Not long ago, pit bull terriers were the most hated and feared dog breed in the United States.
Communities banned the breed. The media told sensationalized stories of hapless children being mauled by malicious monsters. Kids could never be safe around them. Neighbors lived with furry ticking time bombs next door.
Certain breeds such as pit bulls were dangerous — bad to the bone. Or so went the shared narratives.
Some pit bull paranoia remains today, but it now seems that softer hearts are beginning to prevail. Books have been published detailing how pit bulls have been unfairly maligned. Many communities have relaxed zoning laws, enforcement or even abolished laws that once banned the breed. And even dog therapy programs employ these animals whose mere name once evoked fear.
So what prompted these changes?
For one, rational people made an effort to change the narrative around pit bulls, which yielded positive results.
Because some people kept their heads while others lost theirs, a breed was saved. Pit bull advocates spread truth by talking with neighbors, posting messages online and compelling those around them to witness with their own eyes that a dog should not be demonized simply because of its breed.
Now it is more widely understood that any dog’s conditioning and environment significantly impacts its ability to socialize appropriately with humans. Everyone is better off when we consider dogs individually rather than writing off an entire group.
Unfortunately, U.S. culture is permeated with fear. So, while one dog breed may have a better future ahead, plenty of groups of humans remain easily and frequently villainized.
Perhaps the most reviled group in America is sex offenders. We are society’s pariahs. Despite the nature or degree of harm of any one person’s sex-related offense, all of us in this category are subjected to draconian laws, zoning restrictions (which limit where a sex offender can live, work or walk) and constant monitoring.
It doesn’t matter whether our offense was streaking or rape — sex-offender registration marks us all with a scarlet letter, inviting suspicion and contempt from the public. Even after release from prison, we are essentially fated to become unemployable outcasts.
Law enforcement officials warn us to keep our lights off on Halloween. Judges and politicians cite bogus statistics about sex offenders having a high likelihood to reoffend, despite studies showing the opposite is true, including one study conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This and other studies suggest that recidivism rates for sex offenders are actually lower than those for people who committed other kinds of crimes.
Those leaving prison face the possibility of civil commitment and possibly never going home again. And popular television programs depict sex offenders as degenerates unable to control their bestial urges. The truth is much more complicated.
A low point
I had no criminal record, no predilection for illegal behavior, no history of sexual deviancy. But at a low point in my life, I turned to internet porn. And there I got caught up in fantasy dialogues with an undercover police officer.
Although I doubted the claims she made about her age, and I never actually showed up to our rendezvous point, I did a sufficient amount in the court’s perspective to be declared guilty of using a computer to facilitate a child sex crime. For that, I was sentenced to six years of prison and six years of supervision.
Since conviction, I have been evaluated countless times by various professionals. They determined I do not fit the profile for pedophilia. My risk of re-offending is practically nonexistent. And I have been immersing myself in every possible opportunity to improve my mind, body and spirit so that I do not go down that dark path again.
Furthermore, I am required to go through sex offender treatment. This therapy is something I am more than willing to complete, and I have every intention to engage the process fully and successfully.
Even so, for the rest of my days I will be forced to maintain my name on Wisconsin’s sex offender registry. My passport will be specially marked. Homeland Security and Interpol will be notified of my travel plans. Certain countries will bar my entrance. And there will be a laundry list of restrictions pertaining to employment, residence, recreation, education, financial assistance and other aspects of life that most Americans take for granted.
The vast majority of such penalties governing my life have no relevance to the nature of my crime, the severity of my offense, the likelihood of my recidivism, or the scope of my history, current behavior or psychological profile. Because I am saddled with the label of “sex offender,” I must endure the most severe consequences.
The scarlet letter
Had I committed any other type of crime (selling drugs, driving drunk, robbing a bank, etc.), people would bend over backward to give me a second chance, an opportunity to redeem myself.
But as a “sex offender,” I am regarded with hatred and suspicion. I feel branded, compelled to display a scarlet letter on my breast. I am stripped of human dignity as the world looks upon me through the lens of my worst moment.
Indeed, my anger about these injustices is personal. But thousands upon thousands of Americans are also marginalized, oppressed and ostracized. I look beyond myself and burn with righteous indignation for all who are affected.
It might be a stretch to compare an innocent dog breed with people convicted of criminal behavior, but the hysteria surrounding both people with sex offenses and pit bulls is similar. Sure, there is a need to protect the public. But there’s a difference between protective measures and madness.
Rational people who can deliver the truth need to stand up persistently and fearlessly against unjust laws — which even human rights organizations have raised concerns over. These laws provide the illusion of security but in reality protect no one and can actually corrode civil rights for everyone.
Instead of painting all sex offenders with one broad brush, we need to look at individuals. We need to understand them as unique human beings, deserving of compassion and understanding, just like anyone else.
(Additional reporting by PJP)
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.