A Bogeyman for the Modern Age

Halloween is fast approaching, and once again, people are getting their panties in a bunch over keeping kids safe from the perceived threat of convicted sex offenders. Ben Radford’s piece over at Live Science covers the rational and practical aspects of the phenomenon, and I am hard pressed to disagree with his assessment. I do suspect, however, that this is something deeply rooted in our culture; and maybe even in our DNA. In fact, it probably springs from the very impulse that spawned Halloween in the first place.

People like fear. We pretend not to, and we all express this in slightly different ways (I’m the kind of idiot that enjoys deadly storms), but we seem to have an odd fascination with the things that scare us. Halloween, regardless of its mangled and now indistinct set of roots, has always been, on one level or another, about celebrating fear.

Halloween serves the secondary purpose of reminding children of the dangers “out there” in order to keep them in line; the implication being that wandering off or not listening to one’s parents will result in something “getting them”. In our culture, where most kids don’t believe in witches, ghosts, vampires, and evil spirits; at least not in such a way that they actually fear them, our Halloween mythology has evolved to include a new monster: the child molester.

This new Bogeyman serves the dual purpose of giving parents something to worry about, which they appear to thrive on, and allowing them to scare their kids (whether or not this is their intention) with something real, even if the dangers are exaggerated and misunderstood.

So, while I agree with Radford that energy and resources would be better spent on actual threats, and am as annoyed as anyone with all the fear mongering, I find it interesting to look at the aspects of human nature that contribute to this perennial phenomenon. I hate to be cynical, but I’m not sure how much it can change.

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  1. Carr,
    As some people here know I worked as a parole officer here in Texas for 9 years. At then end of my career I was a specialized officer who only supervized sex offenders. Child molesters are real and it is surprising how many are in any community. On Halloween we had to go and make sure that the child molesters didn’t have their lights on and weren’t handing out candy. Usually at least one would be doing it even though we had spent weeks telling them not to and that we would have them arrested if we caught them.

    In 2005 a few days before I left to go to Kuwait for a year I made a surprise visit on a child molester on a Sunday. He had two young girls in the house. I would guess 10 or 12 years old. Him I had arrested immediatly and reported the girls to CPS.

    These are real threats and I don’t think they should be dismissed.

  2. gabe, don’t get me wrong, i’m not dismissing the threats…please read ben’s article if you haven’t…just that i think the real threat from these people is much smaller than what most people believe.

  3. @carr2d2: I haven’t read it yet but I will. You are right it is much smaller but it is real. It some ways it is much less likely than people believe but in others it is much worse. Children are most likely to be molested by people they know and trust, parents, grandparents, youth group minsters, teachers, coaches. The chances of being molested by a stranger are tiny. The chances of being molested are depressingly good.

  4. My vita includes over 20 years of investigating child abuse and neglect cases. What Gabe says is correct with regard to who molests. And it is much more likely to be a family member, relative or family friend than a coach or youth pastor type. The other perception is that sex crimes and child molestation rates have been getting increasingly worse, when in reality the number of sex abuse cases being reported and determined to be founded has been on the decline for about fifteen years if memory serves.

    This is good news in that all the education and enforcement efforts of the past thirty years has been paying off and fewer children are being sexually abused and more people are willing to make reports to CPS and law enforcement. News media on the other hand finds these types of cases irresistible and then creates the perception of endemic sex abuse. And as Radford mentions in the article many other things present a more significant risk to kids like drunk driving parents.

  5. @Gabrielbrawley:

    I could be wrong, but I thought the argument against the whole sex offender ban on handing out candy was that no one has ever been abducted or lured by a sexual predator handing out Halloween candy, mostly due to the heavy traffic during trick or treating times.

  6. Oh… um… yeah… I should have read the Radford article:

    While children’s safety is important, the concern far outweighs the real danger. There is no reason to think that sex offenders pose any more of a threat to children on Halloween than at any other time. In fact, there has not been a single case of any child being molested by a convicted sex offender while trick-or-treating.

  7. slightly off topic here, but I remember when I was about trick/treating age (not that I ever went, but, meh…) The big scare at the time was poisoned candy and pins/razors in apples. Not sure why though, I don’t think any of the kids I grew up with would take an apple, let alone eat one.

