The Dangerous Myth of Stranger Danger

From the time we can walk most parents begin to teach us about “Stranger Danger.” It’s an idea that’s been around for decades, but it gained favor as a result of two high-profile cases that were both tragic and extremely rare. Sadly, studies show the “stranger danger” myth may be giving us a false sense of security.

According to Psychology Today, states began sex offender registries in response to the sexual assault and killing of 7-year-old Megan Kanka in 1994. The crime was committed by a man who had been twice convicted of sexual offenses and who lived close to Megan’s family. The assault resulted in New Jersey’s Megan’s Law.

More than a decade later the Adam Walsh Act was signed into federal law, requiring states to maintain an online, searchable database of citizens convicted of sexual offenses along with their photo, home address, work address and their crime.

It was a sincere attempt to keep our children safe, but 30 years later there is no evidence that it has done so.

One reason is that sexual crimes are fraught with nuance. Estimates show that more than 90% of sexual offenses are committed by someone known to the victim: a family member, a trusted adult, or a romantic partner.  According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, “The youngest juveniles were least likely to have an offender who was a stranger. Just 3% of the offenders in the sexual assaults of children under age 6 were strangers, compared with 5% of the offenders of youth ages 6 through 12, and 10% of offenders of juveniles ages 12 through 17.” Only 7% of those who offended against children were strangers.

What’s more, despite myths to the contrary, those who commit sexual offenses have relatively low re-offense rates. The National Association for Rational Sexual Offense Laws (NARSOL) reports that only 3.5% of those convicted of a sexual offense reoffended sexually. (For comparison, the 3-year recidivism rate for all classes of crime is roughly 67%)

Sadly, our approach to sexual harm in the United States is based on decades-old assumptions that are founded on gut feelings and myths rather than factual evidence. Recently the American Law Institute (ALI) recommended changes to its model penal code to make these laws more rational. They believe, as we do, that it’s time to revise our laws as well as our thinking so that we can keep our communities safe.

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