People tend to assume that there are two types of people on the sex offender registry: dangerous pedophile child molesters, creepy men who lurk at the edges of elementary-school playgrounds to find children to snatch and attack, and innocent men who once peed in public or slept with a 15-year-old girlfriend when they were 17.
The problem is, neither is reality. Very, very few men on the sex offender registry are serial child molesters. Very few are child molesters at all. Only a very small percentage of men on the sex offender registry have committed offenses involving sexual contact of any sort with prepubescent children. This is partly because most of these offenses are perpetrated by family members or other trusted adults in a child’s life and so are likely to go unreported and because, when these offenses are reported, they tend to result in very harsh penalties and sometimes indefinite civil commitment.
And, very, very few men on the registry are there for totally innocent things like peeing in public or having a girlfriend who has a year or two younger than they were.
Most men on the registry aren’t innocent, but they also aren’t monsters. A large and growing number are men who, in their late teens or early-to-mid 20s, engaged in some sort of sexual activity with a willing partner 14-16 (or an undercover officer posing as a willing partner 14-16). They did wrong. They deserve some punishment. Their actions should be against the law. But, they aren’t monsters, and they are not public dangers. Their offenses were non-violent and non-predatory, and there is no reason to believe that, having learned their lesson, they will offend again. Statistics would bear that out, as first-time non-violent statutory offenders have an exceedingly low reoffense rate (at least as low as 2.6% for recommitting a sex offense, since that’s the rate for men of all ages who have served time in prison for actual statutory rape, which means they actually had intercourse and includes men who were significantly older than their victims. If we were to only look at the reoffense rate of non-contact statutory offenders in their late teens and twenties, it would, if it followed other recidivism statistics, be even lower).
Do these men belong on a sex offender registries for decades or even their entire lives? Do they pose a genuine threat to public safety? Do they pose a risk to children in their neighborhood?
One thing we need to keep in mind is that men think about sex differently than women. We like to pretend that’s not true, but it is. We know that most men look back on early sexual experiences as positive or neutral, while most women look back on them as neutral or negative. That means that a man will look back on a sexual experience he had at 15 and, in general, have fond memories, whereas a woman will look back on a sexual experience that she had at 15 and feel regret. Most guys, if they are honest, will admit that, at 14 or 15 or 16, they would have thought having sex with a woman in her 20s was awesome. (I am NOT saying that it would have been right, just what their feelings on it would be.) So, a guy who is 24 who is talking to an undercover officer posing as a 14-year-old girl looking for an older guy in an adult chat room to have sex with isn’t thinking, “I really want to track this innocent child down so I can assault and defile her, thereby ruining her life.” Not at all. He’s remember when he was a horny 14 year old, and as a horny 14 year old, he would have jumped at the chance to have sex with a 24 year old (and, if it had actually happened, would probably have looked back on it, based on the research, fondly or neutrally as an adult, not as a traumatic or negative event). He is imagining that this apparently horny apparently 14 year old is the same as he was at 14, except with female parts. He doesn’t know or understand that girls are different, that a 14 year old girl who is seeking out sex from older men is probably not driven by hormones but by more complicated, problematic motives (wanting love, wanting attention), and that even if she was driven purely by hormones, she’d still probably look back on the experience a decade or two in the future as something she deeply regrets.
But the guy does not know this, because nobody has told him this. He has no idea. That’s the mindset my husband had. He had no desire to hurt anybody, or to prey on anybody. He really just wanted to chat about sex with other adults (hence, being in an adult sex chat room, not a room for children or teens). So, when somebody claiming to be a horny 15yo who had slept with two other men she’d met online came in and started talking to him and expressed an interest in meeting up, he didn’t think, “This is an innocent child who I can defile.” The age didn’t even register with him, because at 15 he would have loved to have had sex with an older woman, and 15, 18, 25, 30, 40 didn’t make much difference to him. As long as all of the woman part were there–and 15-year-old have all of their woman parts, being post-pubescent–that was all he needed to know.