    Anyways, even at that age, I had a somewhat skeptical streak in me (it was usually referred to as ‘being difficult’), so I gathered up a few sharp implements from around the house (exacto blades, utility knife blades, pins, needles, whatever other small sharp things that came to mind, etc.), and proceeded to poke them into an apple.
    At the time, I thought the results were far too visible to justify the likelihood of someone attempting this (let alone with any success). Also, this was immediately after I poked the apples, and I’m fairly certain it would only look worse as the night wore on and the sugars oxidized and the exposed edges dehydrated, etc., etc.

    Couldn’t vouch for the poisoned candy bit though…

  8. @Gabrielbrawley: Its stuff like this that make me think of the deadly coconut and the benign man-eating shark.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m terrified of sharks, and refuse to set foot in the ocean because of them, but falling coconuts kill more people than shark attacks.

    Sharks are still a threat, and should not be taken lightly.

    Am I making sense?

  9. I’m pretty sure the poisoned candy/ apple blades thing was a hoax or a cover-up for another crime committed, if memory serves…

    Kids should be made wary of strangers, and they should understand that they can tell on adults who make them feel uncomfortable. But kids shouldn’t just be wandering around alone, anyway. Not only because of people that might hurt them, but dogs, cars, sink holes, tree limbs, electric wires, etc. That’s why kids have parents, or guardians: to keep them safe from hazards they might not perceive.

    Kids ARE abducted and they ARE molested and they ARE killed, all the time, but I feel like all of the crime dramas on television are inundated with gore and murder and rape to the point where we’re afraid to go to the grocery store least someone try to rob us using ether perfume (okay, that’s an e-mail forward, but still).

    We have to be careful, yes, but we don’t have to be crazy people. There’s enough of that out there already…

  10. Okay, just read the Radford article. As always Ben is intelligent and coherent and he is probably right. One point I disagree with is that most sex offenders don’t re-offend. I think it would be more accurate to say that most sex offenders don’t re-offend after they have been caught, convicted and placed under strict supervision.

    As part of my job when I supervised sex offender was to sit in on their group therapy sessions. At the begining of each session they would enumarate their offenses, all of them, not just the ones they were convicted of. A sex offender, especially a child molester, will continue to offender over and over until they are stopped. Many of them had offended well over 100 times.

    Okay, no kid has been molested under the circumstances laid out by Ben. And it would be hard to do it under those circumstances. But, it costs nothing to tell them to turn out their lights and not hand out candy. At least in Texas there was zero added costs. We are all straight salary and get no extra money for overtime work. We would drive around and check the houses.

    Yes, we need to do a better job of protecting children but I don’t think the Halloween curfew actually harms the children or draw off resources.

  11. @Gabrielbrawley: The problem is that these sex offenders aren’t just horrible people committing horrible crimes against children.

    A quote from a recent Ed Brayton Scienceblogs post that sums it up nicely:

    There are about 700,000 people on state sex offender lists at the moment. But in five states, that includes someone who is arrested soliciting a prostitute. In 13 states, that includes someone arrested for urinating in public. In 29 states, it includes teenagers who had sex with other teenagers. In 32 states, it includes someone arrested for streaking or flashing, something every frat boy has done from time to time during rush week.
    In one study of the Georgia sex offender list, the review board that oversees that list determined that 65% of the more than 17,000 people on the list were not a threat to anyone at all. Only about 100 of them were actually classified as predators. That’s just over one half of one percent of the people on the list.
    We are manufacturing sex offenders by including people who are no threat to anyone and who have harmed no one. We’ve sparked undue paranoia and made it more difficult to identify the real sex offenders, the ones people should actually be concerned with.

    Also, anecdote: My younger sister, was 19, and hanging out with a kid we grew up with. The boy was 16, a few months shy of 17. They had known each other since they were kids. They had driven out to the middle of nowhere where they thought they’d be alone, on the California side of the border (I grew up right on the AZ/Cali border). They were drinking, of course, and doing naughty things. And unfortunately, they weren’t as well hidden as they thought they were, because a Sheriff came rollin’ up, finding them naked and with alcohol.

    Because my younger sister was 19, the boy only 16, and they were drinking, they both got arrested. And she got slapped HARD — the charges she initially got were huge, and there was talk that she’d have to register as a sex offender for the rest of her life.

