The Horrible Truth of How I Ended Up Here

There’s been a lot of positive comments thrown in my direction lately, both here and on the podcasts I share my story. I know a bunch will come when my book comes out. I appreciate all of them and treat them not as fertilizer for my ego, but as an indicator that I’m doing the right thing now. I also realize they come from people who don’t actually know me in my everyday life, despite the fact I may share more here than anywhere else, and that helps keep things in perspective.

I’m going to share a story today that is honest, but may get your scorn instead of sympathy or admiration. I think that people forget just how I ended up here sometimes. It’s not a pleasant story, but it’s one that I have to retell myself every so often.

I shared a more graphic version of this in my first book. I’m going to tone it down quite a bit here and not talk about any specific incident in detail, but I thought it was time to come clean with my readers about what was going on in the weeks and months leading up to my arrest. Trigger warning, I guess. Scummy person warning, I’m sure of.

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After a 20+ year addiction to pornography, I made the fateful leap to the world of online chatrooms in mid-2013. My illness reached a critical point. Cross-addicted with alcohol, suffering the consequences of an ill-timed abandonment of my bipolar disorder medication, growing estranged from my family and watching my professional life begin to crumble, I let myself slide into a place of emotional, mental and physical disrepair unlike I’d experienced.

I told myself I was a victim of the world around me – a world conspiring on all fronts to take me down. As with so many other addictions, when what you’re doing isn’t meeting your self-soothing needs, you up the ante. I abandoned traditional online pornography sites for peer-to-peer webcam sites. This was when rock bottom started to get in sight.

These were not the traditional adult sites where one pays to talk to a stripper or “model.” The one I found was fairly simple: two random users connect via their webcams. If either doesn’t like what they see on their screen, they click “NEXT”.

Men outnumbered women 20-to-1. If you were going to get a woman to stop and talk to you, you’d better be handsome and have something fast to say, or in my case, type. I’ve never had a problem with a quick comment, but I wasn’t going to make the cut in the looks department. I looked as much the haggard late-30s failure as I felt.

Despite the site claiming to have over 40,000 people online at any given time, I noticed several of the same attractive men – the kind I bet women stopped for – popping up on my screen repeatedly. They were always in the same spot, wearing the same clothes, day-after-day. Something wasn’t right.

When the same buff guy bathed in orange light sitting against his couch appeared, I was able to get him to stop and tell me what was going on.

Whoever was actually on the other end of the computer explained I was watching a video. He couldn’t get women to stop to talk to him, so he found a video of a “hot dude” who appeared to be typing on his computer. He said women wouldn’t stop to talk to the real him, but he could probably get one out of five to stop now, and a quarter of those could be convinced to take their clothes off and/or perform a sexual act.

I found a video at a site containing these kinds of catfishing clips he directed me toward. A handsome guy in a white T-shirt and basketball shorts was laying on his bed, typing away. During the 14-minute video, he smiled, waved, made a peace symbol, laughed, pulled his shirt up to show his abs and took his shirt off completely. I isolated all of those moments into individual clips, including the main video, nine minutes of him typing into his laptop. I could play it on a loop for an hour without raising suspicion.

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I’m a project guy. I like to figure out how to get an idea off the ground, fine-tune it, and move on. My life at that point was more about being a fix-it guy, and I don’t play that role well. I was trying to save a business I’d long lost interest in. I was watching relationships with my family fall apart and had no idea how to salvage them. I was over-indulging in pornography and alcohol addictions I’d mostly been able to keep under control for two decades and it was taking a physical and mental toll. Instead of living a life where I was creating things, I was putting Band-Aids all over a balloon that was about to pop.

Then I found that website, learned how to manipulate a video and my warped, decaying mind found a new project. I’m a methodical worker. I experiment, analyze, experiment more, analyze again. I’d already cracked the hard part learning the technical end of being an online groomer. As somebody who interviewed hundreds, if not thousands, of people in my years as a journalist, I had an above-average ability to read people and get them to talk. As a charismatic business owner, I had plenty of techniques to convince people to do what I needed. These are not good skills for a sick person with no sense of boundaries or consequences to possess.

I’d seen how the average guy on one of these sites operates. If they could get a woman to stop, within 30 seconds of talking to them, they’d tell the female to flash their breasts. I could never see how the low success rate of that strategy reaffirmed it as the go-to technique.

I think these are the guys who frequent strip clubs and don’t understand it’s a show. They believe all women are nymphomaniacs just waiting to be commanded to remove their clothes in everyday life. I wasn’t interested in stripper types, who put on a show for money or nymphos, who made things easy for the simpler guys.

