Viewing child pornography does not seem to increase risk of abusing children, study concludes

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: (Published 14 July 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b2876
  1. Susan Mayor
  1. 1London

    Viewing child pornography does not, in itself, seem to be a major risk factor for committing physical sexual abuse of children in the future, concludes a follow-up study of men who were convicted in a Swiss child pornography investigation but who had no convictions for hands-on sex offences (offences involving physical contact with the victim) against children.

    “There is ongoing debate about whether people who view child pornography pose a risk of committing sex offences against children,” explained a member of the research group, Frank Urbaniok, a forensic psychiatrist with the Canton of Zurich Department of Justice. “And there have previously been few studies looking at the association between consumption of child pornography and subsequent sex offences.”

    It is generally assumed that people who download child pornography are paedophiles, said Jérôme Endrass, head of the research department at the Criminal Justice System of Zurich. “In forensic psychiatry we find that the majority of people convicted of child abuse have consumed child pornography in the past. So we wanted to see if people who viewed child pornography, but who did not have convictions for child abuse, went on to commit hands-on sex offences in the future.”

    The study followed up 231 men charged with viewing child pornography after being detected by a special operation against internet child pornography in Switzerland in 2002 (BMC Psychiatry 2009;9:43, doi:10.1186/1471-244X-9-43). Fourteen (6%) of the men went on to commit a violent or sexual offence in the following six years or be investigated for such an offence.

    Nine of these men (4% of the total) were investigated, charged, or convicted in relation to hands-off sex offences, all concerning the illegal possession of pornography, and three men were investigated in relation to violent offences. Two men were being investigated, charged, or convicted in relation to hands-on sex offences, namely child sexual abuse. One of these had previously been convicted of a hands-on sex offence.

    In terms of managing people convicted of viewing child pornography, Dr Endrass said the study indicated that those who do not have a previous history of child abuse seemed unlikely to commit hands-on sex offences against children in the future. However, he noted that consumption of child pornography is clearly an offence and that children remain victims of this activity.

    Chris Cloke, head of child protection at the UK National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said, “It’s important to remember that many children will have suffered appalling sexual assaults while these images are being made, so anybody who views them is colluding in some way. And once an image is online it can never be completely removed, and the victims will always have to live with this dreadful situation.”

    Also, many sex offenders are never brought to justice, Mr Cloke pointed out. “Research shows that three out of four children who have been abused never tell anyone at the time, and one third still haven’t revealed the details by early adulthood. There can also be difficulties gathering evidence if there is a long gap between the offence and it being reported to police.”

    Dr Urbaniok said that the Swiss findings support the assumption that consumers of child pornography form a distinct group of sex offenders. “Probably the motivation for consuming child pornography differs from the motivation to physically assault minors,” he said.

    Sexual addiction may explain some cases of people who view child pornography but who do not abuse children, Dr Endrass said. He noted that the research showed that most of the men in the study consumed other types of illegal pornography as well as that involving children. “The hypothesis is that some people are addicted to sex and consume all sorts of pornography, which eventually includes child pornography. But this does not necessarily mean they are paedophiles.”

    Mr Cloke warned that sex offenders are increasingly sharing indecent images of children by setting up private spaces online and using “peer to peer” file sharing software.

    The NSPCC wants to see a clampdown on people who view and share abusive images of children. “The government must also provide help for children who have been abused and who live with the knowledge that images of their abuse are being circulated in cyberspace,” Mr Cloke said.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b2876

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