I know he’s not alone. I know that many, if not most, of the men caught in these sting operations, especially those in their late teens and twenties, are in a similar situation. And many, many men in the registry have been convicted of similar crimes and are in similar situations. They are wrong. They have done wrong. What they did should be illegal, and they deserve punishment.
And yet, they aren’t monsters. They aren’t pedophiles, because they are interested in post-pubescent women. They aren’t predators, because they aren’t actively seeking out teens. They aren’t violent, because they are only doing things that the person they are with wants or claims to want, without threat or coercion. They are, simply, men who in their late teens or twenties are willing to engage in sexual activity with willing post-pubescent teen girls. What do we do about them? (And by “them,” I mean men in this particular situation, who in their late teens or twenties engaged in sexual activity with a willing post-pubescent teen, not “sex offenders” in general or even statutory offenders in general.)
I think some punishment is warranted. The five years of probation my husband served seemed fully warranted and just (unlike the 20 years in prison he was threatened with if he went to trial, which seemed incredibly excessive). Probationary punishment that provides oversight and accountability to people who clearly were acting impulsively seems like a good idea. For some, a short prison sentence might be warranted.
Therapy is good. It needs to be tailored to the offense, and for these men, an attraction to children isn’t the problem. Most of the time, even an attraction to teens isn’t the problem. The problem is compulsive sexual activity and/or poor sexual decision making, and that’s what needs to be addressed. We were fortunate in that my husband found a great therapist soon after his arrest, who specialized in sexual issues. He determined that my husband was not a pedophile or predator, but that he had problems with compulsive online activity, particularly compulsive online sexual activity. He treatment was tailored to that. Maybe six months later, my husband had to meet with a court-appointed therapist for an assessment and evaluation. The court-appointed therapist agreed with the assessment of the therapist he was seeing, and signed off that the treatment he was receiving was good and he was making good progress. The interesting thing was that he had to sign all of these consent forms at the beginning, laying out the kind of therapy he’d get if his current treatment was deemed insufficient and he had to use the court-appointed therapist. It was treatment clearly aimed at pedophiles, and he would have had to sign a contract stating he wouldn’t engage in behaviors that made no sense in his context (not watching kids’ movies or playing board games) or that he didn’t even understand (not “grooming,” which he took to mean he wasn’t supposed to dress up, since he’d never heard of it before). That treatment would have been terribly ineffective, but unfortunately it’s what many of these younger statutory offenders receive. They are being treated for a problem (pedophilia) that they do not have, while the problem they do have (compulsive sexual behavior and poor sexual decision making) isn’t being addressed. Therapy is crucial, but it needs to be the right therapy.
The biggest thing, though, is education. I really believe this. My husband was shocked and sobered when I told him that most women I know who had sex at 14 or 15 or even 16 look back on it with regret, and often feel like they were manipulated or victimized. He had no idea. I really think the most effective means of preventing recidivism in these offenders is to just tell them the truth about how men and women experience sex differently. These are not, by and large, men who want to hurt women, and if they know that teen girls often *are* hurt by sex with older guys–even if they seem to really, really want it at the time–then they are going to be very unlikely to do it or try to do it again. Most men honestly have no idea about the reality of women’s sexual experiences, and that reality can have a powerful impact on men’s view of things.
And then they deserve a second chance. A man who commits a non-violent, first-time statutory offense in his late teens or twenties deserves the chance to move on with his life, to put his mistake behind him and become a mature, productive adult who contributes to his community.
It’s all about reality. We need to acknowledge the reality of who is on the registry, not the monsters and martyrs of our imagination. We need to deal with the offenses those on the registry actually committed when we are sentencing and treating them, and not with the imaginary idea that all sex offenders are child-molesting pedophiles. And, we need to make men aware of the reality of female sexual experience, and acknowledge the difference between how men and women view sex, so that a guy who is 20 or 24 or 28 understands that a teenage girl who says she really wants sex isn’t feeling the same things he would have felt when he really wanted sex as a teen, and will very likely not experience sex with somebody older in the same way. Our approach to sex offenses needs to be based in reality, not hysteria or wishful thinking.