How Do We End Sexual Violence?

How Do We End Sexual Violence?

In The Feminist and the Sex Offender, Judith Levine and Erica R. Meiners pull back the curtain on the history of the sex offender registry and explore how we can strive to reduce sexual harm without mass incarceration.

Setting out a circle of chairs for a support-group meeting (Henrik Sorensen/Getty Images)

Booked is a series of interviews about new books. For this edition, Lyra Walsh Fuchs spoke to Judith Levine and Erica R. Meiners, the authors of The Feminist and the Sex Offender: Confronting Sexual Harm, Ending State Violence (Verso).

There are nearly a million people on the sex offender registry, a number that has increased alongside rising rates of incarceration in the United States—even as reported rates of sexual violence have been falling since 1993. Children as young as nine years old are on the registry. Depending on the state, registrants are held on the list for as long as ten years to life; while they are on the registry, they are restricted in where they can live, work, and walk. Legally, they are in a category all of their own. Florida’s 2018 Amendment 4, for example, which enfranchised those with felony convictions (before it was neutralized by a Republican-led law declaring that their hefty court debts must be paid off first) excluded those with sex offense and murder convictions from the start. And at least 5,000 people convicted of sex offenses are imprisoned indefinitely in mental health facilities through “civil commitment,” even after they have completed their criminal sentences.

While the uprisings sparked by George Floyd’s murder brought prison abolition into mainstream conversations, the fear of sex offenders stopped many from joining the calls to put an end to the oppressive institutions for good. The Feminist and the Sex Offender by Judith Levine and Erica R. Meiners pulls back the curtain on the history of the sex offender registry, its roots and its injustices, and how we can strive for a future with neither sexual harm nor state violence.

Lyra Walsh Fuchs: The sex offender registry seems like such a permanent institution. But on the national level, it was created relatively recently in the 1990s, by an additive series of laws named after the victims of some exceptionally terrible cases. Can you walk us through the timeline of its creation?

Erica R. Meiners: While the registry as we know it is relatively recent, there is a long history of policing men who have sex with other men, and creating and collecting information to use against them. The book tries to remind us of the queer history of registries.

Judith Levine: Even before that, back in the late nineteenth century, sex workers were policed and put on a registry; they had to be checked every two weeks for venereal disease. For a long time, many peoples’ sexual lives have been not only policed but recorded in this same way.

Meiners: Particularly, the sex lives of vulnerable communities: queer folks, sex workers, poor women. The registry as we know it, however, is about a generation old. The first law that created it was passed in 1990 in Washington State. Fairly quickly after that, new federal laws were passed, each after a very spectacular and extraordinary—that is to say, rare—violent sex crime against a white child. Each one was named after that child, and each one added more restrictions. The first one [the Jacob Wetterling Act (1994)] required states to have a registry. The next one [Megan’s Law (1996)] said that they had to make that registry publicly available. Then another one [the Adam Walsh Act (2006)] established that there had to be a federal registry that the state registries hooked into. Each of these came with penalties for states if they did not comply, like denying funds for policing from the Department of Justice. Meanwhile, the states imposed restrictions on people who were on the registry: where they could live, where they could work, where they could travel, where they could sit, where they could shop, where they could worship, and so on. Both at the state level and at the federal level, the time that you were on the registry and the crimes or the offenses for which you could be put on the registry broadened.

The conditions of the registry make it far more likely for people to violate those rules, or to violate probation or parole, which in some states means going back to prison. That added to rising incarceration at the same time that these laws elevated more offenses to higher levels with longer sentences.

Walsh Fuchs: Throughout the book, you trace the history of the sex offender registry alongside the history of feminism. How do these histories intertwine?

Meiners: Registries and community notification laws were a bipartisan initiative. Even Barack Obama, whose administration was lukewarmly committed to rethinking some facets of what gets called mass incarceration, signed the International Megan’s Law in 2016, which requires peoples’ passports to be marked with an “unique identifier” if they have been convicted of a sex offense against a minor. 

