Child pornography is exploding on the internet. Police and tech platforms are finding it hard to keep up. But finding a solution demands that we understand why people access this vicious kind of material in the first place. MercatorNet interviewed an academic expert on the topic, Dr Jeremy Prichard.

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Child pornography seems to be exploding, abetted by the internet.

Jeremy Prichard: A small point on terminology. Many jurisdictions have moved away from use the term “child pornography” because of the potential for normalizing the content by treating it as just another genre of erotic entertainment. “Child exploitation material” (CEM) and similar terms are preferred. I’ll come back to this point below.

From a criminologist’s perspective, what is happening? Is the number of images increasing, or the number of producers, or the number of users – or all of them?

We don’t have precise metrics, but it is clear that more users exist. For instance, in 1980 it was estimated that the largest selling CEM magazine sold 800 copies in the US. By 2000 a single internet CEM company was found to have more than 250,000 registered customers. And as a recent New York Times article showed, the CEM market has continued to boom.

Yes, certainly more images too, as the NYT piece discussed. More producers? Probably. That’s because some producers have come into the market because they are profit motivated, not because of paedophilic interests. There’s clearly money to be made in CEM on a scale that simply didn’t exist decades ago. The lower estimate is US$4 billion annually.

Many people believe that paedophilic urges are innate – either genetic or epigenetic. What is the consensus amongst the experts?

A lot of research continues to be done on the typologies of child sex offenders and the aetiology of the crime. This is a complex area.

But I’m not aware of any evidence that paedophilia has a genetic base. The term paedophilia is problematic because, contrary to what the public might assume, significant portions of men who sexually assault minors do not meet the criteria for the diagnosis. If people find this hard to believe, think of the rapes of children that have been perpetrated by soldiers in theatres of war. Did those armies somehow accidentally recruit large numbers of paedophiles?

Your research centres on how people get “hooked” on child pornography? What have you learned?

Three main typologies of offenders have been identified in this field: those who only sexually abuse children; those who only view CEM (‘viewers’); and those who engage in both behaviours (‘dual offenders’).

Viewers have a strange profile from a criminologist’s perspective because they are so heterogeneous. Other than being male and under the age of 40, they appear to come from all walks of life in term of their criminal history (many have otherwise clean criminal records), employment, education, marriage status, family background and so forth.

Richard Wortley, the Head of the Jill Dando Institute for Crime Prevention, University College London, has stated that the “striking characteristic” of viewers is “their ordinariness”. These offenders appear to fit the profile of “opportunistic offenders”.

They began viewing not because of a prior sexual interest in children but because they were repeatedly presented with an easy opportunity to commit an offence online; they perceived this as involving a low risk of detection; they were interested in some sort of sexual reward; and they probably engaged in some sort of cognitive distortion at the time of criminal decision-making, such as “it’s only an image… what difference does it make if I just look at it?”

How do viewers start, take that first step? More work is required here because this area of crime is so new. But scholars think for some that first deliberate viewing would require crossing a significant psychological threshold. For others research indicates the first viewing was done “out of curiosity” and without much thought.

Whatever the exact conditions, it seems likely that onset (first deliberate viewing) is much more likely to occur when internet users are already in a sexually aroused state, eg from viewing legal pornography. Some commentators have suggested that some viewers may start because they have become bored with genres of legal pornography. When the opportunity to view CEM appears, the very fact that it is illegal and deviant may give the excitement that they have lost.

But what about becoming “hooked”, as you put it? If individuals continue to view CEM then interest in the material is likely to deepen because of the conditional pairing caused by masturbation and orgasm.

I’d also point out that definitions of CEM (which vary widely internationally) can include all ages up to 17 years. This means that it is feasible that viewers might commence with material depicting eg 15-year-olds and gradually work their way down in age.

As background, there is an enormous legal market in “teen” themed pornography. Pornhub’s 2018 annual report showed that in 2018 they had 33.5 billion visits, 92 million per day. Internationally the 12th most popular search term was “teen”. Research on what is actually shown in legal “teen” porn indicates that most of it has faux “teen” themes, eg where the actresses are clearly adults but costumes etc are used for effect.

However, one study showed some legal “teen” porn goes to great extent to eroticise child abuse. The study by Peters et al. (2014) showed that techniques used include:

• actresses with small physical statures;

• clothing (eg school uniforms, pyjamas);

• child-like behaviour (eg giggling, shyness, crying);

• visual cues (eg apparent vaginal bleeding, toys);

• themes (eg step-fathers, babysitters, teachers);

• references to sexual inexperience (eg “fresh”, “innocent”, “virgin”); and

• control exerted by male partners.

So what you are saying is that anyone can acquire the habit of viewing and collecting child pornography.

Anyone? That’s a big call. We need to be glass-half full and note that most men do not view CEM.

But we know that environments can be criminogenic – they can increase the chances of criminal decision-making even by previously law-abiding people. We know that crimes are more likely to be committed when there is a reward attached to the behaviour, where there is a perception of low risk of detection, where committing the crime is easy, and when people can engage in cognitive distortions that excuse the crime. This is borne out by data on all sorts of crime of various seriousness … tax evasion, fare evasion on subways etc.

The internet has provided the perfect storm for “ordinary” men to commit a crime previously they never would have thought of. The internet facilitates all of the criminogenic factors listed above.

That’s a very sobering thought. So a child pornography addict could be anyone — a banker or a mechanic or a journalist or bus driver – anyone who lets his curiosity get the better of him? What’s your recommendation from a public policy perspective? How can governments curb the tide of child pornography?

Public policy needs to become much more sophisticated in responding to the CEM market. (Fortunately that is occurring in Australia.) We need many tools and many options in and outside the criminal justice system.

Assoc. Professor Jeremy Prichard is a criminologist at the University of Tasmania  

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Associate Professor Jeremy Prichard teaches law at the University of Tasmania.