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Expressing Strain: A Qualitative Evaluation of the Testimonies of Female Sex Offenders

Published onApr 01, 2014
Expressing Strain: A Qualitative Evaluation of the Testimonies of Female Sex Offenders


For those convicted of a sexual offense, life on the registry is not an easy one. There is a great deal of stigma associated with these offenders despite the fact they served their sentences and were released back into society. Current research examines what life  is like for female sex offenders whose information is listed on  the Florida Sex Offender Registry. Using Robert Agnew’s General Strain Theory as a lens to examine the registry, this article will show the stress present in the lives of the registrants. Specifically, the article will address coping mechanisms, anger, and several unintended consequences of the registry, such as unemployment, housing problems, and experiencing harassing behaviors, all of which are a result of the participants’ registry status. Research findings, policy implications, and limitations are discussed.


Much of the research conducted on sexual offenders has been broad in terms of the scope of offenses studied and has focused specifically on male sex offenders (Elliott, Eldridge, Ashfield, & Beech, 2010; Tewksbury, Conner, Cheeseman, & Rivera, 2012; Wijkman, Bijleveld, & Hendriks, 2010). Traditionally, researchers on deviance and crime, including those studying sex offending, have focused less on female offending than they have on male offending, but modern researcher are addressing this gap by expanding the female sex offender literature with new studies (for discussion of recent developments, see Harrison & Rainey, 2013, p. 322). The research on female sex offenders  is growing despite receiving scant attention. There are more researchers doing studies in a variety of fields related to sexual behaviors (e.g., psychology, sociology, and biology) who are now exploring gender differences among sex offenders (Beech, Parrett, Ward, & Fisher, 2009; Vandiver & Walker, 2002).

In their efforts to study male sex offenders, researchers were most likely to use quantitative methods over qualitative methods, but several researchers (Garrett, 2010a; Garrett, 2010b; Grady & Brodersen, 2008, Vandiver, Dial & Worley, 2008; Vandiver & Walker, 2002) have made qualitative additions to the body of literature surrounding sexual offenders. More recently, researchers are increasingly acknowledging increased benefits to understanding the unique characteristics of female sex offenders and the varied impact that the registry has on women. We seek to advance the understanding of a specific and understudied sub-set of sex offender, registered female sex offenders, using qualitative methods, that has been underused with this and other sex offender populations.

Primarily, this article examines the experiences and viewpoints of registered female sex offenders using Robert Agnew’s general strain theory (1985) as a theoretical framework. Secondarily, this paper provides recommended policy changes for registered female sex offenders based on their qualitatively different experiences from registered male sex offenders. Specifically, the qualitative data are used to argue whether the registry policies are predictive of strain in the lives of the female registrants, whether registry compliance reduces future offending, or whether collateral consequences of the registry system affect female sexual offenders in unique ways in comparison to male sex offenders.

Literature review

Registered female sexual offenders

Despite the prevalence of research on male sex offenders using quantitative methods, there is some qualitative research centered on female sex offenders (Gannon & Rose, 2008; Gannon, Rose, & Ward, 2008; Kubik & Hecker, 2005; Saradjian, 1996); however, even among studies using qualitative research methods, male sex offenders receive more attention than female sex offenders (Garrett, 2010a; Garrett, 2010b; Grady & Brodersen, 2008). The number of women engaged in and convicted of sexual crimes is significantly smaller than the number of men engage in and convicted of sexual crimes, but some researchers defend the study of female sex offenders’ potentially unique behaviors (Beech, Parrett, Ward, & Fisher, 2008; Bunting, 2006; Fromuth & Conn, 1997; Johansson-Love & Fremouw, 2006). Although not researched in abundance, researchers have noted several significant gender differences between offenders. Female offenders are likely to commit their offenses with a male co-perpetrator (Kaufman, Wallace, Johnson, & Reeder, 1995); however, male offenders typically work alone (Finkelhor & Williams, 1988; Johansson-Love & Fremouw, 2006; Solomon, 1992). Male sex offenders tend to use physical coercion or take the time to groom their victims (English, Pullen, & Jones, 1997; Payne & DeMichele, 2008), whereas female sex offenders tend to use their caretaking roles to their advantage when offending (Banning, 1989; Rudin, Zalewski, & Bodmer-Turner, 1995). Typically, female sex offenders fall into one of three categories: 1) mothers who offend incestuously against their own children; 2) teachers who use their authoritative role to their advantage; and 3) women who co-offend with a male counterpart (Vandiver & Kercher, 2004; Vandiver & Walker, 2002).

In the commission of their offenses, women are more likely to use authority facilitated by their caretaking roles. Their victims tend to be relatives, acquaintances, or individuals with whom they had a previous relationship; however, male offenders tend to have more victims who are strangers, than their female counterparts (Banning, 1989; Beech et al., 2009; Rudin et al., 1995).

One of the most significant differences between male and female offenders is the rate of incarceration. Traditionally, women are incarcerated less frequently compared to men; recent research indicates that women only make up 1% of all incarcerated sexual offenders (Tewksbury et al., 2012). These differences do not certainly indicate a lack of offending from women; rather, they suggest, instead, that the findings are more reflective of a lack  of victim reporting, and the criminal justice system pursing these cases less aggressively then it would for male offenders (Tewksbury et al., 2012). Male offenders are also more likely to admit legal guilt in court than are female offenders (Allen, 1991; Faller, 1995; Johansson-Love & Fremouw, 2006), which could add to the reason for their increased numbers on the registries. Overall, there is agreement that men commit most crimes at higher rates than  women do, but there is also reason to suspect suppression effects in the detection of female sex offenders.

This examination of the previous research shows a comparison of male and female sex offenders, largely based on quantitative research compiled on sexual offending habits. It is difficult to make this same comparison qualitatively because of the individual differences among offenders, regardless of gender. Despite the gender differences among offenders, life on the registry is not an easy one for either group.

