Web Predators Aren't the Problem

Dewhurst's plan to get 'Texas tough' on child molesters doomed to fail

A couple non-weather-related thoughts on yesterday's inauguration ceremony: the obvious topic was Rick Perry's transparent prattle about rogue states and terror cells, AIDS, genocide, and other national issues – issues he can (and will) do next to nothing about, but were obviously included to spark chatter and speculation about his national ambition. Fine. Whatever gets him out of here faster is fine by me.

Instead, what I'd like to focus on the cornerstone of Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst's inaugural speech: protecting kids from the vile scourge of sex offenders. After pressing for a minimum 25-year sentence for child sexual assault, he said he hopes to pass legislation giving two-time sexual assailants the death penalty. "Two strikes, and you're out, forever," said Dewhurst. “There's tough, and then there's Texas tough."

As untold numbers of assaults go unreported each year, it's tough to get a handle on how grave a problem child sexual assault is, especially as exacerbated by that everywhere-and-nowhere bogeyman, the Internet. But our “media” landscape certainly gives the impression Fester the Molester is prowling behind every corner.

The Columbia Journalism Review has an excellent article in its current issue deconstructing Dateline NBC's pederasts-on-parade series, “To Catch a Predator.” The article details the ethical minefield the show creates for any self-respecting journalist, along with wider political and public safety implications. Dateline's continued lowest common denominator ratings grab may be influencing policy like Dewhurst's proposals in a very real way:

“(When) Attorney General Alberto Gonzales gave a speech about a major initiative to combat the “growing problem” of Internet predators, he cited a statistic that 50,000 such would-be pedophiles were prowling the Net at any given moment and attributed it to Dateline. Jason McLure, a reporter at Legal Times in Washington, D.C.... asked the show about the number. Dateline told him that it had gotten it from a retired FBI agent who consulted with the show. When the agent was contacted he wasn’t sure where the number had come from, terming it a “Goldilocks” figure — “Not small and not large.” He added that it was the same figure that was used by the media to describe the number of people killed annually by Satanic cults in the 1980s, and before that was cited as the number of children abducted by strangers each year in the 1970s.”

So the numbers on Internet sex predators are recycled from our collective “stranger danger” and “satanic panic” scares. Dewhurst didn't cite the 50,000 number, but he did make another claim, that 1 in 5 teenagers are sexually solicited online – again, a claim that is somewhat misleading:

“For example, many news reports have cited a Justice Department study as saying that one in five children is approached online by a sexual predator. But as Radford Benjamin of The Skeptical Inquirer pointed out, what that 2001 study actually said was that 19 percent had received a “sexual solicitation” online, about half of which came from other teens and none of which led to a sexual assault. According to the study, the number of teens aggressively solicited by adults online was about 3 percent. A more recent study by the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire found that the number of kids getting unwanted sexual advances on the Internet was in fact declining. In general, according to data compiled by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, more than 70 percent of sexual abuse of children is perpetrated by family members or family friends.”

Re-read that last sentence. Despite all the continued scares – strangers, Satanists, and now, the Internet – “more than 70 percent of sexual abuse of children is perpetrated by family members or family friends.” And therein lies the biggest fault with Dewhurst's election-tested promises to get “Texas tough” on sexual predators – knowing that the perp may be put to death for their crimes will create enormous pressure on families and victims to stay quiet, perpetuating the abuse. It's easy to send sex offenders to death row when they're some predatory other, lurking on the dark corners of the web – it makes for sensational public policy, and great ratings (perhaps because it absolves us of our guilt?) – but many victims won't want to send their cousin, uncle, or father to their death. Strict laws and harsh penalties should be prescribed for offenders, but a punishment as draconian as the death penalty will undoubtedly deter reporting.

There's “Texas tough,” and then there's Texas-sized stupid. Unfortunately, Dewhurst doesn't know the difference.

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Death Penalty, Politics, Media, Legislature, Crime, David Dewhurst, Sexual Asault, Children, Molestation, Internet, Online, Sexual Predators

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