Awful Acts and the Trouble with Normal

In my Canadian hometown, where my dad’s neighborhood store, Iron Mountain, still sells WD-40 next to the tampons, Clifford Olson “snatched up girls like you,” my principal Mr. Gayle told my best friend Carla Salvail and I. “He will capture you and then…”

Olson permeated the spring and summer of 1981. School assemblies lectured us on how to recognize The Car of The Stranger. The ice rink, parks, and other public spaces were closed, and the yellow-striped Royal Canadian Mountain Police were everywhere.

One afternoon that summer Carla and I were illicitly at Mount Crescent Elementary School on the tire swing and she told me that her uncle… she did not use the words molested or rape or even sex. In fact I don’t even remember what she said. I just remember that day, the dizzy circles on the tire swing, and awkwardly now, that I thought she was bragging.

Caught in “the biggest manhunt in the country,” Olson was picked up in late summer 1981 and I watched Carla’s uncle buy her a shot for her eighteenth birthday.

Hunts for sex offenders and serial killers are a soundtrack to my life.

Registries

 

“Sex offender registries” in the US were establish-ed in urban centers in the 1930 and ‘40s to collect information on male homosexual activity. Prior to the US Supreme Court’s 2003 six-to-three decision in Lawrence & Garner v. State of Texas ruling anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional, sodomy, or simply the intent, was still a crime in many states. While penalties varied, a conviction on a sodomy-related charge carried an average maximum prison term of ten years. For example, over a three-year period in Los Angeles in the early 1960s, 493 men were arrested for consensual so-domy with 257 convicted, and 104 imprisoned. [1]

Registries also carried documentation of other charges levied against men perceived to be gay or to be engaging in same-sex sexual practices and activities, including “lewd conduct,” “lewd vagrancy” and “outraging public decency.” Registries became less popular by the 1970s largely because they were private documents internal to police forces, and the registries were often broad and too cumbersome to use. [2]

As the use of registries to track and harass “known homosexuals” waned, in the 1980s sexual offender registries (sor’s) found a new target in child predators. Researchers and activists have suggested that the phenomenal expansion of sor’s in the US to track those convicted of child-related sex offenses was due to multiple factors: the explosion and fetishization of “stranger danger” and child abductions in mass media, escalating and racialized fears of public urban spaces, and the growing anxieties of adults about that achingly empty signifier, “the child.”

In the mid ’90s, weighed down with the precious ennui afforded only by universities and cheap marijuana, I lived, worked and hung out in bars near the “low track” on the downtown East Side of Vancouver.

Like the spring snow melt, female sex workers disappeared.

These women never made the evening news or the front page of the paper, but their photos, usually from high school, were stapled to telephone poles around the downtown East Side.

Sixty-three had disappeared by 2004. Many were indigenous, not from the city, and poor.

Tanya Holyk, 23, last seen in October 1996

Olivia Williams, 22, last seen December 1996

Stephanie Lane, 20, last seen March 1997

Despite the strong and scraggly candle vigils and marches, the police’s tepid non-response through-out the 1990s indicated that these were disposable women who did not merit the full protection, let alone basic interest, of the police. If these women got hurt, they were partially culpable. They were not innocent, and they were probably never children. And how do you know they are missing? These kind of girls just run away.

Safe Spaces

 

In Illinois, the 1986 Habitual Child Sex Offender Registration Law established the first public registry for those convicted of child sexual offenses. In the subsequent twenty years, registration requirements have been expanded to include a broader range of offenses, including, essentially, all sex offenses and other crimes against children. Over the years, sor’s also increased the information available to the public (the Illinois State Public Sex Offender Website was up by 1999) and amplified the restrictions attached to registration. In 1996, in direct response to the abduction and murder of twelve-year-old Polly Klaas (1992) and seven-year-old Megan Kanka (1994) by two men with prior convictions for violent sexual crimes, the federal government passed Megan’s Law, establishing a national sex offender registry.

