Growing Media and Legal Attention to Sex Offenders: More Safety or More Injustice

Emily Horowitz
St. Francis College


Proposed new legislation addressed at policing sex offenders continues to spread throughout the United States. The fear of releasing convicted sex offenders from prison back into society without supervision has captured the attention of the state and public. The mainstream media, together with politicians in both parties, is pressing for these measures and the public generally supports these efforts. Politicians are aware that when a paroled offender commits a crime, particularly a paroled sex offender, the media blames legislators responsible for their release. Elected officials seen as “soft on perverts” will inevitably pay a political price. This paper provides evidence that the United States is in the grip of a media fixation and collective moral panic about sex offenders, and argues that many of the new legal remedies emerging from false fears, false assumptions, and hysteria are ineffective, costly, and an affront to civil liberties. Most troublingly, this context sets the stage for future miscarriages of justice, as individuals (including juveniles) accused of even minor sex crimes are subject to a rush to judgment, an inability to get a fair trial, and harsh, long-term penalties that can be disproportionate to the severity of the crime.

Growing Media and Legal Attention to Sex Offenders: More Safety or More Injustice

Research Questions, Hypotheses, and Methods

This paper asks the research questions of whether media coverage of sex offenses is excessive relative to their incidence, and whether newly enacted sex offender legislation is politically motivated rather than data-driven. To address the first research question, I examine the frequency of major newspaper coverage of sex offenders in the context of incident-based and self-reported sex offenses over the past two decades. Using the LexisNexis (2007) news database, I examine the frequency of news headlines with the terms “sex offender” and “sex predator” between 1996 and 2006. In order to analyze the rate trends of both reports and self-reports of rape, sexual assault, and child sexual abuse, I present crime statistics and survey data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and the Crimes against Children Research Center.

To address the second research question, I analyze the policies and the accompanying political context of legal remedies aimed at addressing sex offenses and punishing sex offenders. The legal initiatives studied in this paper are state civil commitment laws, focusing on the debate surrounding the passage of the 2007 New York law, and the 2006 federal Adam Walsh Act requiring community notification and website registration for all types of sex offenders. This paper hypothesizes that an intensified and increasing focus by the media allows for the easy passage of problematic new legislation that challenges basic civil liberties and democratic principles as well as sound criminal justice research about sex offenders. This paper seeks to assess and disaggregate the complex relationship between political interests and research findings and data about sex offenders, public safety, and civil rights.

History and Context of Sex Offender Hysteria

A number of journalists and academics have recognized that sex offenders are the victims of hysteria in the United States. Journalist Debbie Nathan has detailed a concerning pattern of wrongful convictions for sex crimes against children during the 1980s hysteria about sexual abuse in daycare centers. She explains that the current ideology of the child protection movement emerged around 1970 because of fear that children were at increasing risk for perversity and abuse:

In 1970, The New York Times reported that the “plump red apple that Junior gets from a kindly old woman down the block…may have a razor blade hidden inside.” By 1972, many kids were not allowed to trick-or-treat; three years later Newsweek warned that several children were dead and hundreds more injured by viciously doctored Halloween candy. A few years later, kiddie porn was the new threat. In 1977, NBC reported that “as many as two million American youngsters are involved in the fast-growing, multi-million dollar child pornography business…” and “police say the number of boy prostitutes may be as high as half a million” (some 10 percent of all male adolescents in the entire country). Then, in the early 1980s, following the New York City disappearance of Etan Patz, the kidnapping and slaying of Adam Walsh, and the murders of 28 Atlanta schoolchildren, the missing children’s movement emerged. Crusaders began describing a stranger abduction problem of astonishing proportion: U.S. Representative Paul Simon offered House members a “conservative estimate…50,000 children abducted by strangers annually,” and a leading child-search organization said 5000 of these children were murdered each year. (Nathan, 1990, p. 156).

Nathan points out that research and data have undermined these reports–there was no threat from Halloween candy (only one child was ever killed by Halloween candy, and that was by his own father), little threat of kiddie-porn (even before the 1978 federal law making it illegal, between 5000 and 7000 kids were involved in the industry–after 1978, the number dropped even more dramatically), the majority of missing children are runaways and throwaways and most kidnappings are committed by a non-custodial parent. Nathan notes that despite the reality of these statistics, “[M]uch of the American public is convinced that molesters, sadists, kidnappers, and pornographers are major threats to our kids” (Nathan, 1990).

Since 1990, fears and anxieties about child safety and sex offenders have continued to grip the public imagination and have been closely followed in the media. One of the most detailed and closest socio-historical analyses of the subject is Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America, by Philip Jenkins (1998). A professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University, Jenkins argues that a paralyzing, exaggerated fear of pedophiles has surfaced in the last decade, and places it in a more lengthy social and historical context, noting that

images of the sex offender have changed dramatically and cyclically over time…originating in the Progressive era, the imagery of the malignant sex fiend reached new heights after World War II, only to be succeeded by a liberal model over the next quarter century…We can see that the stereotypical sex offender who provided a nightmare image in the 1940s had become a semi-humorous figure two or three decades later (1998, p. 2-3).

