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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

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.

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