Women against the sex offense regime
An excerpt from The Feminist and The Sex Offender: Confronting Sexual Harm, Ending State Violence by Judith Levine and Erica R. Meiners.
“What is your relationship to feminism?” Judith asks Vicki Henry, head of Women Against Registry, or WAR.
Her reply: “I hate it.”
It is a sentiment that, in our experience, is not uncommon among the members of WAR, a small group launched in 2007 at the first national conference of the organization Reform Sex Offense Laws. The convention was convened with the aim of pulling together the fledgling grassroots mutual aid and advocacy groups of registrants and their supporters that had sprung up around the country. Henry, the mother of a Marine convicted of child pornography possession, had proven herself as an able leader in Missouri. So RSOL organizer Paul Shannon asked her to head up a national women’s subgroup of RSOL. “There was a need for “a place where wives, daughters, girlfriends would have an outlet for their anger and energy,” says Shannon, now chair of the renamed National Association for Rational Sex Offense Laws (NARSOL). Henry accepted eagerly.
Tactical and personal differences have since divided Henry and Shannon, and she has taken WAR independent. But there is one thing on which the two agree: feminism. Like most of the registered citizens and their friends we have met, both perceive feminists as political insiders, almost as responsible for the SO’s plight as the state is. “Part of the reason we are where we are is because the feminist movement created this, and now it’s got this landslide effect,” says Henry. Shannon concurs: WAR was conceived “to oppose the feminist assault on sex offenders,” he says.
We have talked about feminists’ part, significant though not dominant, in the buildup of the sex offense legal regime. But what about the role of women in the SO movement and their relationship to feminism, victims’ rights organizations, and survivors themselves? That role and that relationship are surprising and complex. For while there are many men in both the leadership and the rank and file—and of course, the objects of the laws are almost all men—the registrants’ rights movement is a women’s movement.
In much criminal justice reform activism, women—specifically, white mothers—are the instigators, the spokespeople, and the foot soldiers. So it has been with the sex offense legal regime. In the 1970s, women were instrumental in founding the victims’ rights movement, which provided the jurisprudential assumptions on which the sex offense legal regime rests, with organizations including Families and Friends of Missing Persons (1974), Parents of Murdered Children (1978), and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD (1980).1 After Etan Patz’s disappearance in 1979, his mother Julie lobbied for the establishment of a national clearing-house of missing children, which was established in 1984 as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. To this day, NCMEC’s fear-inducing statistics continue to ratify the creation of more and more “child protective” sex laws.
Patty Wetterling—mother of eleven-year-old Jacob, snatched and murdered in 1989 in St. Joseph, Minnesota, while riding his bike—lobbied for sex offender registries, first in her state and then nationally, resulting in the federal Jacob Wetterling Act of 1994. While still an advocate for missing children—she is chair of NCMEC—Wetterling has become one of the most vocal opponents of sex offender registries, arguing that they ruin lives while failing to protect children. Around the same time as Wetterling was pressing for registries, Ida Ballasiotes and Helen Harlow—Washington State mothers, respectively, of a young woman raped and killed by a man out on work release, and of a seven-year-old boy raped, mutilated, and killed by a paroled repeat assaulter—organized Friends of Diane and the Tennis Shoe Brigade. Concerted agitation by these two groups impelled state elected officials to enact the nation’s first “sexually violent predator” law, permitting indefinite civil confinement. After seven-year-old Megan Kanka was kidnapped from her home, raped, and killed in suburban New Jersey in 1994, her mother Maureen fought to expand the registry to include community notification of sex offenders’ release from prison. That led to federal legislation requiring the same. All of these people are working or middle class and white.
Just as mothers, and white motherhood—that spotless badge of devotion and courage—played a significant role in the institution and extension of registries and community notification laws, white women are also proving instrumental in the move to challenge the registries. The sex offense legal regime was built in the name of protecting children. Similarly, these women’s ferocity in fighting the regime rises in their children’s defense.
Women run most of the state organizations; the current executive director of NARSOL is a woman, Brenda Jones, although leadership of the national organization is heavily male. These women gain valuable political experience—in public speaking, lobbying, organization-building—as they advocate for their sons and husbands and challenge this facet of the prison nation. They are public figures and community leaders.
Yet in their hearts and public presentation, just like their counterparts in the victim’s rights movement, they are always mothers. Thanks to the difficulty of finding work or housing, and forming or maintaining romantic relationships and families, men on the registry often end up in their childhood bedrooms. As well as their sons’ advocates, these women, not always willingly, become their breadwinners, housekeepers, and companions. And recently, many states have added a fiendish new mandate that in order for a person with a sex offense to return home, a member of the house-hold must pay to be trained as a chaperone. The minder is usually the mother. Conscripted into doing the state’s policing labor, she must accompany her son, brother, or partner wherever a child may be present, and report him to law enforcement if he violates parole or probation.
