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“The children in the images were not harmed”: Permission-giving thoughts relating to child sexual exploitation material offending

Danielle Kettleborough

Following on from the recent blog post detailing the development of the Children, Internet, and Sex Cognitions (CISC) scale, this post will further explore the findings from this research, focusing on the permission-giving thoughts endorsed by individuals with an offence related to child sexual exploitation material (CSEM).

The figure below provides examples of permission-giving thoughts endorsed by individuals with a child sex offence, as identified by Ward and Keenan (1999).  A starting point in the research that colleagues and I carried out was to explore whether these thoughts can be applied to individuals with a CSEM related offence.

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Whilst we found that there was some overlap with the above permission-giving thoughts for individuals with CSEM offences, there were a large number of additional themes that go beyond those above.  This suggests there may be differences in the permission-giving thoughts of individuals with a CSEM related offence, when compared to those with a contact sex offence. Below is a thematic map of the themes identified in our research, reflecting the views of forensic experts in response to a survey regarding their professional opinions of CSEM offenders (as opposed to offender accounts). The remainder of this post will explore these themes in more detail.

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1. Perceived Nature of Children.

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 This theme relates to how individuals perceive the children portrayed in CSEM, as well as their view of children in general.  Some individuals view the children in CSEM as fantasy characters, as the content of CSEM is perceived to be a fantasy world.  Here, the children are not perceived as being “real”, and no connections are made between the portrayed children and children in real life.  Other individuals may perceive children as actors; whilst they do not generally view children as sexual beings, they believe that they are capable of acting in a sexually sophisticated manner.  Having this perception leads to a belief that children can temporarily portray themselves in a role that is meant to be sexually arousing.  Finally, we found that other individuals perceived children as sexual beings, believing that they have the capacity and understanding to enter into a sexual relationship with an adult.

2. Non-sexual Engagement with CSEM.

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The motivation for engagement with CSEM may include non-sexual as well as sexual elements.  For some, sexual arousal may be secondary, or even non-existent.  Some individuals report not being sexually aroused by the content of CSEM, rather the enjoyment may stem from collecting CSEM, or facilitating the trading systems.  Other individuals may report that their offending behaviour is uncontrollable, and that factors beyond their control underlie their CSEM offending.  Here, the world is perceived as uncontrollable, and they may blame factors such as stress, alcohol, or addiction for the offending behaviour.  Finally, some individuals may engage with CSEM as a means for emotion regulation, to overcome interpersonal deficits and feel a sense of belonging, and alleviate feelings of isolation.

3. Denial of Harm

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This theme relates to the perception of the harm caused by CSEM, both in terms of the act of viewing CSEM, and the level of risk that the individual viewing CSEM perceives themselves to pose.  Some individuals deny their role in the sexual abuse of children, perceiving children within CSEM as being unharmed due to the belief that sexual activity is a positive experience for all, including children.  Here, individuals may distance themselves from contact sex offenders, due to their perceived lack of involvement in the abuse of children.  Others may perceive child sexual abuse as a societal construct, believing that any experienced distress is the consequence of society’s negative construal of adult-child sexual activity; not the activity itself.  Here, society is blamed, not the individual accessing CSEM, as they are not doing anything intrinsically wrong or harmful. 

4. Expression of General Sexual Preference 

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Accessing CSEM may arise as a result of a general interest in deviant sexual behaviour, and not a specified sexual interest in children.  For some, viewing CSEM could be a manifestation for voyeuristic interests, in which the enjoyment stems from the observation and secrecy of looking at tabooed sexual activity, not specifically related to sexual activity with children.  For others, CSEM could form part of a preference for sexually deviant content, individuals are perceived to have a general interest in sexually deviant content rather a refined interest in CSEM or exclusive sexual preference for children.  These individuals have a sexual preference for a wide range of sexually deviant material.

Summary and Conclusions

The identification of the above themes supports growing research that suggests individuals with a CSEM related offence are a distinct group of sex offenders, in terms of their permission-giving thoughts. It also supports the hypothesis that there may be differing typologies within this offence group.

Specifically, we found that some permission-giving thoughts overlapped with those found in previous research with contact sex offenders. However, other CSEM-specific themes were identified, supporting research suggesting there may be a subgroup of individuals with a CSEM related offence that are fantasy-driven.  For example, there appear to be some individuals whose perception of children goes beyond their perceived sexual nature, perceiving them to be “fantasy characters” or “actors”.  The child is, therefore, not objectified as a sexual being per se but rather is perceived in a role, similar to the actors in legal pornographic material.  This perception may facilitate an individual engaging in a fantasy-driven CSEM offence.

These findings support not only the existence of two potential offender subgroups of contact-driven vs. fantasy-driven offenders but further point to the heterogeneity amongst the latter group which warrants further research into the idiosyncrasies of this offender subtype.

Suggested citation:

Kettleborough, D. (2015, June 21). “The children in the images were not harmed”: Permission-giving thoughts relating to child sexual exploitation material offending [Weblog post]. Retrieved from http://wp.me/p2RS15-ao.


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