What Policy Makers Get Wrong About Sexual Violence–and What They Could Learn from #MeToo

By Elizabeth Jeglic – One of the biggest news stories of 2017 was the Harvey Weinstein scandal in which it was revealed that the Hollywood mogul was using his position of power to abuse, rape, and harass women for decades. These revelations led men and women to bravely come forward to report their own experiences of sexual violence suffered at the hands of powerful individuals, and dozens of media professionals and politicians have been forced to resign or have been fired from their positions as a result.

But sexual violence doesn’t only happen in Hollywood, New York or Washington – it is a global problem as illustrated by the #MeToo movement.  Though not widely known, the #MeToo movement was started by Tarana Burke in 2007 to show empowerment and empathy for women of color from underprivileged communities who had experienced sexual violence. The movement gained momentum this past October when American actress Alyssa Milano tweeted that individuals who had been victims of sexual violence post #MeToo on their social media platforms. Facebook estimated that in the 24 hours following Milano’s tweet there were 12 million posts and comments using the hashtag. Before the end of the month, 1.7 million Twitter users across 85 countries used the hashtag in their feeds.

The #MeToo movement has opened people’s eyes to the enormity of the problem of sexual violence and we are at the precipice of a major cultural change. But how do we make this change? That is what my colleague Dr. Cynthia Calkins and I are trying to figure out through our Sex Offender Research Lab (SORL). Much of our work to date has focused on evaluating current sexual violence prevention policies which target sex offenders who have already been convicted and are now residing in the community. What we and other experts in our field have found is that many of these laws are ineffective and costly, and can actually increase the risk for sexual violence. 95% of sex crimes are committed by someone who is not on the sex offender registry, which means that laws that target only convicted sex offenders would not affect them.

Current sexual violence prevention policy is based upon faulty notions of sex crimes, making our current legislation at best ineffective and at worst harmful. For example, once released, many sex offenders are subject to residence restrictions laws.  These laws prevent them from living or loitering within 500-2500 feet (depending upon the jurisdiction) of places where children congregate such as schools, parks and day-cares. In major cities this means that there is virtually no place for them to live and many become homeless. Our research, which was collected prior to the institution of residence restriction laws, found that only 4% of sex crimes happen in places where children congregate. These laws therefore do little to prevent sexual violence while at the same time preventing released sex offenders from finding stable housing, putting them at increased risk to offend.

In our book, Sexual Violence: Evidence Based Policy and Prevention, (Springer, 2016) Dr. Calkins and I argue that we must focus on primary prevention – meaning that we target the problem on a societal level and prevent it from happening in the first place.  Changing people’s attitudes about sexual violence is a big part of this strategy, and the #MeToo movement has paved the way for us to make significant cultural changes. As fierce advocates for justice, we here at John Jay are at the forefront of this change, providing data and evidence to empower people to prevent sexual violence from happening. It is our goal as researchers, professors, women and mothers to use our work in an effort to create a world free of sexual violence for those we love.

Elizabeth Jeglic is a professor of psychology at John Jay College. Her latest book, Protecting Your Child from Sexual Abuse:What You Need to Know to Keep Your Children Safe, co-written with Cynthia Calkins, will be available in February.

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