Functions and consequences of the sex offender registry

Numerous consequences associated with being listed on the sex offender registry can cause increase amounts of strain in the lives of registered female sex offenders. Researchers report that sex offenders experience many unintended consequences such as unemployment and issues with housing due to the residency restrictions; this difficulty is responsible for an increased amount of strain in their lives (Levenson & Cotter, 2005; Levenson, Zgoba, & Tewksbury, 2007; Ost, 2002; Zanbergen & Hart, 2006; Zevitz & Farkas, 2000). However, before these unintended consequences are evaluated, we will briefly review the functions of the sex offender registry.

The registry has developed over time from a series of laws addressing sex offenders living in the community, post incarceration. These laws were initiated with the passage of the Jacob Wetterling Act in 1994 (Public Law 103-322) and were extended with the Adam Walsh Act of 2006 (Public Law 109-248). The sex offender registry functions as a tool to track sexual offenders post-release by requiring sex offenders to register their personal information with local law enforcement (Office of Justice Programs, 2008). The sex offender registry also provides law enforcement with help in their investigations when new offenses occur; “If a particular released sex offender is implicated in such a crime, knowledge of the sex offender’s whereabouts through the registration system may help law enforcement in making a prompt apprehension” (Office of Justice Programs, 2008, p. 3).

Some states have additional laws that require sexual offenders to adhere to special constraints, such as residency and/or employment restrictions (Adam Walsh Act of 2006, Public Law 109-248). Federal laws guide the national system for the sex offender registry, but there is still some variability among individual states. Many states differ in the way they classify sex offenders, in their use of exclusionary zones for residency restriction purposes, and in terms of perceived severity (Mancini, Barnes, & Mears, 2011).

The constraints and restrictions included in the registry laws are intended to deter future offending (Bachman, Paternoster, & Ward, 1992; Meloy, 2001; Meloy, 2005). It is hoped that if registered sex offenders are supervised and kept under surveillance, they will be less likely to recidivate because law enforcement officials know their location (Bachman et al., 1992; Meloy, 2001; Meloy, 2005). Although the function of the registry is to deter law violators from committing sexual offenses, there are numerous unintended consequences that result from the restrictions placed on sex offenders. Considering that the unintended consequences raise concerns about the suitability of the sex offender registry to deter offenders, if it is also a source of strain that may entice deviancy.

Unintended consequences include high rates of unemployment (Jenkins, 1998; Klein, Rukus, & Zambrana, 2012; Levenson et al., 2007; Ost, 2002; Tewksbury, 2004; Tewksbury 2005; Zevitz & Farkas, 2000) and an inability to find adequate housing. Many states have residency restrictions included in their registry laws, making it difficult for many of these individuals to find housing that does not violate the legal boundaries1 (Levenson & Cotter, 2005; Levenson, Zgoba & Tewksbury, 2007; Minnesota Department of Corrections, 2003; Tewksbury 2004; Tewksbury, 2005; Tewksbury & Zgoba, 2010; Zanbergen & Hart, 2006; Zevitz & Farkas, 2000). In addition to unemployment and housing issues, registered sex offenders sometimes report experiences about community members who bombard them with personal attacks. These attacks can be as simple as a verbal altercation or as extreme as violent assaultive vigilantism (Matson & Leib, 2006; Tewksbury, 2004; Tewksbury, 2005; Tewksbury & Zgoba, 2010; Zevitz & Farkas, 2000). Although some sex offenders report experiencing some type of vigilantism, this type of unintended consequence occurs less frequently compared to experiencing unemployment and loss of housing.

Unintended consequences, general strain, and the registry

This paper uses General Strain Theory as a theoretical framework when examining the unintended consequences that participants spoke about in their responses. Agnew’s General Strain Theory (1985) posits that when individuals are exposed to financial, social or structural stressors and strains, then the likelihood of engaging in criminal behavior is increased as a way   to cope with those strains (Agnew, 1985). The theory proposes three main sources of strain that predict deviant behavior: failure to achieve positively valued goals, removal of positively valued stimuli and presentation of negative stimuli. In applying the three sources of strain to the sex offender registry, some examples of strain are researched within the sex offender literature. The inability to maintain employment and the loss of housing are identified as failures to achieve positively valued goals. The alienation from friends and family due to the individual’s sex offender status is identifiable as the removal of positively valued stimuli. Harassment and vigilantism actions are illustrations of confrontations with negative stimuli. Drug and alcohol use are examples of coping mechanisms in dealing with this strain (Agnew, 1985). Anger is also a frequently reported feeling that is associated with an inability to properly cope with the situations these women now find themselves in (Agnew, 2006a; Agnew, 2006b). Strain theory would then suggest that registered female sexual offenders would be likely to reoffend due to the circumstances they experience while listed on the registry.

Integral to this study is the idea that sexual offenders  are experiencing unintended consequences which, in turn, may be a predictive factor related to strain in their lives. Despite not having high rates of reoffending (Berliner, Schram, Miller & Milloy, 1995; Hanson & Bussiere, 1998; Hanson  & Morton-Bourgon, 2005; Langan, Schmitt & Durose, 1994; Meloy, 2005; Maddan 2008), these experiences cause strain to registered female sex offenders and might have them turn to reoffending as a way to deal with the stress. Women in particular have unique ways of coping with the strain in their lives. The research suggests that women are often angrier and experience depression more often than men experience similar emotions (Broidy & Agnew, 1997; De Coster & Zito, 2010). They are also more likely to express these feelings of anger as a direct response to their strain (Broidy, 2001; Campbell, 1994; De Coster & Zito, 2010; Piquero & Sealock, 2004). Using a qualitative methodological approach, an in-depth examination of the experiences of the registered female sex offenders can take place. This examination will add to the body of literature that rarely addresses sexual offending from a qualitative perspective.


