If you believe the near-daily news stories, sexual predators lurk everywhere: in parks, at schools, in the malls—even in teens' computers. A few rare (but high-profile) incidents have spawned an unprecedented slate of new laws enacted in response to the public's fear.
Every state has notification laws to alert communities about released sex offenders. Many states have banned sex offenders from living in certain areas, and are tracking them using satellite technology. Officials in Florida and Texas plan to bar convicted sex offenders from public shelters during hurricanes.
Most people believe that sex offenders pose a serious and growing threat. According to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, "the danger to teens is high." On the April 18, 2005, "CBS Evening News" broadcast, correspondent Jim Acosta reported that "when a child is missing, chance are good it was a convicted sex offender." (Acosta is incorrect: If a child goes missing, a convicted sex offender is actually among the least likely explanations, far behind runaways, family abductions, and the child being lost or injured.)
On his "To Catch a Predator" series on "Dateline NBC," reporter Chris Hansen claims that "the scope of the problem is immense" and "seems to be getting worse." In fact, Hansen stated, Web predators are "a national epidemic."
The news media emphasizes the dangers of Internet predators, convicted sex offenders, pedophiles, and child abductions. Despite relatively few instances of child predation and little hard data on topics such as Internet predators, journalists invariably suggest that the problem is extensive, and fail to put their stories in context. The "Today Show," for example, ran a series of misleading and poorly designed hidden camera "tests" to see if strangers would help a child being abducted (see "Stranger Danger: ‘Shocking' TV Test Flawed").
New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald wrote a front-page article about Justin Berry, a California teen who earned money as an underage Webcam model, seduced by an online audience who paid to watch him undress. Berry's story made national news, and he appeared on Oprah and in front of a Senate committee. Berry's experience, while alarming, is essentially an anecdote. Is Berry's case unique, or does it represent just the tip of the sexual predation iceberg? Eichenwald is vague about how many other teen porn purveyors like Berry he found during his six-month investigation. Three or four? Dozens? Hundreds or thousands? Eichenwald's article states merely that "the scale of Webcam pornography is unknown," while suggesting that Berry's experience was only one of many. (Acosta, Hansen, and Eichenwald did not respond to repeated requests for clarification of their reporting.)
Sex offenders are clearly a threat and commit horrific crimes, but how great is the danger? After all, there are many dangers in the world—from lightning to Mad Cow Disease to school shootings—that are real but very rare. Are they as common—and as likely to attack the innocent—as most people believe? A close look at two widely-repeated claims about the threat posed by sex offenders reveals some surprising truths.
One in five?
According to a May 3, 2006, "ABC News" report, "One in five children is now approached by online predators."
This alarming statistic is commonly cited in news stories about prevalence of Internet predators. The claim can be traced back to a 2001 Department of Justice study issued by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children ("The Youth Internet Safety Survey") that asked 1,501 American teens between 10 and 17 about their online experiences. Among the study's conclusions: "Almost one in five (19 percent)…received an unwanted sexual solicitation in the past year." (A "sexual solicitation" is defined as a "request to engage in sexual activities or sexual talk or give personal sexual information that were unwanted or, whether wanted or not, made by an adult." Using this definition, one teen asking another teen if her or she is a virgin—or got lucky with a recent date—could be considered "sexual solicitation.")
Not a single one of the reported solicitations led to any actual sexual contact or assault. Furthermore, almost half of the "sexual solicitations" came not from "predators" or adults but from other teens. When the study examined the type of Internet "solicitation" parents are most concerned about (e.g., someone who asked to meet the teen somewhere, called the teen on the telephone, or sent gifts), the number drops from "one in five" to 3 percent.
This is a far cry from a "national epidemic" of children being "approached by online predators." As the study noted, "The problem highlighted in this survey is not just adult males trolling for sex. Much of the offending behavior comes from other youth [and] from females." Furthermore, most kids just ignored (and were not upset by) the solicitation: "Most youth are not bothered much by what they encounter on the Internet…Most young people seem to know what to do to deflect these sexual ‘come ons.'" The reality is far less grave than the ubiquitous "one in five" statistic suggests.
Much of the concern over sex offenders stems from the perception that if they have committed one sex offense, they are almost certain to commit more. This is the reason given for why sex offenders (instead of, say, murderers or armed robbers) should be monitored and separated from the public once released from prison.
The high recidivism rate among sex offenders is repeated so often that it is usually accepted as truth, but in fact recent studies show that the recidivism rates for sex offenses is not unusually high. According to a U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics study ("Recidivism of Sex Offenders Released from Prison in 1994"), just five percent of sex offenders followed for three years after their release from prison in 1994 were arrested for another sex crime. A study released in 2003 by the Bureau found that within three years, 3.3 percent of the released child molesters were arrested again for committing another sex crime against a child. Three to five percent is hardly a high repeat offender rate.
In the largest and most comprehensive study ever done of prison recidivism, the Justice Department found that sex offenders were in fact less likely to reoffend than other criminals. The 2003 study of nearly 10,000 men convicted of rape, sexual assault, and child molestation found that sex offenders had a re-arrest rate 25 percent lower than for all other criminals. Part of the reason is that serial sex offenders—those who pose the greatest threat—rarely get released from prison, and the ones who do are unlikely to re-offend.
If sex offenders are no more likely to re-offend than murderers or armed robbers, there seems little justification for the public's fear, or for the monitoring laws tracking them. (Studies also suggest that sex offenders living near schools or playgrounds are no more likely to commit a sex crime than those living elsewhere.)
Putting the threat in perspective
The issue is not whether children need to be protected; of course they do. The issues are whether the danger to them is great, and whether the measures proposed will ensure their safety. While some efforts—such as longer sentences for repeat offenders—are well-reasoned and likely to be effective, those focused on separating sex offenders from the public are of little value because they are based on a faulty premise. Simply knowing where a released sex offender lives—or is at any given moment—does not ensure that he or she won't be near potential victims.
While the abduction, rape, and killing of children by strangers is very, very rare, such incidents receive a lot of media coverage, leading the public to overestimate how common these cases are. Most sexually abused children are not victims of convicted sex offenders nor Internet pornographers, and most sex offenders do not re-offend once released. This information is rarely mentioned by journalists more interested in sounding alarms than objective analysis.
One tragic result of these myths is that the panic over sex offenders distracts the public from a far greater threat to children: parental abuse and neglect.
The vast majority of crimes against children are committed not by released sex offenders, but instead by the victim's own family, church clergy, and family friends. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, "based on what we know about those who harm children, the danger to children is greater from someone they or their family knows than from a stranger." If lawmakers and the public are serious about wanting to protect children, they should not be misled by "stranger danger" myths and instead focus on the much larger threat inside the home.
Benjamin Radford wrote about Megan's Laws and lawmaking in response to moral panics in his book "Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us." He is the managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine.
Sign up for the Live Science daily newsletter now
Get the world’s most fascinating discoveries delivered straight to your inbox.