The book tries to illustrate how some strands of feminism produced or contributed to the buildup of the carceral state in the United States, while other strands are part of an equally long history of challenging mass incarceration—of pushing for a different response to gender and sexual violence that’s not about criminalization, punishment, and enhancing policing.

Levine: The anti-violence, anti-rape movement in the 1970s was very closely allied with the left; we were against the law-and-order Nixon presidency. Then came the law-and-order Reagan presidency, which used racist tropes to stir up fears of crime and create more laws. The Clinton administration did the same.

Women-led organizations doing community-based anti-violence work and supporting survivors started to become more institutionalized. To get money from the state, they needed to comply with the rules that the state imposed; the anti-violence movement got married to the violent state. As these relationships became more and more entrenched, it got harder and harder to disentangle them. Furthermore, it was very hard, even for those early feminists, to think of a way except for criminalization that the state could demonstrate that it really cared about sexual and gender violence.

Walsh Fuchs: There’s a pointed moment in the book when Clinton signs the 1994 crime bill at the same time he says he’s going to end “welfare as we know it.” Of course, Reagan also promoted so-called family values while making massive cuts to the programs that help families. You make the point that burdens are moved into the home at the same time that danger is placed outside of the home.

Levine: Privacy and family life have been used to mask violence within the family against women and against children. Part of the right’s ideology is that the family is safe and good and the outside world is dangerous. The street is dangerous. This is a very old trope; it goes back to the fear of “white slavery,” that white girls were being stolen off the streets and thrown into prostitution. In fact, there was exploitation but of a different kind: girls were working in terrible factories and living in squalid housing. But the fear is of the outside. And what is outside? Outside is sex; sex that’s chosen and sex that’s imposed. Outside is also money; outside is independence; outside are a lot of the things that feminism wants women to have in the world.

The structure behind the sex offender registry stirs this fear of strangers. And who is the stranger? The stranger is queer; the stranger is a gay man; the stranger is some sort of a sexual deviant. Meanwhile, because of the way that the sex offender registry works, it does not protect children inside of families. There’s a great disincentive for a child to report her father or her uncle, knowing that he might go to prison for twenty years. Those relationships are also complicated; along with coercion there is often care. The sex offender registry ignores the real danger to children—for the most part, the people they know and live with and are related to. The registry works up not only fear but also what anthropologist Roger Lancaster calls “poisoned solidarity,” when the community comes together against someone else. As founder of the “Free-Range Kids” movement Lenore Skenazy has pointed out, this makes life really limited for children. You can’t go outside and play anymore because a pedophile will snatch you. So children are pushed further into their families, and people can’t get away, can’t get out of their homes. We see, for instance, during the pandemic, an increase in domestic violence.

Meiners: Child care becomes a private family responsibility while women’s bodies are of public concern. Those divisions are artificial divisions used against communities. The threat to young people is largely not in the public domain, it’s in their private families and networks and homes.

Levine: Add to that queer kids who are ejected by their families, then face the dangers of living on the street. The family even exacerbates the dangers in the big world for certain children.

Walsh Fuchs: QAnon is another episode of this sex panic. But there’s a flip of the public-private narrative there, in that they believe that it’s a member of the government who is going to be their savior and stop other members of the government who are in this bigger cabal. Without going too far into the ideology of QAnon, what do you think people are missing when they talk about it? This is the biggest new manifestation of fear of pedophiles in our society, and it’s really shaping the political arena. Is there anything to be done with this fear?

Meiners: For a long time, the religious right has been organizing panic and anxiety around sex trafficking. The term “carceral feminism” came from a scholar who was specifically researching the religious right’s work to stop sex trafficking. The federal legislation FOSTA-SESTA has harmed sex workers under the guise of protecting women from sex trafficking. In Chicago, San Francisco, and New York, we’ve seen a lot of domestic sex workers punished by that legislation, and also a huge amount of money coming in to try to find child sex traffickers, punish them, and train domestic police officers to identify someone that’s being sex trafficked. QAnon seems like a crystallization of that rhetoric and work.

