Monday, December 11, 2006

On predator hysteria

We are constantly bombarded in the news by stories about how bad MySpace and how it is pretty much a paradise for sexual predators. While sexual predators are a threat, they are certainly not the threat that the press and hysterical government officials appealing to people's fears make them out to be. Readers may want to take a look at this recent article on "Predator Panic" from the Skeptical Inquirer for September 2006. Some highlights from the piece:

  • On the famous 1 in 5 statistic: "According to a May 3, 2006, ABC News report, “One in five children is now approached by online predators.” This alarming statistic is commonly cited in news stories about prevalence of Internet predators, but the factoid is simply wrong. The “one in five statistic” can be traced back to a 2001 Department of Justice study issued by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (“The Youth Internet Safety Survey”) that asked 1,501 American teens between 10 and 17 about their online experiences. Anyone bothering to actually read the report will find a very different picture. Among the study’s conclusions: “Almost one in five (19 percent) . . . received an unwanted sexual solicitation in the past year.” (A “sexual solicitation” is defined as a “request to engage in sexual activities or sexual talk or give personal sexual information that were unwanted or, whether wanted or not, made by an adult.” Using this definition, one teen asking another teen if her or she is a virgin—or got lucky with a recent date—could be considered “sexual solicitation.”) Not a single one of the reported solicitations led to any actual sexual contact or assault. Furthermore, almost half of the “sexual solicitations” came not from “predators” or adults but from other teens—in many cases the equivalent of teen flirting. When the study examined the type of Internet “solicitation” parents are most concerned about (e.g., someone who asked to meet the teen somewhere, called the teen on the telephone, or sent gifts), the number drops from “one in five” to just 3 percent."
That is an example of what happens when people don't read closely or look at the source of a statistic, let alone see the context of it. And yet, the statistic, flawed as it is, continues to be cited.

  • On the (supposed) high offender repeat rate: "The high recidivism rate among sex offenders is repeated so often that it is accepted as truth, but in fact recent studies show that the recidivism rates for sex offenses is not unusually high. According to a U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics study (“Recidivism of Sex Offenders Released from Prison in 1994”), just five percent of sex offenders followed for three years after their release from prison in 1994 were arrested for another sex crime. A study released in 2003 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that within three years, 3.3 percent of the released child molesters were arrested again for committing another sex crime against a child. Three to five percent is hardly a high repeat offender rate."
  • And something to think about the next time some legislator comes up with another law to make people feel better: "The tragic irony is that the panic over sex offenders distracts the public from the real danger, a far greater threat to children than sexual predators: parental abuse and neglect. The vast majority of crimes against children are committed not by released sex offenders but instead by the victim’s own family, church clergy, and family friends."
No one is saying that sexual offenders are not a threat or should not be dealt with. What I am saying is that maybe people should be more critical of the information they get, think a bit more before pushing laws, many of which are useless or meaningless, and then deal with the problems in a proportional and rational manner.


Anonymous said...

You might find interesting material on "No Sex Offenders Need Apply",

I think there's a link there to some more recidivism studies, though I haven't looked at the links in a while.

char said...

Thank you for this info. I always thought it was an exaggeration and now I know for sure.

I think the media and govt. are trying to keep us frightened so we're easier to manipulate.