A few days ago, a website called Houston Press (which is affiliated with Village Voice Media), published a list of the top 10 “hottest” sex offenders. The point? Stereotypes of sex offenders, according to the author, are of men who are “not good looking.” This list showed photos of “hot” women who had also committed crimes that included sexually assaulting teenagers and, in the case of one woman, aggravated sexual assault against a 2-year-old boy (I’m not linking to the list because I don’t want to generate more traffic toward it).
Needless to say, there was an immediate uproar. But when Richard Connelly, the post’s author, apologized, he did not appear to realize just how offensive his post was. Instead, he claimed that he was trying to be provocative, and break the stereotypes surrounding sex offenders.
“In an attempt to catch attention (and yes, eyeballs and clicks), I thought of the ten hottest female sex offenders. ‘Hottest’ because it’s a Web-headline staple for such listicles,” he explained. “I also wrote an over-the-top intro, trusting that the outrageous headline (Anything putting ‘hottest’ near ‘sex offenders,’ I thought, would clearly show over-the-topness) would indicate this was fully intended to shock.”
Connelly says that it was “not his intention” to glamorize or trivialize child rape. Why none of his editors thought this would be a problem is another question. But it’s hard to believe that Connelly didn’t realize that this would be a horrible, offensive way to deal with the issue of sex offenders. And it raises questions about journalistic ethics when part of the reality of writing for websites is that writers are trying to generate traffic to their site.
As Jessica Wakeman points out, “All writers deal with sensitive subjects to others — whether it’s abortions, miscarriages, ‘medically necessary’ plastic surgery — at some point or another and you always try to inject humor into it so as not to truly offend anyone.” But, she adds, “That after-the-fact explanation does not absolve him, or his employers, of their responsibility.”
And, as Irin Carmon wrote on Jezebel, “We’re having a lot of trouble buying Connelly’s claim that he was making a socially relevant point when he chose to showcase female sex offenders, who make up a minority of the registry, and his intro read in part, ‘There are females on [the sex offenders list], too. Most of them are not good-looking, true, but who takes a good mugshot besides Tom DeLay? We combed through 15 of the biggest counties in Texas and came up with the ten hottest women in the database.’” That’s not, as Irin rightly says, very convincing support for Connelly’s claim that he was trying to show that sex offenders look like everyone else.
The fact is, also, that female sex offenders make up a minority of the registry. So while Connelly may claim that he was trying to “raise awareness” about the different types of people who commit horrible crimes like the ones he highlighted, what it really turned into was fetishizing child rapists because they were conventionally attractive women. There is a line between provocative and offensive. Connelly crossed it. And he should not be forgiven because, after the fact, he said that he was trying to raise consciousness. Someone in the conversation didn’t get the point — but it’s Connelly, his editors, and his publishers, not the people who called them out.
Photo from Flickr.