Levine: The sex trafficking panic did not start with the right, however. It started with feminists. It grew out of the 1980s porn wars, when Catharine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, and other feminists believed that all pornography was violence against women and therefore should be censored. Reagan’s Meese Commission against pornography in the 1980s was the first official alliance between anti-porn feminists and “family-values” conservatives. After that failed, I heard the feminist Dorchen Leidholdt at a conference in the late ’80s talking about this thing called “global sex trafficking.” When the anti-porn movement failed, “trafficking” became the next big thing. The prospect of rescuing women from sexual exploitation was more attractive, especially to the right, than challenging the more complex and common problems of global exploitation of labor. 

Stories about satanic abuse were around through the ’80s and ’90s, and now we’re hearing them again. Those kinds of monsters never really go away. They just hibernate, and then somebody comes in and rouses them. They’re convenient and compelling; we all feel fear for children’s safety.

In terms of QAnon, the part about the state being involved with pedophilic “rings” is just today’s flavor. You have a broad anti-government movement, so the villains are going to be government officials. Before it was day-care teachers, the women who made it possible for other women to go to work. Day care also collectivizes child rearing—which is another thing that the right fears, that you’re going to socialize children instead of reinforce family-first privacy.

Walsh Fuchs: The registrants’ rights movement is by far the whitest criminal justice movement, and it’s isolated from the rest. As you noted, all of the laws that created the regime are named after white children; there’s no law named after the children of color, such as LaTonya Wilson, who was kidnapped and murdered in Atlanta. How do you think the criminal justice movement and the registrants’ rights movement can come together given this segmentation?

Meiners: Projects like this book are attempts to work across these engineered silos and isolated movements. The registrants’ rights movement includes some of the only U.S. organizations that provide affective support, community, and legislative advocacy for people and their loved ones on the registry. On the other hand, those registrants’ rights organizations have a history of disassociation with criminal-legal reform movements, which in the United States are often rooted in the Black radical tradition—in Black communities, churches, and organizing. The registrants’ rights organizations often however claim “we’re not criminals, we’re not like those people.” This is a time-honored strategy that reinforces anti-Black racism.

On the flip side, movements to challenge the prison industrial complex also have histories of not wanting to look at people with convictions for sex offenses. This project is an attempt to surface these exclusions, and also to highlight great organizations like Black and Pink and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project that try not to reject people with criminal-legal sex offense convictions. These two organizations have radically challenged the criminal-legal system as a pathway toward safety, and named anti-Black racism and dismantling white supremacy as central to that work. We try to highlight these efforts while also pointing out that the dominant movements still often have a ways to go.

Levine: The registrants’ rights movement has grown in the South and in the white evangelical church; they believe in redemption, but they also believe in punishment. That’s consonant with a carceral ideology. You will often hear, “Well, there should be a registry. Some people should be on it, but not my son.” Or you talk to people who are so guilty and self-hating about things that maybe the three of us would not even consider to be criminal. In order to redeem yourself, you have to be punished, or beat yourself up, first.

Walsh Fuchs: I understood the book to be a coalitional-building project aimed at the registrants’ rights movement, feminists, the LGBTQ movement, and the criminal justice movement. It’s a difficult project, in part because we were all raised with the specters of the bad guys, the kidnappers, the rapists. I was very willing to take in the project, but I caught myself having a few visceral negative reactions. One was at the casual mention of the North American Man/Boy Love Association. You didn’t go into what that was. Another was at the idea that LGBTQ organizations are refusing to defend “the queerest among them,” by not taking on the cause of registrants. What do you say to the skeptic that has those strong initial reactions? In building a coalition, how do you deal with that visceral feeling that people have to protect children and keep them safe?

Meiners: There’s an affective regime in place, built out of ways of seeing, ways of knowing, and ways of feeling, and also connected to peoples’ own standpoints, histories, and interpersonal experiences. The book is trying to plow along and be matter-of-fact, dismantling myths as clearly as possible. We have so many myths and fact-free policies. For example, there’s no evidence that shows registries reduce, prevent, or end sexual harm.

But dismantling the affective regime is going to be slower. We use stories and examples—and some of our own narrative exchanges—to grapple with feelings of revulsion, seeing monsters, and how harm really happens and how we can work to prevent and address this harm. 

