You may be a sex offender if…
All parents fear for their children’s safety. It is argued that initiatives such as the Home Office’s sex offender disclosure scheme will help reassure parents and keep their children safe. Parents are often able to get information from the police about individuals who have access to their children. Today, you can potentially check whether the guy who plays football with the kids at the local park or the woman at the nearby newsagents is a potential threat to children. Some want to go further and emulate the US where it’s simple and routine to find a map of registered sex offenders living in your vicinity. But is awareness of these registrants and schemes to check on fellow citizens making families safer or simply scaring them?
What does it take to get labelled a ‘sex offender’ anyway? In the US, there are a growing list of crimes that require registration. In the UK, the Violent and Sex Offender Register (ViSOR), a database of records of those required to register with the police under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, includes not only those jailed for more than 12 months for violent offences, but also those thought to be at risk of offending. In response to a freedom of information request in 2009, Greater Manchester Police reported that 16 people in their area were placed on ViSOR on their initiative and not as a result of a relevant conviction; four of them had clean criminal records.
Ironically, young people are themselves increasingly at threat of being labelled as offenders due to the increased criminalisation of young adults’ awkward and messy sexual encounters. Disturbing statistics have been revealed by the BBC, showing that around 5,500 sexual offences were reported by teachers to the police between 2012 and 2015. In some cases, both the complainant and the accused were five years old. Many of the incidents described were categorised as ‘sexual bullying’. While this is potentially unpleasant, it is a highly subjective category and perhaps better dealt with informally by parents and carers than the authorities.
A new cause for concern are the unwise, but in most cases harmless, instances of sexting among children and teenagers. In the past three years, nearly 400 children under the age of 12 have been ‘spoken to’ by police officers for sexting. While it is indisputable that it is a crime to distribute explicit images of young people in general, should it really be treated as a crime when young people are themselves sharing these images? The consequences of intervention by the police can be devastating. Children can find themselves placed on the sex offenders’ register for years, and this can have a serious impact on their employment and education opportunities.
Lenore Skenazy, founder of America’s Free-Range Kids, chairman of Let Grow and an advocate for giving our children the old-fashioned freedom most of us enjoyed, will give a special presentation asking the audience to consider what might be the appropriate punishments for several actual cases, and the effect the sex offenders’ registry is having on childhood and society in America. She will provocatively ask how easily you (or your child) could end up on the register. She will be joined to discuss the issue by Luke Gittos, who will give a UK perspective.