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Contact Offense Risk and Child Pornography

Psychologist Robin Wilson provides an overview of two new studies published in the journal Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment on whether those who download and view child pornography are likely to engage in contact offenses with children.

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 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... 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 study discussed by Wilson suggests that there may indeed be a subgroup of online offenders who pose a low risk for contact offenses.  The problem, of course, is identifying those offenders from the general pool of online offenders. 

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