Life as a Registered Sex Offender: What Is It Really Like?
Q&A, Part One of Three
Not long ago, I wrote a pair of research-based articles for Psychology Today, one discussing the different categories of sexual offending and the likelihood of recidivism, another on the way sex offenders are dealt with by the legal system. At the same time, I published a longer article on sexual offending for the Sex Offender Law Report. Taken together, these articles generated countless comments and emails – including several from therapists, offenders, and family members of offenders.
One of the more gratifying aspects of the blog-back (the blog feedback) with these articles was that offenders themselves were, in various ways, finding their stories in them. Several wrote lengthy emails sharing their personal experience and thanking me for giving them a voice. At that point, I realized that a voice by proxy is nowhere near as powerful or enlightening as the real thing. So I followed up with three of these individuals – two men and one woman – asking if they would participate in a Q&A about what it’s like to live as a registered sex offender. All three agreed.
Initially, I thought about utilizing the respondents’ answers in a narrative form, giving analysis and statistics along the way, and at some point I may do that. For now, however, I feel their answers are most meaningful exactly as I received them. That said, I have at times shortened and clarified the responses (with approval from the participants), and I combined two questions – one about being in therapy, the other about finding other forms of support – into one question. Otherwise, this material remains in its raw form, with no judgements, commentary, or analysis on my part. (If you want research-based information and commentary from me, you can find that in the articles mentioned above.) I have also chosen to refer to the respondents only by their initials: DG (male), JL (female), and ST (male). This was done to protect them and to encourage completely honest responses.
This article is split into three parts: offense and registration; family, friends, and romance; and work and recovery. Part one, with questions on the offense and the registration process, is presented below.
What was your offense? Was it for a one-time incident, or was it part of a larger pattern of sexual acting out, as with sexual addiction?
All three respondents were arrested for crimes involving a minor. DG solicited a minor for sex. JL had unlawful sex with a minor between the ages of 13 and 16 (who stated that he consented and never felt forced). ST pled no contest to electronic transmission of material harmful to a minor after getting caught in an Internet sting.
DG says, “Thankfully, I was arrested for a non-contact offense, though what I did was still classified as a felony.” JL says, “I have never been in trouble of any kind until this situation, where I simply allowed mutual feelings to control my better judgement.” ST says he was in a romance chat room with an expectation that everyone there was at least 18. “I engaged in a conversation with an individual who claimed to be in high school. She showed an interest in me, said I was cute, asked me to send an intimate image of myself, and asked to meet so we could hook up. Despite my reluctance and saying no at first, I agreed to do each of those things. Hours later, showing up to ‘her’ location, I was met by several undercover police officers.”
As for the behavior being part of a larger pattern (as with sexual addiction), DG and ST admit to sexual addiction. JL says she is not sexually addicted.
DG says, “This behavior was part of a larger pattern of sexual addiction that started with legal pornography and prostitutes, then illegal pornography and younger (at times underage) prostitutes. I told myself every day that I was done, but then I was right back at it. I couldn’t control it.” JL says she was required by the legal system to attend SAA (Sex Addicts Anonymous), but her sponsor in that program did not think she was sexually addicted, and she didn’t either. “I never have had issues with acting out sexually. The relationships I’ve had all have been long term.” ST says, “While this incident (communicating with a minor over a computer) wasn’t behavior in which I had engaged in the past, it certainly wasn’t the first time I had used a computer screen to manage a very private battle with sexual addiction.”
The three respondents have different reactions to being arrested, charged, and convicted.
DG says, “I am glad that I got caught when I did, because it stopped my addiction from escalating further, to a point where I would’ve done more damage and had even worse consequences. Plus, it forced me to look at what I was doing and to make some much-needed changes in my life.” JL says, “Being an adult, I should not have let my feelings control my judgment.” ST says, “As a married father, there is no defense to my behavior that afternoon. I was dead wrong to have been in that environment. Nevertheless, there’s a world of difference in my intentions being in an adult romance chat room versus on some website for kids.”
