Listening to Sex Offenders

Their stories are stereotypical and repetitive in ways we've all heard a million times, all our lives-and mostly not from sexual offenders.



Sex Offenders, Stigma, and Social Control, by Diana Rickard, Rutgers University Press, 216 pp., $44.95

Last year, Lenore Skenazy hosted a brunch at her home in New York City. The "free range kids" advocate invited journalists, fed them quiche, and introduced them to two guest speakers. Both were young men who had served time for sex crimes against minors.

As videotape rolled, one man told the audience about entering puberty with great sexual confusion. He said he'd been raised in a fundamentalist Christian family, homeschooled, and kept isolated from other kids, including girls. He talked about sexually touching his little sister, and he talked about being incarcerated for this offense while he himself was still a child.

The other man described a statutory crime. He is gay, and as a very young adult, he said, he began a relationship—including sex—with a gay teen younger than the legal age of consent. The young man served his time in prison, but then an effort began to "civilly commit" him to a locked mental hospital for sex offenders, probably for the rest of his life. That effort was irrational and vicious, he said; he certainly was not a continuing danger to children.

The reporters scribbled notes. They looked spellbound.

I was at the brunch. It was a terrific event, one whose time had come. (Reason ran video from it online, and Skenazy wrote about it in the July 2015 issue.) Skenazy has spent the past several years writing and speaking about what she feels is a modern-day panic about imagined danger to children. She talks about parents reluctant to let their kids roam the neighborhood, about children not allowed even to play on their lawns for fear of being kidnapped or molested. One big trigger for that panic, Skenazy believes, is erroneous attitudes about sex offenders.

Research by the U.S. Department of Justice shows that the vast majority of sex offenders pose no further threat to children after they do their time. Nevertheless, they get put on public sex offender registries, and residence restrictions banish them from parts of cities and even entire cities. They can't get work. They fear vigilantes visiting their addresses, which are publicized on the registry. Thus do irrationality and paranoia quarantine a group from society.

That was the message of Skenazy's brunch, with its Sunday-morning quiche, its ex-cons, and the favorable press that followed. But the event's success was marred months later, when the gay man who had spoken there was re-arrested. He'd been caught texting with a teenaged boy. He was jailed again, amid a new round of publicity.

For the fledgling movement for sex offenders' civil and human rights, the incident was disheartening. The movement's nascent efforts remain swamped by cultural noise about sex offenders, noise that is often wrong.

Take the claim that sex offenders are incorrigible even after being punished—that most can't or won't control themselves, and they inevitably re-offend. Sometimes they do. But a raft of research, including studies by both the U.S. and Canadian governments, have shown that adjudicated sex offenders have a very low recidivism rate. The U.S. study found that rates for first-time offenders are as low as five percent during the first three years after release. That's the lowest rate for any violent crime except murder.

Nor is it true that people who sexually assault kids tend to be strangers to their victims. That's the idea that fuels sex offender registries and residency restrictions, but the vast majority of offenders are family members or friends of victims. Every time you see sex-crime law christened with the first name of a dead child who was kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and murdered by a stranger, remember that these scenarios are about as rare as death by lightning.

But child sex abuse is common. Trusted stepfathers, fathers, grandfathers, uncles, teachers, family friends, religious leaders—these are typical offenders. Police, prosecutors, and court-mandated psychotherapists characterize them as notorious and unrepentant minimizers. They're said to downplay their crimes, to omit damning details, to shirk responsibility. These claims are untested but do not sound unreasonable. True or false, they're another rationale for endless punishment. These men's sneaky accounts of who they are and what they did mean nothing. We should listen only to their victims.

Diana Rickard strongly disagrees. Rickard, a sociologist at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, recruited half a dozen former and very typical offenders, then asked them their life stories, including why they committed their crimes. Rickard spent hours talking with each man. She could have taken a prosecutorial or journalistic approach, cross-checking their stories with their criminal records, interviewing their prosecutors, maybe even calling in polygraphers. She did none of this. She wasn't interested in the legal factuality of the men's cases as much as she was in the stories they told. Their stories, she felt, might in themselves say something about their future dangerousness or lack thereof.

