In Puritan America, a married woman’s illicit affair with a minister landed her in jail. After her release, Hester Prynne was sentenced to forever wear a big red “A” on her dress. 

Nearly 375 years later, the U.S. continues to be scandalized, tantalized and perplexed by sex, especially about sex offenders. Tough on crime, we’re still struggling to learn: 

  • Why domestic violence and incest are so under-reported by victims? 
  • Why most people think every sexual offender is a serial rapist? 
  • Why, even among therapists, many continue to believe sex-offenders to be untreatable? 
  • Why supervision after offenders’ release tends to-wards punitive rather than restorative? 

It’s time to bring the subject of sex crime out of the dark ages, time to help victims shed the shame and trauma of their experience. It’s also time to allow offenders an opportunity to show they can change, make amends and start to earn back trust and acceptance from society.

The Ratio of Men Abusers to Women is Changing

The Ratio of Men Abusers to Women is Changing

Out of nowhere, my haircutter Lena mentioned that her life has had its share of hardships. Maybe it was the nasty weather outside; maybe it was a fight she was having in her head. Whatever else, I also seem to attract people who want to share things they don’t share with others. Perhaps barbershop chairs are like a church confessional in that respect. Maybe I look like a parish priest or an understanding big brother.

She mentioned being “abandoned” to the streets at an early age, of having had alcoholic parents who, since they got sober 20 years ago, have become “too snooty” for her taste.

Then she mentioned having had several abusive relationships with men, and how she was currently raising three daughters on her own. The bias I had of her softened and waves of compassion rippled across my chest. At the same time, another bias unhinged, that of abusive men.  In my opinion, the world has way too many men who take their hostilities out on women and children. When it comes to bullies, I struggle finding compassion, although it is clearly appropriate at some level.

When I told Lena about the book I have written with Marilyn Callahan on sex offenders, I was expecting that she would tell me that one of her daughters had been abused as well. Instead, after I mentioned sex offender treatment was different for women, she said, “I can believe that!” She then offered what I truly did not expect, “I think there are more women sex offenders than people imagine.” She said she thought it sad that, in the shadow of men being labeled as dominant and aggressive, women are almost scrutiny-free about their role in sexual abuse, especially among children. “Women just aren’t thought of as sex abusers,” she said. “And the crimes they commit are pretty hard to detect and quantify,” she added.

I didn’t ask her how she could possible know what many still don’t know – that the number of women sex abusers is probably under-reported. Instead, I remarked about her insight.

While prison records reflect a ratio of 99 male sex offenders for each female, data emerging in recent years suggests a different picture - that the ratio of male offenders to female may be 10:1 or 8:1 or even 4:1. Marilyn changed treatment strategies beginning in the 1980s, based on discovering that women’s motivations to abuse are very different than men’s. She found, also, that they are often less willing to admit guilt.

I left the barbershop a bit lighter in the head and in the wallet. I also felt heavier, in terms of the steep climb we have ahead, holding men accountable for their misplaced anger. I also held out some hope, based on Lena’s awareness and sensitivity, that society has the capacity to understand the stressors that drive people to abuse others and to support those people – and their victims – in finding compassion rather than blame, finding treatment instead of only punishment.


Supreme Court Reverses Sex Offender Conviction because of Racial Bias in Trial

Supreme Court Reverses Sex Offender Conviction because of Racial Bias in Trial

Getting In to Prison is Easy: Getting Out is Another Thing