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Location: Kansas City, Missouri, United States

Doing my part to irritate Republicans, fundamentalists, bigots and other lower life forms.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The new Scarlet Letter: Confessions of a sex offender

I am a sex offender.

I have engaged in public lewdness. I have indecently exposed myself. I have had sex with an underage partner.

Never mind that the acts of public lewdness involved my wilder, younger days when I had sex in such exotic locales as a cornfield, a construction site, a tent set up as a display in a Sears department store, and a glass elevator overlooking Kansas City's Country Club Plaza, just to name a few.

As for the indecent exposures ... well, see the paragraph above and add to it a few late night stops to piss behind a bush.

And the underage partner was 14 and I was 16 at the time.

But still, under various state and local laws, I am a sex offender. I've had the good fortune never to be charged or convicted with any of those crimes so I don't show up on any sex offender registry so helpfully made available online by many states. But nonetheless, had I been charged with all my infractions, I'd probably still be sitting in a jail cell.

Sex offenders have become the new boogiemen. Maybe that should be "boogiepersons" since quite a few women show up on sex offender registries, too.

The registries began in response to well-publicized cases in which persons with a history of pedophilia moved into neighborhoods and ended up molesting - and sometimes murdering - youngsters. Suddenly concerned mothers could log on to their computers and check to see if there were any perverts lurking around their neighborhoods.

I'm all for keeping pedophiles as far away from kids as possible. But as with any good idea, it can only be stretched so far before it gets bent entirely out of shape.

The trouble with sex offender registries is that there's seldom any clear definition about what constitutes a "sex offender." Few would disagree that someone with a history of molesting or sexually abusing youngsters should be on the list. But what about a couple of consenting adults - same- or opposite-sex - who get a bit carried away with passion in a parked car and get interupted by a cop with a flashlight? Should they be listed as sex offenders? Or suppose my diabetic kidney doesn't wanted to wait until I get home for relief and I get busted for indecent exposure for taking a leak behind a tree just as a cop happens to drive by? Should I be given the new "scarlet letter" of being forced to register as a sex offender?

Contrary to the popular opinion that the "degenerates" on a sex offender registry are perverts lusting after pre-pubescent kids and weinie-waggers in search of a fresh victim to flash, all sorts of people wind up on sex offender registries.

In Missouri, more than 11,000 people are listed on the state's sex offender registry. Recently a handful of them joined a lawsuit over the issue. None of them are the child rapists the registry was designed to warn the public about. One was a woman who, at the age of 21, had sex with a 15-year-old boy whom had told her he was 18. Another was a parent who spanked his child with a belt and the state, believing that this kind of discipline was a "precursor" of sexual abuse, added him to the registry. All those involved in the case have faced discrimination and harassment as a result of being listed as "sex offenders."

I hope they win their case. But it's going to be a tough, uphill battle. Right now convicted sex offenders are the boogiemen for the left and the right. The right uses sex offenders as examples of why families must be protected and the left uses them to show that they can be tough on crime, too. Each side ups the ante to prove it's tougher on crime than the other side and no one is willing to step forward to say, "But what about the rights of the sex offenders?"

In Kansas, lawmakers of both parties are trying to outdo each other on who can come up with the harshest penalty short of getting all Puritan on the offender's ass with stockades and stonings. The governor, a moderate Democrat, used her State of the State address to call for forcing convicted offenders to wear electronic monitors for the rest of their lives. Not to be outdone, the Republicans proposed a plan to force sex offenders to equip their cars with special pink license plates - presumably so all the self-righteous Kansans can decide who to aim their vehicles at if the Rapture strikes while they are out on the road and their cars are about to become driverless.

Protecting youngsters is a good and noble thing. But how far are we willing to go to reach those aims? And what rights should a sex offender have?

Even before we can answer that question, we need to make clear who is a sex offender. Right now there is such a patchwork of local laws that someone who gets caught pissing behind a tree in one place could get a slap on the wrist and a fine for public urination while the same offense in another location could result in a charge of indecent exposure and a permanent listing as a sex offender.

Let's hope that cooler heads prevail somewhere down the line; but in the current wave of hysteria over anything remotely smelling of a (gasp!) sex offense there are few cool heads to be found on either end of the political spectrum.