Reconsidering Match.com's sex offender ban

Is criticizing the dating site's decision to employ a faulty screening process making perfect the enemy of good?


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Tracy Clark-Flory
April 21, 2011 5:24AM (UTC)

When The Nation's Katha Pollitt took me to task on Twitter over my piece on Match.com's decision to ban sex offenders from the site, I was horrified -- but, OK, also kind of honored. She's a writer I admire and respect, and a challenge from her is one I take seriously. "You let perfect be [the] enemy of good," she tweeted. "Women know this isn't complete protection. But it's something." She's right, it is something -- and something is better than nothing, right? So, I decided to take another look at the issue.

One thing I want to revisit right off the bat is this statement in my original post on the subject: "Besides, we already make it hard enough for offenders to reenter society, and further ostracizing them only encourages recidivism." Looking back at it now, I realize that it might sound like I'm asking women to date rapists to prevent recidivism – which is how Pollitt took it -- and I absolutely didn't mean to suggest that. It isn't women's responsibility to romantically reintegrate sex offenders into society. You will not see me signing up for that act of altruism, or whatever you want to call it. What I was trying to get at was that some of our many protective measures -- like residence restrictions that in some cities effectively require sex offenders to be homeless -- do a real disservice to attempts to reintegrate criminals who have served their time.

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The main issue here, as far as I see it, is that sex offender registries clumsily lump together all sex crimes. In recent years, a host of less extreme offenses have been included as grounds for registration: "voyeurism, public exposure, adultery, giving obscene material to a minor, displaying obscene material on a bumper sticker, and bestiality," according to a report by the Vera Institute of Justice. Also, some states require registration for those "possessing computer-generated images of virtual children." This isn't the case across the board nationwide, but a Human Rights Watch report breaks it down on a state-by-state level, and the results are staggering: "At least five states require registration for adult prostitution-related offenses," 13 "require registration for public urination," 29 "require registration for consensual sex between teenagers," and 32 "require registration for exposing genitals in public."

This has led to the rise of low-risk offenders on registries. Take Georgia, for example: The state's Registration Review Board found that just 5 percent of listed sex offenders were "clearly dangerous" and two-thirds posed a small risk. Just over 100 of the 17,000 registered sex offenders in the state were considered "predators." HRW explains, "Most states do not make individualized risk assessments before requiring registration. Nor do they offer former offenders a way to get off the registry upon a showing of rehabilitation or years of lawful behavior." The result is that we have nearly 700,000 registered sex offenders in this country. To put that in some perspective, "more than one in 160 adult males are registered sex offenders," according to the Vera Institute's calculations.

As far as recidivism goes: 5 percent of all sex offenders were arrested for another sex crime within three years of their release from prison; and 3.5 were convicted. A report in the journal Criminology and Public Policy found that 6.5 percent of sex offenders re-offended within five years of release. As Vera summarizes, "only people arrested for homicide had a lower five-year offense-specific re-arrest rate." When you look specifically at sex offenders convicted of forcible rape, things become much more alarming: 25 percent were arrested for a sex crime within 15 years of their release.

Our registries desperately need to be reformed, and we could greatly benefit from better data about recidivism for different sex offense types -- but that's a much bigger task than simply screening on Match.com. On that front, maybe I am making perfect the enemy of good. Eliminating some high-risk predators from the online dating pool is better than nothing. Still, Match.com's approach of banning all registered sex offenders -- even those who are low-risk or who committed minor offenses -- strikes me as unjust. In the case of Georgia, the site's ban means restricting access to 95 percent of registered offenders who are not "clearly dangerous" and two-thirds who are low-risk. That seems an inept way to screen out men who pose a serious danger to women -- especially when you consider that most assaults go unreported and most sex crimes are committed by those without a sex crime record.

It would make a whole lot more sense for Match.com to only ban high-risk offenders. But that is impractical for the same reason that the company avoided instituting any screening procedure for so long: The network of state sex offender databases is a mess. So, in the interest of (largely) women's safety, and given the lack of options, is it worth banning all registrants, including those who pose a low risk? It just might be -- I won't pretend to know the right answer here. In any case, Match.com is a private company and it can do whatever it thinks is best for business -- and it's very likely that this is what its customers want. I just think it's important to make sure to keep things in rational perspective, especially when talking about such an emotional subject.


Tracy Clark-Flory

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