The men file in, a few wearing pressed button-down shirts, others jeans caked in mud from work on a construction site. They meet in the living room of an old taupe bungalow on a leafy street in a small Southern city.
Someone has shoved a workout bike into the corner to make room for a circle of overstuffed chairs dug up at the local Goodwill. The men jockey for a coveted recliner and settle in. They are complaining about co-workers and debating the relative merits of various trucks when a faint beeping interrupts the conversation. One man picks up a throw pillow and tries to muffle the sound of the battery running low on his ankle bracelet, a reminder of why they are all there.
Every one of the eight men in the room has been convicted of a sex crime and mandated by a court to see a therapist. Depending on the offense, their treatment can last several months or several years. (TIME has given both the men and the therapists pseudonyms in this story.)
They sit in the circle, the man who exposed himself to at least 100 women, next to the man who molested his stepdaughter, across from the man who sexually assaulted his neighbor. The group includes Matt, whose online chats led to prison; Rob, who was arrested for statutory rape; and Kevin, who spent decades masturbating next to women in movie theaters.
Some of the men’s crimes aren’t all that different from the allegations against public figures such as Kevin Spacey, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein and Roy Moore. Unlike the famous men, they cannot afford lawyers to draft nondisclosure agreements, or arrange hush-money payments, or appeal guilty verdicts, as Cosby’s attorneys are planning to do following his conviction on sexual assault in April. (Cosby could also be ordered to seek therapy.) Nor can they attempt to stage professional comebacks or publish mea culpa memoirs.
Instead, these men were all found guilty and had their names added to a state sex-offender registry. They will remain on that list for decades and, in some cases, the rest of their lives. Anyone can search online for the ugly details of their crimes, including employers, partners and their own children. A judge has limited where most of the men in this room can live, work and socialize–and whether they can access the Internet. Some are unemployed, and many live paycheck to paycheck, dependent on the few employers who are willing to tolerate their criminal history.
The more than 800,000 registered sex offenders in the U.S. may feel that their parole restrictions are onerous, but the mere presence of a known offender in almost any community precipitates clashes of competing interests and legal battles that have only intensified in the wake of the #MeToo movement. In at least 10 recent lawsuits filed in states from Pennsylvania to Colorado, civil rights proponents argue that sex offenders face unconstitutional punishments that other criminals do not, and they note that there are no government registries for murderers or other violent felons in most states. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a case challenging the limits of the registry in its October term.
But advocates for the millions of women, men and children who have experienced sexual violence are pushing back on any reforms, and 12 states have passed or proposed further restrictions on offenders in the past year. “What most of my clients want is their attacker gone,” says Lisa Anderson, a lawyer who represents survivors of rape. “If I could brand them with a scarlet letter on their forehead I would, because I don’t want any woman hurt like that again.”
Most people find it difficult to reconcile the hope that rehabilitation is possible with the impulse to push these men to the periphery of society forever. Punitive measures alone, however, have not been found to meaningfully increase community safety. Meanwhile, therapy–when paired with tough parole restrictions–can significantly reduce the chance of re-offending, according to the American Psychological Association. “It’s hard for me to believe that someone could violently ignore the will of another and then be taught not to cross that line,” says Anderson. “But if it’s possible to teach them empathy, then that should be mandatory.”
There are about 2,350 therapists across the nation who provide court-mandated treatment to sex offenders. (Counseling is also offered through prisons and other government institutions.) Judges refer the offenders to psychologists or clinical social workers who are authorized by states. In some cases, the government subsidizes the cost of treatment. Private therapists can refuse to see certain patients at their discretion.
Cheryl, a clinical social worker, and Jennifer, a licensed professional counselor, oversee the weekly meetings in the bungalow. They have worked with both victims and perpetrators for almost 20 years. They do not have to accept all referrals from the state—-and they say there are certain men they simply won’t treat, such as those who repeatedly prey on children, and seem unwilling to change. But they say that by the time most of their patients leave therapy, they are equipped to take responsibility for their actions, to understand what led them to commit their crimes and, finally, to empathize with their victims. “Working with these men and watching them change actually gives me hope for all men,” says Jennifer. “Because if people can’t change and grow, well, then what are we going to do with all these bad men in the news, with all the bad men who are still out there?”
