Understanding Users of Child Pornography

Why do some men look at child pornography?

Posted Nov 17, 2020

Shutterstock, Stenko Vlad
Source: Shutterstock, Stenko Vlad

As porn usage has increased, many men have either intentionally or unintentionally seen child pornography. Although such behaviors are abhorrent and generally reviled by our society, they are not a de facto sign that an in-person sexual offense is likely to be committed. Moreover, many (though not all) of the men who look at child porn, once they enter treatment, tend to respond positively to therapeutic intervention with a minimal likelihood of relapse.

To illustrate the difference between those who are likely and unlikely to respond to treatment, consider the examples of James and Robert.

James

James, a 26-year-old male, was arrested after the IT department at his work found around 20 underage images and videos on his company-issued laptop. The IT department also found hundreds of legal images and videos, mostly depicting adult women. In therapy after his arrest, James admitted downloading the illegal images even though he knew it was wrong and felt ashamed. “This has been going on for a few years. Once I saw the first picture, it was like a boulder rolling downhill. I couldn’t stop myself. I’d find some illegal content, download it, then hate myself and delete it. Then, a week or two later, I’d do the same thing.” In therapy, James is highly motivated to permanently end his use of all pornography, to maintain his relationship with his long-term girlfriend, and to stay out of prison.

Robert

Robert, a 32-year-old male, was arrested after the IT department at his work found around 20 underage images and videos on his company-issued laptop. There was no other pornography. In therapy after his arrest, Robert initially denied downloading the illegal material, saying that somebody in his workplace was out to get him. He has never had a serious romantic relationship. He has been arrested multiple times for a variety of minor offenses (though none of a sexual nature, until now). Eventually, he admits that he “likes young girls” and prior to his arrest he had a much larger stash of illegal porn on an external storage device. “I trashed it after I got arrested because I didn’t want the cops to find it.” In therapy, Robert is highly motivated to stay out of prison. Beyond that, he seems unmotivated to make life changes.

James and Robert have been arrested for the same offense, but from a clinician’s perspective, they are quite different. Robert is an individual who searches for and looks at child pornography in a dedicated way, with no other sexual interests, whereas James simply stumbled across it when looking at legal porn and found it arousing, though not to the exclusion of more socially acceptable behaviors, including age-appropriate romantic and sexual relationships.

Types of Child Porn Users

Clinicians who are skilled with issues related to child pornography have identified three primary typologies, each of which presents unique risks and potential for recovery and healing.

  1. Sexually Compulsive/Addicted Offenders: These individuals compulsively engage in sexual behaviors, including porn use, as a way to avoid stress, depression, anxiety, and the like. Unfortunately, as with other addictions, sex/porn addiction tends to escalate. In the same way a substance abuser might escalate from alcohol to painkillers to heroin, a porn addict might escalate from vanilla porn to harder-core and maybe child porn. These individuals typically respond positively to informed treatment, and they are relatively unlikely to re-offend, except, perhaps, in the early stages of addiction recovery, where short-term relapses are relatively common.
  2. Situational/Regressed Child Offenders: These men are attracted to both adults and minors. Many have healthy adult romantic attachments. Their sexual behavior with minors tends to be more opportunistic than planned. Typically, they view their victims as adult-like. They may justify their behavior (in their own mind) with thoughts like, “If minors appear in porn, they know what they’re doing and view sex the same way an adult does.” These individuals typically respond in positive ways to appropriate treatment, and their risk for reoffending is generally minimal. That said, there are factors (discussed momentarily) that can push their recidivism risk from minimal to moderate.
  3. Fixated/Dedicated Child Offenders: For these individuals, the primary and often sole sexual attraction is toward children and/or teens. If the primary attraction is toward pre-pubescent children, they are clinically referred to as pedophiles. If the primary attraction is toward adolescents, they are clinically referred to as hebephiles. Either way, these offenders are not aroused by adults. Child pornography can be a significant part of and reinforcer of their sexual pattern. Often, they view themselves in a childlike way; sexually, they see themselves as being the same age as the minors in the imagery they view. These individuals typically have a difficult time in treatment and their risk for reoffending is high.

Thinking back to the examples with Robert and James: After a thorough risk assessment is conducted, Robert will probably be typed as a fixated/dedicated child offender—unlikely to respond in positive ways to treatment with a higher likelihood of recidivism. Meanwhile, James will probably be typed as either a situational or a sexually addicted offender. And because he is internally motivated to make the necessary life changes, he is an excellent candidate for treatment and less likely to recidivate.

Regardless of typology, factors that can complicate or hinder treatment include:

  • Child porn is merely one aspect of a larger antisocial or criminal lifestyle.
  • Porn use includes bizarre or ritualistic acts, like extreme bondage or enemas.
  • The offender denies the offense occurred or tries to blame someone else.
  • Child porn use is secondary to an unremitting condition of serious mental illness or mental disability.

Although the above factors can complicate and hinder treatment, they do not automatically signal that an offender is untreatable.

Treatment of Child Porn Users

From a clinical perspective, users of child pornography often respond well to treatment, especially compulsive/addicted and situational users. The vast majority of these offenders show no other evidence of criminal behavior. Typically, they are average, law-abiding citizens. Most have never before been involved in the criminal justice system. In many respects, they have lived productive lives, both personally and professionally. Such men are solid treatment candidates and unlikely to re-offend.

Sadly, the legal system and vast parts of the psychiatric community are either unaware of or unmotivated by this fact. Instead, these professionals possess and seem satisfied with only the most basic knowledge of child porn users. Thus, it is up to clinical professionals and defense attorneys to evaluate a child porn user’s motivations, history, and likelihood of future wrongdoing, and to present, when appropriate, an argument for therapeutic rather than purely punitive sentencing. To this end, informed and experienced therapists must be invited by defense attorneys into the legal process to help well-meaning but underinformed judges and prosecutors understand that not all child porn offenders are the same, and that many, perhaps even the majority, have the psychological and emotional awareness needed to not re-offend.