The Lifelong Damage Labels Carry
CYRR Director Nicole Pittman guest authors a column about the psychological impact of labels for the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers blog.
Juvenile sex offender — the term abounds in courtrooms, headlines and even among professional treatment and welfare circles. In five syllables, kids go from curious 8-year-olds and teenagers hopped up on hormones to social deviants. It is misguided to define any human by a single action, but when we refer to children as sex offenders the consequences are particularly destructive.
In the United States, federal law mandates that minors adjudicated for sexual offenses be subjected, alongside adults, to “sex-offender” registration and notification requirements. Numerous studies over several decades now have definitely confirmed registration does not deter first time offenses or reduce recidivism — in any instance.Public health officials found in a study published last year that rather than improving public safety, this practice, “communicates constantly and in a variety of ways that [registered] youth are dangerous, feared, worthless and have no real future.”
After leaving my job as a juvenile public defender almost a decade ago, I spent years traveling the country to interview people who had gone on registries for things they did as kids, from playing doctor, streaking or Romeo and Juliet romances to committing serious sexual harm. I sat in their living rooms, with their parents and children of their own, as they described what it’s like to go through the world as “juvenile sex offenders.” They had been physically assaulted, fired from jobs, driven out of schools. One young man I met with would later tell a reporter that I was the first person who told him he wasn’t a sex offender. He’d been on the registry for almost half of his life at that point.
Intended or not, the term sex offender invokes a visceral response in the public. Meanwhile, just the word offender implies that the person intentionally caused harm and offended more than once. Many of these kids were themselves victims of abuse and didn’t even know at the time what they’d done was wrong. And empirical research shows the vast majority — more than 97 percent — have never and will never reoffend sexually.
Even using the term sex-offender treatment is harmful. By framing it as “sex-offender treatment,” we overlook that when it comes to kids their behavior has very little to do with sexual pathologies. Beside, we don’t dismiss people with other psychological symptoms, such as depression or anger, with a single noun; and we shouldn’t in this instance either. In a new study to be published later this year, public health officials surveyed more than 220 kids in treatment for sexually intrusive or abusive behavior. Compared to those who have never been subjected to registration, youth who currently or have previously had to register as a sex offender report significantly higher rates of considering and/or attempting suicide.
As the director of the Center on Youth Registration Reform, my work focuses on youth, my goal is to eliminate the practice of putting minors on registries; but to do that we have to challenge the public narrative around youth sexual behavior. That starts with being more deliberate in conversations on this issue and not using the term sex offender to describe children — under any circumstance. (I normally try to avoid the term sex offender altogether, but I’ve left it in this article so readers can see just how often it creeps in.)
Researcher Sharon Denniston’s recent doctoral dissertation measured the impact juvenile registration has on adult depression. She found that it’s not the legally imposed restrictions but rather the sex-offender label that often has the greatest psychological impact. Interestingly, those on non-public registries suffer from even higher depression rates than those on public registries, which suggests how deeply youth internalize being branded.
In the media, headlines teem: “New therapy proves effective for juvenile sex offenders,” “States Slowly Scale Back Juvenile Sex Offender Registries,” “Are We Properly Dealing with Young Sex Offenders?” What we should be asking is whether we’re properly educating youngsters about sexual boundaries, whether we’re giving child sex abuse survivors the resources they need to heal and whether we’re doing permanent damage because we’re too lazy to say a few extra prepositions. Childhood is about second chances. When we label kids we rob them of identity — and, even worse, hope. We make it is easy for society to demonize and treat them as other.
Moving forward, we must be more vigilant of the words we choose, always careful not to reduce a person to an action or a nuanced behavior to a simplified pathology. And the change must start with us — treatment providers, child welfare experts and juvenile justice professionals. As a body we must pressure the media to reconsider how it uses the term sex offender; if the public discourse can be redirected, eventually sentiments will begin to shift as well. And maybe then we will be able to see our children for what they really are: children.
Nicole Pittman, esq., Director of the Center for Youth Registration Reform at Impact Justice, has been working to remove kids from registries for more than a decade, through legislation, law and creating awareness. Also a juvenile attorney, she is a Stoneleigh and Rosenberg Leading Edge fellow.