1300 words plus poem; 5 minutes to read
Audio summary by volunteer law student Hannah Lee.
Editor’s note: This post was written by a woman who is on the national sex offender registry. Although registries have been shown to be of little value in preventing or solving crimes, they do have very strong effects on the over 43,000 Canadians who are on them, many of who are permanently ineligible for an administrative suspension of their record (what used to be called a pardon) no matter how long they have been crime-free.
As the Canadian government makes its response to the Supreme Court’s findings of the unconstitutional nature of mandatory and lifetime sex offender registration, I see sharing what mandatory registration is like for individuals as worthwhile. It’s difficult to share my experience; I hold so much fear of judgment that it threatens to silence me. But, if those of us affected by the National Sex Offender Registry don’t share our experiences, how are we to expect any compassionate change to occur?
Yes, people may criticize me or believe that I deserve this treatment. That’s fine. I criticize myself far more thoroughly. I’ve battled my own feelings that I deserve poor treatment (how do you think I ended up in a relationship that had me breaking the law?). But I don’t believe in poor treatment for anyone. Even if they’ve done something I find horrible. Even if they’ve deeply harmed me or someone I love.
So, what’s it like to have a mandatory requirement to register as a sex offender? Well… I’m female and have experienced sexual abuse by men. That sexual abuse was at times documented with photographs and videos. One part of being on the sex offender registry involves police taking photographs of your face, and any distinguishing marks on your body–of which I have a number. I’m grateful that I have not actually been required to take all my clothes off in order for the officer to document my body, however I still find the process very painful. Especially since it has so little to do with my conviction–which had to do with fictional material only, not with any actual child.
The first few times I registered, a female police officer completed the process. It was unpleasant, but I dealt with it. In fact, my first registration officer was kind. She seemed to understand how unpleasant the process was for me, and helped me feel seen as a human being rather than as a monster.
The next time I registered, it was early and accidental. I had tried to update my address since I was relocating and did not yet have a fixed address, but they had me come to the local police station and then completed the whole process–what an unpleasant surprise! This time it was with two male police officers. I felt shocked and uncomfortable, but went along with it. What other choice did I have? Afterwards I cried for an hour straight.
I have not felt like I have any sort of voice when it comes to how I’m treated in the world, by law enforcement or anyone else. A person with a criminal record does not have rights against discrimination in Canada, and a sex offender certainly isn’t treated as if they deserve any sort of kindness, or trauma-informed treatment.
My subsequent registrations have been with a single male police officer. Being alone in a room with a male authority figure and having to submit to photos being taken of me is, to put it bluntly, triggering as f***. I hold it together as best I can during these registrations. Though as soon as I leave I still burst into tears. The officer is nice enough and he sometimes tries to make conversation, though his conversation doesn’t comfort me.
Many other effects
Registration affects me in other ways as well. I feel very vulnerable when a uniformed police officer comes to my home, holding a sheet of paper with my photo on it, to verify my address. There is no forgetting about my obligations, no time in my life where I can be free from the reminder that I’m a member of one of society’s most hated groups. I’m constantly worried that I somehow forgot to inform the registry of something and will get in trouble. My stomach drops when I get a call from the police, even when it’s “just” to arrange an address verification check.
When I travel within Canada, if it’s longer than seven days, I need to report it and any locations where I will be staying. Bill S-12 would have me report that travel at least 14 days prior to my departure, unless I have a “reasonable excuse” (would a good deal on a flight count?).
I have elected not to travel outside of Canada since my conviction, because to do so would require that I document every address or location I would be at while travelling and provide it to the registry. The fear of non-compliance keeps me stuck and living a partial life. My partner would love to travel, but the logistics of registration are too much for me, plus many countries might not let me in because of my conviction.
Even more, I’m terrified to join any groups, or get to know new people, because of my conviction and the fact that I am required to register as a sex offender.
Problems with employment and housing
My employment and housing difficulties would exist in any case because of my conviction. That said, I have felt, at times, trapped in my current relationship because I was only able to get housing because my partner earned enough money to prove we could pay rent and we were able to find a place that didn’t ask about criminal convictions. It’s getting rarer and rarer to find housing applications that don’t ask about criminal convictions, so I fear that if I do ever decide to leave my partner, I will not be able to find housing.
The stated purpose of the National Sex Offender Registry is to help police prevent and investigate sex-related crimes. At no point has the legal system seemed to believe I was at risk for reoffending. The legal system did not impose restrictions on me such as a section 161 order which would restrict my ability to be around children, nor restrictions on my use of the internet. I was released from my probation early. The forensic psychiatry report indicated that I was at a very low risk for reoffending (there is no “no risk” category).
How is requiring me to endure annual registration helping police to prevent or investigate sex-related crimes? How is it helpful to public safety to make me, and thousands of others, do this? Many studies have found that sex offender registries have no effect on recidivism rates and it is not clear that the registry in Canada has helped to solve a single crime.
Supports needed instead
If we were truly interested in preventing sex-related crimes, shouldn’t we provide support for those convicted of them? I’ve reached out to individuals and organizations trying to find support groups for those convicted of sex offences in Canada. Nobody has been able to offer me a place to go. I’ve managed to find a US-based individual who runs a group, though I often feel out of place for a few reasons: I’m usually the only female in attendance, my crime was for fictional material in service of someone else’s interest, and I’m not on a public registry. Still, I’m grateful for their willingness to let me join them. I cannot imagine the pain and difficulty I would experience if Canada’s registry were made public.
Rather than funneling resources and money into keeping an ineffective list, why aren’t we supporting those convicted of sex offences to transform and heal the harm they’ve caused?
This poem is part of my response to my situation.
you were nothing
if not desired by men
that to be loved
you had to be sexual
and pleasing at all costs
the things you might do
if all you were
was something to screw
the depths you might sink
if all you knew
was criticism and control
the ways you would think
if this was your first relationship
and experience with kink
the punishment for your pain
was once again
to be photographed
and laid to blame
your skin being charted
to catch you
you’d never do
the defeat and the despair
that would swallow you
you had to renew