The current study examines qualitative data that were collected in conjunction with a quantitative survey. This study uses Agnew’s General Strain Theory as a theoretical paradigm to explore the experiences of registered female sex offenders. The quantitative survey accounted for strain through specific measures addressing each of the elements of the theory: failure to achieve positively valued goals; removal of positively valued stimuli; and confrontation with negative stimuli. These elements carried over into the qualitative data as well. Originally intended as a replication and large extension of a Tewksbury (2004) study, the participants contributed an unanticipated qualitative element to data. In the summer of 2010, a mail-out study was sent to 569 registered female sex offenders within the state of Florida. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) provided the contact information of 984 Florida registered female sex offenders; this list was current as of March 2010. After removing all of those women who moved out of state, died, were deported, who absconded, or who were civilly committed, an eligible list of 569 participants2 remained. A letter of invitation, a consent form, and a survey were sent to the 569 participants with a prepaid envelope included to return the survey. Two weeks after the survey was mailed, a follow-up reminder was mailed to those who had not returned the surveys. By December 2010, 106 surveys had been returned (18.6% response rate), with 38 qualitative responses included (35.8% response rate from the 106 total surveys). Participants were not specifically recruited for the qualitative portion of the study. However, participants were told to contact the researchers if they had any additional concerns, desired to expand upon any of their answers, or wanted to voice concerns about the study itself. No structured questions were developed to invoke a qualitative response when the quantitative instrument was sent out to the participants, and the researchers did not use a systematic interview structure for those participants who did decide to reach out. This mail-out study sampling method allowed researchers to talk directly to registered female sex offenders living in the community, which strengthens this data. However, other qualitative studies have used semi-structured interviews (Beech et al., 2009), content analyses (Webster, 2002), narrative interviews (Ward, Louden, Hudson, & Marshall, 1995; Ward, McCormack, & Hudson, 1997) and victim-specific empathy vignettes with justification statements (Webster, 2000) to study issues surrounding sex offenders and the sex offender registry.


Table 1 shows the sample demographics of the 38 participants who contributed qualitative data. All of the demographic information was provided by FDLE in the initial list that was provided to the researchers. None of the participants were incarcerated, and all of them lived in private residences in the community. The participants were predominately White (n=35, 92.1%), held the status of sexual offender3 (n=37, 97.4%), had a minor for a victim4 (n=34, 89.5%), and had their own children (n=33, 86.8%). Marital status was a bit more diverse; most participants identified themselves as either married (n=18, 47.4%), unmarried but living with a partner (n=6, 15.8%), or divorced (n=16, 15.8%). Most participants were between the age of 31-40 (n=9, 23.7%) and 41-50 (n=15, 39.5%). The quantitative participant demographics are also included in Table 1.

Table 1. Sample demographics for qualitative participants

Demographic characteristics

n (%)

Offender race


35 (92.1)


3 (7.9)

Offender status


37 (97.4)


1 (2.6)

Minor for a victim


34 (89.5)


4 (10.5)

Offender has children


33 (86.8)


5 (13.2)

Marital status


18 (47.4)


4 (10.5)

Unmarried but living with a partner

6 (15.8)


3 (7.9)


6 (15.8)


1 (2.6)


20-30 years old

8 (21.1)

31-40 years old

9 (23.7)

41-50 years old

15 (39.5)

51-60 years old

3 (7.9)

61-70 years old

2 (5.3)

71-80 years old

1 (2.6)

The qualitative and quantitative participants are similar in terms  of race, offender status, victim type, and parental status. The quantitative participants tended to identify as being single less often and were slightly older than the qualitative participants were. We acknowledge that a sample size of 38 is not representative, but comparatively it aligns itself with other qualitative sex offender research which uses predominately small samples. Researchers have used samples ranging from 2 to 41 participants (Connor, Copes & Tewksbury, 2011; Peluso & Putnam, 1996; Tewksbury et al., 2012; Vandiver, 2002). We also acknowledge that a potential selection bias might have occurred in regard to the respondents who voluntarily chose to participate. However, the demographics of the qualitative and quantitative participants (Table 1) are similar enough that it is unlikely that the qualitative participants would be considered outlier participants.

Furthermore, the offense history of the qualitative participants was compared against that of the quantitative participants to investigate differences in the type of offenses for which women were placed on the registry. Table 2 shows the registration-listed offenses for both groups. With the exception of engaging in “Carnal Intercourse with Chaste Person Under 18,” the qualitative participants are represented more frequently by percentage in the majority of the registration-listed offenses, compared to the quantitative participants.

Table 2. Registered sex offenses for qualitative and quantitative participants

Registered sex offense

Qualitative participants (n=38)

Quantitative participants (n=106)

Sexual battery by an adult on a victim under 12

n=14 (36.8%

n=62 (58.5)

Adult engaging in sex with a minor over 15

n=3 (7.9%)

n=4 (3.8%)

Carnal intercourse with chaste person under 18

n=1 (2.6%)

n=6 (5.7%)

Adult sex with 16-17 year old

n=3 (7.9%)

n=8 (7.5%)

Unlawful sex with certain minors

n=2 (5.3%)

n=4 (3.8%)

Lewd and lascivious battery of 12-15 year old

n=2 (5.3%)

n=3 (2.8%)

Lewd and lascivious conduct with a victim younger than 16

n=13 (34.2%)

n=19 (17.9%)

However, this over-representation is most likely due to the percentage inflation derived from the smaller qualitative sample size. An independent sample t-test cannot be conducted due to the large difference in sample size in the two groups; otherwise this test could be run to determine if there was a statistically significant difference in the representation of sex offenses in each group. The similar results shown in Table 2 also provide support against the possible selection bias and increase the strength of the sample used in this study.


