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Friday, March 30, 2007

Offender Outtake: The Women’s Movement and Sex Offender Laws

posted by on March 30 at 10:40 AM


I have a feature in this week’s Stranger about the life and crimes of Jefferson County’s only Level 3 sex offender. It’s a long piece, but that doesn’t mean I could fit in everything I found fascinating about the debate over how best to punish and rehabilitate sexual criminals. Here’s one thing that didn’t make it into my story:

When I asked Alisa Klein, spokeswoman for the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, why punishments for sex offenders have grown increasingly harsh over the last few decades, she pointed to a force that I hadn’t considered: The women’s movement.

Speaking for herself, and not for her organization, she told me:

We have seen, pretty much consistently since the 60s, a pendulum swing toward a lot of attention to this issue, and increasingly, every decade since the 60s, a lot of punitive and sort of knee-jerk attention to this issue.

This is due in part, she believes, to the women’s movement:

What the women’s movement did, because they wanted to get people to pay attention, and take this seriously, is, in my opinion, they threw their lot in with the criminal justice system to be the main system for responding to sexual violence.

Klein believes that violent sexual predators, and other sexual criminals, should be punished. But she also believes many of them can be treated, and should received better treatment than they do. Further, she believes that that the current public focus on extending sentences for sex offenders, and on restricting their movements after they are released back into society, can create a false sense of security.

Most rapes of adult women are committed by someone known to the victim. Most sexual assaults committed against children are perpetrated by someone known to the child (in about half the cases, by a family member). But the current push for harsher and harsher sex offender punishments grows out of public concern over “stranger danger,” which itself grows out of highly-publicized cases of children being abducted by strangers—a horrifying, but relatively rare, occurrence. (Read more about this phenomenon of televised child abduction stories driving policy in my piece.)

Klein believes that the current focus on “stranger danger” can confuse the public on where the most common danger really lies—with friends, acquaintances, and family members. “It ends up becoming a kind of deterrent to our society’s ability to respond before the fact,” she told me.

Back to the question of how all of this intersects with the women’s movement, here’s a letter to the editor we just received about my piece:

I enjoyed Eli Sander’s piece on Erik Mart. I’m sorry that the system has so mishandled Mart’s case, punishment and treatment. I’m also sorry that he was apparently molested by his father and that society never addressed it.

But I feel even more sorry for the two women he assaulted. I can imagine the absolute terror they must have felt and, later, the furious anger at the audacity of their assailant.

I think this country has severe punishments because we have such severe crimes. But, if we’re going to “rate” sexual crimes on a scale, obviously the more violent or repeat offenders should get a higher rating. But how is raping a child more wrong than raping a 30-yr-old woman or a 70-year-old retiree? And this is where the problem of sexual assault runs head long into the issue of feminism and the institutionalized objectification and dehumanizing of females. Until just a few decades ago, sexually assault was considered okay in certain situations.

Today, outside of the U.S. rape is the norm, not the exception, in dozens of countries. Women and children are bought and sold as sex slaves in Russia and other eastern European countries. In South Africa, Egypt and Mexico the incident of sexual assault — including child molestation and incest — is calculated in minutes, not annually.

If our judicial system is taking a hamfisted approach to the treatment of sexual predators, it’s still better than what most foreign governments do — which is nothing, partly thanks to misogyny…

— M. Murphy

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As the child of a rape victim, I say there isn't a punishment severe enough for violent sex offenders. If you can't bring yourself to kill them, paralyze them from the neck down.

Posted by elswinger | March 30, 2007 10:56 AM

" I’m also sorry that he was apparently molested by his father and that society never addressed it.
But I feel even more sorry for the two women he is raping a child more wrong than raping a 30-yr-old woman or a 70-year-old retiree? "

i'm not defending this guy, as he is clearly a predator, but this letter exemplifies what i've come to dislike about feminism. women's rights/needs aren't MORE important than that of children, men, the planet, the family, or anything else. they are AS important, and in some instances, (dare i say it?) less important. she actually admits that she has more sympathy for the rape of grown women than for a small, helpless child--maybe if we weren't talking about a male child she'd sing a different tune. despicable.

Posted by ellarosa | March 30, 2007 11:23 AM

Eli, I loved this piece. Great reporting. How'd you convince the parents to speak with you? This young journalist would love to know more about it!

Posted by Sam | March 30, 2007 11:37 AM

Thanks, Sam. I actually didn't have to do much convincing, which surprised me. Glad to hear you enjoyed the piece.

Posted by Eli Sanders | March 30, 2007 11:47 AM

@2: Just pointing out we have no idea whether the writer of the letter was a man or a woman.

Posted by Gloria | March 30, 2007 12:01 PM

5, my point would stand, no matter the sex of the letter writer, but i would be very surprised if the writer were male--i 've encountered this attitude only from woment--but its' not impossible, i suppose.

Posted by ellarosa | March 30, 2007 12:11 PM

Very true; just thought I'd make the point in case.

Posted by Gloria | March 30, 2007 12:19 PM


I think you are misinterpreting the letter writer. In the sentence just before she talks about how there is a clear need to rate sexual offenders, with the more violent and repeat offenders getting a higher rating. Then she says that raping a child is no worse than raping an adult woman. I dont' think she was talking about the offender's childhood molestation, but rather about the common perception that attacking a child is somehow worse. There are valid reasons for thinking a crime against a child is worse (more vulnerable victim, more undeveloped psyche, less chance of getting caught etc.) but I don't think there is necessarily anything wrong with the writers opinion either.

Posted by hattio | March 30, 2007 12:52 PM

sorry, 8, but the writer leaves no room for misinterpretation. he/she is clearly more on the side of the adult female victim. how is it more wrong to rape a child? let me count the ways...oh, that's right, you did that already. it's a myopia, using feminism to justify what is essentially a solopsistic world view, and i won't tolerate it. i consider myself a feminist, and i don't want these types discrediting it.

Posted by ellarosa | March 30, 2007 1:23 PM
...she actually admits that she has more sympathy for the rape of grown women than for a small, helpless child...

Maybe the writer is saying that she has more sympathy for two women, who probably have never harmed other people at any points in their lives, than a man who chose to deal with his past abuse by brutalizing two complete strangers. If that is what the letter writer was getting at, then I completely agree.

Posted by keshmeshi | March 30, 2007 1:57 PM


It's possible to have more sympathy for the adult innocent victims than for someone who was abused and then turned around and inflicted that on somebody else. That's a far cry from thinking sexual assault of a child is somehow not as bad as sexually assaulting an adult. And while I happen to think assaulting a child is worse (for the reasons I mentioned before), that's far from clear to me. If that means I'm somehow giving feminism a bad name, I think feminism will somehow survive the black mark.

Posted by hattio | March 30, 2007 3:31 PM

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