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Are Sex Offenders Human?

New documentaries can’t get past the question

In July 16, 2015, Barack Obama visited a federal prison, the first sitting president ever to do so. It was a powerful statement of support for a broad movement—stretching from Black Lives Matter to Right on Crime—to reform the U.S. criminal justice system, one of the most punitive in the world.

Six months later, on February 8, 2016, the president signed a law requiring the passports of citizens with convictions for sex offenses to be marked “Sex Offender,” globalizing an already extraordinarily harsh domestic system of surveillance and punishment. In September, a federal judge in California dismissed a constitutional challenge to that law.

Underlying the current wave of criminal justice reform is an understanding that people who do bad things—even very bad things, like murder—are not fundamentally bad. “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” writes lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson in his bestseller, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. People who break the law are not just criminals; they are children and parents, classmates, siblings, coworkers, and neighbors. Obama’s Department of Justice announced it would no longer refer to people convicted of crimes as “felons” or “convicts” (though Donald Trump’s law-and-order Department of Justice is likely to reverse this policy).

“Sex offenders”—a category encompassing a vast swath of people from public urinators to armed rapists—are subject to an ever-expanding regime of state control and penalty.

But one kind of offender has been explicitly excluded from policy reform and, largely, from the movement advocating it and the sympathies behind that movement. In fact, “sex offenders”—a category encompassing a vast swath of people from public urinators to armed rapists—are subject to an ever-expanding regime of state control and penalty. More than 850,000 people are listed on public sex offender registries, often for life. People who’ve completed their prison sentences can sometimes be locked up indefinitely in civil commitment. In the community, former sex offenders are restricted in housing, employment, military service, travel, religious attendance, and parenthood.

Twenty years of research has established that people with convictions for sex offenses have low rates of recidivism and that the expanding realms of post-release punishment do not prevent sexual violence. But no matter how many times the data are repeated or extrapolated, they have negligible effect on policy, as repealing or even softening any sex-crimes statute is viewed as politically radioactive.

Public opinion may be slowly changing. Vox recently flagged a sign: in its eighteenth season—after seventeen seasons as chief pop-culture lobbyist for tough sex crime laws—Law & Order: SVU for the first time “asked viewers to empathize with an admitted rapist.” Juvenile sex offenders have enjoyed increasingly sympathetic press coverage and advocacy. The last few years have seen a proliferation of legal challenges to civil commitment and other excessive restrictions, as “registered citizens” organize, overcome shame, and publicly assert their rights.

Do these people have rights? A few courts have ruled that they have some. But a thoroughgoing, popularly shared assertion of the human and civil rights of people who have committed sex crimes statute hinges on answering this question: Are sex offenders human?

Three recent documentaries—the Swedish film Pervert Park, by Frida and Lasse Barkfors; Untouchable, by David Feige; and Deborah Esquenazi’s Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four—indicate that the jury has not yet returned with a verdict. So, as consensus builds that other “criminals” deserve to be embraced and allowed back into the community, advocates, academics, and responsible journalists—including the makers of the first two films—keep hacking away at the most basic project: “humanizing” the “sex offender.” The third film shows how difficult it is to win back the mantle of humanity once you’ve been accused of a sex crime.

Recent documentaries keep hacking away at the most basic project: “humanizing” the “sex offender.”

Anthropologically neutral yet bordering on voyeuristic, Pervert Park tracks the lives, before and after conviction, of the residents of a Florida trailer park created specifically for sex offenders. Each person’s story is grislier and sadder than the next: one man tells of his mother putting Tabasco sauce on his brother’s penis. A woman talks about years of sexual abuse by her father, his friends, her husbands and lovers, and tearfully recounts, “for the first time,” subjecting her own eight-year-old son to the same awful treatment. The “expert” voice, in the person of therapist Don Sweeney, is compassionate and rational. “All we want to do is punish and make their lives miserable. People in the ‘victim business’ . . . don’t want to go near the fact that the sex offenders are victims,” he says. “To help, not hurt” is a practical approach: “Treating one offender might prevent ten more victims from being created.” The Barkforses aim to present their subjects as whole people. But the focus on their hellish childhoods leaves the viewer feeling that it is only through their own victimization that these offenders win human status.

Untouchable is “character driven,” director Feige has said—and it is indeed thick with characters: people with convictions for sex offenses who struggle to survive post-release restrictions, scholars whose research demonstrates the fact-free nature of registries and sex laws, advocates across the political spectrum from WAR (Women Against Registries) to Ron Book, the wealthy Floridian father of Lauren Book, a survivor of sexual abuse; much of the footage follows the Books as they lobby relentlessly for ever-tougher sanctions (none of which, Ron admits to Feige, would have helped his daughter).

Untouchable sides with none of these characters—it has been praised for its even-handedness, even as most of the experts in the documentary regard the laws as ill conceived and counterproductive, and the press appears persuaded. Still, early reviews of the film indicate what its makers were up against. “In a brave move, the [offenders’] side of the matter is also explored,” wrote one critic, as though representing the people affected by a body of law were not a conventional and necessary part of any criminal justice reporting. The film “needed to be a carefully paced process, introducing these people who are considered monsters by society and looking at them as if they are human,” editor Jay Arthur Sterrenberg remarked [italics ours].