Participants provided qualitative data to the researchers as part of a voluntary follow-up offered in the quantitative survey instructions. No uniform instrument or data collection method was employed to collect data, but participants were still invited to provide additional information if they felt that there was more to add to their responses. The researchers listed contact information on the initial letter and informed consent that they sent to the participants, which provided the 38 participants a way to supply the qualitative data. Emails (n=9), letters (n=16) and transcribed phone calls (n=13) were accepted and used as the qualitative data pieces. Emails and letters were used verbatim with only identifiers5 removed, and the phone calls were transcribed from written notes immediately after the call ended. The phone call participants received no verbal prompting, and the only exchange between the participant and the researchers consisted of reassurance that the data were being collected for legitimate purposes. The participants chose to disclose their stories, but the researchers did not ask any prompt questions to get the participant to elaborate or extend their statements. This ensured that all of the data was consistently voluntary in nature, and that the researchers did not influence the participant responses. We acknowledge that verbal conversations and written accounts might influence the types of data being collected, but immediate transcription of the phone calls and the absence of researcher prompts helped to reduce any possible impact.

The integrity of the data remained intact; none of the elements were changed or edited beyond the steps taken to remove the identifiers to ensure the confidentiality of the participants. Because consent forms were sent to the participants and the surveys were returned, indirect consent can be inferred for the qualitative data pieces (all of which were submitted voluntarily through contact information provided on the informed consent). The consent forms stated that the data would be used for publication purposes only and would not identify any participants directly. Participants wrote the emails, letters, called the researcher of their own volition, and were aware of the researchers’ intent to publish data collected from this project. Researchers removed all identifiers from both the qualitative and quantitative data sets, making it impossible to link the individual responses from either data set together.

Theme development

A content analysis was conducted to develop a list of themes from the data. The data were reviewed using inductive reasoning as a way to examine what was most salient to the participants. This qualitative data was a byproduct of a quantitative data collection. Subsequently, participants were primed to think about their experiences on the registry by participating in the survey. Participants were asked a variety of questions regarding their job status, housing issues, and harassment by the general community. These issues were identified as producing potential strain in the lives of the participants. Once their responses were received and reviewed, we saw patterns emerge that were consistent with the elements of Agnew’s General Strain Theory such as the identification of anger, maladaptive coping mechanisms, and failure to achieve positively valued goals. These themes were accounted for in some of the quantitative measures, but after reading through the data, it was noted that strain was manifested in the qualitative pieces as well. After the initial reading, the study’s themes were developed as a continuation of the quantitative measures. A second round of coding took place which consisted of dichotomously coding the data for the themes that we inductively derived in the initial round. This project was never intended to be a mixedmethod study, for the data are able to stand on their own, despite the similarities between the qualitative and quantitative data sets.

The dichotomous coding consisted of a simple No/Yes measure to identify the absence or presence of the theme being explicitly discussed within the participants’ responses. Three trained undergraduate research assistants reviewed these themes, and the researchers checked their work to ensure inter-rater reliability. This content analysis was modeled after Vandiver et al. (2008) in their qualitative examination of nine female sex offenders living in Illinois and Texas. Using content analysis, Vandiver et al. conducted a content analysis of data collected from semi-structured interviews. In that study, the researchers used deductive reasoning to tie in Braithwaite’s (1989) reintegrative shaming theory to provide the framework from which their coding categories were identified.

In addition, we also identified several of the same unintended consequences found by Tewksbury (2004; 2005), which helped to inform the coding process. These concepts were related to employment, residence, and social relationships difficulties, issues that may be responsible for creating strain in the lives of registered sex offenders.

Themes and results

The themes used for the content analysis fit the mold of General Strain Theory and the individual responses show a real life occurrence of what Agnew proposes; when people experience a failure to achieve positively valued stimuli, a loss of positively valued stimuli, or are confronted with negative stimuli, then strain will occur (Agnew, 1985; 2006a; 2006b). Issues such as employment, housing, and harassing behaviors are coded for, and issues such as anger and substance use are addressed as well. Anger and substance use are often associated with strain theory in terms of maladaptive coping mechanisms that individuals use to deal with the stressors in their lives. These themes were chosen in particular because of their connection to the original quantitative survey measures. Table 3 shows the themes used to examine the qualitative entries and their quantitative measure counterparts  to show that the chosen themes are rooted in the survey materials, and that the participants’ experiences were similar to what was found quantitatively.

Theme 3. Qualitative frequencies for deductive themes

Qualitative theme

Participants exhibit (n=38)

Anger: Does the participant mention engaging in alcohol/illegal drug use?

n=17 (44.7%)

Maladaptive coping mechanisms: Does the participant mention engaging in alcohol/illegal drug use?

n=5 (13.2%)

Confrontation with negative stimuli: Is there mention of any harassing behaviors (signs, fliers, etc.)?

n=9 (23.7%)

Failure to achieve positively valued goals: Does the participant mention experiencing any unintended consequences of the registry (employment issues, residency restrictions and housing, etc.)?

n=16 (42.1%)

Loss of positively valued stimuli: Does the participant mention any alienation from family members or friends?

n=7 (18.4%)

Does the participant agree with the registry’s existence?

n=10 (26.3%)

Does the participant offer suggestions for modifying the registry?

n=18 (47.4%)

The qualitative data were examined for evidence where the participants discussed specific and salient issues that they experienced while on the registry. Simply because participants did not discuss a certain theme does not mean that they were not experiencing such events in their lives. Table 3 shows the qualitative themes that were derived from the quantitative responses and the frequency of occurrence.6 Our results show that there are many negative self-reported situations experienced by registered sex offenders, including some of the traditionally reported collateral consequences associated with the registry such as job loss, issues with housing and harassment. All of these issues can result in additional strain in the lives of the participants.

Individual responses

There is really no better way to understand life on the registry than to talk to those individuals who are currently on it. Every day of their lives, they have to deal with some aspect of their offense. Building on the selected themes derived from the qualitative passages, the following quotes describe some of the participants’ feelings regarding the registry and their lives on it. As a reminder, these responses are verbatim from the written emails, letters, and from transcribed phone calls. Therefore, they contain typographical errors. These errors were maintained in order to keep the responses as true to the participants’ words as possible. The women who responded with their own testimonies are only able to speak for themselves and about their own experiences, but there is reason to believe that these are common happenings and feelings that registered female sex offenders encounter. The results of this study shed light on offenders who are often understudied, registered female sex offenders, and how their convictions and their experiences on the sex offender registry affect the rest of their lives and the lives of their family members. Furthermore, the results show that many women have significantly different experiences from men when they are convicted of sex offenders because of their maternal status, the gender differences in responding to strain, and in the types of strain experienced.


