In fact, the “stranger danger” notion is mostly a myth (in about 90 percent of child-sexual-abuse cases, the perpetrator is someone the child already knows, like a family member or friend), as is the idea that those who commit sex crimes are typically repeat offenders (only one in seven violent sex offenders in state prison had a prior conviction for a violent sex crime). It’s also not true that all sex offenders are child molesters—or even that all child molesters are pedophiles. Experts have identified two types of child molesters: “situational” and “fixated.” Situational molesters are those who may have romantic relationships with adults but who, under certain circumstances, will commit a sex crime against a child. (Bill, for instance, would fall into this category.) In contrast, fixated molesters are those who meet the definition of an exclusive pedophile, a person who is sexually attracted only to children.
Even in this house full of sex offenders, there is a hierarchy of criminals, with pedophiles at the very bottom. Mickey doesn’t use the terminology of psychiatry, but he does grill prospective tenants about their sex crime and whether they were high or drunk when they committed it. “I want to know what was really in their heads when they did this. Whether somebody is drunk, high, or sober, it’s inexcusable what they did. But you look at the chances of somebody doing it again—the way I look at it is, the one that did it with a clear conscience is the one I got to watch out for the most, and a lot of them I won’t let in the house.”
Mickey started interviewing potential housemates about their crimes after he discovered that one of his tenants had three different criminal cases and at least seven victims, all under the age of 10. “I’m really hoping I don’t do it again,” he said. Mickey’s response: “I’m hoping you don’t do it either, but you’re taking your shit and getting out of my house right now.” Part of his dislike of pedophiles stems from the same sense of revulsion the rest of us feel. But there is another, more personal reason, too: “Those are the people who make the whole S.O. thing as crazy as it is.”
The ever-growing list of rules dictating where sex offenders cannot live has led, not surprisingly, to their clustering in those few places where they can find housing. Near St. Petersburg, Florida, 94 sex offenders live together in a mobile-home park, two and three to a trailer. In Miami, twenty sex offenders are living beneath a bridge, where a probation officer visits them nearly every morning. And as of mid-December, there were 82 sex offenders living in the 30th Street Men’s Shelter in Manhattan, according to the New York State registry.
Over the months I spent visiting this house in Coram, I found myself ricocheting between a sense of revulsion and concern. It was impossible to meet these men and hear their stories and not find myself awake at 3 or 4 a.m., wondering which of them had truly reformed themselves and which were merely trying to convince me of this. But it also seemed obvious that turning these men into modern-day untouchables and relegating them to the fringes of society is not the best idea, either for the men themselves or as a strategy for improving public safety.
A 2007 report by Human Rights Watch found no evidence that residency restrictions reduce crimes against children, and further noted that the sex offenders who are most likely to stay out of jail and not reoffend are those who are not segregated but have “positive, informed support systems—including stable housing and social networks.” This is one of John’s concerns about relegating sex offenders to one particular area. “Isolation is not a good thing,” he says. “One of the things that creates a lot of sex-offender behavior is isolation.”
Mickey has tried to foster a sense of community among the sex offenders in his home, but it’s not always easy. Mickey and Bill rely on each other’s support and friendship, but John, who leaves the house at 5:30 a.m. and goes to bed early, doesn’t have much time for conversation. As for the newer tenants—Larry, Stephen, and Hop—Mickey has tried to befriend them, but Bill keeps more distance, not knowing how long they’ll be around.
Close friendships or not, the men in the house are linked by a shared sense of vigilance. One of the fears about sex offenders living in such close proximity is that they’ll encourage each other’s worst tendencies. But nobody in this house has to be reminded that just one tenant’s committing another sex crime could bring so much negative publicity to their residence that they’d all be homeless once again. The recidivism rate for sex offenders is lower than one might imagine—less than the odds that a car thief or drug dealer or burglar will reoffend. (A 2003 Department of Justice study found that 5.3 percent of sex offenders were arrested for a new sex crime within three years of leaving prison.) And although plenty of tenants have been taken back to jail for violating parole rules, nobody can remember anyone here getting arrested for a new sex crime. Still, the roommates keep an eye on each other.