Unable to silence the ankle bracelet, Cheryl and Jennifer decide to start the session despite the distraction. “The topic on the table today,” Cheryl says, “is how we failed ourselves and others and how we hold ourselves accountable for that failure.”
Matt, 30, grips a pillow on the couch as he recounts his story. He had always had trouble talking to girls. He would lose track of his words and fidget. In high school, he turned to chat rooms where nobody could see his awkward mannerisms. He started skipping class and parties to talk online. The conversations fueled his sexual fantasies.
“It led to a devaluation of whoever was on the other side,” he says. “They weren’t a person. They were a means to an end. I never actually hurt anyone physically. But I left an emotional holocaust.”
He met his fiancée not in a chat room but at college. He was studying political science in the hopes of becoming a lawyer and maybe, someday, a Senator. He aspired to higher office, he says, “’cause nobody is going to say: A United States Senator? What a f-cking loser.” He says doctors diagnosed him with everything from ADD to depression to borderline personality disorder. (Jennifer believes that Matt is somewhere on the autism spectrum.)
Even while in a relationship, Matt continued to linger in chat rooms. When he was 26, he met what he thought was a 14-year-old girl online. He had been arguing with his fiancée, but this girl laughed at his jokes and spent just as much time in front of the computer as he did. After the chats became sexual, she asked to see him in real life. Eventually he agreed to meet her at a Walmart across town from his job.
“I get there, and there’s nobody there. I’m excited. I’m just like, ‘Nothing bad can happen now. I can go back to work where I’m supposed to be,’” he says. “Not two seconds later I see these blue lights, and hear, ‘Police. Get on the ground.’ Turns out [the 14-year-old] was a police officer the whole time.”
The consequences were swift. Matt went to prison for 11 months. He lost his career and fiancée. He now works a job in construction that he says he hates.
As Matt recounts his story, Jennifer cuts in to ask him how he justified having a sexual conversation with a teenager in the first place. “I thought, At least I’m not touching her,” Matt says. “I didn’t think of a 14-year-old as a child. I thought of myself at that age being highly sexualized. I thought everyone was, or at least everyone was pretending to be.”
“O.K., S-T-O-P,” Jennifer interrupts. “That’s a cognitive distortion, right there.”
A sex offender, Jennifer later explains, often commits a crime by rationalizing it in some way: she wanted it, or my needs mattered more than hers. They convince themselves that a false notion is true–a cognitive distortion. Therapists’ work often consists of challenging their clients’ false beliefs and encouraging them to develop a more realistic view of the world.
There isn’t one standard method for treating sex offenders. But many experts have come to agree that identifying motivations and thought patterns is essential. Still, some therapists favor a much more confrontational method. “I saw treatment providers shaming and demeaning people, and literally having people get on their knees and say, ‘I’m f-cked up. I’m f-cked up. I’m f-cked up,’” Cheryl says. “I would much rather reach out my hand and say, ‘Let’s talk about how f-cked up you are.’”
Recent research published by the American Public Health Association suggests that focusing on punishments rather than positive goals can actually increase the chance of recidivism. In 2006, the Department of Justice endorsed more progressive methods such as the Good Lives Model, which aims to teach people how to fulfill their emotional and physical needs without hurting others. That includes challenging sexist behaviors and skewed social views that lead them to hurt other people.
In one group session, Cheryl and Jennifer pose a scenario meant to do just that: a man walks into an office, and a female receptionist smiles at him. Should he ask her out on a date? Two 50-something men in the group say they’ve always assumed every time a woman smiles or wears a short skirt, she’s coming on to them. One of the men in his early 30s argues that the receptionist has to be friendly to do her job. Jennifer points out that the receptionist is in an impossible position: if a valued customer hits on her, she may fear that she’ll be fired if she rejects him.
