that said, he was forced to either plea to take many years of probation and be listed as a sex offender, or face a lengthy, expensive trial, put his family at risk, and possibly still not be able to prove that she lied about her age and face jail time. He worked with her at a place where you had to be over 18 to be employed and the employer destroyed her HR file so as not to be implicated in the trial.

    The point is, now he is paying a HUGE price for his sin, too big a price. He is put in the same category as the men who have molested and/or raped 5 year old children or younger, the same men that have stalked children, looked at child pornography and gone down a much harsher path. He has to take a class once a week (and pay for it, too) and sit there with these men, take annual polygraphs (or more often if they request, and pay hundreds of dollars for that as well). He has to pay fines, he is extremely restricted as to where he can live, his name, face and address are posted for the world to see, he has policemen that pound on his door at random times to make sure he is where he says he is, if he gets pulled over by a cop he has to have his papers with him at all times and tell the office he is a sex offender, and the list goes on. He is told that he is the same as the men that rape babies and stalk children. He cannot attend any of his kids school functions. He has not seen any of his kids’ sports or musical performances. He cannot go to anyone’s Christmas dinner, birthday party, or any other family function that has kids other than his own, not even his nieces or nephews. He spends evenings, weekends, and holidays alone. This is a college-educated man that made one terrible mistake and whose life is ruined because the laws do not differentiate between types of sex crimes.

    While I am in strict favor of these laws that are there to protect your kids and mine, I do think that there should be some sort of revision to the law for this type of issue. I also believe that there should be some positive type of rehabilitation for these men. They are hounded and pounded into that they are bad (and they have been) but someone needs to encourage them to be good men, meaning positive therapy and help.

    I would love to date this man, my friend. He is a wonderful person that would never think inappropriately of my daughters. Yet, he is imprisioned to lead a life just the same as the man who raped a toddler. Sex crimes are very complex. With the internet and our society so focused on sexual behavior and instant gratification, with the billions (with a b) of dollars spent on pornography, why can’t there be more attention to help sex offenders? They are humans that have gone astray in various levels and deserve and need to be shown the right way to live, without feeling they are “lost for good”.

    Thank you for reading and I welcome your comments.

  • CONCERNED THAT MY NIECE MIGHT GET RAPED BY HER EX-CON GRANDFATHER WHO WAS IN FOR INCEST WITH HIS 9 YEAR OLD DAUGHTER

    First I would like to address prisoner 24601’s comment. I totally agree that a seventeen year old boy and a 15 year old girl engaging in consentual sex should not result in this boy being locked away for 8-10 years, ruining his life, and preventing him from attending college, or (possibly) from ever getting a good job. But, just because this boy was unfairly sentenced does not mean the whole system is worthless. IT DEFINITELY NEEDS REFORM! Harmles acts should get menial punishments. Two people or even one person performing a sexual act (one that is consentual) should not be tried as a felon or even with a misdemeaner. I do think having sex in a car, or anywhere in public is inappropriate, but don’t we (Not me) watch movies-in public- that show breasts? But if someone were to take her shirt off in the movie theater, that is a crime? come on! The punishment should correspond with the act.

    Now, for the other point. My sister is pregnant. She makes bad decisions, but I can’t control what she does. I’m her older sister, I in college, she’s 17, and won’t listen to anything I say. Her boyfriend’s dad just got out of prison, so I asked her, “why was he in prison” her response was, “I’m not telling you, that is (we’ll just call him John) John’s business to tell you. I was worried so I looked him up on our state’s sex offender’s list, and sure enough, he was right there picture and all. His crime WAS severe and he got 8 years! He was in for “incest with a minor” I was horrified! 8 years ago his children were 8 and 9. My sister’s boyfriend and his sister (who I think was the victim) spend every sunday with their rapist dad now, and my sister doesn’t mind. She is giving birth to my niece in a couple of months and I worried that she will let the baby be with him alone. WHAT CAN I DO??????????????????

  • jennifer gagnon

    Well, I have not read all of this as of yet but need to give my opinion anyway. My husband is a sex offender and like some others he was young, did not know the girls, age and had court appointed attorneys that really didn’t care. He has something like 7 to 11 charges that would have given him 7 years max each. That would be at least 49 years in jail. He did 2. That has to tell you something.
    I do agree that there are many perverts out there but my husband is not one of them. He is a wonderful father, uncle, husband and friend. When people find out about his horrible past they don not believe it. I guess all I want to say is that laws need to be fix so that these young ?naive? men can have semi normal lives. It is very important to vote and know what is going on in your community. And please don’t judge.

  • nick ames

    This is just stupid. I mean who is the idiot who thinks this is a good case. Watch it young people, pretty soon just having sexual thoughts will land you in the pokey for years. The real child abusers are the ones who put this kid behind bars.

  • I know this post is old, but I couldn’t figure out why the Jews and Christians were brought into it. I could be mistaken, but according to the bible, sex before marriage (fornication) is a sin. Therefore, if this kid was doing what he shouldn’t have been doing in the first place, why shouldn’t he have to pay a consequence? I understand that he might not even be a Christian, and maybe you aren’t either, but if you are going to put the people who started the “sex offender registry” under the law of the bible, then you have to put the kid under it too. Christianity is about forgiveness, but God is a fair judge.

  • Daitoshi

    All this talk of sex offenders is really rather disturbing. I am 16 in highschool, taking college classes.
    It alarms me that all these things are going on. It is stupid and frankly, disgusting. There is a definatley age limit. If it is outside of that limit, than it is way creepy to have sex, or even date that person.
    Half your age, round up, and add seven.
    If your partner is not within that range, then you definately should not be dating.

    All this talk of pedophilia is getting me annoyed at humans in general.
    Not catagorizing between sex crimes is even more ridiculus.

    All in favor of going on facebook and Myspace and creating an account or something dedicated to this? Getting a bunch of signatures to get this ‘list’ catagorized?

  • alexa stock

    i am dating a sex offender and i was wanting to know if there is any possible way that he could have a full future like the rest of us? if not i dont really think thats fair. yes he did something wrong but i dont think his whole life should have to be messed up because of it? do you get where im coming from? if anyone can help me find out the infromation i need to know if he can get to a good college like the rest of us then plesae email me. my email is heartbroken564@gmail.com or lex_stock@yahoo.com.