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That conversation and others like it led me to the small community where I met Sheldon – and to the decision to focus on offenders rather than victims. A common refrain from women’s rights activists is that “rape won’t stop until men stop raping.”
I couldn’t agree more. Victims aren’t to blame; rapists are.
That’s why I’m sharing the story of a rapist — and a state — trying to reform.
I met Sheldon, the man who raped and molested his stepdaughter, in a cluttered conference room in the back of a metal building in rural Alaska. To protect the identity of Sheldon’s victim, I’ve changed her name as well as those of her family members, including her rapist. I’m also not revealing the name or characteristics of their community.
On the wall in the conference room was a poster of the logo for an innovative sex-offender treatment program that Sheldon is enrolled in: The image shows six people holding hands in a circle around a masked face.
Above the logo is this phrase, translated from the local language:
“Sexual abuse ends when we begin to talk.”
The program surrounds rapists and child molesters who already have served jail time with a network of at least five “safety nets” — volunteers from the community who try to prevent the offenders from raping or molesting people again.
Sheldon is the person at the center.
His wife, Ruth, and several others are the safety net.
In this region, there are at least 300 of these volunteers.
The idea is based on two concepts dear to local indigenous culture: community and forgiveness. In many states, from California to Alabama, sex offenders essentially are banished from their homes after they’re released from prison. Offenders are not allowed to live within a certain distance of schools, parks or child-care facilities – pushing them into places where they fly under the radar, unsupervised.