Understanding the cognitions of child sexual exploitation material offenders

Danielle Kettleborough

The endorsement of offence-supportive cognitions has been discussed as a contributing factor in initialising and maintaining sexually abusive behaviour against children.  Ward and Keenan (1999) propose that, for child sex offenders, their offence-supportive cognitions emerge from five implicit theories, about the nature of their victims, the world, and themselves. These five theories are labelled Children as Sexual Objects, Entitlement, Dangerous World, Uncontrollability of Offending Behaviour, and Nature of Harm.  The aim of some research colleagues and myself recently conducted was to explore, and further our understanding of, the cognitions of individuals with an offence related to child sexual exploitation material (CSEM).

Over the last decade, there has been a substantial increase in research on individuals that engage in offences related to CSEM, with one of the big research questions being how likely are individuals with a CSEM related offence to “cross-over” or “escalate” to engagement in a contact sex offence.  Comparison studies continue to identify psychological and offence-related differences between CSEM offenders (CSEMOs) and Contact Sex Offenders (CSOs) (Babchishin, Hanson & Hermann, 2011; Babchishin, Hanson & VanZuylen, 2014; Elliott, Beech & Mandeville-Norden, 2012; Lee, Li, Lamade & Schuler, 2012; McCarthy, 2010), and increasingly research suggests that individuals accessing CSEM are heterogeneous.  Following from this, it has been suggested that there is a distinction of CSEMOs based on a “contact-driven” and “fantasy-driven” typology (Briggs, Simon & Simonson, 2011; Merdian, Curtis, Thakker, Wilson & Boer, 2013), summarised in the figure below.

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In exploring offence-supportive cognitions amongst CSEMOs, research to date has involved the application of existing measures that were originally developed for contact sex offenders (CSOs; i.e. MOLEST Scale, Abel and Becker’s Cognitions Scale, Victim Empathy Distortion Scale; in Elliott, Beech, Mandelville-Norden, & Hayes, 2009, and the Children and Sex Cognitions Questionnaire; in Elliott et al., 2009).  Overall, CSEMOs have been found to endorse cognitive distortions to a lower degree than CSOs (see also Howitt & Sheldon, 2007). This could suggest that CSEMOs are generally less likely to endorse offence-supportive cognitions compared to CSOs, or endorse cognitions of a different quality than CSOs that are not included in the existing scales.  Whilst more specific measures have been developed for CSEMOs (e.g. Internet Behaviours and Attitudes Questionnaire and Children and Sexual Activities Inventory), they continue to be developed based on existing measures of offence-supportive cognitions, and do not allow for firm conclusions at this stage. Also, existing scales do not have the sensitivity to capture the contact-driven vs. fantasy-driven typology, which may be a useful explanatory model for CSEMOs. In short, to date, there has been no scale developed to measure the endorsement of potentially offence-specific cognitions of CSEMOs without reference to existing scales for contact sex offending.

DK2 2.8.15

The development of the Children, Internet, and Sex Cognitions (CISC) scale

My colleagues and I recently completed a project with the aim of filling this gap in the current research by creating a measure of offence-supportive cognitions specifically tailored for CSEMOs and to examine the application of the contact-driven vs. fantasy-driven typology for CSEMOs.

The new measure was developed in two-parts.  Firstly, a range of CSEM-specific items was generated based on a semi-structured survey of professionals with experience of working with this offender group. Second, a second set of participants were asked to match the generated items with the elicited themes from the first part of the study  Thematic analysis of participants’ responses regarding the thinking patterns of CSEMOs elicited four overarching themes, namely, Perceived Nature of Children, Non-sexual Engagement with CSEM, Denial of Harm, and Expression of a General Sexual Preference.  As portrayed below, for each theme, a number of subthemes were identified, portraying variants of the main theme.

Based on extracts of data from the semi-structured survey, 118 initial items measuring offence-supportive cognitions were generated to form the scale.  These items were then presented to a group of raters, who were asked to sort the items back to their originating subtheme.  If the level of agreement amongst raters was less than 50%, these items were removed.  The final process resulted in a 108-item scale named Children, Internet, and Sex Cognitions (CISC), the first empirically-based measure developed solely for CSEMOs. See below:

DK3 2.8.15

The development process of the CISC highlights that the cognitions of CSEMOs are not coherent but may encompass a range of themes. The identified themes in the present study portrayed a range of offence-supportive cognitions that go beyond the offence supportive cognitions for child sex offenders, supporting growing research that suggests CSEMOs are a distinct group of sex offenders, and that there may be differing typologies of CSEMOs (Babchishin et al., 2011; Babchishin, Hanson & VanZuylen, 2014; Seto, Hanson & Babchishin, 2011).  Some overlap was found with Ward and Keenan’s (1999) implicit theories, in particular for Children as Sexual Beings (Children as Sexual Objects), Uncontrollability of Offending Behaviour (Uncontrollability), and Denial of Harm (Nature of Harm).  Interestingly, a number of offence-specific themes that are different from existing themes were also identified, pointing to the profile of a fantasy-driven CSEMO.

Conclusions and Implications

Research to date has suggested that CSEMOs endorse significantly less offence-supportive cognitions compared to CSOs (Babchishin et al., 2011; Bates & Metcalf, 2007; Elliott et al., 2009; Webb, Craissati & Keen, 2007), but this research suggests the plausibility of an alternative hypothesis: that CSEMOs hold differing cognitions to CSOs. Previous measures have so far been unable to capture these “different” cognitions, as comparisons were previously made using measures developed based on the cognitions of CSOs (Bates & Metcalf, 2007; Elliott & Beech, 2009; Bumby, 1996).  Therefore the development of the CISC enables offence-supportive cognitions specific to CSEMOs, to be captured.

In short, the development of the CISC will aid exploring the differences and similarities between contact and non-contact child sex offenders and to improve the understanding of the role of offence-supportive cognitions in the commission of CSEM offending.

Suggested citation:
Kettleborough, D. (2015, Feb 8). Understanding the cognitions of child sexual exploitation material offenders. [Weblog post]. Retrieved from

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2 thoughts on “Understanding the cognitions of child sexual exploitation material offenders”

  1. How exactly is “child porn” defined in these questionnaires? Simply erotica featuring under 18s? That covers a whole range of material from harmless photos of adolescents posing naked to sadistic material involving toddlers and babies.

    Surely questionnaires like this aren’t very useful unless they specify exactly what kind of child porn is being referred to.

  2. As Ms. Kettleborough doesn’t use the term “child porn” at any point in this post, we can assume that it *isn’t* defined in this questionnaire and that no kind of child porn is being referred to.

    Typically, when researchers refer to child sexual exploitation material, they mean material that would be considered illegal under current UK sentencing guidelines (i.e., the [new] SAP levels). It’s a pragmatic definition, no doubt. But as forensic psychologists we work within the confines of the law.

    Ian E

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