Regulating Sexual Harm: Strangers, Intimates, and Social Institutional Reform
The criminal regulation of sexual harm in the United States is afflicted by deep pathology. Although sexual harm appears before the law in a variety of forms-from violent rape, to indecent exposure, to the sexual touching by an older child of a younger child-the prevailing U.S. criminal regulatory framework responds to this wide range of conduct with remarkable uniformity. All persons so convicted are labeled “sex offenders,” and most are subjected to registration, community notification, and residential restrictions, among other sanctions. These measures purport to prevent the perpetration of further criminal sexual harm by publicizing the identities and restricting the residential opportunities of persons presumed to be strangers to their victims. But even as these measures render many subject to them homeless and unemployable, sexual abuse remains pervasive and significantly underreported in our schools, prisons, military, and between intimates in families. Thus, at once, the U.S. criminal regulatory regime constructs a peculiarly overbroad category of feared persons, compels a misguided approach to this population, and neglects the most prevalent forms of vulnerability to sexual predation and assault. This Essay argues that an alternative social institutional reform framework could address pervasive forms of sexual harm more meaningfully and with fewer problems than attend the prevailing criminal regulatory framework. This alternative framework would depart in large measure from purportedly preventive post-conviction criminal regulation, focusing instead on institutional, structural, and social dynamics that enable sexual violence and abuse.