After each weekly discussion, Cheryl and Jennifer give homework assignments, such as asking participants to fill in a timeline of high and low moments in their lives, or writing a statement from the perspective of their victims. Lately, they have asked their patients to discuss the dozens of men who are making headlines for alleged sex crimes.
Matt watched the trial of Larry Nassar, the USA Gymnastics doctor who was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for molesting more than 160 women and girls. “The prosecutor was calling him a menace to society, and I’m like, Yeah, that guy is a menace to society,” says Matt. “But the lawyer in my case was using the same phrase about me. I’m not claiming I’m some great guy or whatever, but I didn’t use my power to hurt [hundreds of] people.”
The consensus in this group, which includes men who trafficked in child pornography and men who assaulted their stepdaughters, is that Nassar is a monster. “They don’t want to see themselves in those men,” says Cheryl. “The men in group sense that these famous men are entitled.”
While Matt sat on Jennifer and Cheryl’s worn-down couch, forced to take responsibility for his offense, Harvey Weinstein–who is under investigation for rape in New York–was in Arizona at a spa-like treatment facility that charges $58,000 for a 45-day stay and is known for treating “sex addiction,” a controversial diagnosis not found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Sex-addiction treatment is designed to help people with impulse-control issues and, like Alcoholics Anonymous, focuses on abstinence and avoiding triggers.
Experts emphasize that men who commit crimes like rape, assault and indecent exposure should receive sex-offender therapy, not sex-addiction therapy. Sexual behavior that is coercive or violent is a crime and very different from someone who compulsively cheats with a willing partner or misses work because he can’t stop watching porn. Psychologists who work with sex offenders say many men try to use the “sex addiction” label as a way to abdicate responsibility for actions that are illegal and abusive. The only way for them to get better and to lessen their risk to society, therapists say, is to confront what they have done, not excuse it.
People have been sharing their problems with Cheryl all her life, even before she was a therapist. During a session, she lets every emotion show, frowning in sympathy and rolling her eyes when patients try to fool her. She began her career working with children who had been abused. When first offered a chance to work with sex offenders, she refused. But she decided to go to a session out of curiosity. “I was like, ‘Oh, God, I’m walking into this group of disgusting, dirty, icky men,” Cheryl says. But when she arrived, the men looked like her neighbors and friends, and some genuinely wanted to change. She decided to take on the challenge, and later she and Jennifer started up a practice.
They both still work with survivors and know that the damage these men have wrought on their victims cannot be undone. But they have come to believe counseling can curtail most offenders’ impulses and allow them to function safely in society. “I hear the awfulest stories and even have to excuse myself to throw up,” Cheryl says. “Sometimes these guys come in here complaining about having to drive a little further to get groceries because they’re on the registry, and I’m like, ‘To hell with you. Think of how your victim feels.’”
Many patients don’t want to contend with what they’ve done to their victims–at least initially. Some therapists ask their patients to attend local sentencing hearings and listen to other victims’ testimonies. Others instruct their patients to role-play as their victims. Cheryl opts for a more personal approach.
When Rob was 20 years old, he partied a lot. He would stay out late, ignoring his mom’s texts and “drive home drunk, literally every night.” He met a 15-year-old girl at a party and had sex with her. Her parents pressed charges, and Rob didn’t tell his own mother until he had a court date set. He spent one year in prison for statutory rape and another two for parole violations. When he first met Cheryl, he told her, “Lady, I’ll sit here, but I don’t need therapy, and I don’t care about this.” Eventually, he became one of the most active members in the group.
He does electrical work now, thanks, he says, to the therapy he once dismissed. He got the job through a man who went through Cheryl’s program before him. Rob recently proposed to his fiancée and has since brought her to a few individual therapy sessions. She is older than him and has two daughters; he can’t attend their school plays or graduation.
