The high school senior accused of statutory rape against his sophomore girlfriend. The construction worker fined for indecency and branded a sex offender for life after taking an outdoor bathroom break. The family members of registered sex offenders who face public ridicule, anger and limited employment and housing opportunities.
Their situations aren't unique, according to Chrysanthi Leon, an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware. Rather, she says, they're examples of what happens when "laws passed with the bogeyman in mind are applied to real people."
Her new book, Sex Fiends, Perverts, and Pedophiles: Understanding Sex Crime Policy in America, examines the history and evolution of offenders — viewed in various points within the past century as nuisances, psychopaths, patients and monsters — and explains how we've reached a current tough-on-crime, one-size-fits-all approach.
Modern legislation for sex crimes is often based off the most gruesome, highly publicized cases and consequently does more to undermine public safety than bolster it, Leon writes.
By tracing the evolution of sex crime policy in America and debunking several myths surrounding sex offenders (the most common experience of sexual assault, for instance, occurs within families and among acquaintances, not by strangers), Leon illustrates that our "empirical picture" of the sex offender is a partial one.
"This partial view," she says, "allows perpetrators to deny their offenses, victims to remain unidentified, and society to remain accepting of highly punitive symbolic policies that do not address the root causes of sexual assault."
As a result, Leon argues, victim advocates, criminal justice and correctional employees, and experts in the social sciences have a major goal in shaping sex crime policy: "To insist that policy is grounded in what we know about the perpetrators of sexual violence, not what we fear about monsters."