Jenkins also discusses how in the 1960s, sex offenders were viewed as mild-mannered misfits and losers rather than cause for profound terror and fear.

Other theorists, such as John Pratt, also assert that since the 1970s, in the U.S. and other English-speaking countries, child sexual abuse emerged as a serious social problem and a “normative feature in the lives of many” rather than a series of small and isolated incidents (Pratt, 2005, p. 263). Pratt (2005) points out that there are a number of significant changes contributing to the construction of child sexual abuse as a profound social problem, including a greater sense of long-term damage resulting from abuse, new types of abuse, professionals defining and treating the problem, and a sense that it can happen to any child, at any place, and at any time. Pratt (2005) concludes that the primary reason that child sexual abuse is viewed as being so serious and pervasive in the current period is because of a changing perception of children and purity in an culture of fear, writing, “children have come to have an exceptional value which continually seems under threat from a series of dangers triggered by the fears and insecurities characteristic of the age of anxiety” (p. 266).

Jenkins (1998) explains that waves of hysteria and irrationality concerning child molesters work to the benefit of politicians, who reap rewards when they are perceived to be fighting an evil and widespread threat. Legislation, he argues, also reflects shifting public attitudes about sex offenders. He points out that extreme laws were passed during earlier panics, noting that legislation passed during panic about sex offenders is likely to prompt Constitutional concerns and backlash:

Once the initial furor passed, numerous cases demonstrated the absurd or unjust effects of the laws. Mounting opposition from legal, judicial, and libertarian sources resulted in the acts being overturned or becoming inoperative. The panic atmosphere surrounding the passage of the laws itself produced a reaction, and rhetoric that once sounded plausible came to seem overblown even ludicrous (Jenkins, 1998, p. 12).

I examine here how media coverage of sex offenses relates to the most recent cycle of state and federal sex offender laws, and attempt to disaggregate the extent to which these new laws are the result of moral panic and political opportunism, as in earlier periods, or if they are rooted in the realities of sex offender research.

Media Coverage of Sex Offenders and Rates of Sex Offenses

This paper hypothesizes that there has been an increase in media coverage of sex offenders during the past decade unrelated to a corresponding increase in sex offenses. An analysis of news headlines from the LexisNexis database shows that media coverage of sex offenders and sex offenses has been increasing since the early 1990s and shows no sign of decline. The data in Table 1 show that news stories with “sex offender” or “sexual predator” in the title increased seven-fold between 1991 and 2006. These terms indicate that the news article most likely relates to either a crime or law relating to a sex offender or sexual predator, and, additionally, because these terms can prompt fear and panic because they are associated with predatory behavior. An analysis of these particular terms also relates to the hypothesis that the public sees these terms in newspapers with increasing frequency, and in turn becomes convinced that sex offenders and sexual predators are a growing threat.

Table 1.

Frequency of “sexual predator” and “sex offender” in headlines, lead paragraphs, or terms of U.S. newspapers, 1991—2006


Year Frequency of “Sexual Predator” Frequency of “Sex Offender”
1991 107 536
1992 96 789
1993 167 1,019
1994 452 1,760
1995 453 2,336
1996 913 4,123
1997 1,710 5,010
1998 2,131 6,096
1999 2,227 7,116
2000 1,400 4,795
2001 1,575 5,802
2002 2,273 7,098
2003 2,113 8,699
2004 2,040 9,645
2005 3,501 15,822
2006 5,006 15,558
Source: LexisNexis, 2007.


This analysis finds that the number of all news stories with the term “sex offender” or “sexual predator” in the headline, lead paragraph or terms in U.S. newspapers increased from 107 in 1991 to 5,006 (a factor of almost 50) in 2006. Table 1 also shows that the number of all news stories with the term “sexual predator” in the headline have also increased substantially, growing from 536 to 15,558 (or thirty times) in 2006.

This table indicates that stories about sex offenders and sexual predators have been increasing substantially since 1991. One obvious explanation for the dramatic increase in media coverage in sex offenders and sexual predators is a corresponding increase in instances of sex offenses. However, Table 2 illustrates that survey and incident-based reports of rape and child sexual abuse declined significantly during this same period.

Columns 1 and 2 in Table 2 show that rates of rape, according to both official and self-report data, declined between 1990 and 2005 (self-report and incident-based data for rape is only available through 2005). Self-reports of rape decreased from 1.7 per 1000 individuals 12 and over to .5 per 1000 (a decrease of over 30%), and reported instances of forcible rape decreased from 41.2 per 100,000 individuals of all ages to 31.7 (a decrease of over 25%) (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2007). Column 3 shows that rates of child sexual abuse decreased from 2.3 per 1,000 children to 1.2 (a decrease of almost 50%) between 1991 and 2003 (rates of child sexual abuse in this report are reported only through 2003) (Crimes Against Children Research Center, 2004).