SOR’s require those convicted of a range of offenses, from public indecency and lewdness to aggravated child sexual assault, to register every ninety days for at least ten years. SOR’s also restrict employment, housing and mobility, particularly in public spaces where children congregate. The restrictions are specific. As of last year, registered sex offenders in Illinois were prohibited from living within “500 feet of a school, playground, or any facility providing programs or services exclusively directed toward people under age 18.” Other states (and some cities) have similar laws. In Iowa, convicted sex offenders cannot reside within 2000 feet of schools or places where children congregate, thus effectively prohibiting anyone on the sor from living in an urban center. SOR restrictions, like most laws, tend to be selectively enforced. For example, a shelter that I am affiliated with has provided temporary housing for registered sex offenders for a number of years. The school nearby, measured by the street, is more than 500 feet away but under 500 feet when measured “as the crow flies.” As the neighborhood gentrifies, the shelter’s proximity to a school has been explicitly questioned though it is a school in which I suspect none of the new homeowners would ever enroll their children.

Through these mobility and public space restrictions, SOR’s construct meanings about what kinds of public space are dangerous for children, where children are most at risk or vulnerable, and by default, what kinds of spaces are safe or risk-free. With seventy percent of all reported sexual assaults against children committed in a residence, usually the victim’s, this emphasis on “public spaces,” namely parks and schools, is odd. [3]

While strangers do hurt children, sor’s create a culture where the perceptions of violence and harm to children and youth occur outside of the child’s natural life. The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics clearly identifies that “acquaintances,” and then family members, are the highest risk category to sexually assault children. For children under eighteen, strangers are consistently the least likely—generally significantly less than ten percent—to be the perpetrator. Given that these are reported incidents to law enforcement, and the sanctions for children (or anyone economically or otherwise dependent) against naming family or friends as the perpetrators of violence are high, these numbers are conservative. [4]

The real fear for women and children is not the stranger, but the men they know.

In 1999, I moved to Chicago, still a full three years before Robert Pickton would be charged with the murders of twenty-seven women, almost all sex workers, from the downtown East Side.

I haul myself to the neighborhood “block club meeting,” where the debates are usually about who has the most garbage on their lawn, because my landlord is renovating my apartment and I mistakenly think that this group can be effective.

The people in the room, mainly women, mostly mothers, murmur indignantly as a homemade flyer with the title Child Molester is distributed in the cool church basement. The discussion, righteous, is about what to do.

Picket his building? Get him to move out! Leaflet and poster the entire neighborhood? Absolutely warn the school.

As I look around the room, I want to ask, which one of you lives in the apartment where I hear a woman scream almost every night? Are you the one I saw being dragged from your car, in broad daylight, by your hair and we knocked on your door and were told it was “nothing?”

What does it mean that we are so willing to notice certain kinds of violence, to picket and organize, but the other, equally devastating and perhaps more intimate harm, is so carefully protected?

Beyond the good, the bad and the innocent

 

While problematizing SOR’s, I do not minimize the persistent, pervasive violence against women, girls, queers, various deviants, those viewed as 3/5th human, those without correct documentation, and others on the margins. Rather, the state has always valued the lives and “innocence” of specific children and women more highly and this is reflected at every level of our systems, from child welfare policies to drug laws, in word and in application.

From reproductive rights for white women dependent upon the sterilization of women of color and the premise of their sexual unfitness and immorality, to miscegenation laws that protected the constructed category of whiteness through the criminalization of “inter-racial” marriage and sexual acts, to the lynching of black men to preserve the safety and the racial purity of white women, the innocence of white women is enshrined in policies and written into the very conception of the nation-state itself. The US has typically passed laws that protect their interests in women’s bodies and sexualities, interests explicitly shaped by white supre-macy, class and ability.

