“The anonymity of the Internet has allowed predators to easily hide or misrepresent themselves.” ABC News, August 2017
“Concerns about sexual predators have led communities in 30 U.S. states to adopt laws limiting where registered sex offenders can live.” Reuters, November 2015
“Convicted Sexual Predator Allowed to Stay in Hotel During Cancer Treatments” WFTV 9, May 2017
In May, the AP Stylebook changed its guidelines for how reporters should refer to people with substance abuse problems. “Avoid words like alcoholic, addict, user and abuser unless they are in quotations or names of organizations,” says the 2017 version.
For those with addictions, that change won’t just shift how they’re portrayed but how they’re treated. A piece by Zachary Siegel in Slate last month noted that even veteran clinicians were more likely to recommend punitive measures for people described as “substance abusers” and rehab-oriented treatments for those referred to as “people with substance abuse disorders.” Even when people’s conditions are the result of personal choices, reporters avoid charged labels—that’s why those with diabetes aren’t described as “sugar abusers,” Siegel says.
So it’s time for editors to stop letting reporters use “predator” in describing those who’ve committed sexual offenses.
“Sexual predator” isn’t a clinical term that means anything to criminologists or sex-crime researchers. Instead, it’s a media construction created after horrific cases of rape and murder in Washington State in the early nineties, as criminologist Jacqueline Helfgott points out in her 2008 book Criminal Behavior: Theories, Typologies and Criminal Justice. Helfgott notes that the term doesn’t describe a “homogeneous group of offenders who are predictably dangerous with an identifiable (and treatable) mental illness.”
Instead, “predator” is a stick of dynamite used by partisans in crusades for ever-more ruthless penalties for people whose sexual offenses run the gamut. In reporting a story a few years ago, I talked to one source who was arguing for an even tougher crackdown on where offenders are allowed to live. “It’s common sense to keep these predators far away from our children,” he told me.
But the group he was describing—those on sex offender registries—is an ever-expanding mashup. You can be registered for violating a custody arrangement, streaking, allowing your child to have consensual sex, visiting a prostitute, and of course sexting a photo of yourself as a teen. Registries also include people who do serious crimes like sexual assault and rape, for which they do ever-more serious time. Sentence lengths for sexual offenses have escalated–sex offenders are the fastest growing segment of state and federal prison populations (for those who follow this link, check page 199).
Still, when reporters use “predator,” they do tell us something: that they’re in league with crusaders who are out to designate an out-group as monster of the moment.
In the late 1800s, it was black men. Portraying them as savage animals who couldn’t be controlled had a political purpose—to justify segregation, lynching, and racial purity laws. As the Jim Crow Museum puts it, “The brute caricature portrays black men as innately savage, animalistic, destructive, and criminal — deserving punishment, maybe death. This brute is a fiend, a sociopath, an anti-social menace. Black brutes are depicted as hideous, terrifying predators who target helpless victims, especially white women.”
LGBT people were next in the 1950s. Films like this one depicted gay men as predators who forced younger men into sex. That was designed to justify purges of gay employees from federal and state governments and state sodomy laws that allowed public and private employers to discriminate against LGBT employees.
By the mid-1990’s it was inner-city teens. Hillary Clinton and later Bush administration official John Dilulio described gang members as “super-predators”—“radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters, including ever more preteenage boys, who murder, assault, rape, rob, burglarize, deal deadly drugs, join gun-toting gangs and create serious communal disorders.” What came next was a raft of state initiatives that shoved juveniles into the adult court system and sentenced them to previously unheard-of penalties. (The effects have been lasting–the U.S. juvenile incarceration rate is about four times that of second-place Great Britain, and the U.S. is the only country in the world that sentences kids to life in prison.)
Today, with the President out to get Congress to appropriate money for a border wall, he’s renewing his attack on unauthorized immigrants as bloodthirsty monsters. “We are cracking down hard on the foreign criminal gangs that have brought illegal drugs, violence, horrible bloodshed to peaceful neighborhoods all across our country,” he said in his July 25 speech. “The predators and criminal aliens who poison our communities with drugs and prey on innocent young people, these beautiful, beautiful, innocent young people will, will find no safe haven anywhere in our country…. And these are the animals that we’ve been protecting for so long.”
So neutral terms aren’t a polite concession when covering sex crime—they’re essential to fact-based reporting. A 2014 study asked a group of study subjects about their support for unsparing punishments for “sex offenders” and “juvenile sex offenders.” Those tested were much more likely to support harsh policies than a matched group exposed to the more neutral terms “people who have committed sexual offenses” and “minor youth who have committed sexual offenses”.
As philosopher David Livingstone-Smith demonstrates convincingly in his book Less Than Human, name-calling has a purpose—to depict the targets as subhuman, making it possible for otherwise normal people to support mistreatment, torture, or murder. “Thinking sets the agenda for action, and thinking of humans as less than human paves the way for atrocity,” writes Livingstone-Smith.
So in a retrospective story about someone who’s going to commit a crime, factual reporters use “would-be offender,” “offender,” or “perpetrator.” In other stories, those with sex crimes in their past can be referred to as “adults convicted of sex crimes” or “ex-offenders” or “registrants” (if they’re on a state sex offender registry) or even “registered citizens.” And instead of drive-by labeling someone a “convicted child molester,” report the facts of the case: how many years ago the offense occurred, how old the person was when they committed the offense, how old was the victim, and what actually happened.
Of course, there will be those who object that when a truly savage crime has been committed, words like “predator” are justified. But when heinous brutality is the story, the facts of the case will do just fine, thank you. Loading up sentences with scare words isn’t reporting—it’s propaganda.