We’re pretty good at punishing people who are caught and convicted of sexual abuse. We’re not so good at stopping the abuse in the first place, especially when children are involved. After all these years of open discussion about this scourge, why is it still so prevalent?

Because we keep attacking the problem the same old way.

A new project from the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, funded by the Ms. (magazine) Foundation, concludes it is time for us to adjust our collective thinking about sex offenders.

Perhaps the ATSA’s most important conclusion is that media coverage of abuse “monsters” has warped our sense of who they really are. Television news, movies and books mainly focus on the most extreme “stranger danger” cases — those in which a child is kidnapped, sexually assaulted and murdered.

In reality, the sexual abuse of kids doesn’t usually come from outside their circle, and murder is extremely rare. Most often the perpetrator is a relative, a family friend or a trusted authority figure. But if a parent is intent on looking for a “monster,” it’s easy for them to overlook warning signs from those closest to the family.

Another important conclusion? Too often we lump all abusers into one category and label them “sex offenders” or “sexual predators.” Not good and not smart.

A serial pedophile is quite different from a teenage boy caught with his underage girlfriend and reported to police by angry parents. Some jurisdictions view an errant nude sunbather or a drunk who exposes himself to urinate in the street as a sex offender. And then there is the category of children with deeply rooted sexual behavior problems. All have to be handled differently.

It doesn’t keep the community safe when we brand all of these diverse types with the same scarlet letter and make them all become registrants of an official, ever-growing and very public National Sex Offender Registry. Too often that’s exactly what happens.

The just released project paper from the ATSA calculates that in 2007 and 2008 alone, “More than 1,500 sex offender-related bills were proposed in state legislatures … over 275 new laws were enacted.” Generally, they did two things: increased incarceration time and put in place intricate (and costly) monitoring systems and restrictions on where the released offender is allowed to work, live and interact within a community once back into society.

After the convict does his or her time and returns to life on the outside, it’s as if the deck is forever stacked against them. What chance do they have to succeed if the stigma of being a registered sex offender keeps them from getting a well-paying job or finding a place to live that is the mandated distance away from a school or public park? Even trying to join a church is tricky for them. If there is a Sunday school for youngsters on the property, many states do not allow the convict to attend services there.

Everything they do for the rest of their lives will be viewed through the lens of their label: sex offender.

But wait a minute, you say: Once a sex offender, always a sex offender, right? Not necessarily.

Don’t mistake what I write here as being soft on sexual criminals. I am not. In fact, I believe there are career pedophiles who should never — ever — get out of prison. But the latest Justice Department statistics peg the likelihood of a child molester repeating their crime after they’ve done their time at just 5.3 percent. And the DOJ study concludes that of the 5.3 percent who do re-offend, 40 percent commit another sex crime within a year or less. In other words, that first year back on the outside is a crucial time for them — they either assimilate or they don’t.

The way these offenders are treated — their isolation and loneliness — often causes their closest family members to retreat in shame as well. It has been well documented that relatives of the abusers often struggle with the disgrace and stress that comes with having someone close to them convicted as a sex offender. It’s too bad that our societal scarlet letter brands them as well because family could be our first line of support to help keep the ex-con from re-offending.

I propose we all take a deep breath and stop adding new laws until we can figure out a better way to attack the problem.

First, forget the one-size-fits-all category of “sex offender.” Let’s identify all the varieties of offenders and determine what their range of punishments should be. As for our National Sex Offender Registry, let’s not make the teenage Romeo carry the stigma around for the rest of his life, and let’s give those who have gone on to live law-abiding lives for a set number of years the hope — the goal — of getting their names expunged.

We need to start thinking differently about how we define and tackle this problem. We’re smart. We can do better.

Diane Dimond is the author of Cirque Du Salahi: Be Careful Who You Trust. Click here for more information. She can be contacted at diane@dianedimond.net.