Here is what Rickard heard from five of the six men.

One liked to spend time on internet chat sites, and he ended up talking sexually to someone he assumed was a woman. About a month into their chatting, she said she was 14 years old. But he continued talking anyway, and arranged to meet her. That's when he learned that she was not a girl but a police officer. He was arrested.

A guy in his fifties said he went to a bachelor party where a bevy of strippers were entertaining the guests. He and a stripper began a sexual relationship. She said she was 19, but later he learned she was 16. Her mother found out when she read the girl's diary.

Another middle-aged man met his longtime friend's daughter, whom he hadn't seen since she was a child. She was now a teen; he wasn't sure how old. One day they started kissing and fondling each other. He stopped but she called her father, who called the police. The girl was 15.

One man got angry with his wife. He went into his 13-year-old stepdaughter's room, took two photographs of her genitalia, and mockingly showed them to his partner.

And then there was Karl, a 30-year-old high school teacher. A gay freshman asked Karl if he could come to his house for private tutoring. Karl said yes. They had oral sex. Someone found out.

These men lost their jobs and careers, served time in prison or on probation, were placed on sex-offender registries for decades, and were sent for years to sex-offender group therapy. But they are not pedophiles—people sexually attracted to prepubescents.

The man who photographed his stepdaughter clearly went beyond the pale of any notion of consensuality. But the others, if their stories are true, fall into areas that different democratic societies treat in different ways. In most parts of America, the man who fell for the stripper wouldn't have been doing anything illegal, since most states' age of consent is 16. But he was in New York, where it's 17. Similarly, the guy who engaged in mutual fondling with his friend's daughter would have been fine if he'd happened to live in France, Sweden, and Denmark, where the age of consent is 15. The gay teacher could legally have had sex with his 14-year-old student if they'd been in Germany. That's also true for the man in the chat room and his faux teen friend whom the police invented. (Though in Germany cops don't conduct internet sex stings—at least, not with the totalizing vigor that they do in America.)

All of these men broke the law, and most of them sound like jerks, but they do not seem to be sexual deviants. Even so, they've been caught, punished, and sent to therapy. (One man has to go every day.) The four who touched minors—even when the minors eagerly touched back—now freely describe those teens as their victims. They say they did wrong, and to Rickard they seem sincere. Even the man who committed the computer crime with the imaginary girl apologizes.

It's when they try to explain why they did what they did that their stories get fascinating.

The man who got fooled on the internet said that he hung out online because he was disabled and homebound. He says he still doesn't know why he made a date to meet someone who claimed to be a 14-year-old girl, but now he knows not to do it again.

The middle-aged man who took up with the 16-year-old stripper took one look at her, and she at him, and they felt an immediate connection. The man was married but the couple weren't getting along. The stripper looked a lot older than 16. She acted older, too, and lied about his age. How, he asks, could he have known?

Likewise the man who fondled his friend's daughter. He should have known better. But she was making eyes at him, and she looked and acted older than 15. He says he'll never do anything like that again. In fact, he's really attracted to women his age.

Karl grew up attending a homophobic church. At age 30, he was still working to accept that he was gay. At times he became very stressed, and when that happened he did drugs and drank. He was in this state when his student asked him for private tutoring. He shouldn't have said yes, but he felt overwhelmed. He insists he would never do this again.

The man with who took the genitalia photos knows it was a terrible thing to do. But he and his wife had five children: two of their own and three of hers by a previous marriage, including the 13-year-old stepdaughter. He'd recently lost his job, felt terrible, and started drinking and drugging. His wife got work and began an affair with a fellow employee. The man felt cuckolded. He remembered that his wife had said her ex had molested two of the children. The man had always treated his stepdaughter as his own daughter, but now he exacted revenge by rejecting her. He shot the photos, showed them to his wife, and felt glee.