I wanted to talk to average, everyday women (or at least as close as I could find on a peer-to-peer cam site) who would hit “NEXT” the moment a guy like that demanded nudity. I wanted to find a woman who believed she’d never do that kind of thing and then figure out the path to push her to get there.

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I still got the NEXT treatment from most women and of those who stopped, if they looked underage, couldn’t hold a conversation for more than three seconds, or immediately steered the conversation toward sex – an indicator that it was probably a video – I’d hit the NEXT button.

The women I wanted to manipulate were never going to comply with a direct request. Much like a sales call when I sold advertising at my magazine, I had to build rapport and trust before I could close. Treating these scenarios like business transactions and not viewing the females on the other end of the computer as people would have been a red flag for me at so many other points in my life. Short of a professional intervention, I don’t know what could have stopped my increasingly poor judgment. I just saw “right” and “wrong” as concepts others lived by, not me.

I claimed to be a struggling model, surviving only by working as a personal trainer. I said I didn’t like training buff guys because they intimidated me. I preferred average women because they were more “real.” Ironic, I guess. Instead of taking a scholarship for college, I wanted to see if I could be a model, which broke my parents’ hearts when I left high school since I graduated second in my class. I said I wasn’t making it as a model and was considering quitting and heading back home.

So, I’ve created a smart, good-looking guy who prefers average girls and is trying to follow his dream, but is getting discouraged…and hasn’t yet said a sexual word. For the kind of women in need of attention on a site like this, you couldn’t build a better guy. At least, I couldn’t.

I made a show of not wanting to share my personal information. Most of them had never encountered a guy who accused them of wanting too much personal information. Many of them would start blurting facts about themselves just to prove I could trust them. I felt so powerful, never appreciating how my sense of good judgment was disappearing more every day.

I could take whatever information they gave me and while we held a conversation on one part of my screen, I’d be figuring everything out I could about them on the other side. If I discovered a lot of photos on Instagram of them as a competitive show jumper, I would somehow introduce a reference to my sister loving horses. If there was a Facebook entry about the third anniversary of their grandmother’s death, I’d casually mention mine died a few weeks earlier, but I couldn’t go home for the funeral. Most people simply don’t realize how much information they share about themselves and how that can lead to a world of other information. How do you think psychics are able to be so accurate?

Inevitably, they’d ask about my modeling and want to see examples. I found a model on the Abercrombie & Fitch website with a passing resemblance. There was another on a lifeguard supplies site who could pass. All I had to do to find these was take a screen capture of the video I was using and drop it into Google Images. When a woman would ask, “Is that really you?” I’d talk about lighting and makeup and how I always look so much worse in real life. They’d uniformly tell me I was wrong.

Along the way, I’d gauge just how much my story was getting them to have feelings. If none were developing, I’d cut my losses and let them go. If I wasn’t successfully manipulating them, my diseased mind saw no reason to continue and I was on to the next, or if it was past 3 a.m. at the point, I’d call it a night. I needed to get my 2-3 hours of sleep before I faced the world that hated me, I told myself.

In November of 2013, a female who popped up on my screen that I told myself looked old enough turned out to be underage. As I did with all of the other women, I took a couple screen shots of her at the end of our session. They were trophies of my accomplishments, not used for sexual gratification, but used to convince myself I had some semblance of control in my life and could reach goals I set. It’s still hard for me understand how I could rationalize that night after night, but I guess there wasn’t a lot of rationalization going on then.

I was informed about her age when the police came knocking at my door in March 2014. They found my folder of “trophies” and were able to establish she was the only one underage. With the way I was thinking then, I probably got lucky, as much as it hurts to recognize that.

I’m at the six-year anniversary of talking to that girl. She’s in her early 20s somewhere now. I hope my transgression didn’t cause any lasting permanent damage. Nobody deserves to be taken advantage of that way, at any age.

My poor choices led me there. It was nobody’s fault except mine. My poor choices also led me here, to create this blog, give the interviews and write my books. Hopefully, at some point in the far future, the good I do in my life now will cosmically, karmically and in-actual-fact, outweigh the harm I did.

We Need to Re-Examine the Sexual Offender Registry

Tomorrow is passport picture day. For most people, that’s only once every 10 years, but for me, it’s twice a year. As a registered sex offender, every time I have my quarterly check-in with the police, I have to bring a passport photo that is sent to the state capital to be posted online with my crime. Thankfully, CVS provides two passport photos, so there is only need to visit twice a year.

I’m not suggesting by this entry that I did not deserve to get punished for what I did. On the contrary, I took my sentencing like a man and do not get into the argument of if I received too much or too little time. The government decreed that six months and six days in county jail was appropriate for the crime of engaging a teenage girl in a sexual manager in an online chatroom, and I did the time.