Do you have to register as an offender? If so, what is the worst part of registering? How do officials treat you during the registration process?
All three respondents are required to register, and to update their information annually.
DG says, “I was convicted in a state where I had a 10-year requirement to register. Since then, I have moved to a different state, with different laws, and here I have to register for my lifetime. I don’t like doing it. Each year, about a week before I have to go in, I get a lot of anxiety about it.” JL has a similar situation, convicted in a state with a 15-year registration requirement that turned into a lifetime requirement when she moved to another state. About registering in her new state, she says, “Now I’m categorized with the serious hardcore sexual offenders.” ST says, “Unless our courts reverse course and one day deem the registry as punitive civil legislation, I am required to register as a sex offender for the rest of my life; quite the price to pay for an isolated episode both induced and encouraged by those sworn to serve and protect.”
As for the worst part about registering, DG says, “I used to live in a town where the police treated registrants like the scum of the earth. They would make an appointment, I would take the morning off from work to fulfill my obligation, and then when I got there they would either make me sit for hours or reschedule for another day. They also asked all sorts of nasty questions that were not part of the process, and they insisted that I give answers. It was really awful, and they did not in any way respect the fact that I still have rights. Eventually, I moved to another town, and they are much nicer. In fact, they go out of their way to keep appointments and to treat registrants like human beings.”
JL says the worst part of having to register is that her neighbors, church members, and anyone else she associates with can search the database and find her charge. “They can judge me without having the facts, and that hurts.” She says she has not experienced problems with the registration process. “Thankfully, all of the officers have been kind to me from the beginning. Each one has taken the time to get to know me as a person, and to not judge me simply because I’m a sex offender. I’m not a predator. I sexually offended with someone who consented, had mutual feelings, and acted in an adult manner.”
For ST, the worst part of registering isn’t the process, but what the registry represents. He calls registration “a constant reminder of a horrible error in judgment that I made one afternoon.” He says, “It sucks to have to take time to drive down to the local sheriff’s office and get processed, but it’s the helplessness – knowing that my crime is a debt that our courts and society refuse to ever accept as fully paid – that causes the most pain. I’ve gotten much better at not ruminating over it like I used to, but every visit to the sheriff’s office makes it harder and harder to compartmentalize and detach. Psychologically, it’s a burden that does not go away. In fact, it’s torture.”
If you could change anything about the registration process, what would you change?
About the registration process, all three respondents give similar responses.
DG says, “I would like to change it to where a person with a less serious offense only has to register for a certain amount of time, like 10 years, and if they stay out of trouble the requirement would be lifted. That is the requirement in the state where I was convicted, but it’s different where I live now, and I’ve got a lifetime requirement. Or perhaps such a person might still have to register, but the registration would not be on the public-facing portion of the website after a certain amount of time has passed without a further incident.”
JL states, “If I could change one thing about the registry, it would be how long one must register for. Obviously, the registry is there to protect people from serious offenders and predators, but each individual case is different. The current laws treat everyone like they’re a predator, and they ruin people’s lives. We need categories of offenders and timeframes for how long each category should be required to register, and we need room for exceptions. I have witnessed elderly offenders being wheeled into the Sheriff’s office by a caregiver just to register. They aren’t ambulatory, can’t feed themselves, and need 24-hour care. But they still have to register. We need new laws for situations like that. Revamping registry laws needs to happen across the board.”
ST says the problem with registration is that the types of offenses that can land you on the registry vary greatly, with varying recidivism rates, and that is not taken into account. He says, “I’d be interested in seeing changes to the sex offender registry as a whole, specifically a tiered system where only the most dangerous people in our communities are listed and made public on the sex offender website.”
Weiss LCSW, R. (2017). Life as a Registered Sex Offender: What Is It Really Like? . Psych Central. Retrieved on February 23, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/blog/2017/08/life-as-a-registered-sex-offender-what-is-it-really-like%e2%80%a8/