Monday, July 17, 2006

Sexually Based Offenses are Considered Particularly Marketable

Television is often a victimless crime. When some cable channel talking head makes a few bucks by hosting a special on an alien autopsy or the Shroud of Turin, the willful misrepresentation of the facts is no more objectionable than the net stockings on a hooker. It’s just something the johns like; and the second-rate celebrities that host these shows probably figure that the work, inglorious as it is, still beats opening strip malls. The calculated promotion of public ignorance is far harder to excuse when real human beings are hurt in the process. I’m not just thinking of the way the corporate shills on CNBS encourages stock market speculation or Fox stokes the natural cowardice of the American people in order to justify war and torture. The entertainment shows also spread false and misleading ideas and do so far more effectively than any blond harpy on CNN.

It is the premise of countless television shows that sex offenders are impossible to rehabilitate and should be locked up forever. For Law and Order Special Victims Unit and the others, once a molester, always a molester is a genre convention like the well-known fact that you can’t see vampires in the mirror. Now it is very hard to come by reliable statistics on recidivism, but the biggest meta-statistical study I’ve encountered suggests that the recidivism rate for sex crimes is approximately 13.4%, notably lower than the 40+% recidivism rate for other crimes. Apparently the guy you really, really don’t want moving in next door isn’t Ernie the perv, but a garden-variety mugger.

Granted that it is childishly easy and highly profitable to get people hysterical about sexual offenses, don’t television producers, writers, and actors have some responsibility for riling up the lynch mob? The real justification for permanently stigmatizing sexual offenders is not that their crimes are especially harmful—a lot of these guys are hapless flashers and voyeurs, after all, and some of them are sixteen year old boys caught groping their fifteen year old girlfriends—but that the public can be made to believe that the rare cases of homicidal child-abusers are somehow typical and that people who like child pornography are very likely to feel up the next kid they meet. To speak like an anthropologist, sex crimes are sacred. One has to believe that they are qualitatively different than other crimes since they are a real but much smaller problem quantitatively.