    Thankfully she got fucking lucky (she always does) and got a judge that saw through the bullshit, along with the prosecutor. Thankfully they didn’t decide to use her as an example.

    You know, like those kids that get caught “sexting”? They’ve been used as examples before, too, and now have to register as sex offenders. For sharing naked photos of themselves to other kids.

    Sex offenders are very real, but “sex offender” is VERY VERY VERY broad. It doesn’t just include a man molesting a child. I think *that* is the problem.

  12. And then there is this:

    Man arrested for making coffee in own home while naked

    Yes, real sexual threats exist. As a woman who has been on the receiving end of it, I know.

    But this kind of shit only makes it impossible to fix the ACTUAL problem.
    And can I just say that mother is an idiot? Oh no! Her child possibly saw a penis in a non-sexual manner! She is traumatized forever! *eye roll*

    The child probably had no issues with seeing that man naked until her mother went batshit insane.

    This fear of simple nakedness is not helping our society any.

  13. Unlrelated to the main topic, but second the love of violent storms. When tornado season comes through, I usually get in one or two games of follow the giant storm and dodge the police.

  14. @marilove: Very good point about who gets the sex offender tag. John Stossell has done some good reporting on this issue. The problem is when the predatory habitual offender is placed in the same boat as the guy or gal who has sex with a partner, who in most other states would be over the age of consent, and they get charged with a crime. There is a religious zeal involving some sex crime laws that flies in the face of rational thought and commonsense.

  15. @James Fox: Yep. And that same religious zeal is what causes people making coffee naked in their own home to get arrested.

    Oh, and apparently, the woman who called the cops? Her husband is a cop.

    And I want to highlight this:

    We are manufacturing sex offenders by including people who are no threat to anyone and who have harmed no one.

    Those children who are now classified as sex offenders have essentially had their lives ruined, or close to it.

    Why don’t the overzealous see that by arresting and prosecuting children who aren’t dangerous is a BAD IDEA? These children will now be branded for LIFE as criminals. It’s counter-productive. Just like throwing a drug addict or a 20 year old who has a joint on him in jail for 3 years. You’re just CREATING criminals. It’s highly ironic and very sad.

  16. Many old folk songs seem to be cautionary tales to make young girls wary of getting involved with strangers. Some guy sweet talks them and then strangles, stabs them, or throws them in the river .

  17. @marilove: You will get no arguement from me. I agree that everything you pointed out is not only stupid but it makes us less safe. I want someone who is registering as a sex offender to be a predator not the 19 year old college student who is having sex with his 16 year old date when it is consensual. I want the 37 year old man who gets a 13 year old girl drunk and drugged and keeps raping her while she keeps asking him to stop. To be the person with the sex offender label. I agree with you.

  18. @Gabrielbrawley: Oh, I know you do, no worries there, I was just adding to the discussion.

    I’d like to add, though:

    I want the 37 year old man who gets a 13 year old girl drunk and drugged and keeps raping her while she keeps asking him to stop. To be the person with the sex offender label. I agree with you.

    Isn’t it telling that an ACTUAL sexual predator that ACTUALLY raped and drugged a child essentially got away with it, but those who *aren’t* dangerous are the ones getting thrown in jail and prison and being put on lists that essentially ruin their lives?

    This seems to be a common thing in our society. Pimps and Johns are ignored, but the prostitutes are arrested and put on trial. Drug gang leaders live in luxury, but the 20 year old with a joint in his pocket is sent to jail for four years. My 19 year old sister is put through the ringer for getting drunk and having sex with an old friend, while her ex-boyfriend who beat her to a bloody pulp gets a slap on the wrist.

    Ugh, it’s infuriating.

  19. @Gabrielbrawley: I don’t make coffee, I get it from a coffee shop, and am usually wearing as little as possible without getting arrested. Yes, I admit going to starbucks in my houseshoes.

    There are so many inconsistancies in America. One that infuriates me is the attention to breast cancer, but ignoring prostate cancer, which occurs about as often. I also wish it were easier to prove verbal and psychological abuse also. There’s nothing than as a kid being told your just going to be a ditch digger and you’ll never amount to anything. Some scars aren’t visbile.

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