The patterns of these stories are a drumbeat. Getting turned on and knowing better than to follow through, but just not being able to help oneself. Being tricked. Beer and weed, drunk and stoned. Bitchy wives, bad marriages, the economy. If I'd only known then what I know now. I used to have a bad side and a good side. Today I'm different. The good me is the real me.

Reading these men's explanations is like listening to a low-rent version of The Moth. They are stereotypical and repetitive in ways we've all heard a million times, all our lives—and mostly not from sexual offenders. Tales of men having sex with minors, it turns out, are just a blip in the schlemiel-ish and sometimes brutal narrative of everyday American masculinity, straight and gay.

And this is a major reason why Rickard thinks we should calm down about sex offenders. We can all agree that they shouldn't have broken the law. We concur that, regardless of the variability of age-of-consent laws, their actions were probably immoral, even if they aren't everywhere illegal. Rickard's research shows how similar "deviant" men are to "non-deviants"—including in their potential to feel remorse and to correct their "behaving badly" behavior.

In their own eyes, in fact, these men are so rehabilitated now that they draw a line between themselves and the "true" deviants: the people who abuse little kids instead of teens, who penetrate instead of fondle, who operate with force instead of flirtation, who can't help molesting again. It's the real deviants, according to Rickard's interviewees, whom we need protection from. The sex-offender registry is fine, as long as it lists the right people.

These drab but credible-sounding expressions of "normalcy" are food for thought, but maybe comfort food compared to the unsettling story told by Rickard's sixth interviewee. He is Terry, formerly an upstanding member of his community: a church leader and associate at local financial institutions. Terry is no one-time sex offender. For years before he was put on the registry, he was a serial habitué of public spaces, such as shopping malls, where he publicly masturbated, rubbed up against women and girls, and grabbed their breasts.

Terry started committing his crimes in high school, and in ensuing years he racked up many victims. He was arrested a few times, but because of his "respectability" judges and prosecutors let him off with slaps on the wrist and obscured his name from the media. He was finally caught in flagrante delicto by a mall security camera. The video was picked up by the press, and the local criminal justice system could no longer coddle Terry.

Like the five other men, he told Rickard he'd done wrong. Unlike them, he defined himself as mentally ill and sexually deviant, and he wondered if he should be surgically castrated. His story sounds far less "normal" than the other five men's. It could be taken as evidence that we really do need a sex offender registry and related restrictions.

But Rickard opposes such moves even for offenders like Terry, preferring more conventional responses. What, she asks, if Terry's first offense had been dealt with seriously by the criminal justice system instead of being minimized? He might have been scared straight or given psychotherapy and medication. If those interventions hadn't controlled him, subsequent offenses would have landed him back in jail, away from women and girls. In America, we're supposed to remove people like Terry from society after they've hurt others, not before. Then, after they've done their time, we're not supposed to punish them all over again with states of exception like registries.

Yet we do. American's national sex offender registry has been in place for two decades, and it now contains almost has 850,000 people. (People under age 18, including some as young as 12, number about a quarter of the total.) Some cities ban these people from living in every neighborhood containing houses, so they huddle in tents and sleeping bags in no man's lands. Human Rights Watch notes this population's remarkably high rates of suicide.

All these shamings, torturings and breachings of civil liberties are intended to protect children, but studies overwhelmingly conclude that they don't. They are senseless. Except, perhaps, as proxies for social rage and panic.

As Rickard shows with her Moth-like stories, even sex offenders have bought into these feelings. Like most Americans, they believe in the registry—as long as they're not on it. Like most Americans, they cling to this side of humanity by asserting their "normalcy."

It's pretty clear they really are "normal," whatever that means. Having served their time, paid their dues, they wish to go to brunch. To eat some eggs, talk, feel empathy, to live on Sunday morning in the land of the free.