By Judith Levine and Erica Meiners
Recently the New Yorker published a major article about juvenile “sex offenders.” The story, by staff writer Sarah Stillman, is far ranging, moving and important. Stillman writes about many young people who were caught doing anything from playing doctor to sexually coercing another person (usually another child). Convicted for sex crimes, some of these youth are incarcerated and subject to lifelong sex offender registration—a kind of social death sentence.
The New Yorker article follows a year in which the juvenile sex offender (JSO) was frequently in the news. Josh Gravens, a Texas father of four convicted at age 12 of sexual contact with his younger sister, was profiled by Reuters and the Dallas Observer, which celebrated him as one of “the metro area’s most interesting characters.” Zachary Anderson’s case, and a photo of his parents, appeared on the cover of the New York Times. At 19 Zach, an Indiana computer studies student, had sex with a woman who presented herself as 17, but was 14. He too faced sex offender registration.
In stark contrast to earlier iterations–Jeffrey Dahmer, Jesse Timmendequas, or the villains on “Law & Order: SVU” – these “new” sex offenders are humanized: attractive, promising, law-abiding heterosexual sons and fathers who made some youthful mistakes and deserve a second chance.
Behind this sympathetic media coverage are decades of organizing by groups like Reform Sex Offender Laws (RSOL) and recent policy reports, including Human Rights Watch’s groundbreaking Raised on the Registry (2013), by Nicole Pittman, that have raised the visibility of registered sex offenders, particularly those convicted as juveniles.