Levine: Take the idea of statutory rape, which has the effect of criminalizing adolescent sex. We say in the beginning of the book: if both people want to do it, if they consent and can consent, then it’s not rape. It’s a bit of a punt, because what does it mean that they can consent? That becomes the big question. One example in the book is Galen Baughman, whose whole life has been overturned by his consensual relationship with a teenager when Galen had just turned nineteen and become a legal adult.

It’s not that we can’t have a judgment or a feeling of disgust or anger about a particular kind of relationship. But criminalizing those relationships is problematic. We should listen to the people who are involved in it. If a young person says, “Look. I’m fifteen. Maybe when I’m fifty I’ll look back on this and think it wasn’t so great. But right now this is okay with me,” we should listen. Just as we should believe a person who says something is harmful to them, we have to believe a person who says something is not harmful. The ideas that child sexuality can only be pathological, or that their consent can only be the result of “grooming,” or force—those are ideas that we want to destabilize.

Walsh Fuchs: Can you walk us through how existing sex offender treatments—you mentioned cognitive behavioral therapy—dovetail with restorative and transformative justice practices? In our abolitionist utopia that we’re building, how will these practices function?

Levine: Restorative and transformative justice are community-based interactions. They are not psychological. They are not therapy. They recognize that harm is done in a social, political, and economic context. In restorative justice, we ask the person, “What were you thinking? What led up to you doing this thing? Why did you do it? Can you think about what’s happened afterward?” The harmed person expresses her feelings and needs. But this is not about curing individuals psychologically, and to me, that’s one of the attractive things about it. It recognizes that harm is social and that it can be dealt with socially. This is a cultural movement; it brings interpersonal harm, and repair, back to relationships in a broader context.

Meiners: We wrote this project with specific recommendations at the end, but also with general ones: we need meaningful and affirming gender and sexual health education. We need quality free child care. In this moment, when abolition is in the discourse in ways that it certainly wasn’t five or ten years ago, it’s important to think of cultural change. Without reducing what to do to a checklist, one thing we need is more movements of men, particularly cisgender men, working with other men to end gender and sexual violence.

That’s the premise of the project: How do we end gender and sexual violence? Certainly not through the registry, and certainly not through criminalization.

Walsh Fuchs: Can you tell us more about successful coalitions? You mention Prisoners Against Rape as a success story of feminists and incarcerated men banding together. Another is the successful fight that brought together sex workers, abolitionists, and LGBTQ people against a law in New Orleans that made “solicitation of a crime against nature” a felony charge and sex offense. You write that “this campaign showed the strength of a strategy that centers the leadership and experience of some of the most marginalized folks in our communities—in this case, street-based sex workers of color.” What other lessons can we learn from these coalitions?

Meiners: So many lessons! Horizontal political education across movements is really important. When sex worker organizing connects with queer LGBTQ organizing and anti-prison movements, people learn new languages, get educated about issues, build alliances, and build connections. We see that in the movement to defund the police right now. I’m trying to get my labor union to take a resolution to defund the police on my campus. Campaigns and grassroots organizing are really important sites of political education.

Levine: You are still going to have conflict. Not everyone is going to feel the same. But you can still act. In fact, conflict and confusion are part of the whole thing. Erica likes the word “messy.”

How do you feel empathy for another person who’s really different from you? I don’t expect that a Christian whom we deal with in the registrants’ rights movement is going to suddenly become a secular humanist. Am I going to dissuade someone of being against abortion? Probably not. And yet, we can see changes happening. That’s been really interesting, getting to know people in that movement, people who really trusted the state, who thought the government was pretty good, until their kid got involved in it. It’s a radicalizing experience. You start to see how fucked up the system is.

Judith Levine writes about sex, gender, feminism, and the ways that history, politics, and the economy feel in everyday life. Her books include the award-winning Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex.

Erica R. Meiners is a Professor of Education and Women’s and Gender Studies at Northeastern Illinois University and the author of several books, most recently For the Children?: Protecting Innocence in a Carceral State.

Lyra Walsh Fuchs is editorial assistant at Dissent.