A recent TV debate - on whether offenders who view images of child sex abuse online are also likely to commit contact assaults against children – saw some heated exchanges, at a time when child sexual abuse cases (CSA) are in the news almost daily. In this blog, Dr Sarah Nelson, CRFR Research Associate at The University of Edinburgh provides comment.
Professor Richard Wortley, a criminologist and psychologist from University College London, said research suggested that only a small minority went on to abuse children physically. But Jim Gamble, former chief executive of the Child Exploitation & Online Protection Centre (CEOP), angrily pressed his conviction that a majority were dangerous to children in the “offline” world. He called for "consistent and persistent investigations".
The debate followed the arrest of 660 suspected paedophiles in the UK after a six-month police operation targeted people accessing child abuse images online. The National Crime Agency (NCA) said they included teachers, medical staff, former police, a social worker and scout leader. Only 39 of the 650 were registered sex offenders: the rest, worryingly, had remained under the radar.
Many offenders had accessed the so-called “dark net”. Its content doesn’t appear on normal search engines. They often use virtual currencies to avoid detection, showing effort and commitment: they do not stumble on such images by mistake.
As McGuire & Dowling (2013) confirm in their research review, current evidence exploring the links between possession of online abuse images and offline sex offending against children is mixed and conflicting. Some studies suggest that viewing indecent images of children is often a prelude to contact offences, and an important risk factor. CEOP’s thematic assessment, (A Picture of Abuse, 2012) for instance found possession of online abuse images and online grooming were risk factors for contact CSA. Other research, as the review demonstrates, refutes such a link, or finds small numbers of dual offenders. However, the second category appears to receive far more belief and publicity among practitioners.
As a longstanding researcher into child sexual abuse and its effects throughout life, I have concerns in case two temptations may be reducing perceived risk that viewers of child abuse images are also contact abusers. First, many internet offenders have been discovered to be respectable, middle class professional men with no previous criminal records, such as deputy heads of schools, IT consultants, health service managers, clergy and so on. For many practitioners and researchers they have been disconcertingly “people like us”, without the typical risk factors for sex offenders which have featured on risk assessments. That creates a temptation to feel, whatever the genuine wish to be impartial: “surely they’re less likely to be dangerous”. An alternative possibility, however, is that they may have been more skilled and resourceful at concealing their behaviour.
Secondly, the number of men (these particular offenders are overwhelmingly men) found to be in possession of indecent images of children has spiralled enormously in recent years, and grows year upon year. The criminal justice system- even the police resources required to examine their computers – has been overwhelmed. However, making numbers manageable by minimising the dangerousness of many is not necessarily a safe way to deal with a genuine social problem.
One group of people, not solely males, may indeed be viewing abuse images of children without abusing in the “real world”. These are those sexually abused young people and adults who have retained their empathy to others, but who through confused post-traumatic reaction are drawn to replay repeatedly acts perpetrated against themselves, without gaining resolution of that trauma. Often they will feel extremely guilty, their self-esteem further shattered: just as some of the abused men in my own research (Nelson 2009) felt huge self-disgust at re-enacting their abuse through anonymous sex with men in public places. It’s important that skilled help is available to them and that they feel able to ask for it, for they help sustain the international trade in child abuse images, and their trauma remains unresolved. But their own pain is not a reason to downplay wider risks to children from internet offenders as a whole.
The claim that most who gain sexual gratification and excitement from repeatedly viewing violent and perverse sexual assaults, or even torture, on young children are not likely to want to abuse children offline is at root a hope, not a scientific finding. It is fostered by the claims of the offenders themselves. Evidence from studies which suggest this low risk is inadequate, for two reasons. First of all, it relies heavily on official follow-up of known recorded sexual offences. But most sexual offences are carried out in secret, and will not be known, or if experienced will not be reported.
Secondly, evidence that internet offenders have resisted committing contact abuse with children could only be convincing if their previous, present or future victim targets were a) identified by the authorities; and then b) able to speak up and tell the truth about whether they had been offended against or not. But most abused children and young people are not identified, find it extremely difficult and shameful to tell, and are often disbelieved when they do.
Accumulated knowledge of sex offenders suggests that they often offend compulsively, and indeed individual collections of vast quantities of abuse images suggest compulsive behaviour. Thus we must ask how realistic it is that they would so drastically change their behaviour after being caught that, for instance in the Seto & Eke study (2005) “in an average of 2.5 years only 3.9% of child pornography offenders reoffended for that offense, and those (internet) offenders with no prior criminal record ...had a contact sexual offense only 1.3% of the time...(and) only one of the offenders with only child pornography offenses committed a later contact sexual offense in the follow-up period.”
The widely-heard theory of gradual, even accidental interest in abuse images is also questionable. It is surely insulting to men as a whole to suggest that while watching adult pornography, or after accidentally clicking on child abuse websites, they suddenly discover a deepseated urge - unrealised all their lives - repeatedly to watch shocking images of children, babies and toddlers being sexually assaulted, and to collect great numbers of these images. Without, subsequently, any wish to try this on actual children. The alternative hypothesis is that those who access abuse images of children on the internet are typically already sexually attracted to children, already seeking sexual gratification from watching sexual abuse, and have actively sought out these images. That must, therefore, represent a genuine risk to children.
Survivors of sexual abuse have for decades tried to tell both support groups and researchers of being abused by, for instance, teachers and doctors, clergy, sports coaches, foster parents, residential care managers or TV celebrities. Their testimony is also evidence. It needs to be asked if the disturbing new statistics may simply reflect more closely the numbers of abusers who have always existed, but who previously had far less opportunity or technology to view abuse images. Spiralling numbers of offenders may simply be reducing the very large disparity between numbers identified in the criminal justice system until recently, and the high prevalence of child sexual abuse revealed retrospectively by adult survivors.
If so, policymakers need to address the scale of protection and preventive education, especially of young people, which they need to prioritise. Meanwhile, campaigners like Jim Gamble have called- as CEOP did in their 2012 study A Picture of Abuse-- for proactive investigation of “possession offending”; and for more specialist, well-staffed and equipped, police investigative units, who can manage their caseloads in a timely comprehensive way. At the forefront of all the investigations, they urge, “should be the notion that any case may result in the identification of a victim of contact sexual abuse”.
CEOP 2012. A Picture of Abuse: A thematic assessment of the risk of contact child sexual abuse posed by those who possess indecent images of children. Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre.
McGuire M. Dowling S. 2013. Cyber crime: A review of the evidence. Research Report 75, Chapter 3: ‘Cyber-enabled crimes - sexual offending against children’. London: Home Office.
Nelson, S. 2009. Care and Support Needs of Male Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse. CRFR, University of Edinburgh.
Seto, M., and Eke, A.(2005) ‘The future offending of child pornography offenders ’Journal of Sexual Abuse , 17, pp 2 01-210