These films practically pull out DNA evidence to show that their subjects can be classified as homo sapiens. Might it be that no one even suspected of a sex crime should be considered human until proven innocent? That prejudice is evident in the response to Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four, a moving documentary that tracks the struggle to prove the innocence of four Latina lesbians convicted in 1995 of gang-raping two girls (the film began airing on Discovery ID October 15). In a trial that would be generously characterized as a miscarriage of justice, the prosecutor mentioned the defendants’ lesbianism dozens of times. The alleged abuse, a local investigative journalist says in the film, sounded “like a porn movie—a man’s version of what women do in their spare time.” The prosecutor and the press deployed the defendants’ Otherness—queerness, brown-ness, poverty—as well as bogus medical evidence and the “satanic panic” rampant during that period, to convict the women. People who should have come to their aid during their fifteen-year ordeal—queers, Latinos, advocates for the poor—ran the other way until their convictions were vacated. (It’s something of an irony that the Los Angeles-based LGBTQ film festival Outfest awarded Southwest its Documentary Grand Jury Prize). Only in their innocence were the San Antonio Four welcomed back fully into the human community as deserving subjects of compassion.

Documentarians, tethered to the real, gauge their audiences for what they are “ready” to see; reviewers repeat the assumption that they are not ready to see sex offenders as ordinary people—and perhaps the viewers are not ready. But fictional representations operate in a different register. TV and Hollywood have produced their share of films about drooling sex fiends. But feature films (independent ones, anyway) don’t have to make the case that their imaginary characters are human. Indeed, fiction fails if they are not sufficiently so—that is, complex, recognizable yet unique, and, at least in some way, sympathetic.

Perhaps it has been fictional representations of people who commit acts of sexual violence that have eroded the public’s abhorrence of the sex offender, not documentaries. Nicole Kassell’s 2004 film The Woodsman tells the story of Walter (Kevin Bacon), a sex offender recently released from prison. His police-department minder, Lucas (Mos Def), succinctly expresses the public view of people like Walter: “In my eyes, you are a piece of shit. Think anyone would miss you if I threw you out the window right now? I could say you jumped when I came in. Who are they going to believe? Not you, because you’d be a dead piece of shit.”

But Walter persists in being a person, not a piece of shit. He enters a relationship with an adult woman. A survivor of abuse herself, Vicki (Kyra Sedgwick) loves Walter anyway; in fact, she still loves her abusers, her brothers, now “strong, gentle men.” Walter struggles to contain his desire for children, a struggle represented by his obsessive observation of a child molester he calls “Candy,” who entices kids from the schoolyard across the street from Walter’s apartment. In the end, a child Walter follows into a park offers him a path to empathy for the other children he’s hurt. Walter asks the child to sit in his lap. She declines, revealing that her own father asks the same. “Do you like it when he asks you?”“No,” she replies, and begins to sob. Walter gently tells her to go home, letting her hug him but not returning the hug. Back on his own street, seeing a boy get out of Candy’s car, Walter beats the molester—his sinful alter ego—unconscious. In violence, he is redeemed.

Asking whether the sex offender is human only legitimizes the question and reinforces the doubt it arises from: if you have to ask, maybe the answer is no.

“How much sympathy can we extend to a man who has done the things Walter has, and who may still be capable of doing them?” the New York Times reviewer asked thirteen years ago. A conversation about forgiveness, with all its inherent ambiguities, makes for a more realistic, useful, and socially rich line of inquiry than endlessly wondering if sex offenders are human beings.

And there are bigger questions about what it means to be human. These questions make up the project of filmmaker Todd Solondz. “You know what I like about you?” Trish (Alison Janney), the ex-wife of a convicted pedophile tells her date in Solondz’s Life During Wartime (2010) “You’re so . . . normal. . . . It feels so good to be with someone who isn’t . . . weird. Or screwed up.” She laughs. “Or sicko-pervy.”

But almost everyone in the film—a sequel to Solondz’s 1998 Happiness—is sicko-pervy. The men are pedophiles and rapists, the women narcissists and masochists; only the children escape pathology, though they, too, are drawn into their parents’ craziness. Solondz’s films ask: What if perversion is not aberrant but embedded in everyday life? What if it is—god forbid—funny? Solondz has been called misanthropic by critics, but he’s just the opposite: nothing human is alien to him. But the film’s distributor expected audiences to see only the alien and not the human, and to be repulsed. Although Life During Wartime won numerous U.S. and international awards, Universal Pictures ordered its “independent” subsidiary October Films to drop the film from its lineup on “moral grounds.”

Asking whether the sex offender is human only legitimizes the question and reinforces the doubt it arises from: if you have to ask, maybe the answer is no. And if one category of people can be less than fully human for their (real or imagined) bad acts, so can others—just ask the legions of young black men tarred as “superpredators” in the 1990s. As Trump takes office having risen to power by dehumanizing, criminalizing, and promising to seize the rights of broadening categories of Others, humanizing remains a necessary political step. But it’s not an end in itself. A movement for justice must start from the fundamental truth that everyone born in a human body is endowed with all human qualities and also with inalienable human rights—and move forward from there.