Many are familiar with the tragic case of Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old girl who was raped and murdered by a repeat sex offender in New Jersey in 1994. While Megan Kanka’s story is nationally known as it confirmed our Stranger Danger fears, the identity of the offender is not so easily recalled. His name is Jesse Timmendequas. Timmendequas’s murder of Megan is the key moment that inspired the online sex offender registry for public safety.
His history is the worst-case scenario of what you can imagine when it comes to the real-life dangers of violent sexual offenders. In 1997, he was described as a “Stranger on the Block” in the New York Times article that featured the lurid details of his crimes. While little was actually known about his identity before he murdered Megan, his 1994 crime ultimately defined him. Even more so, the impact of Timmendequas’s crimes changed how the nation defines all people who commit sexual crimes and fueled the myths of how sexual crimes most often occur in larger society.
After Timmendequas’s violent sexual assault in 1994, the term “Megan’s Law” became part our language and framework for how the public is informed about sexual offenders. However, few are aware that the online sexual offender registry is only part of what is known as Megan’s Law which is part of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006. The Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, also known as SORNA, is composed of two different policies—a registration policy where sexual offenders register their addresses with law enforcement and a community notification policy that resulted in the online public registry. However, the question remains as to whether the online registry is an effective way of identifying potential sexual offenders?
Critical visual methodology suggests that images often have implicit social effects. Similarly, visual culture is based on the way images answer societal questions. Are the images of sexual offenders on the Internet making communities safer? While most states do in fact reserve online registry for the highest risk sexual offenders, the implicit criteria within the guidelines of SORNA often have unintended consequences on increasing an offender’s risk such as violations of registration mandates. Even more so, there is the consequences of the impact of public shaming, which reflects our lack of understanding as to how to conceptualize sexual offenders in society as if they are all the same and pose the same risk. Research has yielded the complex consequences of the language often used when it comes to identifying the risk of pedophiles, sexual offenders, and child molesters, as well as its impact on rehabilitating sexual offenders.
Decades of research demonstrates that the online registry has unintended consequences which can, at times, prevent sexual abuse from being disclosed due to the public shaming of publicizing sexual crimes. Even more so, the online registry often misguides people as to the complex realities that not all persons who commit sexual offenses are on the internet. In fact, the public registry is just the tip of the iceberg in what we know about persons whom have committed sex offenses. Even more so, according to research, identifying potential sexual offenders is much more complex than looking people up on the internet.
However, the case of Jesse Timmendequas brought to the forefront the uncomfortable truth about sexual offenders—namely, that sexual offenders are people who live in our communities. And, for most victims, offenders live in their families and most immediate familiar circles.