Internet sex offenses

I’m going to spend a few days discussing internet sex offenses. These make up a growing number of the offenses that are getting men on the registry, disproportionately impact men in their late teens and 20s, are one of the few kinds of sex offenses (other than prostitution) where stings are routinely carried out, and are by their nature non-violent. I think it’s particularly important to separate reality from hysteria in this area.

There are, as far as I can tell, three main types of internet sex offenses that men are being charged with: 1) the kind of chat room/dating site sting operation my husband was caught up in; 2) downloading child pornography (which, due to the nature of file-sharing programs, generally results in charges of both possession and distribution); and 3) sharing explicit images of/with an actual teen known to a person via a computer or smartphone. I will say that I am far less familiar with the third type of offense than the other two, so it will get less attention.

One thing I want to establish at the outset is that, for all intents and purposes, internet sex offenses against prepubescent children are an urban legend. The idea that predatory pedophiles would be using the internet to trick little kids into giving out their names and addresses and then tracking them down to kidnap, molest, and possibly murder was a popular one, but not something that actually happened. At best, it’s akin to stories of poisoned Halloween candy: while there have been 2-3 isolated cases of individuals (known to the children already) using poison in Halloween candy to harm children, these were incredibly atypical aberrations and nothing that warrants, in any rational universe, the level of concern that the public feels about this. (I can remember, when I was a kid, the local police station offering to x-ray Halloween candy to make sure it was free of razor blades. Even law enforcement, who should have known better, played right into and accepted the hysteria.) At worst, it’s a cynical ploy by the government to justify domestic spying via the internet in the guise of “protecting children.”

But, in any case, the primary rationale for cracking down on “cyberpredators” was the story that every corner of the internet, especially those were children go, is filled with compulsive, predatory child molesters just waiting to trick your child into giving out personal information so they can track them down. And, that story is false. That story is about as true as the story from the 1980s that day care centers across the country had been infiltrated by Satantic cults trafficking in child pornography and engaging in ritual sexual abuse. And, as with the ritual abuse scare, it terrified a generation of parents and has led to laws and penalties that have not protected children but have hurt many adults caught up in the witchhunt.

While there never were armies of pedophiles using the internet to prey on children, it’s not that hard to imagine why people believed there were. Tomorrow I’m going to talk about that, and about why that perception was so wrong.

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