One of the most commonly reported feelings that are associated with Strain Theory is the concept of anger because of the strain. Previous literature has made the connection between strain and anger (Broidy, 2001; Campbell, 1994; De Coster & Zito, 2010; Piquero & Sealock, 2004). This would suggest that by living on the registry is stressful and leads to anger. The participants in the current study were no different from what previous literature suggests; they were angry about being required to register as sexual offenders and about living with the consequences of the registry. Seventeen of the 38 qualitative passages (44.7%) explicitly discussed anger about being on the registry. This shows that anger is a salient feeling associated with the Florida Sex Offender Registry. One participant had her personal information included in a book of sexual offender fliers7 which was then sold at a local gas station. This participant stated that she was “angry that people can make money off of the registry and that my information was included in the book, despite it being public information.” Other participants reported that they were “angry, but not ashamed that I am on the registry,” and “I am not ashamed about having my information on the registry, but I am mad that I have to be there in the first place. I’ve done my time.” This is a particular element of concern because of the documented difference between men and women in how they experience and express their anger in relation to their life’s strains (Broidy & Agnew, 1997; De Coster & Zito, 2010).

Maladaptive coping strategies—Substance use

In experiencing strain, individuals may turn to maladaptive coping mechanisms to deal with the stress in their lives (Agnew, 1985; Broidy, 2001; Broidy & Agnew, 1997; Piquero & Sealock, 2004). Using illegal drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism fits well within the sphere of being a maladaptive response. Five of 38 participants (13.2%) reported substance use as a coping mechanism, and sometimes it was an extreme response. The use of legal and illegal substances fits the mold of classic coping mechanisms used for adapting to life with high amounts of strain (Agnew, 1985; Broidy, 2001; Broidy & Agnew, 1997; Piquero & Sealock, 2004). For those who have discussed their substance use, there was a common theme among them. Chronic drinking use was reported by one participant: “I have been an alcoholic for most of my life due to a diagnosis of bipolar disease. Instead of taking the prescribed medication that I was given, I self-medicate with alcohol. The problem with my self-medication is that eventually I became prone to blackouts. Things only got worse once I was convicted and put on the registry. I only drank  more and more.” Another participant mentioned that she was currently sober but, “I used cocaine daily for a long time after my conviction, but I have been sober for 8 years now. I work as a sponsor for other women who have substance abuse issues now.”

Others reported minimal or even one time drug use. For example, one participant stated, “I turned to drugs at one point to cope with the harassment that I experienced. After the first time trying drugs, I realized that if I continued to use then there would be a good chance that I could be arrested for drug possession.” These statements fit within the strain context; the women were required to register on the Florida Sex Offender Registry and, as a result, engaged in substance use and abuse as a way to cope with their status as sex offender.

Confrontation with negative stimuli—Harassment

Among the unintended consequences that result from a person’s presence on the sex offender registry, sex offenders commonly report experiencing harassing behaviors such as the unauthorized presence of signs or fliers alerting people that a sex offender lives nearby. From a general strain perspective, these experiences exemplify confrontation with negative stimuli. Previous research has shown that this type of harassment happens to both male and female sexual offenders (Tewksbury, 2004; 2005; Tewksbury & Lees, 2007). Nine of the 38 participants (23.7%) reported similar experiences in the current study. Although it is a first-degree misdemeanor in Florida to use a sex offender’s registry information for personal gain or for some sort of retaliation purposes, it is apparent that some citizens aggressively vilify registered sex offenders their community (FDLE, 2012).

In an attempt to humiliate one participant, fliers were distributed around the neighborhood. The female sex offender reported, “My ex-husband’s current wife printed out my FDLE flier and distributed it throughout the city. She never liked the idea that her husband was once married to a sex offender. After I confronted her about the fliers, I got a joint restraining order issued against her and my ex-husband.” Another participant remarked that her family and friends saw her FDLE information printed and distributed throughout her neighborhood. Her own school-age son saw these fliers posted near her school. “My filers were being distributed by a woman at my son’s bus stop. Fliers were posted on the walls of a local nail salon where my daughter went, and they published the school paper two years ago at my son’s high school with my picture (along with others) because we lived within a 1-mile radius of the school.”

Failure to achieve positively valued goals—Collateral consequences

There is a great deal of literature that addresses the problems associated with sexual offenders’ ability to find employment (Jenkins, 2001; Levenson et al., 2007; Ost, 2002; Tewksbury, 2004; 2005; Zevitz & Farkas, 2000) and to maintain a residence that did not violate residency restrictions (Levenson & Cotter, 2005; Levenson et al., 2007; Minnesota Department of Corrections, 2003; Tewksbury 2004, 2005; Tewksbury & zgoba, 2010; Zanbergen & Hart, 2006; Zevitz & Farkas, 2000). These issues are contributing factors for the presence of strain associated with sexual offending. Looking at these issues from a general strain perspective, unemployment and housing loss are categorized as failures to achieve positively valued goals. The theory suggests that these economic and social deprivations increase the likelihood for recidivism. The results indicate that 16 of 38 participants (42.1%) reported experiencing either job loss or housing problems due to residency restrictions. These findings are consistent with previous literature that discussed the various collateral consequences associated with the sex offender registry (Levenson & Cotter, 2005; Tewksbury 2004, 2005; Zevitz & Farkas, 2000). The women participating in this study were no different; they reported problems maintaining employment and keeping a suitable residence. Reasons for changing jobs include, “My fellow employees found out about my sex offender status. Those employees made copies of my registry information and posted it throughout the factory. It made my time there very uncomfortable. I experienced heckling, harassment, and other behaviors. Due to the harassment, I was forced to quit that job and I have been unemployed for roughly 15 years. I have had an odd job every now and then but overall, I have not been able to maintain employment.”

