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 Lust of Youngsters: Today, Romeo Would Be a Sex Offender!

The Lust of Youngsters: Today, Romeo Would Be a Sex Offender!

The man is now 24 or 25. At age 20, a sexual fling with his girlfriend ended suddenly when her mother reported him to the police. He said at the trial that she had told him she was 16; it turns out she was 14. He was found guilty and became known as a felon, a sex offender.

The man escaped a prison sentence but faces a number of years on probation. Concluding his probation depends on graduating from sex offender treatment. He has yet to start because he doesn't know who to turn to, who to trust. He has heard that not all treatment providers are playing fair: some hint at graduating you but you never quite get there; others tell you from the start that sex offenders can't change. Even those he thinks might be okay are too expensive for him. A local parole and probation officer told me last year that some sex offenders are spending $500 a month on treatment.

Still reeling from what he saw as deception by his girlfriend, betrayal by her mother (an attorney), and his now wearing a label of shame, the man has struggled with sobriety and sanity. He has been in and out of addiction treatment. He has dabbled with college when it was too hard to find steady work. He wants to get past the nightmare of the past few years. 

I learned about him from a woman I met at the fitness center I attend. She is divorced and has two children. Both kids, she told me, have grappled with substance abuse issues and both have sought treatment for it. Her daughter, a couple years older than her brother, has finally found solid footing - her own place, a steady job, and a supportive parent.

There is a silver lining for the young man, too, but it's a thin one. In order to get out from under the sex offender label, he must be drug free, and crime free for five years. He must visit his probation officer regularly, and be subjected to urinalysis. And he must complete sex offender training. (I told her to tell him that shopping for the right treatment provider is like shopping for a counselor, or a reputable car dealer.)

Once he completes all that, given his low "risk level" assigned by the court and probation, the sex offender label can be removed. By then, he will be about 30, certainly not too old to find his way in the world. But by then, he will  have been through more than 10  years of shaming and self doubt. Will he be able to shoulder that, the weight of the past? Some do, but as a society, we can do a lot to make that journey easier. The first step might be to look at the number of teens and young adults we put into the position of sex offender. The next step might be to review the ways that those with the least serious, lowest risk, can be more easily let off the hook.

Perhaps you're thinking that I'm pro-offender and thus anti-victim. Not at all; I hope the young woman has grown to adulthood without the stigma and shame that her ex-boyfriend has. I hope her mother sees her as trustworthy and lovable. I hope that if she has suffered from the experience of being the victim at a court trial, and her own sense of remorse or guilt for her role in the relationship, that she has found support and healing from those wounds. I hope that her future role in society as a professional, a wife, a mother, will not be tainted by her relationship with a sex offender.

Reentry Can Be a Trap

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