This effort was not without opposition.
The victim advocates and representatives from county prosecutors unsuccessfully attempted to table the vote and even accused members of the SOMB of not following protocols. Ultimately, the SOMB settled on the phrase, “adults who commit sexual offenses.”
This change does not go far enough.
In the words of one prosecutor who testified at the SOMB hearing, it was just a “longer way to say sex offender.” I agree. Furthermore, the phrase implies the SOMB clients are continuously committing offenses.
Victim advocates and prosecutors argued that replacing the term “sex offender” with different terminology “minimizes harm.” Victim advocates, including those currently on the SOMB, had argued they suffer lifelong consequences as victims and therefore those who have committed an offense should also suffer for life.
But this argument merely proves the intent of sex offense treatment schemes and post-conviction laws are to dehumanize and cause enduring harm to those who have committed offenses in the past.
The Limitations of a ‘Victim-Centric’ Approach
The SOMB is “victim-centric,” and is heavily slanted in favor of those who want to use their position to cause harm to people convicted of sexual offenses.
Three of the 21 members of the SOMB are victim advocates and four others are members of various criminal justice agencies; not a single board member directly represents people convicted of sexual offenses.
When asked why, a SOMB board member responded they only act as advisors and that the state legislature must approve to allow a Registered Citizen group to have a representative on the board. In other words, the “clients” of the SOMB have no voice by legislative fiat.
This proposal is a game-changer as well as a name-changer. As noted by the SOMB, the language change issue has long-reaching implications because they are aware of the power of labels and repeated that mantra throughout the meeting.
In covering the SOMB meeting, the local news media and the social media comment boards provided ample support for the need to discourage the use of the “sex offender” label.
The Colorado Springs CBS affiliate KKTV 11 asked for public comments through their Facebook page while adding a graphic with “SEX OFFENDERS” in all caps along with the SCOTUS building and an ankle monitor, which visually reinforces the belief that every Registered Person is a constant threat in need of constant monitoring.
Unsurprisingly, the comment boards were filled with hateful language, including memes encouraging vigilante violence. In an email, Anthony Keith, KKTV 11’s “Digital Content Manager,” denied the picture was fearmongering and added, “A convicted sex offender is still a convicted sex offender at this time.”
An article by Denver CBS 4 initially added a graphic of a crying child with his head between his knees. In response, I sent BCS 4 an email stating the image was “irrelevant to the issue at hand and only serves to inflame readers and promotes the very imagery that the meeting is trying to change.”
CBS 4 responded by removing the image. But a second image shows a shadowy figure within the graphic of the Colorado state flag.
Independent and right-wing media proclaimed the SOMB ruling was part of “efforts” to “normalize pedophilia,” an internet buzzword used as ad hominem to silence anyone who says anything besides “kill all sex offenders/pedophiles.”
Why is ‘Humanizing’ So Offensive?
The mere thought of humanizing people convicted of sexual offenses is offensive to the general public and leads to reactionary results. Earlier in the week, Old Dominion University suspended college professor Allyn Walker for performing research on and use of the term “Minor-Attracted Persons” (i.e., those who suffer from pedophilia but often do not act on their inclinations).
Walker, who is transgendered, stated the goal was to prevent sexual abuse by removing stigmatization of those who struggle with abusive thoughts so that they may seek help.
Walker’s response was not enough.
Some students protested on campus, holding signs like “Protect the Children” and “Speak for those who can’t.” (The latter is an ironic statement given the fact many victim advocates have a very influential voice in the Colorado SOMB and the national narrative, while “sex offenders” have no voice.)
A Change.org petition called for Walker’s ousting, and ODU later placed Walker on leave to appease the growing mob. Society would rather dehumanize people with sexual deviancy than learn from them to help prevent future abuse.
Americans appear to think that individuals labeled as “sex offenders” label cannot be rehabilitated, and are irredeemable monsters.
“Sex offender” and “pedophile” are used interchangeably, and that sentiment was reflected in the debate over language at the SOMB meeting. Victim advocates and prosecutors claimed multiple times during the SOMB meeting that most people convicted of sexual offenses repeat the same offenses, a claim thoroughly debunked by numerous state and federal studies over the past quarter century.
Yet, the very term “sex offender” encompasses a variety of actions from the serious to the mundane. Most Americans do not realize that teens who landed on the registry for consensual relations with a classmate is listed on the same registry as a teen who violently raped a classmate.
In Colorado, college kids who engaged in a short-lived event known as the “Naked Pumpkin Run,” where runners would wear nothing but a pumpkin over their heads during a cold weather run, were in danger of landing on the same registry as a flasher.
Words matter. Labels matter.
The label change at the Colorado SOMB is a major victory for those who are stigmatized by the term “sex offender.”
Still, this only the smallest of steps, since the SOMB will still keep “sex offender” in its name.
It does not change the language in the media or the Colorado statutes. But if we are serious about preventing further abuse, we need to change the narrative in American society.
Derek W. Logue is a Nebraska registrant and activist for the rights of returning citizens, and founder of the sex offense education and reform website OnceFallen.com.