As ethical issues go, it doesn’t get much simpler than paedophilia. Individuals that specifically target the weakest and most vulnerable, purely for sexual gratification, hardly elicit empathy, after all.
It’s therefore not surprising that support is building in Australia for sex offender registries to be made public. This system allows the public to find out where offenders are living. In some systems, these offenders are required to knock on their neighbours’ doors and inform them that they are a convicted sex offender.
The rationale is simple and extremely attractive; if you have kids, wouldn’t you want to know if a convicted paedophile was living nearby? When the police can’t be monitoring every ex-con 24/7, isn’t it then your right to know where these perverts are so that you can protect your children?
On paper it’s the most sensible thing in the world, so it’s no surprise that such a scheme is becoming quite popular - with parents, family groups, and faces like Neil Mitchell AO (a popular shock-jock) and blogger Mia Freedman (of Mamamia.com.au) leading the charge for public access.
Certainly, these sorts of laws might cause a lot of suffering for sex offenders who have, let’s not forget, done their time and been released from prison just like any other criminal, but regardless, it’s an easy proposal to justify ethically. From a deontological perspective, these offenders had their chance and threw it away in the most horrific way imaginable and, from a utilitarian perspective, any post-jail injustice a paedophile might suffer as a result of public knowledge of their location, is clearly outweighed by the safety benefits for children and the community.
OR IS IT?
What if I was to tell you that making sex offender registries public would, in all likelihood, make life less safe for everyone involved and that such a plan would actually make it more likely that your children would be attacked?
Public access to the location of criminals that might pose a risk to the public is one of those ideas that seems sensible on paper (not to mention emotionally satisfying), but which falls apart extremely fast the second you apply some serious critical thinking to it.
Naming, shaming, and disclosing the location of convicted sex offenders makes their rehabilitation almost impossible. If you committed a crime, were jailed, released and were genuinely trying to make a fresh start, how much harder would it be if, everywhere you moved, you were forced to inform the community that you had committed those crimes? How do you think the community would respond to that information, especially when that crime was so incredibly heinous? The second people learn someone on their street is a paedophile, no matter how rehabilitated, there will be no rest until they are driven from the community.
What is the point in trying to rehabilitate when everyone already assumes you’re going to reoffend, and treats you like you already have? Why bother going through the effort of remaking yourself as a person to fit into society, when that society is already rejecting you pre-emptively? Why not just give up and do what everyone assumes you’re already doing? You’ve got nothing to lose anyway.
Paedophilia is a psychiatric disorder. You can call it ‘evil’ but, seriously, who in their right mind would voluntarily choose to be sexually attracted to children? The obvious answer is someone who is not in their right mind to start with.
But even if we accept this point, it’s unlikely to be very persuasive, is it? A public register might make rehabilitation impossible, which in turn might make paedophiles more likely to re-offend, but that just confirms that we shouldn’t let them out in the first place! Alternatives, such as sterilisation or the death penalty, are already quite popular as it is, so being a social pariah is lax by comparison.
And this brings us to the second, far more serious problem with a public register. As mentioned earlier, paedophilia is a psychiatric disorder and, as with any psychiatric disorder or psychological issue, the single most important thing when it comes to treatment is early intervention. In the case of paedophilia, this can be the difference between an unfortunate but never indulged sexual preference, and a child rapist.
But early intervention requires early detection, and the early stages of most psychological conditions aren’t obvious from the outside. This means that the only real chance of early intervention for paedophilia is if those afflicted come forward voluntarily for treatment, before they offend.
Under a system that assumes rehabilitation of paedophiles is impossible and makes them the target of any would-be vigilante, what person would ever admit to being sexually attracted to children even to themselves, let alone to a stranger? Such is the incredible social hatred of paedophilia that even the most fair-minded person can’t help but be repulsed by the very idea and the vast majority of people in society are not going to approach the topic objectively.
And that’s the subtle poison of the proposal: it feels right. It feels like justice. It feels like a strong, straightforward step by the forces of Good to control and defeat the forces of Evil. This is not to say that these feelings are misplaced; paedophilia is indeed a horrific act. If there were ever an issue to be angry about, this is it.
But this same emotional response also swamps any effort to point out that no matter how satisfying this proposal might seem, it will not work.
By simultaneously making rehabilitation impossible and further reducing the likelihood of potential paedophiles coming forward for preventative treatment, this proposal will actually make life far, far more dangerous for the same children it seeks to protect.
At the end of the day, this issue really has nothing to do with paedophilia at all; it is and always will be a horrific crime. What is in question here, is how best can we purge this crime from the face of the earth and, on that score, public access to the sex offender registry will not help and will likely make things worse.
Want to protect your children from the horrors of the world? Best you understand those horrors, lest you end up working on their side by accident.