In the coming months, Jenny* will be extra vigilant at checking her mailbox before her husband and daughter do. The holiday season is the time of year the letters tend to come.
Most likely the return address will be the state penitentiaries in Angola or Dixon, Louisiana. Often what is written follows a pattern. The letters will start off telling Jenny how the inmate saw her picture and that she looks lovely and he doesn't judge her for what she did. Then things go downhill.
"I want you to teach me so bad…" read one letter dated April 3, 2016, and written on lined paper with a blue pen. "Your my fantasy. I wish I blessed to touch your body [sic]"
Jenny, who is in her early 40s, said more than 100 sexually grotesque letters, some five or six pages long, have landed in her mailbox in her three years on Louisiana's sex offender registry. Her photo, home address, charge (as a teacher she had sex with a 16-year-old student), and even her scars and tattoos are listed on the state sheriff's website. Some news reports about her crime also list her address.
The plight of registered female sex offenders could be a hard sell to some. Like males who offend, they can and do cause extreme physical and emotional damage to their victims. In addition to prison time, they can also be subject to a long list of lifetime restrictions such as where they can live and work as well as being listed, often publicly, on their state's sex offender registry. The reason for these post-sentence restrictions come under the guise of public safety, but a growing number of critics are disputing the true benefits of what they call "draconian" laws.
Prior to 1994, few states kept a sex offender registry. That changed with the kidnapping and disappearance of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling in 1989—a disappearance that haunted parents across the nation (27 years later Daniel Heinrich, while on trial for possessing child pornography, confessed to killing Jacob). In 1994, a law in Jacob's name was passed requiring all states to create a registry of convicted sex offenders for the use of law enforcement. In 1996, another brutal crime spurred a new law. Megan's Law—named for the seven-year-old girl who was raped and murdered by a man previously convicted of sexually assaults—made those registries public. These registries provide information to concerned residents about where sex offenders live, work, and attend school as well as their internet identities.
More than 750,000 people are listed on the FBI's National Sex Offender Registry, which is a rough accumulation of registries that are managed by each state. Women make up about 7 percent of that number. While it is difficult to gauge the experience of all female registrants, the half dozen I interviewed for this story detailed how they have become the objects of sexual assault and harassment because of their sex offender status. Furthermore, because of the stigma of their convictions, the women often feel powerless to stop or report incidences.
Like Jenny, Shawna Baldwin, 34, has received her share of letters from strangers. "Describing their male parts to me, asking if I have ever been gang banged, if I have rape fantasies," she said. "They assume that I am a closet sex freak because I'm on the registry."
The now-mother of three was convicted at 19 for having sex with a 14-year-old male, which she details in the documentary Untouchable. Her parole period finished in July, which included twice-yearly lie detector tests and sex offender therapy, but she will remain on the Oklahoma registry for life. In 2011, Shawna says the letters she received materialized into a stalker who would stare at her outside the salon where she worked as a hairstylist. When he began approaching her and her children, Baldwin filed a protective order, according to court documents she supplied. That was the one time she stood up for herself.
Baldwin says that, while working in her old job, her boss would constantly make crude comments and intentionally rub himself on her. He knew of her status because she is required to inform every employer. Baldwin never felt she could complain "because who is going to believe the sex offender," she said.
Jenny hasn't reported the authors of the letters to prison wardens because she wants "to stay under the radar," especially when it comes to law enforcement. Any violation of her parole could kickstart a 15-year suspended sentence. Neither prison responded to questions or a request for comment.
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Similar incidences of sexual assault and harassment have entered the dating lives of some female sex offenders. Several years ago, Tanya*, a therapist in her 30s, had sex with a 17-year-old client.
Tanya is not publicly listed on her state's registry because she is a level one, the category considered least likely to re-offend (not all states have a tiered system or allow for some listings to be only available to law enforcement). However, her probation requires she disclose her status before sexual contact with anyone. She finds men are either repulsed by it or begin to fetishize her. "It's harder to say, 'Well, I don't want to do this with you,' or 'I want to wait to have sex,'" said Tanya. "How do you assert a boundary when you have broken a law?" She said she would have reported some incidents as sexual assaults if she wasn't carrying the sex offender stigma. "It's a bit internalized for me, that I don't have a right to my own body anymore because of what I did and what happened," said Tanya.
Kim*, also in her 30s, reported similar experiences with some men she has dated and worked with. They tend to present unsolicited and aggressive propositions once they find out her status on the Kansas registry. "They want to tie me up and blindfold me and make me their 'little slut' as one guy put it," said Kim, who was convicted of raping an 11-year-old. "They expect me to put up with it because I'm a sex offender."
"Many people tend to think most women on the registry are like Debra Lafave"—a sex offender who made headlines because of her looks as well as her crime—"and most men are uncontrollable pedophiles," said Derek Logue, a registered sex offender who also advocates for the rights of sex offenders. The stereotypes are "just not true," he added. Logue said he has never known any male sex offender to attract the type of attention described by the six female registrants I interviewed for this piece. The online comments on news stories about female teachers having sex with students, and articles like the Houston Press's "The 10 Hottest Women on the Texas Sex Offenders List" give an idea of the infatuation some men have with these women.
In the 15 years Professor Franca Cortoni has studied sex offenders, she had never heard of experiences like those of Baldwin, Jenny, and the four other women, but found them unsurprising.
"How this would be interpreted by these men that are writing [the sexualized letters]—because it is not men in general, it is those certain men who are thinking, I'm looking, and I want to have this type of sex because this is what turns me on," said Cortoni. "And lo and behold it is publicly known that she has done deviant sex so clearly she is fair game [to him]."
"There is a reality without pitying the women—I think we have to be careful not to fall into that trap—but there is a reality that is different for women offenders compared to men offenders in general," said Cortoni, a psychologist who worked clinically with offenders before becoming a professor. One difference she pointed to is that women already make less than men in the wider community. That becomes amplified due to the difficulties that registered sex offenders have in finding employment and a living wage.
She along with many others want to see an overhaul of how sex offenders are managed from a legal standpoint. In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, David Feige, a former public defender and director of the documentary Untouchables, laid out how public registries and other post-punishment restrictions for sex offenders have often been justified by a woefully exaggerated statistic that 80 percent of sex offenders re-offend. Depending on what study you refer to, recidivism or re-offense rates are more like 13.5 percent and even less among female sex offenders, at 1.5 percent. "Why don't we, as a matter of principle, at least ask ourselves, Do these [laws and restrictions] work?" Feige told me recently. "And shockingly the answer I think is no—they don't really work."
These laws take away from public safety by sending some convicted sex offenders into a life of instability, homelessness, and poverty, according to Feige and Cortoni. The women I spoke to who are primary caregivers of children said their parole restrictions and the public registries put their families in harm's way too. For example, Baldwin must live at least 2,000 feet from schools, parks, and day-care centers. In the two years following her divorce, she was a single mom, and the only home she could afford was a trailer "in the middle of nowhere." At that time, she was raising two small children while dealing with a stalker, sex mail and the knowledge that her photo, address, and conviction are public knowledge. "It is very frightening," she said.
*Interview subjects have asked to be made anonymous out of concerns for their safety and the safety of their families.