Attitude, far from being “everything”, is simply an offshoot of the self-identity. People are constantly changing their self-identities, either to project the desired image or to gain personal growth. How do you perceive yourself? How much do you accept what other people want of you? Do their perceptions of you match what you want to portray?
The men and women on sex offender probation have no choice about their identities. They are sex offenders, solely and clearly. Questions about perception and portrayal are nice but hardly applicable. Other people are the sum of their experiences but sex offenders are the sum of their crimes.
This identity is enormously difficult to overcome; most people simply can’t. Most people face minimum sentences of ten years on probation, maximum of life sentences. Even if not in prison, they are always sex offenders to their communities. It is much easier to accept this as your identity than to fight the people who emphasize every week, every day, that you are only a sex offender. (To be clear, I speak here about a group of women who had consensual sexual contact with male teenagers and are on probation. They are considered low-risk because a team of psychologists and polygraphers determined they are not likely to re-offend. All the mothers in this group are legally allowed contact with their underage children.)
Status as a sex offender takes precedence in every single situation, even one where someone’s life is in danger. In my group therapy, we had a discussion about what to do if a child ran out in the street in front of our cars. The treatment provider and probation officer – the latter of whom was sitting in on group – decided it was best to call the police and tell them the situation. They quibbled over whether we could knock on a neighbor’s door to have them grab the child, but under no circumstances were we to touch the child or guide him to the sidewalk.
I was appalled.
In the time it would take me to dial 911, much less explain the situation to the operator, the kid could be hit by the next car. He could be several streets over or hit by any number of cars before the police even got there.
What would I do then – drive past and pretend I didn’t see? That would be callous, the kind of monstrosity expected from sex offenders just because they are sex offenders. It would be to let a child remain in a high-risk situation rather than getting him to safety.
We women in group talked about how calling the police rather than intervening would fly in the face of our natural, even maternal, instincts. That didn’t matter though – our proximity to the child was a greater threat than anything he would encounter in the street. Even if our intention was to save his life, our offender status cancelled out any good intentions or deeds.
This is only one example of how low-risk women were made to feel and told to act like high-risk offenders. The depth of this imposed identity extended to every part of our lives, especially in public.
After I began probation, I felt horribly conspicuous. My crime must surely be written on my face, mimicked in my walk, splattered in the tones of my voice, soaped on the windows of my car. It was like the scarlet letter: I’ve committed an offense against society and surely every person knows. Even more than that, surely every person will shun me.
I stopped using my last name, especially at work. I wanted to change my name but that’s not allowed when you’re a sex offender. I suspect it’s for this very reason. Shame, sadness, a desire to move on, to put that time behind us – they are the very reasons we must keep our names and feel the burden when we go out.
The treatment provider once said in group therapy, “You need to always feel terrible. It’s what makes you responsible.”
No. Understanding of the horror of my actions, their far-reaching effects, and my culpability are what make me responsible. Not becoming complacent about these facts is what keeps me responsible.
An overwhelming sense of guilt or perpetual self-loathing will not make me responsible; they will make me jaded. A person cannot maintain a high level of externally-imposed guilt for long. At some point, she will feel less guilty. She will feel that somehow she must be worth something, even the tiniest fraction. And so the expectations of the system inherently conflict with how she perceives herself.
Surely, a person who is made to feel bad about herself will eventually believe it. That’s part of the power of the system. But no one can swallow this identity as whole-heartedly or as fully as the system would like. Even a glimmer of self-worth contradicts the unspoken maxim: you are a sex offender. You are the scum of society.
The goal of a properly oriented treatment program should be to examine culpability while not denigrating the person herself. Without culpability, without recognition of wrongdoing, no offender will be able to move into constructive therapy. Taking responsibility should be the first step, but not at the expense of self-worth. A person’s self-identity should not be overwritten by societal status, regardless of her crime. If sex offender treatment programs do not radically change the way they view their clients, they will continue hurting women offenders and their communities rather than healing them.
Sonia Van den Broek was born in Seattle and raised in a loving family, the eldest of five children. She attended a private college in Virginia and has traveled throughout Europe since high school. Her favorite trip was an expedition to Italy with her younger sister. Additionally, she is halfway through a four-year deferred judgment on a sex offense charge. Classical literature, animals, and gardening are her current passions. She is living and working in the Rocky Mountain region with her loving husband, and plans to continue traveling the world soon.