As so many have done recently, Josh Gravens wrote an open letter to Lena Dunham. It read, "Many children around the country did the same thing you did." But this was not just another defense of Dunham's childhood behavior as innocent exploration. The letter continued, "A 9-year-old in South Carolina is now on the sex offender registry for life, and he also must wear a GPS monitor everywhere he goes. In fact, many states have no minimum age to be placed on the sex offender registry," he wrote. "I myself was placed on the Texas Sex Offender Registry for a choice made when I was 12 years old. I touched my 8-year-old sister twice."
You see, Gravens had a point to make beyond the normalcy of childhood sexual play: "I am glad you were able to live your childhood without being labeled a sex offender," he wrote. "Unfortunately, many people live on the registry today for doing the same type of thing you describe in your book." In fact, Gravens only recently, at the age of 25, was removed from the public sex offender registry after being the subject of an excellent Texas Observer article and petitioning a judge. The father of four still has a felony conviction on his adult record as a result of spending time on the registry. Not only was Gravens put on the registry, but he was imprisoned for three-and-a-half years starting at age 13 and put on parole for four years. Now Gravens, who spent many years struggling to find work as a sex offender registrant, is an activist campaigning against putting children on the sex offender registry.
I spoke with the Texan about his time in prison, life off the list and the difficult task of telling his kids about his past.
Let's start out with the most difficult question: Can you tell me about what happened between you and your sister?
The summer I was 12 years old, it was 1999, my mom left me and my two youngest sisters home alone and over the course of that summer, at least a couple times, I touched my sister on -- I used to say "vagina," but just learned that's not the correct terminology -- but I touched her inappropriately to say the least. That came out a litte bit later, January of 2000. I was the next day arrested.
What was the nature of the touching? Was there penetration?
No penetration, no.
Do you know what your sister told your mom at the time?
I do not. I just know that she said I'd touched her, and then when CPS came she explained how I touched her on a doll. When that interview occurred, she was with the expert, I and my parents were in the opposite end of the house, and my mom and I and dad were locked in another room by a sheriff's deputy.
What did your mom do, exactly, after your sister told her?
My mom was very religious so the idea that I had done something sexual -- this might sound extreme, but I came from an evangelical conservative home so thought was, "He must be saved." She tried to call a group associated with Dr. James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and they actually took all of our information and sent it over to CPS. Her immediate thought was that this was a sin. Needless to say I'm as unreligious as they come now.
She didn't anticipate authorities getting involved, she was looking for spiritual guidance?
Yep. She did not anticipate that I would be going to prison.
What was it like being behind bars for three-and-a-half years at that young age?
It was an interesting time. I was home-schooled, so in reality, when I went to prison it was the first time I had actually gotten an education. That side was beneficial, but no child should grow up in prison. I went through sex offender therapy, which, the very first class I had, the age ranged from 10 to 14. In the first class we learned about fellatio and cunnilingus and anal. None of the terms were even relevant to what any of us had done. We had to act out our offenses with other people in the group, while a counselor watched on.
How did you act it out?
Well, we would pretend we were touching the other person however it happened. Some people had intercourse with siblings and they would dry hump right there on the floor in group. It was very insane. It seemed to be that the male guards were there to beat you up and the female guards were there to have sex with you. I know that sounds like a generalization, and there were some good officers there, but that was my impression growing up. I was in the sex offender dorm, that's what they called us, "sex offenders." People didn't want to work the "rapist dorm," that's how they would say it. I will say the greatest benefit I had was that I was able to just read and read all day, because we'd spend the majority of our time in individual cells.
These were actual cells with bars?
Yes. Double fences, barbed wire on the top. They had SWAT teams that would come in. We had a "riot" once, which was people throwing apple sauce, we had a food fight, and they responded with pepper spray and tear gas and a SWAT unit with shields.
You were taken off the list somewhat recently, right?
I was taken off the public list. Now, I'm still on a private list. Juveniles have this third rail. There's a private registry option, which I'm on. I think we need to get rid of registration for kids altogether. Private registration still puts you in contact with law enforcement and unfortunately law enforcement is the last place you should look for reason or logic when it comes to sex crimes. They're not equipped to handle it. They treat kids just like they would an adult, and I find that rather egregious.
How has your life changed since being taken off the public list?
I'm able to tell people, "No, I'm not on the registry." So that has helped quite a bit. But outside of that, I'm public about my story.
What is your relationship like to that sister now?
We're normal adult siblings. I think in retrospect what hurt her the most, and she'll tell you this too, was the fact that I was ripped out of the home. All of a sudden she felt responsible for having come forward. I think if there's one thing to make clear is that sex offender law has made it so that people who would like to outcry don't feel like they can anymore. What we know is that 80 to 90 percent of these offenses occur in the home by someone that they know and usually it's a relative. Seeking help or crying out about these things causes great difficulty for the family. For example, when I came back home I was on the public registry, so our house was a sex offender house. That included my sisters. That's one of the implications.
