Privilege and the Registry

In the aftermath of Larry Nassar, Michigan has pushed over 30 bills through the House and Senate ostensibly under the familiar rhetoric of safety. Some of the bills—expanding sexual education and requiring schools to keep records about why employees leave—make sense in treating our sex crime problem holistically. Most of the bills, however, focus on punishment instead of prevention. More surveillance, stricter sentencing guidelines, higher mandatory minimums: we slap together reactive legislation that conflates justice and societal security through more imprisonment instead of rethinking and building prevention policies, including rehabilitative approaches.

We treat doctors like gods then expect them to even imagine getting caught? We treat white men like god’s gifts and expect that threat of punishment will deter a compulsion?

Several months after these laws went into effect, they didn’t seem to touch ex-UM pediatric rheumatologist Mark Hoeltzel’s sentencing, whose six felony charges of receiving, possessing, producing, and transferring child porn and obscene materials to a minor were all dropped in a plea agreement. He received ten years in December 2018 for one felony count of enticing a minor. Hoeltzel was first caught in 2006, when parents of an 11-year-old patient discovered two years of “inappropriate and flirtatious” messages from him, many of which compliment her body and call her “sexy,” In one message he invites her out for ice cream. In response, UM Medicine quietly asked him to take a “boundaries” course without further investigation or reprimand. He returned to his practice weeks later, and over the next eleven years, he left a long trail of sexual harm and predation involving minors and patients, as well as hoarding hundreds of images of child porn on his computer.

Here’s what happened. In December 2016, a young patient registered a formal complaint against him. Hoeltzel had transferred her to his office at the University of Michigan’s Pediatric Rheumatology Clinic when she was 17. They began exchanging texts and emails. Once she turned 18, he initiated a sexual relationship with her in his office. For over two years, he and the patient frequently had sex, both in his office and her apartment. He also over-prescribed her oxycontin and morphine, gave her alcohol, talked to her about his “hot” 12–15 year old patients, and over-scheduled her for appointments, in many of which she did not receive treatment for her medical condition. Court records say this patient’s mental health diagnosis and dependency on opioids made her particularly vulnerable.

In early 2017, as he arrived in the Detroit airport, on his way home from a six-week sexual addiction clinic in Philadelphia, Hoeltzel was arrested on child pornography changes stemming from the investigation into his relationship with this patient. All this time, Hoeltzel kept working. Between his arrest in February and December 4, 2017, when UM learned that he had come under investigation by state licensing authorities, he kept working. On Dec 21st, state regulators suspended his medical license. He resigned from UM on Jan. 12, 2018 in lieu of dismissal by UM.

In September 2018, the U.S. attorney’s office found more incriminating information about Hoeltzel. In 2017, pretending to be a teenage boy named Ryan Gardner, Hoeltzel set up a Facebook account in order to contact minor girls across the US and persuade them to produce child pornography. With this account, he contacted at least three girls, aged 14–17 in Missouri, and one 14-year-old girl in Colorado. He engaged these girls in romantic and sexual conversations—texting things like “Good morning dimple goddess,” “I’m trying to be careful not to talk about sex,” and “just never thought an eighth grader could be so sexy”—and asked them if they were virgins, if they lived with their parents, and if their parents abused them. He asked for and obtained explicit photos, and sent at least one girl explicit photos of himself. The three girls in Missouri stopped messaging with him after discovering that he was flirting with all three of them. Against the wishes of the government, U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Stafford released Hoeltzel on bond. He lived on house arrest, wearing a GPS tether, with his mother in Marshall. He was not able to see his three young children because of a pending Child Protection Services investigation.

A December 13, 2018 presentencing report called for Hoeltzel to serve 14–17 years in federal prison. He received ten years. After his sentencing, the Department of Homeland Security’s statement is revealing: “The sentencing handed down in this case reflects the serious nature of the crimes committed, which are particularly troubling given the defendant’s role in the community as a physician…. This case shows that HSI is committed to investigating child predators regardless of the positions they hold in society.”

This statement backhandedly acknowledges Hoeltzel as the poster boy of white privilege and authority-blindness. Shouldn’t an investigation into a child predator with special access to children be a given? Does Homeland Security Investigations think no one will notice its perpetuation of obvious and ongoing discrepancies in the way we treat criminals, or people we think are criminals, and who our laws come down on, as long as it gives lip service to protesting those discrepancies? Does this Homeland Security Investigation Special Agent think offering a plea bargain dismissing the most serious charges, releasing him on bond (read: not seeing him as a threat), and under-sentencing a doctor actively doing harm for over a decade is evidence of fair distribution of the law and punishment? If anything, this case is a testament to the inefficacy of the National Sex Offender Registry, the post-Nassar rush to legislate, and the ways professional white men evade the vigilant eyes of the law. The constant oversight of white men’s wrongs creates a counter-scramble to make more laws, to get “tougher” on crime, and extend punishments, but who ultimately pays the price? Who gets over-incarcerated and over-surveilled?

Carceral logics force their way into our imaginations at this point, extending the focus on bad actors instead of the structures that enable them. This sort of justice participates in the absolute devotion to knowing, to certitude and privilege, that allows us to turn our backs on select perpetrators, and not even begin to address the problem. Our current laws around sex offense are false solutions, unevenly applied and rigged toward dehumanizing already marginalized men. There is virtually no reliable evidence that sex offender laws work to reduce sex offender recidivism (despite years and years of effort), and plenty of expert sentiment suggests that these laws may increase sex offender recidivism. The Registry fits easily into #metoo narratives of accountability and the inadequacy of traditional safety mechanisms, yet it paradoxically undermines challenging systems that perpetuate sexual harms, the larger goal of #metoo. The Registry, like our prison system, is disproportionately filled with men who are poor, Black, or Brown. Once already vulnerable populations become further criminalized and ostracized, disgraced and exiled, they have very little to lose. The Registry merely stages a sense of security. It is our monument to disenchantment, marking our willingness to participate in systemic oppression as long as we feel “safe.” Like Trump’s Wall, the National Sexual Offender Registry is symbolic, which is to say, an empty, evidence-less performance of protection. The most truthful yet benign argument against both the Wall and the Registry is that they don’t work. All the evidence in fact points toward doing more harm than good. Symbols tend to syphon off other kinds of protections as they fail to address the complexity of systems. “Safety” is a word that hangs with what we fear, with anything that needs regulation (says patriarchy, says capitalism, says religion), or can participate in the fantasy of control. The OED goes on for thirty pages about “safety” (noun), starting with “salvation of the soul” (French and Spanish) and “rights of sanctuary” (Latin), both a spiritual state and a deliverance. On one hand, children report pedophiles at least seven times on average before adults take them seriously; on the other, a lifetime of alienation and surveillance for those who do harm. On the one hand, most new sex crime is committed by first-time offenders; on the other, most men who have committed sex crimes are not on the list. On all the other hands, why do we think criminalizing men long after they have served time, or even serving time at all, will help women and children?

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