I have no problem with the probation I was given, three years, despite the fact that both my lawyer and the state suggested I only have two years. I think the judge gave me a lighter jail sentence and longer probation as a trade-off. Whatever, that’s fine. I’ve got about eight months left and aside from signing a piece of paper and having a 30-second conversation once a month, it’s not that bad. I can certainly understand why it’s useful for drug criminals who need to submit to a urine test.

At the end of probation, though, those drug criminals aren’t tested anymore. They have served their time and they are free to live their life. Hopefully, they stay away from the substances that got them there, but as far as the criminal justice system is concerned, they’re free to move along.

Sex crimes are not treated the same. I’m not a law scholar by any means and I know the validity of the sexual offender registry has been tested in several states and always upheld, but I have a problem with serving my sentence, doing my probation time, yet still being on the hook for the rest of my life.

For me, there are two arguments against this.

First, is the fact that I’m not treated like any other criminal. I literally could have been convicted for manslaughter, done my time, and nobody follows me after probation. I could have been nailed selling drugs to teenage girls, but I’m not put on a list for the rest of my life of people who need to be watched. I could beat my wife and kids, do my time, and the law isn’t going to follow me once probation is over.

Something seems askew to me when people can commit crimes with tangible results that are just as bad, or worse, than mine, yet there is no criminal registry for what they have done. Once they are finished with probation, they are left alone.

Second, is the fact that I’m on the same list with violent sexual predators. I’m not suggesting my crime wasn’t heinous and severe. It absolutely was. I took advantage of a young person and who knows if my behavior scarred her for life. What I did was disgusting and wrong.

That said, I never put my hands on a child. I never forced a child to commit a sexual act on me, nor did I commit one on them. No violence, nor threat of violence came with my offense. There were also no threats made against her family, property or anything like that.

I have taken four risk assessment tests and questionnaires designed to determine if I am at a risk of reoffending. On three I ranked the lowest score possible. On the other, I didn’t even rank on the scale. I have taken two polygraphs about my sexual history and have passed both with flying colors.

Yet there I am, on a list next to a guy who repeatedly raped a four-year-old boy. On the other side of me in the list is a guy who raped a 9-year-old girl, did his time, got out of jail and promptly returned to the girl, now 14 and raped her again. I think I have the right to say that compared to me, on a spectrum of sexual offenses, these are violent and depraved criminals who committed acts that are nothing like mine if you’re looking for an even playing field.

In my opinion, I think my being on the same list as these violent predators is like being someone who once bought a bag of pot being next to an international drug smuggler on the same list or someone who stole a lady’s purse being put next to an armed bank robber. Yes, the offenses may officially fall under the same umbrella, but there is a world of difference between the two.

I know there are people out there who probably couldn’t get beyond the third paragraph of this and who think that I should have been put in jail for life. Sexual offenses illicit a strong response in people and its one area where both Democrat and Republican law makers are more than happy to add new laws to the books, even if they make no scientific or historical sense. It feels good to castigate sex offenders.

I’m not looking for pity, I’m looking for equal and appropriate treatment. I’m hoping that you can take whatever opinions you have of sexual offenders and somehow parse them, not putting all of us into the same box. Unfortunately, the registry doesn’t do this yet.

I did a rotten thing, but under our current way of punishing people, I think that I’m being held to a different, higher standard, and I don’t think that’s fair.

Protecting our children on the Internet has very little to do with being online

I’d love to be more optimistic about this topic, but we need to stop fooling ourselves. Protecting children from the dangers of the Internet is far more impossible than we want to admit and the best way to protect your kids has nothing to do with any of their apps or devices.

I recently read a blog by a very well-meaning person who had techniques to protect children using the “three most popular” social media apps. I truly believe this person had nothing but good intentions, but their “three most popular” social media apps list was probably outdated two years ago. It didn’t mention Snapchat and didn’t seem to recognize that most teens have abandoned Facebook at this point.

It was the kind of advice that does enough to assuage most parents’ concerns without having to think critically or learn too much. And I think it unintentionally does more to hurt than help.

The Kids Are Smarter Than Us

When it comes to technology, younger generations are always going to be ahead of older ones. I believe this comes from technology being so intertwined and synonymous with pop culture.

Facebook became popular a dozen years ago because younger people were using it. Facebook got lame a few years ago because older people started. The youth migrated to Instagram and Snapchat, which are now slowly being infiltrated like Facebook was. What are the next hot social media apps going to be? It’s going to be up to a younger generation to decide and it will be some time before they let us know.