Cheryl asks Rob how treatment has helped him to take responsibility for what he did. He speaks in vague terms about how he “f-cked up.” Cheryl stops him. “Define what ‘f-cked up’ means. Be specific.”
“I had a good job. I was working,” he says. “Instead of listening to my family and the people who cared about me, I just rebelled.”
“And then what happened?”
“I committed my offense.” He can’t bring himself to say what that offense was.
“What were the consequences of that?”
“I lost everything.”
“That’s still about you, honey,” Cheryl says. “What happened to your victim?”
“Her life was affected–I don’t know how. I haven’t had contact with her.”
Cheryl changes tact. “You’ve almost got two stepdaughters about [your victim’s age]. What do you think the impact would be on them, meeting someone like you when you were 20?”
“I mean, they’d be traumatized. They’d be–” he’s quiet for a minute. “I can’t think of the right word. I’m stuck.” He looks down into his lap.
“You’re getting ready to become a parent,” Cheryl says. “So I’m really challenging you. What kind of person were you then, the person you wouldn’t want your stepdaughters to meet now?”
“I didn’t care about anything. I was drinking, using drugs. I just wanted to get my rocks off. It didn’t matter with who or at what age. We try to talk to them, the kids, about that because, well, they’re like my kids.”
“I’ve seen you grow up,” says Cheryl. “You came to us with an eff you, eff me, eff whatever attitude. Now you’ve got these two girls and you get to tell them, ‘I was the 20-year-old boy who couldn’t wait to get with some sweet little 15-year-old.’ And you can tell them you didn’t give a rip about that girl as long as she was gonna like you. I mean, you didn’t force her, you didn’t trick her.’”
“Well, I didn’t trick her, and I did.”
Cheryl smiles. “Thank you for correcting me.”
“I tricked her because I had the nice car. I used what I had to my advantage when I wanted. Did I trick her into a dark alley? No. Was it mutual? Yes. But I had nice things. I was able to buy the drugs and alcohol. So yes, I did trick her. And I don’t want them to get tricked–even if it’s mutual. They’re too young to know.”
Later, she asks Rob if he would want to talk with his victim in person if he could.
“Honestly, no,” he said. “I’ve got a good thing going right now, and I feel like if I heard that I just f-cked her life up, it would send me in this spiral.”
“But that is what empathy is,” Cheryl says. “Sitting across from your victim and listening to her and understanding how she feels.” She tells him a story of a client whose neighbor found him on the sex-offender registry and confronted him in a grocery store. “You hurt a child,” she yelled at him in the cereal aisle. This patient, Cheryl says, had a moment of self-realization. He dropped to his knees on the linoleum floor and said, “I used to be that man that did those awful things to the little girl and the amount of regret I have is sometimes unfathomable.”
That, she argues, is truly taking responsibility for your actions.
“I would meet with her if she wanted to,” Rob says. “I would just be scared. I just–it would be hard.”
Cheryl has observed these sorts of conversations between assailant and survivor before at the request of both parties and believes they have the potential to be healing. Some victim advocates are skeptical. “Every time I saw my rapist, I threw up,” says Anderson, who became a lawyer to defend victims of assault after a professor raped her in graduate school. “One of my clients was forced to talk to her attacker, and she became suicidal.”
Sex-offender therapists and victim advocates are often on opposite sides on questions of crime, punishment and rehabilitation, though both ultimately hope to reduce sexual violence. The data on treatment is limited, but what there is points toward the value of therapy. While there are no recent, official statistics on national sex-offender recidivism, an overview of studies looking at the numbers in Connecticut, Alaska, Delaware, Iowa and South Carolina found that the rate is about 3.5% for sex offenders. That figure takes into account all crimes, including parole violations, not just sex crimes.
In 2010, research published in the American Journal of Public Health suggested that strict laws about registration, surveillance and residency can create a feeling of hopelessness and isolation that can actually facilitate re-offense. Several studies show that rehabilitative therapy, when paired with legal measures, can give offenders a sense of hope and progress and reduce recidivism rates by as much as 22%.