Another participant reported that she was ineligible for many lines of work because she was a sex offender. She said, “I have tried to find work in the food service industry, but people bring their children to restaurants. I cannot be a teacher, I cannot work at a hotel, I cannot work in an amusement park, and I cannot work in retail because these are all areas in which children and teenagers may be present.”

While these two women are prime examples of the struggles they must face in terms of employment, others exemplify the struggles of finding suitable housing. In Florida, if the offender victimized a minor under the age of 16, then they are required to comply with the state and local residency restrictions (Florida Statute, 794.065). However, there are always exceptions to the rule. One participant reported a unique living situation. According to her correspondence, “I was grandfathered into my neighborhood8 even though it may breach the boundaries of proximity to schools, bus-stops, and daycares. I have two children of my own now with my current boyfriend. He lives seven houses down from my house, but I am not allowed to be at his house past 10 o’clock at night, and I am not allowed to loiter there unnecessarily.”

Most sexual offenders are not lucky enough to be grandfathered in under the old law and are required to follow the residency restrictions present in the state. For these individuals, housing presents a persistent problem. Sometimes the only option available is living in low-income areas or even moving away from their hometowns. One participant mentioned, “I was evicted from my apartment and, it was so difficult finding a new place to live, that I had to move in with my mother in a different city. I can’t live in [city redacted] anymore.”

Loss of positively valued stimuli—Alienation

For many sexual offenders, their lives are changed when they are placed on the registry. However, the lives of their family and friends change, as well. Family members might abandon the offender or be willing to associate with them any longer, which represents the loss of positively valued stimuli, a strain concept. This idea of secondary stigma or a courtesy stigma that is assigned to the friends and family members of sexual offenders can further strengthen the idea of abandonment as a way of escaping this association (Farkas & Miller, 2007; Tewksbury, 2005; Tewksbury & Lees, 2006). In this study, 7 of 38 participants (28.7%) reported similar experiences. One registered female sex offender reported that because of her offense, “I am not permitted to go to any of my daughter’s school functions, field trips, birthday parties, or any other activity where minors under 18 may be present. It is not a hardship for me to not interact with individuals who are under the age of 18, but it is a hardship on my daughter since I am missing out on activities as a mother.”

This shows a social alienation, in addition to a social alienation from her family members. Before her conviction, one participant reported that she was in the fire academy and was good friends with some of her classmates. She would often babysit for one of the other female cadets, but after her conviction those friends disappeared. The participant said, “I was forbidden to see my friend’s children. Not because it was court ordered, but because my friend did not want a sex offender in the presence of her children.”

Another woman described the situation that required her to register as a sexual offender. She reported that she was set up by her now ex-husband and was convicted of molesting young children. Due to the nature of her offense, she explained, “I was not allowed to see my own children at all after I got out of prison. I haven’t spoken to them or seen them since the conviction.”

Alienation from one’s friends and family not only removes a support system from the lives of the offender, but also places them in an isolated role and impedes social integration. Not being in contact with these loved ones places additional strains on the offender. Furthermore, this experience might influence registered female sex offenders more than it would their male counterparts. Mothers who have experience with the criminal justice system have unique experiences because they are often the only caregiver in a single parent household and have primary custody of their children (Arditti & Few, 2006; Austin & Irwin, 2001). Being isolated from family, friends, and children does not aid the offender in their reentry efforts and may even encourage recidivism among this population.

Agreement with the registry

This theme was one of the most identifiable throughout the passages. Ten of the 38 qualitative participants (26.3%) agreed with the purpose of the registry and its existence. This shows that even though they were subject to the restrictions of the registry system, they still saw the benefits in what the registry represents. Whether they agreed or not with the presence of the registry, many of the women were vocal about their opinions regarding its existence. One participant stated that she agreed with the registry’s existence. “I understand that there is a need to keep the registry to protect citizens from the severe sex offenders that are present in the community.” Another woman voiced her agreement for the registry because it keeps the registrants out of trouble. She stated, “If a child goes missing, the first group that law enforcement investigates in the convicted sex offenders. Since I am still on electronic monitoring and they know my address, they can rule me out. If the child went missing at 10 p.m. and my monitor says that I was at home at 10 p.m., then I won’t be a suspect.”

Others disagreed entirely, stating that there was no need for the registry to exist “because people get hysterical” when sexual offenses occur. Another woman said, “There are many different classifications of a sexual offender. With consent, without consent, minor (victim), etc. Unfortunately, the system groups everyone into the same classification. If they are just going to group us together like that, then what is the point? The registry should be like this.”

Modifying the registry

In addition to agreeing or disagreeing with the existence of the registry, participants were also vocal about changes that would modify the registry. Eighteen of the 38 qualitative participants  (47.4%)  provided  suggestions for modification; none of those 18 participants argued for the abolition of the registry, but the modifications do call for some sort of remodeling of the current structure in Florida. This is a theme to be noted in the context of this paper when considering that the participants are not advocating for an elimination of the registry which would essentially equate to an elimination of their source of strain. The results from this theme demonstrate that participants do not believe the registry will ever disappear, but rather modifications to the registry can try to alleviate some of that current strain.

One participant stated, “I do not feel that it is fair that depending on what county you are in, you may have a much lighter sentence. The sentence should fit the crime.” This statement is referring to the fact that county and state  laws often overlap in terms of what is required of sex offenders. Residency restrictions are one of the largest examples of this overlap; while Florida requires a 1,000-foot boundary restriction be implemented, the county restrictions may be different. Alachua County requires that sex offenders maintain a 2,500-foot boundary away from schools, daycares and parks (Gainesville Police Department, 2012). Other areas have even harsher overlap between city and state codes, such as the Miami-Dade and Orlando areas, which force sex offenders to adhere to city, county and state residency restrictions. This forces sex offenders to the outskirts of communities where they must live in low-income areas.