Technology development moves too fast for anybody to keep up with it, much less an adult who has an otherwise full life with a job, a home and children to raise.

You can use filters, firewalls, and other barricades on the apps or sites you know your children are using, but what about the ones you don’t know about?

I have an 18-year-old daughter who has filled me on so much of what is out there today that parents don’t realize. Protect your kid all you want on Instagram. They know how to make an account-within-an-account. While they know how to do that, we barely understand what it even means. She can rattle off the names of a dozen new apps and more come out every day.

Believing that you will ever know more or be one step ahead of your children when it comes to the evolution of technology is a dangerous assumption to make.

The Kids Are Not as Smart as Us

We have the benefit of life experience. We’ve been knocked down, lied to, cheated on, betrayed, conned and hurt plenty of times. By virtue of time, those negative experiences have happened far less to younger people. Lessons we may have learned that make us leery of people are ones they haven’t recognized yet.

At some point, you got that first “Nigerian Prince wants to leave you money” e-mail. While you’ve probably had so many fake, scam emails in the years since that they don’t even register as real now, do you remember that first time? Even if you quickly dismissed it as having to be false, for just a second, didn’t you want to believe?

When I was engaging in the nefarious online behavior that eventually led to my arrest, I was able to convince very smart women to do things online they would otherwise never do in real life. They met what they thought was a nice-looking guy in his early 20s who was sweet. That was a video. Nobody noticed when it looped and I had short clips of him smiling, waving, making the peace symbol, etc. that I could insert when needed. While the woman was talking to a video on one side of the screen, I’d be taking information from our chat, figuring out who they were and learning more about them.

I learned patterns of behavior in the women I engaged with and predicting what they would say or do became easier. I learned how to manipulate women who never thought they could be manipulated. Most still hadn’t realized when we were done. This behavior was disgusting, wrong and I deserved the jail sentence I got for it. You can read my book or other articles on this site if you want to learn more about what happened.

But for every guy like me who gets caught and addresses the issues that brought them to that point, there are probably 100 more who never do. They’re still out there and if those guys can manipulate educated adults (likely on websites you’ve never heard of, but your kids probably have) what chance does the younger generation have? Wisdom only comes with age.

The Kids Live in the Real World

You may be able to lull yourself into the false sense of security that you’ve got your child’s internet activity locked down at home, but what can you really do when they leave the house? If you’ve banned it at home, how can you find that Snapchat account they opened at the sleepover at their friend’s house? How can you prevent them from sitting at the lunch table and using another child’s account on that kid’s phone?

Here’s the truth we don’t want to face: We have far less control over our children than we tell ourselves. We’re not with them 24/7 and can’t monitor all of their actions. You’re not the magical parent who can say “Don’t ever do this” and the child always listens. Sure, they’re not going to put their hand on a hot stove, but looking at Instagram photos seems far less dangerous in their eyes.

The Kids Are Looking for Guidance

Thankfully, kids are hardwired to seek solutions from sources that seem safe and protective. Kids want to learn and that curiosity should not be feared. Yes, they want to learn about social media, but they also want to learn how to be safe, even if they don’t express it.

And they’re going to learn from somewhere…

If you run your home like a dictatorship and believe your positional authority as the parent gives you total control over your child’s mind and spirit, you’re in for a rocky road. Teaching your child how to think is far more important than teaching them what to think. Giving them the skills to make good decisions is far better than telling them what the good decisions are.

My kids are far better adjusted than I ever was because I grew up in a house where silence and avoidance of unpleasant things was the norm. My wife deserves all the credit for our kids.

I ended up where I did in life because I was taught to avoid negative thoughts and feelings (which helped me become an alcoholic and porn addict) and that actions don’t always have consequences (which helped me end up in jail.)

Here’s the rough part: you actually have to be an active parent. You need to build bridges of trust and communication. You need to help develop your child’s critical thinking skills around right vs. wrong and cause & effect. You need to help them understand the choices they make produce certain outcomes and if they can predict those outcomes in advance, they can make better decisions.

Right now, we’re in a world of parents who know their children don’t possess those skills, so instead of being proactive and building them, we are being reactive and trying to manipulate their behavior to very mixed results. You can’t instill the experience of wisdom, but you can teach critical thinking skills early on.

I don’t have a step-by-step guide of how to raise your specific kid or how to know they have developed the mental tools they need. Again, active parenting will help you figure that out.

We’re going to make our greatest strides against the evils of the Internet when we pour far more energy into teaching our kids how to protect themselves from danger than trying to do it for them. That just leaves them curious and less inhibited when they finally get online.