Just as drug-free zones around school do not reduce youth’s drug usage but instead criminalize entire communities, and zero-tolerance policies in schools, “tough on crime” laws and the “war on terror” don’t make us any safer, expanding sor’s does not reduce persistent, often state-sanctioned, violence against women, girls, and others. These laws and polices disproportionately impact poor people, and others already under surveillance and racially targeted by the state. [5]

In a nation without an adequate or affordable childcare system, no universal healthcare, expensive to prohibitive costs for higher education and a minimum wage that is not a living wage, there are no registries for the officials and employers who routinely implement policies that actively damage all people, including or even particularly children.

SOR’s are expanding. Civil commitment laws, passed in a dozen states by 2006 and upheld by the Supreme Court in a 2005 decision, aim to geographically detain and segregate certain categories of sex offenders, indefinitely, after release. [6] The escalating housing and employment prohibitions make life difficult for those convicted of sex offenses and, most centrally, do nothing to make our communities safer or better.

Why the relative silence surrounding these expansions from anti-prison activists? Feminists? Queers? Historically, inclusion of marginalized people is purchased through the demonization of those of lesser value—and child molesters are an easy mark. Yet colluding with this framework does nothing to make our lives safer. We need people to ask questions and to dialogue. What are the factors that support and naturalize the expansion of the SOR? Which children (and adults) benefit from the construction of the child as vulnerable and in need of protection and surveillance? How do sor’s protect those with the most power and privileges? How do we, especially those most impacted and harmed, humanize the lives of those, convicted or not, of sexual offenses? How might public dialogues about these questions shift ideas about health and safety in homes and communities, and even perhaps, shift conceptions about childhood, sexuality or family?

This analysis is not new. Organizations and individuals are working to make changes. Generation 5 is dedicated to ending violence against children in five generations without state intervention; Stop It Now provides a hotline that includes offering confidential resources for adults; Critical Resistance works toward ending the nation’s prison industrial complex; and Young Women’s Empowerment Project offers peer-to-peer harm reduction for youth in the sex trade. Each of these organizations work in communities to make changes without stigmatizing populations, and without using and legitimating punitive systems. This is much easier to write about than to enact.

Martin, the part-time building maintenance worker, can’t find anywhere to live. Landlords won’t take him, he doesn’t have enough money, or there is a nearby school or park. Stammering with anxiety, he blurts his crisis, continuously, to those nearby.

Martin is no friend of mine. I rarely make eye contact aside from a breezy and too loud hello. I justify my frosty exclusion with the rationale that I have known too many women in my life that have survived violence from men. When he has his housing crisis I think that someone else will assist him, and of course, in our posse of deviants (queers, nuns, on-again-off-again sex workers) someone else listens. Undereducated, poor, and with a personal history of violence, I know that my exclusion of Martin is illogical, and possibly harmful, yet of all the things to unlearn in my life, somehow this is not a priority.

 

In honor of a life of fierceness and brilliance—Carla Salvail, 1969–2005

Notes

1 Jacobson, R. (1999). “‘Megan’s Laws’: Reinforcing old patterns of anti-gay police harassment.” Georgetown Law Journal, 87(7), 2431-2473

2 Ibid.; Humphreys L. (1970). Tea Room Trade. Chicago: Aldine.

3 Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2000). Sexual assault of young children as reported to law enforcement: Victim, incident, and offender characteristics. Retrieved December 05, 2006, Bureau of Justice Statistics Website: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/saycrle.pdf

4 Ibid.

5 Greene, J., Pranis, K. & Ziedenberg J. (2006, March). Disparity by Design: How drug-free zone laws impact racial disparity-and fail to protect youth. A Justice Policy Institute Report, Retrieved December 21, 2006, from the Justice Policy Institute Report Website: http://www.justicepolicy.org/reports/SchoolZonesReport306.pdf

6 Feuer, A. (2005, October 4). “Pataki uses state law to hold sex offenders after prison.” The New York Times, pp. B4.

 

Research & action links —Generation Five www.generationfive.org —Stop It Now! www.stopitnow.com —Critical Resistance www.crticalresistance.org —Young Women’s Empowerment Project www.youarepriceless.org