The Anatomy of a Modern-Day Witch Hunt

Lenore Skenazy on what’s wrong with the sex offender registry, and other hysteria-driven laws

The media never fails to remind us that the world is a dangerous place, with predators lurking around every corner. Take, for example, a recent story out of South Bend, Oregon, in which a mother convinced the town’s police and local news network that her child had almost been kidnapped and sold into sex slavery on the basis of little more than paranoid hunch. Apparently, there is a trend of Facebook posts by worried moms sparking small regional panics.

Against this backdrop of hysteria, Lenore Skenazy (aka “the World’s Worst Mom”) has courageously come out to oppose the misdirected vigilance that distracts us from real dangers facing our kids and communities — things like car crashes, and epidemics of loneliness that drive people to addiction, isolation, and suicide.

What’s more dangerous?

It would appear that a steady diet of fear-based media has turned us against one another — we now see every stranger as a nemesis, and every possible risk as an imminent danger. Worst of all, we make arch-villains out of relatively innocent people on the basis of a “zero-tolerance” mindset, which would result in almost all of us being expelled from society if our own worst moments were displayed on the nightly news.

None of this is to say that there aren’t real predators (although our streets are safer than they’ve been in decades); it merely suggests that there is something wrong with the way the media generates a contagious fear that can quickly turn into a witch hunt when no real culprits can be found to satisfy the collective angst.

On February 8, Lenore participated in a panel discussion at the Cato Institute, “You May Be a Sex Offender if…”, where she asked the audience to anonymously consider whether they had been guilty of any of the offenses that can land a person on the sex offender registry for life.

It turns out, you may be a sex offender if you have ever…

… played “Doctor” as a kid,

… flashed someone,

… peed outside, or,

… had sex in high school with your freshman in college girlfriend or boyfriend while you were a senior.

Most shockingly, Skenazy notes that the most common age of people on the sex offender registry is 14 years old.

The audience submitted their answers and, as is always the case when Lenore runs this exercise, most people had done something worthy of the modern equivalent of the Scarlet Letter — and by a wide margin.

Besides the obvious injustice of putting a youthful indiscretion in the same camp as rape and child molestation, this categorization overpopulates the sex offender list, and results in inadequate resources to monitor the actual criminals who are liable to be repeat offenders. Most shockingly, Skenazy notes that the most common age of people on the sex offender registry is 14 years old. Sometimes punishments for minors convicted of locker-room pranks exceed the prison sentences issued to top-ranking Nazi officers at the Nuremberg trials.

The Psychology of Over-sensitization

One of the effects of this fear-mongering is the tendency of parents to keep their children from doing things independently, as kids in every previous generation have done — things like walking to school, exploring the woods, or organizing a game outside with neighborhood friends.

Skenazy’s latest project encourages parents and schools to grant kids more autonomy — to let go, and “Let Grow” — as such experiences, and the small risks involved, are essential to learning.

She and NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt started partly in response to Haidt’s research on the psychology of over-sensitization. They co-authored an article, titled, “The Fragile Generation,” in the December 2017 issue of Reason Magazine, and are finding allies among those fighting to preserve free speech on college campuses. Haidt has observed the effects of an overly-nurturing instinct in his college students, who can’t bear to listen to differing viewpoints. Thus, it seems that the roots of the censorship crisis on campuses are to be found in the helicopter parenting approach that took hold some 20 years ago.

Writing in Psychology Today, Izzy Kalman writes:

“In recent years, there has been a growing awareness of the phenomenon of students in higher education needing protection from ideas that can upset them: trigger warnings, safe zones, limitations on free speech, and protection from microaggressions. Students’ belief in their right to be protected from feeling offended has even led some to resort to physical violence to prevent speakers from appearing on campus.

It’s easy to see a parallel between these campus mobs and the witch hunts of old.

A Sunday Morning Chat with The World’s Worst Mom

We moderns take pride in the fact that we no longer burn witches. But can we be so certain that we’ve emerged from the “Dark Ages” to a new enlightened state of mind? There’s no doubt that we need mechanisms to protect potential victims of sexual violence, but Skenazy argues that sex offender registries and sexual harassment tribunals on college campuses enact draconian yet ineffective punishments — often branding relatively innocent people for life, and lumping them in with some of the most heinous criminals. It takes bravery to advance this view, given the unpopularity of the cause (don’t expect a March for Sex Offenders’ Rights anytime soon). But demonization hasn’t stopped Skenazy from making common-sense arguments — with a heavy dose of humor — about this and other modern-day witch hunts. She was labeled the “World’s Worst Mom” for allowing her 9-year-old son to ride the NYC subway and writing about it in the New York Post.

Call in with your questions, to (424) BOB-SHOW, to speak with Bob and Lenore — Sunday (2/11), 8–9am PACIFIC.

The controversy led her to start a now-global movement of “@FreeRangeKids.” She now frequently speaks and writes to debunk myths like the ubiquitous kidnapper, and the incurable sex offender (the most common age of people on the sex offender registry is 14 years old). Skenazy’s latest project encourages parents and schools to grant kids more autonomy — to let go, and Let Grow — as such experiences, and the small risks involved, are essential to learning.

She joins Bob this Sunday — fresh off a Cato Institute symposium, titled, “You May Be a Sex Offender if…” — to restore sanity to the conversation around sexual harassment, sex offenders, and over-sensitivity on college campuses.

Listen to the live stream, or check your local listings here.