The Meaning of Being Considered a Sex Offender for the Person Who is Reintegrating into Society
Purpose: The purpose of this hermeneutic phenomenological qualitative study was to describe the meaning of being considered a ‘sex offender’ for the individual who is reintegrating into society. The aims included understanding the lived experience of the participants, while considering issues associated with self-perception, perception of others, stigma and humanization. A secondary aim was to unveil the meaning of being identified as a ‘sex offender’ and reintegrating into society carrying such label. Background: Individuals with a criminal history face several barriers upon reentering society. For individuals with a history of sexual offenses, the challenges are even more aggravated. In many instances, society perceives individuals charged with a sex offense (ICSO) as “evil,” “monsters” and “the highest form of evil.” Additionally, upon reentry, ICSOs are subject to several sanctions that are uniquely directed towards those who have committed sexual crimes, such as civil commitments, housing and employment limitations and the Sex Offender Registry Board (SORB). While treatment specializing in sex offending is available and has been associated with reduced sex offending, issues associated with stigma, protracted or inhibited reintegration and overall recidivism are still common occurrences. Method: This study was guided by Heidegger’s hermeneutic phenomenology philosophical principles, Max van Manen’s approach guided data collection and analysis. Only male adults (>18) were included in the study, and those who had a current “prisoner status” were excluded. Fourteen participants were recruited through purposive and snowball sampling. Participants were individually interviewed about their experience of being charged with a sexual offense, accounting for when they were first charged, until the period in which they reentered society. An iterative process was used for data analysis. Data was coded and interpreted through a hermeneutic circle. To ensure rigor and trustworthiness, Lincoln and Guba’s criteria were used, which include credibility, confirmability, dependability, and transferability. Audit trails, triangulation and reflexivity were essential strategies. Results: The study sample consisted of fourteen men, ranging in age from 23 to 68 years old (x̄ = 51.7 years; table 1). One participant identified his race/ethnicity as Asian American, while all other participants identified their race/ethnicity as white. Five of the participant were assigned a level 3 in the SORB, while four were assigned a level 1, three were assigned a level 2 and two were awaiting a level designation. The major themes identified were: (1) Exposed secret leads to humiliation (2) Being considered a sex offender is living in fear of the unknown, (3) Stigma consumes the identity of the individual charged with a sexual offense (4) Reframing and “leveling” of the crime are coping strategies; and (5) The path towards healing and forgiveness is complex. These themes represent different facets of the phenomenon of interest. Conclusion: Through hermeneutic phenomenology, a more complete understanding of the meaning of being considered a ‘sex offender’ for the person reintegrating into society was formed. The data uncovered allowed for a conceptualization of the phenomenon, The vexed question of accepting guilt while avoiding shame. Future research should focus on longitudinally exploring the interplay between behavior and the process of shame and guilt over time. Moreover, future studies should test and verify the conceptualization.