Child Porn Offenders and the Sentencing Process: Part Two, Psychosexual EvaluationsDifferent Motivations, Different Risks

In part one of this posting I discussed the increasingly aggressive sanctions[i] that are levied against most child porn offenders, noting that current sentencing guidelines have been driven primarily by media, political, and social paranoia rather than research based facts about offenders and their behaviors. Essentially, the legal system seems to think that if a person is looking at child pornography, a hands-on offense is sure to follow. This is not in fact the case. Unfortunately, this shortsighted approach is the tactic du jour in most US courtrooms.

The simple truth of the matter is that there are several categories of child sex offenders, with some groups being much more likely than others to reoffend with child pornography and/or to escalate into contact offending. In fact, most of the available tier one, peer-reviewed research on child porn usage reveals that viewing child pornography, by itself, is not an indicator of future hands-on offending. One rather significant study found that among child porn users who had not previously committed a hands-on offense, only 0.05% (1 out of 220 test subjects) went on to commit such an offense.[ii] Another noteworthy study found that the primary risk factor for both child porn recidivism and escalation to hands-on offending is a generalized criminal history beyond the viewing of child pornography.[iii] In other words, child porn users who do not engage in other criminal activities are significantly less likely than their criminally active counterparts to reoffend with child porn or to commit a hands-on offense. This is true regardless of whether the prior criminal activity is sexual in nature. Taken together, these studies rather strongly suggest that the motivation for viewing child pornography is either different or detached from the motivation for contact sexual offending.

Nevertheless, current sentencing guidelines are uniformly harsh for all child porn offenders. As such, it is up to therapists to evaluate a child porn user’s motivations and likelihood of future wrongdoing, and to present, when appropriate, an argument for therapeutic rather than purely punitive sentencing. In other words, therapists need be invited into the legal process to help well-meaning but under-informed judges and prosecutors understand that not all child porn offenders are the same, and that the vast majority have the psychological and emotional awareness needed to not act on their sexual attraction to minors beyond the viewing of illicit imagery.

Who Is (and Is Not) a Good Candidate for Offender Treatment?

There are four basic types of child sexual offenders, two of which are unlikely to respond to any sort of sex offender treatment, and two of which typically respond positively to appropriate intervention.

  1. Violent Sexual Offenders: These are the men (are sometimes women) who commit forcible sex offenses, often of the “snatch and grab” variety. They typically do not respond to treatment, and their risk for reoffending is high.
  2. Fixated/Dedicated Child Offenders: For these individuals, the primary (often sole) sexual attraction is toward children and/or adolescents. Fixated child offenders sometimes structure their lives in ways that provide them with access to potential victims. These individuals typically do not respond positively to treatment and their risk for reoffending is high.
  3. Situational Child Offenders: These offenders are attracted to adults as well as children. (Many have healthy adult romantic attachments.) Their sexual behavior with children tends to be purely opportunistic, rather than planned. For instance, they may stumble across child pornography while surfing for porn in a more general way, and then choose to explore that. Others will offend related to drug and/or alcohol abuse. These offenders, especially those who’ve not committed a hands-on offense, typically respond positively to appropriate sex offender treatment.
  4. Sexually Addicted Child Offenders: These are men and women who are compulsively sexual as a way to avoid feelings of stress, depression, anxiety, and the like. They use sexual fantasy and activity (including porn) to escape from life and to self-regulate their internal emotional state. These are the exact same reasons that alcoholics drink and drug addicts get high. Unfortunately, as with other addictions, sex addiction tends to escalate. In the same way that a drug addict might escalate from marijuana to OxyContin to heroin, a sex addict might escalate from vanilla porn to BDSM porn to child porn. These offenders, especially those who’ve not committed a hands-on offense, typically respond positively to sex addiction recovery and appropriate sex offender treatment.

Generally speaking, if a child sex offense includes elements of physical violence, threats of physical violence, and/or bizarre or ritualistic acts (bondage, enemas, etc.), then treatment is contraindicated. Similarly, treatment is contraindicated if the offense is simply one aspect of an antisocial or criminal lifestyle. It is also problematic from a treatment perspective when an offender denies that he or she has committed the offense. Otherwise, treatment is potentially effective.

It is important to note that violent and fixated/dedicated child sex offenders comprise about 10 percent of the child sex offender population. As mentioned above, these offenders are unlikely to respond to treatment. The other 90 percent of child sex offenders are either situational or sexually addicted, and, as such, treatment is likely to meet with success.

Psychosexual Evaluations

It can be difficult to differentiate between the various categories of child porn users, as offenders are not always forthcoming about their past and current sexual arousal patterns, behaviors, or other important considerations. As such, clinicians must make it clear to an offender that honesty and cooperation are a primary part of the assessment, and that anything they assert as fact will be checked. So, in addition to standard client interviews and evaluations with various psychological instruments (the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, for instance), clinicians should seek out and incorporate information from a variety of external sources (police reports, victim accounts, interviews with family members, etc.) Sometimes, when the equipment is available, an offender’s sexual arousal patterns can be tested via plethysmograph in addition to more traditional techniques (interview and questionnaire). Similarly, an offender’s level of truthfulness can be tested via polygraph.

The primary goals of any psychosexual evaluation are as follows:

  • To present a full and accurate picture of past, current, and potential sexual behavior concerns
  • To present recommendations and guidelines for treatment and/or incarceration
  • To present information regarding a potential return to home, work, and community – including potential hazards

In general, a well-organized psychosexual evaluation will detail the offender’s general psychological functioning, sexual and relationship history, and family and social history. It will also include an in-depth examination of the offender’s trauma history – emotional, physical, and sexual. (This history may be extensive.) Additionally, any related physical or mental health concerns should be delineated, as these issues are often relevant to the treatment vs. incarceration debate. Last but not least, the evaluation should include commentary on the level of openness and honesty in the offender’s self-disclosure.

Clinicians should keep in mind when preparing psychosexual evaluations for the court that their reports are not useful unless the information contained therein can be accurately understood by the reader. They must also understand that our legal system typically treats all child porn offenders as if they are the same, even though their propensity for reoffending and/or contact offending may be quite different. Typically, the attitude of people who work within the justice system is aggressively punitive. In cases where treatment seems more appropriate than purely punitive sanctions, this bias must be overcome with clear and concise language that explains, in lay terminology, the differences between various types of offenders, and why this particular individual (and his or her family and community) is better served with a less punitive approach to sentencing.

For further information about sexual offending and/or the treatment of sexual offenders, please visit the organizational websites listed below.

The Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA) promotes evidence-based strategies for the assessment and treatment of individuals who have sexually abused/offended or are at risk to do so. ATSA provides referrals to qualified therapists.

The Safer Society Foundation is dedicated to ending sexual abuse and offending through effective prevention and treatment.

 

.

[i] Stabenow, T. (2008). Deconstructing the myth of careful study: A primer on the flawed progression of the Child Pornography Guidelines. Office of Defender Services/Training Branch, Administrative Office of the United States Courts.

[ii] Endrass, J., Urbaniok, F., Hammermeister, L. C., Benz, C., Elbert, T., Laubacher, A., & Rossegger, A. (2009). The consumption of Internet child pornography and violent and sex offending. BmC Psychiatry, 9(1), 43.

[iii] Seto, M. C., & Eke, A. W. (2005). The criminal histories and later offending of child pornography offenders. Sexual abuse: a journal of research and treatment, 17(2), 201-210.