nextgenforensic

Transnational child sex offenders: A not so new but distinct type of child sex offender?

Sarah Wefers (@s_wefers on Twitter)

For years, and decades even, so-called “child sex tourism” has been an issue that has attracted public interest. Several offenders, who travelled abroad and sexually abused children there, have gained notoriety.  One example is Richard Huckle, who is believed to have abused up to 200 children in extremely poor parts of Southeast Asia. He gained access to children through churches and orphanages, presenting as a philanthropist and grooming the local communities. He abused this trust to assault children and produced indecent images, which he shared on the Dark Web with other offenders. He even compiled a “manual” giving advice on how best to groom and abuse children from developing countries.

Despite well-known cases like this and the identification of transnational child sex offences as a rising crime trend, transnational child sex offenders (TCSOs) seem to have largely been neglected by researchers. But before I continue, let me take a sidestep and throw in a word on terminology. Although in popular media or in everyday life, most people may refer to this phenomenon as “child sex tourism”, I will refer to it as transnational child sex offending (and the offenders as TCSOs). As we know, terminology matters (see Danielle Kettleborough’s previous post on why to avoid the term “child pornography”). The term “child sex tourism” could imply that children are up for sale as part of tourism entertainment, which it is not. Using the term “transnational child sex offending” instead places a stronger focus on the abusive nature of this behaviour.

To find out what is currently known on TCSOs, I have recently conducted a systematic review on the topic. A systematic review is a particular method of conducting a literature review, which includes a thorough and well-documented search of literature. The identified literature will then be checked to see if it meets the reviewer’s inclusion (or exclusion) criteria, which are agreed upon beforehand. The studies meeting the inclusion criteria will be assessed for their quality and research rigor, which allows the identification of the most trustworthy studies. Those studies will then receive more attention in the synthesis of the findings.

Using the term “transnational child sex offending” instead places a stronger focus on the abusive nature of this behaviour.

My systematic review aimed to identify offender characteristics associated with transnational child sex offending. I searched nine electronic databases, searched websites of international law enforcement organisations and non-governmental organisations working in child protection, and asked other researchers whether they were aware of any studies on TCSOs. I identified 15 studies that met my inclusion criteria. These included two studies using surveys (i.e., cross-sectional studies), twelve unpublished studies (i.e., “grey literature”, such as dissertations or expert reports) and one published collection of case studies. Although most of these studies had some (severe) flaws (e.g., in terms of their unstructured and un-documented methodology), some insights into TCSOs’ psychological profile emerged.

[M]ost TCSOs are Western men, who are employed or retired, not in a romantic relationship, and 40 years or older

For example, these studies reported that most TCSOs are Western men, who are employed or retired, not in a romantic relationship, and 40 years or older. Compared to other sexual offenders, TCSOs seem to be much older. Perhaps a certain wealth and lack of romantic commitment facilitates transnational child sex offending. Only a small group of TCSOs seems to have a criminal record, although a criminal history with previous violent offences was a predictor for transnational child sex offending in one of the studies. TCSOs appear to have difficulties with establishing or maintaining adult romantic, intimate relationships and hold certain offence-supportive cognitions. Offence-supportive cognitions are beliefs or attitudes that rationalise, minimise, or deny child sexual abuse. Those cognitions are thought to stem from specific ways of interpreting the world, so-called implicit theories. Child sex offenders are believed to hold various implicit theories, such as entitlement (a sense of superiority over others) and children as sexual beings (children actively consent to and seek out sexual interactions). The reviewed studies lend some support that TCSOs may hold offence-supportive cognitions related to those implicit theories but that are specific to their offender type. The implicit theory of entitlement may be expressed in TCSOs as attitudes of superiority over other cultures. The implicit theory of children as sexual beings may manifest as beliefs considering children from other cultures as sexually more mature than children from one’s own cultural background.

TCSOs may hold offence-supportive cognitions related to those implicit theories but that are specific to their offender type

Compared to other child sexual offenders and sex tourists who had sex with adults but not children abroad, TCSOs were found to be more sexually deviant. For example, TCSOs engaged in more sexual behaviours with children (particularly with boys), were more likely to use indecent images of children, and reported a greater interest in anal sex. The reviewed studies did not indicate whether TCSOs mainly have a paedophilic sexual interest or whether they are preferentially interested in adults. We know from other research that most child sexual offences are committed by people who are primarily sexually interested in adults, but that a paedophilic sexual interest (especially a paedophilic preference) is a risk factor for repeated offending against children.

In conclusion, the limited findings indicate that some characteristics of TCSOs might be specific to this population, potentially allowing a differentiation from other types of (child) sex offenders. TCSOs appear to be older, hold specific offence-supportive cognitions, and might be more sexually deviant than other offenders. It is surprising that only very few researchers have investigated TCSOs to date, despite the fact that this crime seems to be rising. Maybe problems with accessing data from different countries or lack of data due to low prosecution and conviction rates has made it difficult to investigate this topic. Hopefully future research on this particular type of offenders can help us keep children safe, especially in this increasingly globalised world.


Sarah completed her B.Sc. in Psychology (2009-2012) and M.Sc. in Forensic Psychology (2012-2014) at Maastricht University (The Netherlands). She has worked with a variety of sexual offenders, ranging from (potential) child sex offenders in the community in Germany to high-secure forensic patients in the UK. She is currently a PhD student at Sheffield Hallam University (UK), conducting research in the area of child sex offending.

 

Suggested citation:

Wefers, S. (2019, January 27). Transnational child sex offenders: A not so new but distinct type of child sex offender? [Weblog post]. Retrieved from https://nextgenforensic.wordpress.com/2019/01/27/transnational-child-sex-offenders-a-not-so-new-but-distinct-type-of-child-sex-offender/

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