One participant stated that changes to the registry need to be individualized, because “the registry cannot be a one size fits all solution to a very diverse problem. Each case is different and an overarching registry is not the best fix for the sex offender problem.” Another participant suggested that “there needs to be some sort of leveling system so that the community can determine which sex offenders are high and low risk offenders. I think there are more low risk offenders on the registry than high risk offenders.”

Other participants felt that Florida should adopt a registry style similar to that found in other states. Florida only classifies sex offenders as offenders or predators, whereas other states have more of a tier system which one participant supported. “I feel very strongly in the state of Florida going to some sort of classifying system with the registry, as New Jersey already has and how Iowa is in the process. I think it is extremely unfair that I am grouped with people that harm infants, babies, toddlers, etc.” There were other comments provided by participants that stated similar ideas—those who are registered recognize the importance of having a registry, but there should be some changes made to its current state. Not only can these changes make communities safer by identifying those who are the real threat, but also they can alleviate some of the strain placed on registrants. Issues surrounding registered female sex offenders are affecting their lives at every turn. Taking the time to allow these women to tell their stories humanizes the registry, which at times can treat these individuals as just another predator to fear.


The findings of this qualitative study show that the women experience a variety of issues because of their registry status. These experiences are the unintended issues that result from a deterrence style registry (Bachman et al., 1992; Meloy, 2001, 2005) that attempts to track the movement of registered sex offenders and provide law enforcement with an investigational tool (Office of Justice Programs, 2008). The registry system has created a strict legal environment that results in a number of unintended consequences such as unemployment, rather than implementing a law that only deters offenders from committing other sex offenses (Jenkins, 2001; Levenson et al., 2007; Ost, 2002; Tewksbury, 2004; 2005; Zevitz & Farkas, 2000); difficulty finding housing (Levenson & Cotter, 2005; Levenson et al., 2007; Minnesota Department of Corrections, 2003; Tewksbury 2004, 2005; Tewksbury & zgoba, 2010; Zanbergen & Hart, 2006; Zevitz & Farkas, 2000); and experiencing some sort of personal harassment/vigilantism (Matson & Leib, 2006; Tewksbury, 2004, 2005; Tewksbury & zgoba, 2010; Zevitz & Farkas, 2000).

This research data were based on a sample of registered female sex offenders who were not incarcerated at the time of the study. Having this sample allowed us to add to the literature base on an underrepresented group  of women, while still learning about the experiences they face while living  as a registered sex offender. While it would be impractical to suggest that the registry should be eliminated totally because offenders are experiencing consequences of the registry, reform should be considered. There are a number of negative experiences reported including chronic unemployment and housing problems while living in the community. In addition to financial strains, a number of social strains should also be recognized. The participants expressed feelings of alienation from their friends and family. This lack of a support system makes reentry difficult. Due to the stigma of being a sexual offender, there may be a quick retreat of loved ones. This sudden abandonment adds to the strain experienced. Furthermore, many of the participants identified themselves as mothers. This creates a variety of additional issues, because many times a sex crime conviction forces the court to separate the offender, in this case the mother, from her children, especially  if the offender has a minor for a victim, as many of these participants did. Participants report not being able to around their children unsupervised and could not attend simple events such as school sporting events because they take place on school grounds. Mothers, in particular, are frequently affected by the registry’s rules and regulations since they are often removed from their children’s lives due to the nature of their crimes.

Harassment from community members (in terms of an  unauthorized use of the FDLE fliers) is also reported. These issues are not intended consequences of the registry laws, but are issues that must be dealt with by the registrants. With the culmination of the added stressors, the women report feelings of anger and resort to maladaptive coping mechanisms to deal with these experiences. Maladaptive coping mechanisms are a frequently associated response to economic or social strains (Agnew, 1985, Broidy & Agnew, 1997; Broidy, 2001; Piquero & Sealock, 2004).

Many participants reported feelings of anger about their registry status and in terms of having to register for so long. They were angry that they had to continue to register even though they had completed serving their sentences. This anger fits in with the application  of  general  strain theory to the registry. If sex offenders experience strain and anger, then the risk of recidivism may increase. For a group of offenders who are less likely to recidivate than traditional offenders (Hanson & Bussiere, 1998; Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2005; Meloy, 2005; Maddan 2008), this may impede successful social reintegration. When an individual cannot find employment or is required to move from her home, a certain amount of strain will result. Therefore, these women report chronic drug and alcohol use or even intermediate substance use.

The second struggle in sex offender research is the idea that traditionally, sex offenders have low rates of official recidivism (Berliner et al., 1995; Hanson & Bussiere, 1998; Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2005; Langan et al., 1994; Meloy, 2005; Maddan 2008). However, researchers have acknowledged that official recidivism rates are not always an accurate reflection of the commission of crime; there are many crimes that go unreported (Orchowsky & Iwama, 2009). In an examination of official recidivism rates for eight states, Alaska had a recidivism rate of 3.4%; 1.8% in New Mexico; 2.3% in Arizona; 2.4% in Illinois; 3.8% in Delaware; 3.9% in Iowa; 4.0% in South Carolina; and 9.0% in Utah (Orchowsky & Iwama, 2009). In comparison, Florida reported a slightly higher recidivism rate than seven of the eight states from the Orchowsky & Iwama study, with a reported recidivism rate of 5.2% (Levenson & Shields, 2012). This is a statistic to be concerned about because Florida has the third largest sex offender population in the United States, following behind California and Texas (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 2012).

