Another Layer of Ignominy: Beliefs about Public Views of Sex Offenders

By Winnick, Terri A. | Sociological Focus, February 2008 | Go to article overview

Another Layer of Ignominy: Beliefs about Public Views of Sex Offenders


Winnick, Terri A., Sociological Focus


A sample of college students (N = 664) estimated the extent to which "most people" would devalue and discriminate against persons with the labels "ex-convict" and "sex offender." Respondents expect both groups to face rejection, with those labeled sex offender more strongly rejected than those labeled ex-convict. Analyses were conducted to determine if characteristics of evaluators were related to their beliefs about public views of sex offenders. Results show that being white, female, and a parent are significantly associated with these beliefs, as is having someone incarcerated among one's circle of family or friends. Knowing someone sexually abused is unrelated. Most of the variance, however, is accounted for by controls for beliefs about public views of ex-convicts. These findings suggest that perceived public rejection of sex offenders is linked to stereotypic views of criminal offenders in general and to membership in groups deemed most at risk in media portrayals. Future research on media-driven stereotypes is recommended.

Lately there has been renewed attention to stigma, to the many ways people can be stigmatized, and how this stigma affects their lives. As Link and Phelan (2001) point out, the range of potentially discrediting attributes is vast, and considerable research attention has been paid to those shamed by a variety of status conditions. One of the most stigmatized statuses is that of ex-convict (Albrecht, Walker and Levy 1982; Bontrager, Bales and Chiricos 2005; Clear, Rose and Ryder 2001; Edwards 2000; Goffrnan 1963), and, especially, sex offender (Levenson and Cotter 2005; Tewksbury 2005; Walsh 1990; Zevitz and Farkas 2000).

Persons who have been convicted of sexual offenses are subject to an intense type of surveillance (LaFond 1998; Levi 2000; Sample and Bray 2003; Winick 1998). Most states have legislated some version of "Megan's Law" mandating that released sex offenders register with the police, schools and social service agencies, and, in more serious cases, notify nearby neighbors. Although these statutes were originally designed to alert the community of the presence of persons whose crimes involved children, they have increasingly broadened to include other types of sexual offenses. In many jurisdictions, including the one in which this study was conducted, offenses such as sexual assault, rape, and viewing of child pornography are subject to community notification (Sample and Bray 2006). In addition, most jurisdictions maintain a registry that is readily available over the Internet, which includes names and addresses of all sexual offenders, not just child molesters. Given the amount of resources appropriated to social control of members of this group, it is reasonable to expect that negative public reaction to the label "sex offender" would be rather substantial.

Sociologists in the labeling tradition have demonstrated the depth and intensity of public reaction to stigmatizing labels by comparing persons with auspicious and inauspicious labels (Link et al. 1987; Phelan et al. 1997). These studies confirm that an approval gap exists between groups with derogatory labels and so-called "normals." Less is known about how groups with derogatory labels compare-that is, how one stigmatized group stands in relation to another as, or perhaps even more, stigmatized. Nor is much known about how the imposition of additional disparaging labels affects one's place in the status hierarchy. Walsh (1990), for example, showed that sex offenders referred for psychiatric evaluation were more likely to be incarcerated than those not so referred. If the additional label "psychologically disturbed" heightens negative perceptions of sex offenders, quite possibly the additional label "sex offender" may have the same effect, heightening negative perceptions of ex-convicts.

Using a modification of the experimental factorial design, we designed a survey that simultaneously presented to respondents similar persons in identical situations who differ in only one respect-their label. …

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