Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Are all online child pornography offenders the same?

RE: Seto, Michael C., Hanson, R. Karl, & Babchishin, Kelly M. (in press). Contact sexual offending by men with online sexual offenses. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, first published on December 20, 2010 as doi:10.1177/1079063210369013

The influence -- one way or another -- of pornographic material on sexually or socially inappropriate behavior continues to perplex citizens, researchers, and social policymakers. The associated rhetoric often touches on cultural, moral, religious/spiritual, and political themes.

Some say that 80% or more of all internet traffic is related to pornography, but this seems unlikely. Nonetheless, it is clear that access to pornographic materials has become much much easier in the internet age. Unfortunately, this has also made it easier for those interested in child pornography to obtain access to images -- photos and videos -- that were previously relatively difficult to obtain. It seems almost weekly that we are told of law enforcement's efforts and successes in the battle against online child abuse and child pornography. Many jurisdictions now have tough penalties for those caught possessing, distributing, or creating child pornography. In some cases, the mandatory minimum sentences for possessing child pornography exceed the typical sentences given for contact offenses against children. Clearly, as a society, we take a very dim view of those who traffic in these sorts of materials.

But, what of the offenders?

In some respects, this may be a "chicken and egg" dilemma. Do pedophiles seek out child pornography or does downloading (and other subsequent activities best left to the imagination) of sexually explicit images of children lead to eventual contact (or "offline") offending with children? In other research, it has been suggested that surfing child pornography is a robust diagnostic indicator of pedophilic interests (see Seto, M. C., Cantor, J. M., & Blanchard, R. (2006). Child pornography offenses are a valid diagnostic indicator of pedophilia. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 115, 610-615).

In a recently released, online first publication in the journal Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, Mike Seto, Karl Hanson, and Kelly Babchishin attempt to answer some of these nagging questions. In two meta-analyses, they investigate 1. the contact offense histories of online offenders, and 2. the recidivism rates of online offenders.

In regard to the question of how many online offenders also have contact sexual offenses, Seto and colleagues found that only one in eight online offenders had officially-documented histories of contact offenses. However, this is tempered by their finding that more than half of such offenders are inclined to admit to contact offenses that are unknown to authorities; although, self-report data appears to have been available in only a small number of studies in the meta-analysis. Further, Seto et al. note that the controversial "Butner Study" was an outlier in finding significantly higher rates of self-reported contact offenses in online offenders. When they removed this study from the analysis, the rates of self-reported contact offending became more consistent, study to study.

The first statistic (1:8) seems consistent with the argument made by some offenders that they are only interested in the pictures, and that surfing internet child pornography meets their needs and helps them to refrain from engaging in contact offenses. However, the second statistic (50%) gets to the heart of our (SO professionals) fears that many of these guys are just not getting caught. Indeed, under-reporting has always been the fly in the ointment for all of us quoting statistics regarding sexual abuse rates, incidence or recidivism.

The second meta-analysis focused on reoffense rates. Seto, Hanson, and Babchishin found quite low rates of reoffending in the samples of online child pornography offenders: 4.6% of offenders engaged in new offenses over follow-up periods ranging from 1.5 to 6 years of follow-up, with 2% engaging in new contact offenses and 3.4% incurring new charges for online child pornography offending. Pretty low rates of reoffending all around; although, we must honestly note that the follow-up times are short.

So, what are we to take away from these findings?

Seto et al. address the issue of risk assessment with child pornography offenders. Presently, the Static-99 (a commonly used actuarial risk assessment scale) is not recommended for offenders with no documented history of contact offenses. However, this preclusion does not extend to other scales, such as the Sex Offender Risk Appraisal Guide (SORAG), but some have expressed concern with the general applicability of the standardization sample underpinning that scale (I am making no particular statement one way or the other here, by the way. Individual clinicians will need to review these instruments and make their own decisions). Regarding Static-99, Seto et al. suggest that if a high proportion of online offenders also have offline offense histories, then use of the Static-99 might be appropriate with this population, but only with modifications to the coding rules. This makes great sense and, given the rapidly growing numbers of online offenders before the Court, it would be helpful if risk assessors could add an objective measure of risk potential to their cadre of evaluation tools.

However, this question seems to be undercut to a degree by the findings of the second meta-analysis in this study. It would appear that, regardless of their histories of offline offending (officially known or self-reported), offenders who engage in online child pornography offenses are generally disinclined to reoffend. This causes Seto et al. to question whether there may be a "distinct subgroup of online-only offenders who pose relatively low risk of committing contact sexual offenses in the future". Of course, this has great implications for sentencing and risk management. Presently, many jurisdictions require online child pornography offenders to attend treatment and submit to community monitoring protocols similar to their contact offending compatriots. Given the findings of meta-analysis #2, does this potentially breach the tenets of the RNR model (i.e., overprogramming lower risk offenders by imposing treatment or management strategies that might not be specific to the needs of these particular offenders)? Seto et al. suggest that the risk factors may be the same for both online and offline offenders; however, the reoffense rates should give us cause to consider issues such as dosage and treatment methodologies. As such, we will need to have clear means of distinguishing who the higher risk guys might be.

In discussing their results, Seto, Hanson, and Babchishin suggest the existence of a subgroup of internet-only offenders who are disinclined to engage in contact offenses and who are at particularly low risk to reoffend in any sexual manner post-identification. At the very least, this suggestion should cause some to reconsider whether our current handling of these individuals is actually clinically or judicially appropriate. In order to best answer any nagging questions left standing, we as a field need to encourage and support additional research, scholarly discourse, and collaborative development of social policy.

Let me close this post with a quote from Seto et al.:

The low recidivism rates of online offenders may be used by some ... to minimize the seriousness of the online crimes committed.

I agree that it is important to acknowledge the greater issues of supply, demand, and exploitation that are part of the child pornography industry (if you can call it that). Clearly, efforts must continue to contain and eradicate this gut-wrenching problem. However, we must also take heed of the research findings regarding risk assessment and risk management of those involved.



  1. You refer to "this gut-wrenching problem", and given your professional engagement, I'm sure you have experienced aspects of human nature that most people would prefer to remain in ignorance of. I'm sur some 'child pornography' is exactly as claimed: a record of child abuse.

    Otoh, political discourses around the child as an object of erotic interest have led to immoderate claims as to what constitutes 'child pornography'. Fine art child nudes, naturist publications and even mainstream advertising have all been identified, if not prosecuted as 'child pornography'.

    The COPINE scale attempts to resolve these differences, and that is a positive step, but is there any attempt in the research reported here to distinguish abuse from erotica? A person convicted of crimes against children ought to be quite distinct, in both legal and public conception, from a person who expresses sexual attraction to children without causing harm.

    If the policing of child pornography proves to be indistinguishable from the assertion of a moral stance then the category of actual offending against children will also seem unreliable.

    A great shame for children who are genuine victims of sexual exploitation.

  2. People need to be more aware. Just knowing who's in your neighborhood can help keep your kids just a bit safer from these dirtbags. The thought of these types of predators being anywhere near my children makes me sick to my stomach. Everyone, please do yourself a favor and sign up with AlertID. You can get text updates when registered sex offenders move into your neighborhood plus a bunch of other great tools. It's free, so that's even better.