Secondhand Pariah: A Plea for Empathy from the Girlfriend of a Sex Offender
One morning in January of 2014 my life changed forever.
Out of nowhere, seven highly militarized FBI agents wielding guns and a search warrant raided the home that I shared with my partner. Barely awake, I couldn’t believe what was happening.
Then we discovered his charges: possession and distribution of child pornography.
He is not a monster; he is not even attracted to children. While he was on a torrent site looking for music to download, he came across pornographic images that he thought he’d check out, against his better judgment. He didn’t actively trade or send images, but due to the nature of torrenting his computer uploaded the files to other users. In just an instant he crossed a very dangerous line.
He spent two months in federal jail last year before being let out figure out his case. He had a public defender that was more interested in impressing the prosecutor, joking around with him and making lunch dates, than actually defending my boyfriend.
During the second meeting with his lawyer, he was informed that the prosecutor said that he can either plead guilty and be given between 5 and 11 years in prison or go to a jury trial. The lawyer warned my boyfriend that if he made them take him to a trial they’d throw the book at him and demand the maximum sentence for each image found. He was also told that he should take the deal because, if he went to a jury trial, the jury would hear “child pornography” and, in group disgust, would convict him even if no evidence was produced.
That is the stigma and fear cultivated in society over these crimes. “Stranger danger” has polarized the masses into a lynch mob deeming even non-violent and hands-off offenders as “child molesters” unfit for society.
The prosecutor haughtily laughed and said “try me” when the subject of a jury trial came up.
My boyfriend was petrified at the thought of prison. He’s only 33 years old, has no record, and is a small man of five feet and six inches with a slight build. He knows the ramifications of being branded a “chomo”, prison lingo for anyone with sex offenses that include minors.
Fearfully, he took the deal, pleading guilty. Last month he was sentenced to 8 years in federal prison, 15 years of supervised probation, a lifetime on the sex offender registry, and limited access to the internet for life.
His life is effectively ruined. He will have a very hard time finding any meaningful work or a place to live, and he will be vulnerable to attacks from vigilantes who find his name, photo, and address on the registry. Simply put, he’s going to be a walking target for the rest of his life.
As his partner, so will I. Because I have chosen to stick by him through this, I am guilty by association. I don’t condone what he did, but I know that he is still the good person I fell in love with. He didn’t touch anyone or attempt to talk to any minors online. The images he had on his computer were of girls between 12 and 17 years old. He was looking at girls who were attractive because they portrayed themselves as older. It’s still not right, but again: he hurt no one.
Despite all this, and though it makes great headlines for the authorities, there is a lot of collateral damage done in these sentences. The family of the offender has lost a valuable member of the family, a wage earner, and a loved one. We’re left to deal with the ramifications of their crime, and no one thinks about what this process does to the families of the offender.
We aren’t the ones convicted, yet we are treated as if we’re just as guilty as our loved ones. I’m not asking for sympathy, only a chance at understanding. People don’t want to associate with anyone having anything to do with sex offenses, but the crimes regarding children carry a special stigma that no one can understand unless it affects them personally. We’re “persona non grata,” and in our experience even those that say they understand are still found to be talking disparagingly about us behind our backs. Sadly, I’ve learned that I can trust no one, even lifelong friends.
I am disabled and my boyfriend was my caretaker. Several of his friends that said they’d be there for me when he went to prison have already bailed and blocked me from their lives. They don’t want to be associated with someone who has the “audacity” to stand by “such a person.” I’ve been deemed “sick” and “desperate,” and told that I must have enabled him to do what he did. I was blamed by his family for actually being the one who downloaded the material to set him up. They even spread rumors about me that I’m already with another guy “mooching” off him, and that I’m trolling adult dating sites.
It is really eye opening to be in this situation. The lynch mob mentality is not new to me, as I used to think the same thing. I immediately thought of those families as sick, demented, and deranged for sticking by sex offenders—even those with charges similar to my boyfriend. But I knew nothing about what he was doing, had no idea how or when he did it, or even knew where on the computer the images were kept.
Because of his listing on the sex offender registry, I felt unsafe alone in our house. In a desperate attempt to find safety I moved close to my family four states away. Now I have to be careful who I let into my life. I have to lie about what my boyfriend did or conceal his existence altogether. I know that as soon as the secret is out, I’m tainted.
I not only have to live with the fact that my partner is in prison, but I have to get used to a new city, make new friends, disassociate myself from my past, and start over. I’m 48 years old, and I never would have imagined being in this position. I worry about him every day and I’m still questioning why he did it. It could happen to anyone with a momentary lapse in common sense.
The federal minimum sentence of 5 years in prison for downloading illegal images is cruel and unusual punishment. People with hands-on offenses against minors can do less time than what my partner is facing. In a sense he was charged with a thought crime—disproportionately punished for what could happen in the future rather than what actually happened. The Department of Justice made up their mind about what he was thinking when he downloaded the images and who he is as a person. In court they made him out to be a drooling monster who will attack your kid at any moment, and they think similarly about the family, about me.
Society needs to wake up to the truth, not what’s been fed to them through government scare tactics and media sensationalism. If only people were able to not be so reactionary when it comes to computer ‘stings’ by the FBI, look at the facts, and see what a lot of these convictions actually mean.
Stop with the lynch mob mentality. Listen to facts with an open mind and try to put aside preconceived notions.
As it stands, I live in a completely unfamiliar place with a sibling as the only nearby person I know. My partner is in federal prison four states away and I have no way of even visiting him. Our only means of communication are through infrequent expensive phone calls and mail that rarely gets through. The prison industry does not care what they do to families of prisoners. We’re not even collateral damage. We are nothing to them.
I receive disability benefits and can’t afford to put money on his books every month, so he has to do without necessities like socks and underwear. Commissary? Forget about it. Because he was convicted of a computer crime he won’t have access to (paid) email either. I have no idea how we’ll make it. I even have to be careful who sees me mailing anything to him, since it says “Federal Prison” right on the address label.
Everything has changed. Life as we knew it is over. Every day is like waking up in the same nightmare, and I still haven’t been able to wake up. I don’t trust meeting new people because I don’t want to have to explain anything. And when he gets out? Having to worry about him getting a job or a place to live will be paramount, but that is far from all we’ll have to be concerned with.
The next time you hear of someone who is in a relationship with a person with a sex offense, listen to them. Don’t automatically assume. Just because we’re close to them doesn’t mean we did anything wrong, so don’t paint us with a scarlet letter. Some of us are good people. Some of us even need therapy to get through this and need to be surrounded by supportive people that don’t judge us because of what our loved ones did. It does nothing but create more problems with people that haven’t done anything wrong and are struggling to get through this in one piece.
And you might make a new friend. Please, bring an open mind and an open heart. We need you.