The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is an 1850 classic novel that many of us studied in high school or junior high.
In the story, a woman named Hester conceives of a daughter through an extra-marital affair. She is required to wear a red letter "A" (for 'adulterer') on her dress to shame her, and she stands subject to public humiliation on the scaffold.
The rest of the book deals with her returning husband, the revealing confession of her secret lover, and the consequences as they affect the small town.
The most enduring idea from the book, though, was clearly the idea of the scarlet letter--the ongoing public shame and humiliation of someone for a sexual sin.
Of course, we've certainly come beyond this, haven't we? After all, this is the age of the sexual revolution! Adultery is advertised on TV, abortions are available on-demand, gay marriage is legal, porn is ever-present. And even though most Christians would argue that all four of those facts are bad, we would all agree that we should treat people kindly and with respect, not with ongoing shame. Everyone deserves forgiveness after repentance, right?
Well, hold on.
You may not realize it, but the idea of the scarlet letter is very much still in play in modern America, at the national governmental level.
Last week, across my Facebook feed (a sort of modern scaffold where the town can see everyone), I saw multiple repeated posts about a sex offender moving into a nearby town. People were furious and warning everyone. He was a part of the national sex registry, so everyone by law had to be made aware that he was moving into the area, and what he had done.
Now I don't know this guy at all. But we do have a mutual friend who had known him since childhood. And this guy said that the idea that he was a danger is ludicrous. Fifteen years ago (think about that...pre-9/11, before George W Bush was elected the first time, just after Y2K proved to be a hoax, a 26-year old got drunk and raped a woman. It is horrible that he did it. Absolutely terrible. He felt remorse, turned himself into police, pled guilty. He was sentenced to 15 years and paid his debt to society, where he was a model inmate. Now he is out and trying to get on with his life.
So what happens? Ah, he's a sex offender. Being a sex offender is the modern "scarlet letter"--it follows you the rest of your life so that no matter what happens, no matter how many changes go on in your life, you are still publicly shamed and ridiculed because of what you did. You can't go near schools. You can't move somewhere and start over. In some towns you literally cannot move into the town at all because the "safe zone" distance between schools covers the entire city limits.
You are an outcast. You are branded forever. As you can read here, a person coming out of prison and trying to reintegrate into society is basically hopeless: he can't live near a support network, can't find jobs, can't find stable homes and income. It's no surprise then that they often end up fleeing to areas where they cannot even be watched by police--indeed there are some entire cities of nothing but sex offenders, because they cannot find any way to be productive otherwise due to the restrictions.
Let's be real: it is better in the U.S. to murder someone or commit terroristic threats than to commit a sex crime. You can murder eighteen people and if you manage to get out of prison, you don't have to tell a soul. You can sell drugs and guns to kids and after doing your time, you are on your own. But by a 17-year old who has sex with his 16-year old girlfriend, and you might find yourself on a sex registry and your entire life is ruined.
Guys, let's be real. Our justice system is designed to punish wroongdoers. When the sentence is done, it is supposed to be done. You aren't supposed to STILL be on trial the rest of your life. That was the way of the scarlet letter, not today. Want to ensure sex offenders don't repeat? Then chemically castrate or throw them in prison for mandatory life sentences. At least that is consistent. To release them back into society and then take away any chance of a successful life is useless, cruel, and actually more dangerous than anything else.
Let's leave the scarlet letter in 1850, shall we?