By Jean Zeeb Special to The Sun
In Lauren Book's Dec. 11 column, she wrote about the dangers that sexual predators pose to children and admonishes parents to be suspicious of staff at youth-serving organizations. We all want to protect children, so how could such a column be objectionable? Because it is alarmist, misleading and mostly false.
I have been a sex offender therapist for over 20 years, treating well over 1,000 juvenile and adult sex offenders. For longer than that, I have worked with adults who were sexually victimized as children.
Book states that we must be vigilant for sexual predators who work in youth-serving capacities. She wrote that "the average sexual predator will offend against 117 children in his or her lifetime." This is an old trope, discredited decades ago.
Among sex offenders, there are those with child victims and those with adult victims. Those with child victims are further divided into two categories: child molesters and pedophiles.
Child molesters generally have one or two victims (verified by polygraphs), and these are children with whom they have close contact (e.g., as stepparents, babysitters, etc.). Child molesters are generally heterosexual, and are primarily interested in adult partners, but at one time or another victimized a child.
Pedophiles, on the other hand, are primarily (and often exclusively) attracted to children. While there are pedophiles who fit Book's description of "117 victims," such pedophiles are rare. Most are introverts and isolated from society. Though some act on their sexual desires, others do not.
"Sexual predator" is not a clinical term, but a legal one based primarily on statute. In Florida, the difference between being labeled a "sex offender" or "sexual predator" has little to do with the actual crime, and more to do with when the crime was committed and the presiding judge's whims. Any adult convicted of a sex crime against a child after Oct. 1, 1993, if the judge so deems, can be labeled a sexual predator.
In Florida, the definition of "adult" and "child" is a moving target. In terms of victims, anyone under the age of 18 is considered to be a child. Unlike 40 other states where the age of consent is lower, Florida's age of consent is 18.
When it comes to offenders, children as young as 14 who may have "experimented" with neighborhood kids, can, and regularly are, convicted of sexual offenses as adults. Since their victims are almost always younger, they are considered especially dangerous, as they have "targeted" such young victims and are thus labeled "sexual predators."
Here are a few other examples from my caseload: An 18-year-old high school student has sex with a 16 year old from school. He is convicted of a sex crime against a child, must drop out as he cannot now be around "children," and his hopes of joining the military after graduation are dashed. Instead he is labeled a sexual predator for his entire life. Had he done this in Georgia, where the age of consent is 16, no crime would have been committed.
A 22-year-old man meets someone in a chat room who claims to be 20 and posts a stock photo of a woman roughly that age. The conversation turns sexual and they exchange photos of their genitals. Her parents discover the photos and call the police. He is arrested and convicted of sending material harmful to a child and labeled a child sexual predator. She was 14 years old, though he had no way of knowing this.
A 23-year-old man goes to a dance club and picks up a woman at the bar. She goes home with him and they have sex. Three weeks later, he is arrested on a child sexual battery charge. The "woman" was 17 and used a fake ID to get into the bar. When she bragged about her sexual encounter with her school friends she was overheard by a teacher, who was mandated by the state to report the crime. The man is now convicted and labeled a sexual predator.
I do not mean to imply that there are not true child victims, children sexually exploited by unscrupulous men. Nor do I want to minimize the harm done to children by a trusted adult, such as a stepfather. Children are profoundly harmed by such activity. The countless heartbreaking stories that Book is likely privy to, and that I myself have heard in my offices, point to the devastation wreaked upon their lives.
But it is important to look with a more critical eye than Book is using. By using alarmist terms and discredited statistics, the complexity of the problem is obscured. When the term "sexual predator" applies alike to young men with "consenting" partners as it does for pedophiles, the term is, in effect, meaningless.
Book casts suspicion on the vast majority of well-intended adults who work with children. Most adults working with youth are altruistic men and women deserving of our appreciation.
- Jean Zeeb is a licensed mental health counselor and a clinical member of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. She works with sex offenders and victims of sexual abuse in North Central Florida.