Sarah Nelson, University of Edinburgh
A recent TV debate – on whether internet offenders who view images of child sex abuse are also likely to commit contact assaults – highlights claims which bemuse and concern many of us working with child sexual abuse (CSA).
Prof Richard Wortley, a criminologist and psychologist from University College London , said research suggested 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, and must be actively pursued. 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 the 660 included teachers, medical staff, former police, a social worker and scout leader. Tellingly, only 39 of the 650 were registered sex offenders. The rest had been under the radar.
Many of the offenders 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: offenders don’t stumble on those images after pressing the wrong button.
Prof Wortley is no apologist for sex crime, and of course agrees that internet offenders sustain a vast international child abuse industry – even by just looking. But numerous academic researchers, therapists working with offenders, and practitioners believe as he does, that only a small percentage also commit contact abuse against children. Jim Gamble, and those of us who agree with Jim, are the ones put on the defensive – always asked to prove our argument.
Current evidence exploring links between possession of online abuse images and offline sex offending against children is mixed and conflicting. Some studies suggest 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 sexual abuse of children. Other research refutes such a link, or finds small numbers of dual offenders. The second category appears to receive far more publicity and belief among practitioners.
I think it is no accident that wide professional acceptance of reduced seriousness in internet offending has coincided with the disturbing, confusing discovery that so many of these offenders proved to be respectable, middle class professional men with no criminal records. They have been “people like us”: deputy heads of schools, IT specialists, health administrators, medics, accountants and more. This explosion of upright, hidden citizens was unexpected: not on our risk assessments , not on our tick-lists of typical sex offenders. There is a strong temptation to feel: “they cannot surely be so bad”. But this allows dangerous people freedom. Also, as numbers have so spiralled, there are far too many for the system to deal with. It is simply overwhelmed. So some way must be found to minimise the dangerousness of many. But doing that is not the way to answer a genuine social problem.
Consider some frequent assumptions, and then our assumptions, and ask which seem more promising hypotheses – given what we already know about sex offenders against children. Of course this process (of asking what is likely ) is not infallible. But it’s useful to include it, just to keep our feet on the ground!
Take the assumption so often heard about timelines. An assumption without actual evidence, except via the repeated excuses of offenders who get caught. From frequent phrases like ”go on to view stronger images” or “go on to abuse physically” it’s widely assumed that these men (internet offenders are overwhelmingly men) start by viewing adult images, or simply by pressing the wrong button while they surf. They are then drawn in by curiosity to view child abuse images instead. Then to nastier child abuse images; then they might eventually “go on” to abuse a child.
Does this timeline sound convincing to you? Or back to front, somehow? It’s insulting to many men, for a start – that while watching adult porn, or accidentally clicking on child abuse websites as they try to consult Trip Advisor, they suddenly discover some deepseated urge- unrealised all their lives- to view shocking images of children, toddlers and babies being sexually abused, tortured or made victims of bestiality. Then they discover this unrealised urge to masturbate repeatedly- let’s not mince words or conceal- night after night to these increasingly foul acts. All without the urge to try it out on a real child.
Isn’t it much more likely that those who access abuse images of children on the internet are already sexually attracted to children, already seek sexual gratification from watching sexual abuse, and have actively sought out these images, often at some effort? That most therefore do represent active risk to children? That the middle class professional ones who have now been caught out are all those fathers and teachers and doctors, all those sports coaches, foster parents, residential care managers and TV celebrities that survivors of CSA have tried to tell us for decades were their own abusers? Who tried to tell us time and again that their abusers used pornography, and made them act it out? The first adult survivor I ever knowingly met was upper class, and the first victim who came to her support group had been abused by a “foster father of the year”.
I think the disturbing new statistics may simply reflect more closely the actual numbers of abusers who have always existed, but who previously had far less opportunity or technology to view abuse images. Spiralling numbers may simply be reducing the huge disparity between numbers of offenders identified in the criminal justice system till recently, and the high prevalence of child sexual abuse revealed retrospectively by adult survivors. These numbers and the social class range are very disturbing to many people, but survivors and their supporters had to face the truth long ago. It is time policymakers addressed the scale of prevention and protection which they therefore need to prioritise.
The claim that men who get sexual gratification and excitement from repeatedly viewing sexual assaults on young children are not likely to want to abuse children offline is at root just a hope, with little convincing evidence. I am sure those who repeat this optimistic assessment would not let any of these people babysit their own children. Evidence from studies which suggest low risk is not convincing to me for two reasons. First, it relies heavily on follow-up of known and recorded sexual offences. But most sexual offences are carried out in secret, and will never be known, or if seen will not be reported. Why after all did nearly all the recent 660 stay under the radar all their lives?
Secondly, evidence that internet offenders have resisted contact abuse could only be convincing if their previous, present or future victim targets were a) identified by the authorities and b) able to speak up and tell the truth about whether they had been offended against or not. But most children cannot tell, or are not believed when they do. Going again by what we know of sex offenders, they often offend compulsively and indeed the collection of vast quantities of abuse images suggests compulsive behaviour. So we need to ask how realistic it is that they would so drastically change their behaviour that, for instance as in the Seto & Eke study (2005) “ 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.”
I concede that one group of people- mainly men, some women- may be viewing abuse images of children without abusing in the “real world”. This is a group of 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. 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, and their trauma remains unresolved. But their own pain is not a reason to excuse internet offenders as a whole, nor to downplay the wider risks to children.
I believe we should join campaigners like Jim Gamble in calling- as CEOP did in their 2012 study A Picture of Abuse– for proactive investigation of “possession offending” and for more specialist police investigative units, which are actually properly staffed and equipped. And 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”.