Table 2.

Rates of sex offenses in the United States, 1991—2005


Year Self-Reports of Rape (Rate per 1,000, age 12 and over) Reported Incidents of Rape (Rate per 100,000, all ages) Reported Incidents of Child Sexual Abuse (Rate per 1,000 children)
1991 2.2 42.3 2.30
1992 1.8 42.8 2.30
1993 1.6 41.1 2.20
1994 1.4 39.3 2.10
1995 1.2 37.1 1.90
1996 0.9 36.3 1.80
1997 0.9 35.9 1.70
1998 0.9 34.5 1.50
1999 0.9 32.8 1.30
2000 0.6 32.0 1.20
2001 0.6 31.8 1.20
2002 0.7 33.1 1.20
2003 0.5 32.3 1.20
2004 0.4 32.4 not available
2005 0.5 31.7 not available
Source Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2007; Crimes Against Children Research Center, 2004.


The increasing frequency of news stories and legislation relating to sex offenders, and the corresponding decrease in sex offenses, makes it clear that the national news media has increasingly focused on this topic for reasons other than an increase in incidents. News stories are thus not a response to more sex offenses but rather to increasing public interest (because stories about sex offenders are interesting or titillating) and/or to increasing political or legislative attention. The relationship is cyclical, because political figures respond to the media interest in sex offenders with new and innovative legal responses, and at the same time, the media responds to legal initiatives with further media coverage.

Increasing Legislative and Political Attention to Sex Offenders

As media coverage of sex offenders has increased and sex offense incidents have decreased, advocates have pushed for new and more extreme policy responses and new and extreme statements and assertions about sex offenders. Advocates such as John Walsh, the father of abducted and murdered child Adam Walsh and the founder of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, has made passing sex offender laws his life mission. In July 2006, the Senate passed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. George Bush held a press conference to announce the bill and appeared with John Walsh. The bill creates a national sex offender registry closing loopholes in the current system. Walsh has been an articulate and outspoken advocate of increasing legislation aimed at sex offenders. He has said he believes all sex offenders should be put in prison for life without the possibility of parole. In 2005, Walsh issued a press release urging legislators to pass new sex offender legislation. It warned that, “legislators must revamp our current laws in order to provide a more comprehensive way of tracking down the hundreds of thousands of child sexual predators who live among us” (Walsh, 2005, ¶ 3). Statements like this suggest that predatory sex offenders saturate our communities, and that the public is at imminent risk without new and tough legislation.

Currently, many states are extremely aggressive in their efforts to monitor those convicted of any type of sex offense and have initiated programs such as global tracking systems to locate sex offenders on parole or probation. Residence restrictions for sex offenders are on the books in many states and cities. In Florida, legislation requires sex offenders seeking emergency shelter during a hurricane to notify shelter operators of their sex-crime history. The rhetoric that lawmakers and advocates use to promote these laws is frightening. They imply that sex offender registries, public notification, and civil commitment legislation will directly result in a decrease in violent sex offenses. In Texas, some elected officials, including the current Republican Lieutenant Governor, have proposed the death penalty for repeat sex offenders. A Texas housing developer is building “sex offender free subdivisions, and a national website lists homes for sale that have no registered sex offenders living within a half-mile radius” (Axtman, 2006, p. 1). A proposed law would require sex offenders to have green florescent license plates (Reuters, 2007).

Nicholas Lehmann notes that popular conservative talk-show host Bill O’Reilly routinely devotes entire programs to the crimes of sex offenders-or those who are not tough enough on them. Most statements made by politicians or advocates about extreme sex offender policies are presented without criticism or question, though occasionally the rhetoric reaches a point where even the mainstream media cannot help but respond. In July 2006, according to the Washington Post, John Walsh told a FOX-TV news photographer at a gathering of TV critics that “people who molest children should have chips embedded in the rectum that would explode if they violate their parole” (de Moraes, 2006, ¶ 1). The author of the piece observes that when Walsh said this, “a couple dozen speechless TV critics looked on,” and that the FOX-TV news photographer

was relieved of his responsibilities for the rest of the day for monopolizing Walsh’s onstage time with their interesting exchange about child-tracking technology, sex-offender-tracking technology—“pervert alert,” the photographer called it—and a comparison of repeat molesters to rabid dogs that need to be put down (de Moraes, 2006, ¶ 4).

Statistics about sex offenders are often exaggerated by those in public office to gain support for new laws, and terms such as “growing problem” are used to suggest that the problem is worsening. Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez announced a new policy aimed at targeting internet sex predators. He claimed that 50,000 child sex predators are online at any given moment—a statistic that cannot be confirmed or documented, yet which is commonly used: 50,000 was the same number cited as the number of children abducted by strangers each year in the 1970s. There is evidence that the number of children being solicited online is declining (McCollam, 2007).

Read the whole Abstract at:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to Top