The Dividing Line

I was listening to NPR on the jobsite last week. Terri Gross interviewed comedian Amy Schumer. Schumer jokes a lot about sex. But when she mentioned experiencing “something very similar to rape,” it caught my attention. “It’s not black and white,” she said, but a gray area. In her routines, she calls it “grape.” "There's just so many different things that can happen,” Schumer continued, “so it's not always this, 'Well, you're going to jail and that's it.'

There's other stuff where it's like, 'Wow, it would be so much work, and it would be such a life-changer for me to ... press charges or take any action against this person.' But every girl I know has had some experience that is kind of like 'grape.' "[1]

Later, as my co-worker and I were driving home, I asked what he thought of the interview. He likes to project a tough guy image, so I expected a dismissive answer. Instead, he got quiet.

“I guess I raped a girl once,” he said. “Yeah,” he continued, “she was saying, ‘no,’ but I didn’t stop. I feel bad about it now.”

We rode in silence for a few minutes.  It was an incredibly vulnerable revelation.

“So,” I ventured, “if she had reported you, you’d be registering as a sex offender.”

He shrugged. “I guess so. But I think that kind of thing happens a lot.”

If you Google “incidence of sexual offending” you’ll get lots of hits documenting the sad number of women who report having been sexually assaulted at some point in their lives.  By most estimates it’s about one in five.[2] But, just who is doing all that assaulting?

Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, says a conservative estimate of the incidence of abuse among American adult males is one in ten.[3] University of New Hampshire researcher David Finklehor, using an anonymous telephone survey, found 17 percent of male respondents admitted to molesting a child. That’s about one in six.[4] Margaret Leland Smith, a researcher at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says she thinks it's closer to one in five American men who have done something that could get them convicted of sexual assault.[5]

It’s mind-boggling. There are 147 million men in America. If one in five has done something that could get him labeled a sex offender, that’s 29 million men. But, wait a minute, there are only 750,000 registered sex offenders in all of the United States – barely one out of every 39 actual offenders. It begins to look as if those on sex offender registries are the tip of the iceberg, the few who’ve been caught.

I thought about this as my co-worker and I rode home.  I am required to register as a sex offender. He is not. Given our past acts, it could just as easily have been both of us carrying that label…or, more likely, neither.

Despite our cultural preoccupation with sex, we Americans don’t want to believe sexual assault is a common thing.

When someone is discovered to have sexually offended, folks are shocked. Shocked!

“He seemed like such a nice guy,” they say.

Those identified as sex offenders become the hated “other.”  Laws restrict where they can work and live. Police notify their neighbors. In the public’s eye, they are the worst of the worst. But for every offender exposed and ostracized from the community, 38 unidentified ones remain, giving the lie to sex offender registries, mocking child safety zones.

These offenders live among us looking like cousins, or coaches, or cops, or congressmen.  They look like my co-worker, or like Amy Schumer’s prom date. Come to think of it, probably one in five men reading this article has offended sexually at some time.

Imagine an ideal system of justice in which every American sex offender is unmasked, punished and labeled for life - all 29 million of them.  New Hampshire would have 122,000.

In such an ideal world, would kids be any safer? Would there be fewer sex crimes?

Maybe…but, maybe not.  There’s good evidence that just being found out exerts a remarkable deterrence upon future offending. The recidivism rate for convicted sex offenders is very low.[6] But there’s no evidence that sex offender registries, with their mug shots and personal information disseminated for all to see, improve public safety.[7]

In this imagined perfect system, despite the exposure and labeling of millions more offenders, 96 of the next 100 arrests for sex crimes would probably come from the ranks of the unregistered, as they do now.

Sexuality is one of the most powerful and confusing forces within the human psyche. It trips up many people.  Sadly, sexual offending is epidemic. You never know what the guy sitting next to you has done.

In the silence that followed my co-workers confession, I recalled a profound truth expressed by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “if only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

[2] Rabinb, Roni, Nearly 1 in 5 Women in U.S. Survey Say They Have Been Sexually Assaulted, N.Y. Times, December 14, 2011.
[3] Wingert, Pat, “Mean Men,” Newsweek, April 7, 2010
[4] Finklehor, D., Lewis, I.A., An epidemiologic approach to the study of child molestation. In R. Prentky & Quinsey (Eds.) Human sexual aggression: Current perspectives (pp. 64-78) New York: Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1988.
[5] Wingert, ibid.
[6] Facts and Fiction About Sex Offenders at 
[7] Agan, Amanda, Sex Offender Registries: Fear Without Function, Journal of Law and Economics, vol. 54, No. 1, Univ. of Chicago Press, Feb. 2011.