Child Pornography Offenders

Steven Gaskell, Psy.D. Child Pornography Offenders, Sex Offender Recidivism, Sex Offender Risk Assessment, Sex Offenders 0 Comments

Child Pornography Offenders - Forensic Psychological Evaluations

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Steven Gaskell, Psy.D.

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Forensic psychologist, Dr. Steven Gaskell performs psychological assessments of child pornography offenders and sex offenders in general.  This post is an effort to summarize the research pertaining to child pornography offenders.

Child Pornography Offender Research

All child pornography offenses, including the simple possession of child pornography, are extremely serious because they both result in perpetual harm to victims and validate and normalize the sexual exploitation of children.  Child pornography offenders engage in a variety of behaviors reflecting different degrees of culpability and sexual dangerousness.  Research has suggested that as many as 2% to 4% of men have viewed child pornography.  Many who view child pornography are part of online pedohebephilia subcultures who advocate adult-child sex.

Dr. Michael Seto (2009) presented an overview of the current research about child pornography offenses.  The conclusion from a review of the most current research regarding sexual recidivism in child pornography offenders suggests that their rates for recidivism are low compared to other sexual offenders.  Dr. Seto noted that persons convicted of child pornography (CP) offenses were less likely than other sexual offenders to have prior felony convictions.  CP offenders are lower risk for contact offending than already identified contact offenders.  In addition, CP offenders typically have a less extensive criminal history, score lower in psychopathy traits, score lower of measures of clinical needs some of which (e.g., offense-supportive attitudes) are related to risk of re-offending. 

Other research of child pornography offenders (Henshaw, Ogloff, & Clough 2015) has generally found that they have been found to be relatively high functioning and generally pro-social individuals with less extensive and diverse offending histories than contact offenders.  CP offenders have also been found to display high levels of sexual preoccupation, deviant sexual interests, and deficits in interpersonal and affective domains that surpass those of contact offenders.  On average, CP offenders are are almost exclusively male, Caucasian, and tend to be in their late 30s to mid 40s, employed and well educated (Bourke & Hernandez, 2009; Merdian, Wilson, & Boer, 2009; Motivans & Kyckelhahn, 2007; O’Brien & Webster, 2007; Seto, Reeves, & Jung, 2010; Wakeling, Howard, & Barnett, 2011).  When compared with contact sexual offenders, child pornography offenders have consistently been characterized as less likely to have committed prior offenses, both in regard to general criminal offending (Babchishin et al., 2015; Elliott et al., 2009) and sexual offending specifically (Babchishin et al., 2015).  Offenders who have had both contact offending and internet offending have been found to display elevated scores across both Internet preoccupation and antisocial behavior.  This suggests that an antisocial orientation may constitute a particular risk factor for the escalation to contact sexual offending in child pornography offenders.  Relatively low levels of antisociality in samples of child pornography offenders may act as a safeguard against escalation to contact sexual offending.  Although some child pornography offenders do go on to commit sexual offenses against children, engaging in child pornography offending does not inevitably lead to the direct sexual victimization of children.

Child pornography (CP) offenders were generally characterized as having intimacy deficits and sexual self-regulation problems.  Dr. Seto wrote, “This research has shown that relatively few child pornography offenders go on to commit contact sexual offenses.”  He found 4% of the 301 CP offenders in the police case file study and 8.5% of the such offenders in the registry study were criminally charged for a new sexual offense involving physical contact with a victim during the follow-up (3.9 years and 5.9 years respectively).  Results indicated that offender age, substance abuse problems, and sexual interest in children are risk factors for new CP offenses or new contact sexual offenses, which is consistent with general research on sex offenders.  He made the distinction between sexual offense history and likelihood of new sexual offenses. In a review of nine studies, the percentage of child pornography offenders with prior hands-on offenses ranged from 8% to 44% across the nine studies.  While this data justifiably raises concerns for potential past victims, it is not predictive of future sexual offending.  This article also discussed the results of studies examining the characteristics of child pornography offenders by comparing them to contact sex offenders with child victims.  It was found that child pornography offenders are more likely to show a pedophilic arousal pattern by responding more to depictions of children than to depictions of adults (Seto et al, 2006).  In addition, child pornography offenders are more intelligent and better educated, likely reflecting the fact that their crimes involved the use of computers and internet technologies (Blanchard et al., 2007).  Dr. Seto reported that child pornography offenders are a group of men who are likely to be pedophiles, yet are nonetheless relatively unlikely to go on to have sexual contact with a child, especially if they have no such history in their past.  Dr. Seto explained the results of his CP offender studies emphasize two major dimensions of risk including;

  1. Antisocial tendencies, indicated by criminal history, antisocial personality traits and antisocial beliefs;
  2. Atypical sexual interests, indicated by arousal to children, coercive sex, or other atypical targets or activities and sexual victim choice

It was further noted that atypical interests represent an important (though not the sole) motivation for sexual offending, while the antisocial tendencies represent the willingness of the person to act upon their sexual motivation.

In a meta-analysis of seven research samples, Seto and Eke (2005) found lower recidivism rates for child pornography offenders than for offenders who had committed other types of sexual offenses.  The recidivism rates of 201 child pornography offenders over a five-year period were 2.2% for a contact sexual offense, 3.6% for additional child pornography offenses, and 4.2% for violent sexual or non-sexual offenses.  These rates are consistent with the lowest risk category of combined Static-99 and Stable-2007 scores (Hanson, et al, 2007) for other classes of sexual offenders over three years, which are 2.0% for sexual offenses and 4.8% for violent offenses.

Webb, Craissati and Keen (2007) used the Stable 2000 with 90 convicted CP offenders to ascertain whether the Stable 2000 could predict recidivism.  Although scores on the Stable 2000 were positively correlated with probation failures and sexually risky behavior (e.g., using adult pornography daily), there were no sexual recidivists (with a hands-on sexual offense with a child) in the sample of child pornography offenders after 18 months.  They found that only 3 of the 73 child pornography offenders re-offended during an 18 month follow-up period.  Two of those who re-offended did so with a new child pornography offense.  The other recidivist committed a non-sexual crime.

Currently supported models of offending indicate that there are two major dimensions of risk: antisocial tendencies and atypical sexual interests.  Dr. Seto suggests that atypical sexual interests may represent a motivation for sexual offending, but antisocial tendencies represent the willingness of the person to act upon their sexual motivation.  Child pornography offenders are more likely to show a pedophilic sexual interest pattern than offenders with only hands on offenses.  However, they score relatively low on measures of antisocial tendencies.  Factors which increased risk for sexual offense recidivism in the Seto and Eke (2005) study included prior violent offenses and probation failure prior to or current with offense.

An overwhelming array of judges across the county have determined that, where a child pornography offender is non-violent, has no criminal history, and has no history of actual inappropriate interactions with children, that a probationary sentence is appropriate (e.g., United States v. Autery; United States v. Stall; United States v. Prisel; United States v. Rowan; United States v Polito; United States v. Diaz; United States v. Meillier; United States v. Boyden; United States v. Evren ).  Some courts have begun sentencing defendants convicted of possessing child pornography to one day of incarceration followed by a term of supervised release.

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