There's a great Human Rights Watch video where they interview a father who had two boys that were placed on the registry after an incident involving their little sister. They had vigilantes that came to their house and they threw a molotov cocktail at the window, and it just so happened it was that sister's room. The registry is not a tool of education, it's not a tool that helps reduce sexual assault, it doesn't do anything except function as a modern day stockade.
That sister at age 18 pleaded to the court for you to be taken off the registry.
Does she consider what happened to be abuse?
That's a good question. I don't think so. We haven't really talked about it in that frame. When I came home she was the happiest about that. I frame it as something that shouldn't have occurred, definitely. But I grew up in Texas. Not only did I grow up in Texas, but I grew up in a Bible-thumping home where masturbation was a sin. So what it comes down to, particularly in the Southern states where we have this abstinence-only education program, it's really terrible, because we're not open to talking about boundaries and understanding about sex. Sex is a shameful thing, so we hide it. A lot of times, more often than we like to admit, within the family, whether that's a cousin or friends down the street. The closeted activities, such as sexting, are illegal, particularly if the other participant has not reached a particular age. I know a case here in Texas where two 12-year-olds had sex and they both got placed on the registry, they were both each other's victims. We have criminalized child sexuality. Should some of these kids not be doing what they're doing? They probably don't have the tools necessary or the maturity level necessary to decide to do what they're doing.
We've had a horrible approach to sex for hundreds of years now, whether it's discriminating against LGBTQ folks or whatever it is. We don't have candid conversations in this country about sexuality, and unfortunately the registry is probably one of the stark examples of that lack of conversation.
What do you think would have been an appropriate response to what you did at that age?
I'm not averse to therapy at all. Sitting down a kid and, in my case, boundaries probably would have been appropriate. Counseling together with my sister and family. When it comes down to it, families need to understand that you don't leave boys to baby-sit. It's one of those really basic rules of thumb that a lot of people say, "Well, my son would never do that." The problem is, it's just not the case. I would say out-patient therapy. I don't think the courts should be getting involved at all in these cases. What we have seen is that when the courts come in and rip people out of their homes that affects the victim more than the actual abuse, if you want to call it that.
Much later on, you revealed that you had been sexually abused as a child. Can you tell me about that?
When I was a younger kid, between the age of 9 and up to 11, we had some older teen boys in my neighborhood that did a lot of things to me, a lot of things that I didn't understand what they were, necessarily. When I look back on some of the experiences, I do see it as abuse. On the other side, I enjoyed some of the things that occurred. I have not, nor would I, turn them in. I don't think that's helpful to anyone. All that would happen is that two or three names would be added to the registry.
Did that experience influence your behavior with your sister?
I think I was definitely sexualized at that point. I couldn't talk to my parents about it. In fact, I had real questions about my sexuality. Around the time the abuse was going on, my mom decided to have the conversation about the evils of homosexuality. When I asked what that was she said, "It's when, say, you were to kiss so-and-so." It just so happened that "so-and-so" was one of the boys that messed with me. At that point I knew that if I told my mom she would hate me and God would hate me and I'd go to hell, so. It was not the most nurturing home to grow up in.
How can we tell the difference between a minor who is sexually experimental and a minor who is sexually predatory?
I don't know if I'm the appropriate person to answer that, but I have an opinion nonetheless. One of the things I saw, growing up in prison, most everybody did exactly the same thing I did. But you saw people who did a bit more, sexual intercourse or what have you, grew up in foster care. A lot of them had been having sex for a very long time. I knew of one kid who had had sex since he was 5. I wouldn't call them predatory, but I would say the things they did were above and beyond what a lot of the other folks did. In truth, I still don't think the criminal justice system is the correct response to someone whose actions are more harmful. Unfortunately we have very little understanding of mental health in this country. You would think that we would spend money and time and resources on researching pedophilia. Instead, we spend money and time and resources on setting up online stings.
Clearly you've become an activist on the topic. What's the overarching message you're hoping to deliver?
I'm hoping that at some point this country will say, "You know what, if you're under 18 we really shouldn't be putting them on the registry. We really shouldn't be having them involved with law enforcement." Sex offender therapy is a joke. It's a private industry that's exploded. It's no different from private prisons or anything else private, it's just a self-motivated business. The biggest and most paramount thing has nothing to do with criminal justice or the registry. It has to do with a good core sex education program in our schools and our homes and churches and synagogues or whatever. We as a society have got to buck up and start talking about sex.
Have you talked to your kids about what happened?
I have, as age appropriate as it can be. My oldest is 10 now and we try to talk about feelings toward other people and he seems absolutely uninterested in anything other than "Minecraft." We're obviously hyper-aware about what they're doing, where they're going and the kind of touch that they do. Trying not to be as rigid in my approach as my family was. We'll see what happens.
Do you think this is something you'll ever escape or will it always define your life?
It will always define my life. Obviously, it shaped who I am. For a long time I tried to do other jobs. I got into the wind industry, construction, all kinds of stuff. I wasn't ever satisfied with what I did until today. I chose to go about it a little differently -- a lot of the people I deal with hunker down and hope and pray that eventually they won't be on the registry anymore. I was like that for a long time, and then finally I got angry one day and said, "This is enough." I obviously have felony convictions on my adult record from my registration, so I don't see it going away.