“Voice of the families”
Tonia Maloney founded Illinois Voices for Reform when her nineteen-year-old son was convicted of criminal sexual abuse and child pornography for his relationship with his sixteen-year-old girlfriend. On an early, now removed, website for the organization Maloney described the actions for which he is now on the registry as “his indiscretions.” Mary Sue Molnar of Texas Voices was mobilized to action when her then-twenty-two-year-old son, as she put it, “made some really bad choices” and was convicted of a sex offense for a relationship with a sixteen-year-old female. “I think that every parent, especially those with sons, should be deeply concerned about the current laws, because their sons could be on the registry in the blink of an eye,” she said on a local TV report.2
While the figure at the center of the case is often silent—the young men rarely make public comments or appearances—these mothers animate campaigns that portray their white heterosexual sons as youthful and foolish, engaged in normal sexual play. In the view of these women, the real problem is a state that too heavily punishes innocent men and boys. The government, they reason, should not be intruding in the private lives of people who are not harming anyone.
Henry rarely speaks publicly about her son. In fact, while WAR’s energy and image are maternal, it established itself as “the voice of the families”—“the innocent women and children being destroyed by public registration”: children whose fathers are not allowed to attend a school football game, families rendered desti- tute, kids shunned at school—the “collateral damage” of sex offense laws. The group also expresses concern for the child victims of abuse, and stresses, in its opposition to the registry and residency restrictions, that such policies do not protect children.3
Gender creates an optic essential to the organization’s effectiveness. When Women Against Registry arrives with a banner bearing its name, people are curious and surprised. But equally strategic is avoiding public expressions of sympathy for the bad guys. “We don’t say, ‘Oh, those poor sex offenders.’ We say, ‘Hey, they did wrong, they’ve been penalized, they don’t need to be punished for life and neither does their family,’ ” Henry explains.
Among those attracted to the movement, however, are also women whose family loyalties are torn and who cannot take an unequivocal stance in favor of the registrant. “Terri,” approaching Judith at a NARSOL conference, blinks back tears and pushes her sharply cut blonde hair behind one ear as she describes the anguish of being caught in the middle. The accused abuser was her teenage nephew, the accuser her five-year-old niece. Some in the extended family blamed the children’s mother, Terri’s sister, for what happened. Terri feels for them all. “We can love the sinner, even if we hate the sin,” she says. But that injunction does not mitigate her pain: “Both these children are on my heart.” So why is she at this meeting? She believes the laws, including prohibitions on contact between the brother and sister, are preventing the family from healing.
In portraying their boys as victims of the system and the families as collateral damage, this movement, sometimes unwittingly, pushes one person to the periphery of the circle of sympathy: the person who experienced harm. Speaking in 2015 about a high-profile case of a nineteen-year-old boy accused of assaulting a fourteen-year-old girl, Jones of NARSOL said: “In a court of law, the burden is on the accuser. And in this case, at that point, it is the fourteen-year-old. We try to put the person who’s crying rape on this little pedestal and not allow them to testify. But that is putting an unnecessary burden [on the defendant]. You’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty.”4 This is an important statement about the presumption of innocence and the constitutional rights of criminal defendants. But here, the survivor is depicted as the guilty party—the one “crying rape,” perched on a “little pedestal,” coddled by the state. There’s no acknowledgment that both parties need protection.
Asked whether she sees any similarities between herself and feminists, Vicki Henry answers that she’s for equal pay and doesn’t want men to treat women “as property.” She wants women and men to be equal. But equality, she suggests, means equal responsibility. “Women should respect men, and men should respect women. If people had respect for themselves and for others and thought about that, it might help with some of the situations we see and the things that happen.”
What “situations and things?” Judith asks. Henry expands: “This is very controversial. I’m talking about guys that get in trouble at a college party and both the males and females are drinking. If you had respect for yourself, I don’t think you would drink in excess. I think about guys the same way.”
Some feminists have expressed misgivings about the excesses of student anti-violence feminism. Judith has written, for instance, that it is not “rape denial” to advise young women (and men) to avoid getting so drunk that they cannot take care of themselves. But Henry’s and the SO movement’s common description of the problem minimizes or omits what is front and center for feminist anti-violence movements of all politics: rape is real and too prevalent, and it can still be rape even if the woman acts “irresponsibly.”
Women like Henry, Jones, and Molnar have achieved national and statewide visibility for issues facing people with sex offense convictions, particularly by challenging the placement of juveniles on sex offender registries. They have educated countless policy- makers and law enforcers, prevented passage of bad laws, kept their members up to date on political and legal developments, and provided support for a severely demoralized group of people. Their work is crucial and commendable, and it falls within a long tradition of women’s activism.
Yet rendered invisible by these organizations are central insights gleaned over centuries of feminist organizing: many men do harm the children and the women in their lives. Belief systems such as patriarchy and white supremacy naturalize or minimize this violence. Men and boys may be foolish, rebellious, and make “bad choices,” but it is equally true that children and women are groped, assaulted, and raped.
1 Roger N. Lancaster, Sex Panic and the Punitive State (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 197–8.
2 “Defending the Indefensible? Plea to Clean Sex Offender Registry,” KENS5, June 25, 2014, legacy.kens5.com / story / news / local / 2014 / 06 / 25 / 10304436.
3 See Women Against Registry offi cial website, womenagainstregistry.org.
4 “Sex Offender Registries and Calls for Reform,” Diane Rehm Show, July 7, 2015, thedianerehmshow.org / shows / 2015 - 07 - 07 / sex - offender - registries - and - calls - for - reform.