The myth of the harmless hands-off offender

The myth of the harmless hands-off offender
27 April, 2017 Anna Borgström

The myth of the harmless hands-off offender

Why is it so important to fight child sexual abuse material? Is it not just a picture, and does it really matter if someone looks at an image?

There are several reasons why it matters. Each image or video is documented sexual abuse of a child and often depicts the worst moment of that child’s life. When the image spreads across the world the offense is repeated, again and again.

But it does not stop there. It is not a harmless act to look at child sexual abuse material. It is not something that you do, unless you have a sexual interest in children. And there is a strong link between watching illicit material and sexually abusing children.

In the NetClean Report 2016, we asked Michael Bourke from US Marshals to comment on the correlation between consumption of child sexual abuse material and committing contact sexual offences against children. His full title is Ph.D., Chief, Behavioral Analysis Unit, United States Marshals Service, and he has worked for many years with sex offenders in the USA and conducted several studies on the topic.

The myth of the harmless hands-off offender

60-85 per cent of those who look at child sexual abuse material also commit hands-on sexual offences against children. It is a myth that there is a large group of hands-off offenders that are no danger to children.

Years ago there were professionals – typically academics – who assumed there were two groups of individuals who are sexually attracted to children: 1) so-called “hands-off” offenders, who limit their sexual behaviour to viewing photographs and online videos; and 2) hands-on offenders. There was also a misguided notion that looking at child sexual abuse images would mitigate the urges of people with a sexual interest in children.

Same underlying motivations

Those professionals who worked on the front lines with sex offenders, however, such as criminal investigators, clinicians who treat sex offenders, and probation and parole officers, quickly learned this conceptualisation did not fit most of the offenders with whom they interacted. They realised the “groups” were simply based on the crime that had been detected by law enforcement and not on the offenders’ true criminal offence histories.  Once they asked the offenders about undiscovered crimes it became obvious that the majority of so-called “online offenders” were, in fact, undetected hands-on abusers, and many convicted child molesters also possessed child abuse images on their computers.

In other words, looking at child abuse material and sexually abusing children are adjunctive crimes – they are different manifestations of the same underlying motivations or drives. Given that both crimes are “fuelled” by a sexual interest in children, the commission of each crime appears attributable to access and opportunity. Yet it is still not uncommon to hear arguments and read studies that describe differences between “hands-on” and “hands-off” offenders. In spite of several studies proving these conceptualisations to be fundamentally flawed, the myth is still alive.

Not a mitigating factor

Let’s look at the other notion – that looking at images serves as a mitigating factor. The first thing we have to recognise is this premise completely goes against basic psychology. In psychology, behaviours that are reinforcing (i.e., provide physical pleasure, satisfy an urge, cause relaxation) will maintain or increase the frequency of the associated behaviour.  Thus, instead of mitigating urges, the viewing of child sexual abuse images will strengthen urges and enhance the fantasies. Child abuse images, like “adult” pornography, are designed to make fantasies seem more real.  In the case of child abuse imagery, making those fantasies more “real” is precisely what we want to avoid.

60-86 per cent correlation

A number of studies have looked at the correlation between looking at child sexual abuse material and hands-on abuse.  Michael C Seto, a Canadian forensic psychologist and author, is one of the most recognised researchers on paedophilia and sexual offenses committed against children.  In his meta-analysis, a study that combines the results from all studies within a given subject – he found that more than 50 per cent, and probably closer to 60 per cent, of those who consume child sexual abuse material also commit hands-on offences against children.  This estimate may be low since a significant amount of sexual abuse goes unreported.

In a study from 2014 (Bourke et al., “The use of tactical polygraph with sex offenders”) 57.5 per cent of those in the study who had been arrested for a child pornography offence also admitted hands-on sexual abuse of children.  This information was obtained at the time of arrest, and since any admissions could be used against the offenders in court proceedings, the researchers assume the percentage was an underestimate of the true correlation. The study was replicated in 2016 (DeLisi et al., “The dark figure of sexual offending: New evidence from federal sex offenders”) and in that study 69 per cent of the offenders self-reported contact sexual offences.

An even higher number was shown in “The Butner Study Redux: A report of the Incidence of Hands-on Child Victimization by Child Pornography Offenders” (Bourke & Hernandez, 2008). The researchers looked at a population of sex offenders within a voluntary, prison-based treatment programme, and found a crossover of 85 percent and an average of 13 victims per offender. At the time the paper was published there was criticism that the numbers seemed too high; the research was methodologically sound, however, and subsequent studies appear to support the “Butner Redux” paper’s findings.

In short, the idea of a “harmless” hands-off abuser is a myth. The studies show there is a high, if not very high, correlation between looking at child sexual abuse material and contact sexual offences against children.

READ MORE: The NetClean Report 2016

Watch our interview with Cecilia Wallin from Swedish Police

“The connection between looking at pictures and sexually abusing children is quite strong. […] 50-60 per cent also sexually abuse children.”