in brief: What counts as a sex crime? It depends.

What counts as a sex crime varies dramatically by time and place. So does what happens to those who cross the line.

In colonial America, Puritan authorities executed a teenage boy for sex with farm animals.

But despite those Puritan beginnings, America has sometimes also been remarkably lax about regulating sex.

  • In 1880, 35 U.S. states set the age of consent for girls at 10. Boys were not covered by any age of consent generally until the 1970s.
  • In 1981, New York’s highest court ruled that child porn laws were unconstitutional if they prohibited portraying adolescent sexuality in a “realistic but non-obscene” manner.

Today U.S. sex laws are anything but lax, even if laws against adultery and sodomy, which were almost never used, have been cast aside. Compared to the 1870s or 1970s, America has reversed course, dramatically expanding the scope and the harshness of sex laws in ways that recall the Puritans’ vindictiveness.

Between 1980 and 1997 alone, one scholar found an 800% increase the number of Americans (both adults and juveniles) incarcerated for consensual underage sex. The most common age at which a male was prosecuted as a sex offender, according the U.S. Justice Department, is 14.

Barack Obama, on the campaign trail, condemned a Supreme Court decision that barred execution for sex with minors, laws written so loosely they covered acts of consensal sex among minors themselves or sex crimes with no actual victims.

A regime of thoughtless and unrelenting harshness leads to needless tragedies. In 2017, 16-year-old honor student Corey Walgren threw himself to his death off a parking garage in Illinois when his high school principal threatened him with child porn charges for photos he’d taken with his girlfriend. His death adds to a sad litany of men and boys who have killed themselves rather than face prison for sexual offenses or be shamed for life as registrants.

The tangle of rules and prohibitions put on people ever convicted of a sex offense has created a new version of Jim Crow. After the U.S. Civil War put an end to slavery, the South imposed on blacks second class status and a reign of vigilante terror. National institutions, such as the Supreme Court, looked the other way or lent their support.

This new Jim Crow regime is also based on knowingly false stereotypes and ill will. People who have a conviction for a sex offense in their past can be barred from living in most places or working in many jobs, or even forced to live away apart from their families or have their children taken away.

US Justice Department statistics show that people convicted of sex offenses have among the lowest redidivism of among past lawbreakers. But in 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court cited a throwaway line in a popular magazine claiming that recidivism for people with sex offenses was “frightening and high”. Based on that falsehood, the U.S. high court has ruled there is virtually no limit to the restrictions – up to and including lifetime “preventative” incarceration after a sentence a fully served – that can be put on people who at any point in the past had a conviction for a sexual offense.

Families and friends of those in prison for sex offenses have to wrestle with false stereotypes and as they try to square the prevailing vindictiveness with their affections, concern, and loyalty to their loved ones. Those of us in this difficult position can play a vital role in watching out for the well-being and basic humanity of these prisoners – and organize to fight an often cynically stoked panic that threatens the rights of all.

For a longer discussion of these issues, click here.


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