To many survivors and advocates, the experience of sexual assault is so horrifying that any recidivism risk is too high. “The emotional toll on the victim when it does happen is immeasurable,” Anderson says. “Those nightmares last a lifetime.” There are also far more victims than perpetrators, which increases the potential consequences of any re-offense. There are fewer than 1 million men on the sex-offender registries; sexual-assault victims number in the millions, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, a survivor advocacy group.
Kevin, 68, one of the men in Cheryl and Jennifer’s therapy group, traumatized hundreds of women. For 45 years, he was a compulsive exhibitionist. He would visit movie theaters, sit next to a woman and masturbate once the lights dimmed. He fantasized that the women were aroused by his behavior, though he now says, “They never actually were.” He did this nearly every day, sometimes multiple times a day.
Kevin spent time in jail and psychiatric treatment centers but never went to prison. He managed to hold down a job as a clerk at a home-improvement store. Eventually, he stopped exposing himself, but not because of therapy. “I got older, my sex drive got lower. I got on a drug that basically is designed, if you take in high doses, to reduce your testosterone level and reduce your sex drive,” he says. “I’m not sure that just therapy would have been able to break the cycle.”
But Kevin says the sessions have helped him understand the motivation for his behavior. He now believes that he exposed himself in the hopes of making a human connection, however irrational that may sound. “When I would do it, it was like I was in a trance. I’m just absorbed in what I’m doing, trying to get a positive response, which I very seldom got,” he says. “It took me a long time to figure out that women don’t want to see that. They find it disgusting.”
Whether you believe that therapy can redeem someone like Kevin may depend on whether you believe people can learn empathy. Researchers at the University of Cambridge published a study in March that suggests subjects’ ability to empathize with others had little to do with their genetic makeup and more to do with how they were raised. Empathetic people are made, not born.
Many of the men Cheryl and Jennifer counsel experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse themselves when they were young. As the therapists often say in group, “Hurt people hurt people.” At sentencing hearings, Cheryl testified to the likelihood that a sex offender can reform based on their history. But there are no guarantees.
In October, the Supreme Court will consider a complicated case challenging the federal laws that govern some sex offenders. The decision could allow hundreds of thousands of convicted offenders to move more easily across state lines and eventually remove their names from the sex-offender registry.
Even if that suit fails, civil rights proponents and victim advocates will likely confront each other again in the nation’s highest court. A Colorado federal judge recently ruled that the state’s sex-offender registry is unconstitutional. He said the list constitutes cruel and unusual punishment because it can subject these men to ostracism and violence at the hands of the public and that it fails to properly distinguish between different types of offenses.
The Colorado judge’s decision ignited outrage. In response, attorneys general from six states wrote a joint amicus brief to overturn the ruling on appeal. In their brief, the attorneys general quote a judge from a separate case regarding sex offenders in Wisconsin: “Parents of young children should ask themselves whether they should worry that there are people in their community who have ‘only’ a 16% or an 8% probability of molesting young children.”
In an attempt to resolve the tension between public safety and individual redemption, the law has settled on an imperfect compromise: sex offenders are inscribed on a registry, sometimes permanently. But they are also ordered to attend therapy to get better. The bad men are left in limbo.
Inside the small taupe house, Cheryl and Jennifer work to move through that limbo, one conversation at a time. As the bright winter sun sets and the office grows cold, a group therapy session comes to a close 45 minutes after it was supposed to. The men rise from the worn couch and pull on their coats and hats. One has to head home to meet his parole-mandated curfew. The man with the ankle bracelet needs to charge his battery. They file out slowly, loose floorboards creaking under their feet. Tomorrow, Cheryl and Jennifer might text some of these men to see how they’re doing. They might call their wives or bosses or parole officers. They’ll review the homework the men have turned in and prep for individual therapy sessions.
After those meetings end and the men leave the house for good, Cheryl and Jennifer may never know what becomes of them. Mostly, they hope they won’t read about them in the news.
This appears in the May 21, 2018 issue of TIME.