Counting Victims

I was testifying in front of the House Criminal Judiciary Committee, speaking in favor of a minor change in New Hampshire’s sex offender registry. I always begin statehouse testimony with the disclaimer that I am a convicted sex offender.

Halfway through my testimony regarding a legal technicality in the federal Adam Walsh Act, I was interrupted by a committee member.

“Excuse me, Sir,” he said, “but we’ve heard the average sex offender has many, maybe hundreds of victims by the time he gets arrested. Is that true?”

 photo victim202.jpgThe question was lobbed into the room like a hand grenade.

I scanned the committee seated behind its long U-shaped table – mostly middle-aged and older men, some looking distinguished, some frumpy. Some undoubtedly driven by ambition. Some true-believers. With the exception of one woman, they were a cross-section of middle class American baby-boomer masculinity. They reminded me of Jake.

I met Jake when I enrolled in the prison’s sex offender program. He had been down almost a decade by then.  Jake was a model program participant – a well-spoken, fifty-something, college-educated guy who had bought into the program philosophy one hundred percent. He was an inmate facilitator, leading workshops and helping others work the program. Tall, with receding snow-white hair, Jake had the bearing of an elder statesman.

Sex offender program participants must produce a full disclosure sexual history - a lifelong list of every sexual contact, no matter how trivial or shameful, extracted from the reluctant confessor under threat of polygraph examination.

Our sexual history was used to identify victims. It was assumed we had many. Besides our obviously chargeable offenses, we were encouraged to scrutinize every sexual encounter we ever had in light of program principles. Was a sex partner drunk or high, perhaps unable to fully consent?  They were a victim. Was she or he unaware we were getting sexual pleasure out of a seemingly casual encounter? Victim.  Was there a power differential between us and them?  Victim. Was he or she hesitant, needing even subtle coaxing to change an initial “no” to a reluctant “yes”?  Victim.  And so it went. It was a useful exercise to uncover self-justifications and subtle thinking errors.  I often wondered how the sex life of the average man on the outside would survive such scrutiny.  Under the therapeutic microscope wouldn’t we all have victims?

The therapists expressed approval for each new victim recognized. Participants with few victims were encouraged to discover more.  For prisoners whose freedom depended upon successful completion of the program, victim-finding was a step toward the door. Besides, it was better to acknowledge another encounter as victimizing – even if we had our doubts - than to risk failing the polygraph, and being kicked out of the program, from feelings of uncertainty.

Rumor had it Jake was a former sex addict. They said he admitted buying the services of over a hundred prostitutes. Those were the ones he could remember. Like many addicts, I guess he kept upping the ante in search of that ever-elusive high. He finally crossed a line and got himself arrested. In the program, Jake came to realize those women he paid for sex were victims too. He had no idea why they were selling their bodies. He hadn’t cared to ask. Maybe they were drug addicts looking for money. Maybe they were enslaved by a pimp. Anyway, the encounters were techinically illegal and morally inexcusable. The therapists applauded his insight and honesty.

When Jake’s Sex Offender Program Discharge Summary came out it said during programming he admitted to having over a hundred additional victims.

I heard Jake’s first parole hearing went badly. The Board read his discharge summary and was aghast. This sex offender had over a hundred uncharged victims. Over a hundred victims! Was it safe to let him go? He was so obviously intelligent and compliant. But maybe he was just real good at gaming the system. The Board denied him parole. It took a second hearing and the intervention of the program director herself to convince the board to let this model prisoner out.

I scanned the faces in front of me. Was it worth trying to explain the subtleties of the word “victim” to them? Would they listen? Would they even care?

No, I decided, this wasn’t the time or place.