The entire sample is comprised of registered female sex offenders who were still actively required to register with the state. None of the women had been released from their registration requirements; they were all actively experiencing life on the registry and the potential unintended consequences that followed it. It is acknowledged that there exists a self-selection bias among the sample of respondents. However, this does not diminish the value of the qualitative data. Although there are low frequencies associated with some of the themes, the female participants experienced unintended consequences and shared the most salient experiences of their lives. They received no written or verbal prompts to guide the qualitative response. Therefore, they chose to address the issues that most concerned them. For some, it was more important to discuss the details of their case rather than to discuss details of their employment or housing situation. Just because these women did not make an overt statement regarding their living situation does not mean that they were been affected in this way. We do acknowledge that that this specific group of female participants could not make generalizable statements regarding the experiences of all registered female sex offenders living in Florida. Perhaps other women might have other experiences; for example, these participants largely offended against a minor. It leads us to ponder whether the responses would differ if the participants had adult victims, or even if they were convicted for non-contact crimes such as those related to child pornography. Given the sample at hand and their strains potentially caused by their registry status, there should be greater recognition by lawmakers and the public that these issues are occurring. Finding employment and suitable housing is difficult when you have a criminal record. When a criminal record is added, in addition to being a publicly identifiable sexual offender, the odds are decidedly against a sex offender’s success at community reentry.

Policy implications

The registry laws create a strict living environment for sex offenders. While it would be difficult to argue that the sex offender registry should be abolished in its entirety, it is suggested that modifications be made. Changes could be made in order to alleviate the unintended consequences that offenders face. Sexual offenders must meet the terms of the registry requirements or risk facing additional criminal sanctions. In attempting to comply with the Florida registry laws, these women experience unemployment, housing restrictions, and vigilantism action on the part of community members. Although it could be argued that these issues are simply an unfortunate side effect of the registry laws, policy makers should consider  alternatives  to the current state of the registry to alleviate some of its punitive nature. The implementation of several policy recommendations could alleviate the unintended consequences of the registry.

First, a more individualized classification of sex offender registration might free up law enforcement resources without removing the safety element of community notification from the registry. As suggested by the participants and by other researchers, changing the registry to reflect offense and registrant characteristics could provide change within the community. In a recent article on registration requirements, Tewksbury & Jennings (2010) suggested that if an individualized form of registration were implemented, the fear levels of citizens would decrease because they would be more selective in the types of offenders they felt to be the greatest threats. This individualized registration might also benefit the offenders who contend with the unintended consequences that currently exist with the catchall registry. If sex offenders were no longer all viewed the same way, as feared predatory figures, societal integration might be enhanced for many.

Other considerations for policy makers to address are ways to reduce some of the emotional and economic strain experienced by registrants. First, in an attempt to reduce some of the shame associated with the registry, the removal of the offenders’ photographs from their individual offender pages would help to provide the registrants with a certain level of anonymity while still keeping their location identifiable within the community. Second, in an attempt to aid offenders in their employment efforts, it would be beneficial that sex offenders not be required to disclose the specific nature of their offense; employers would hold them to the same type standards as other offenders—only asking them to disclose the level of offense (felony or misdemeanor offense) rather than the specific nature of their offense. We recognize that this might not occur without legislative action, but it does provide an opportunity for offenders to gain employment. For example, many cities are in the early stages of incorporating former offenders as a protected group who cannot be discriminated against because of their offender status9 (Henry, 2008). Eventually, this same protected group framework could extend to the barriers sex offenders face when seeking housing post-incarceration and the limits imposed by residency restrictions.

Study limitations

There were several limitations to this study to be addressed. First, the data were not collected using an in-depth interviewing technique but rather through participant-initiated responses generated by the administration of a survey. However, despite this limitation there is still a large amount of valuable information to be derived from the qualitative data. Future research would benefit from semi-structured interviews that employ a grounded theory approach in an inductive fashion similar to what was suggested by Charmaz (2006) and doing so would aid in theory building. In addition, it is suggested that coping strategies among female sex offenders be examined. The issue of anger should also be examined at a more in-depth level, since it could be a precursor to increased criminality. Qualitative methods would be informative in the further development of criminological theories. As criminologists, we tend to use the theories that make the most sense in trying to explain a phenomenon. What this data has shown is that sometimes we are missing what is salient to the participant; this is something that qualitative methodologies can capture more comprehensively compared to quantitative studies.

In addition to having a semi-structured interview, a multi-site project should be developed. The participants in this project are from the state of Florida, but our investigation is only limited to one state. Because each state has different registry requirements, interviewing registered female sexual offenders from different states would provide state-by-state comparisons of the effects of the registry. This paper used a completely community member sample of registered female sex offenders, rather than surveying those women who were still incarcerated. However, women from additional states should be included in data collection in the future. Future research would also benefit from a gender comparison in terms of how male and female sex offenders experience strains that result from their registry status. Previous research suggests that there are gender differences in the way that men and women experience and deal with strain (Broidy, 2001; Broidy & Agnew, 1997; Campbell, 1994; De Coster & Zito, 2010; Piquero & Sealock, 2004). When applied to the strains associated with the sex offender registry, do these differences hold? Although there are a greater number of male sexual offenders compared to their female counterparts, the importance of this type of research should not be understated. Research should not be restricted to only one state or only one gender, but rather should encompass all aspects of the registry to determine how detrimental the registry really could be to the lives of the registrants.


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Jennifer l. Klein completed a B.A. (2009), an M.A (2011) and her Ph.D. (2014) all in Criminology at the University of Florida (Gainesville, FL). Her research interests include sexual offenders, the sex offender registry and the effects the registry has on those registered. She is currently working on several research projects looking at community perceptions of the registry, the Jerry Sandusky scandal, and deviant behavior of college students. Her email is [email protected].

Danielle Tolson completed a B.S. in Justice Systems from Truman State University (Kirksville, MO) and an M.A. in Criminology & Law from the University of Florida. Her research interests are juvenile delinquency/justice, resistance to authority, and other psychology, law, and society issues. Her email is [email protected]

Cathy Collins is a Ph.D. student at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Her research interest includes drug and alcohol policy, critical criminology, and criminal justice education. Her email is [email protected].

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