Friday, September 26, 2014

How does CP viewing affect contact offending?

The received wisdom for some time has been that looking at CP makes it more likely that a pedophile will offend against a child. When men who have committed a contact offense are interviewed, they often describe CP viewing as part of the process that led up to the offense. But there is no evidence of a causal relationship -- whatever process was in motion that led to offending could have led to CP viewing as a side effect. There is no control group -- it is entirely possible that a great many pedophiles view CP but never abuse a child.

Milton Diamond and colleagues in a <a series of studies>  found that widespread availability of pornography in a society is associated with sex offending either going down or staying the same, and in particular that the availability of CP results in reduced or level sex offending against children. I discussed this in <an earlier post> . Here there is no need for a control group. They are measuring the overall effect on the population itself -- how many sex crimes are occurring in the society in question.

Earlier I gave a review of Michael Seto's "<Internet Sex Offenders>", . He criticizes the Diamond et al studies by noting that there has been a major drop in crime of all kinds during the past few decades. Although the causes are not understood, he says it is simpler to view the drop in child sex abuse as a part of that trend, and not associated with the availability of CP. This is a plausible alternative explanation, but it in no way settles the issue.

He raises in contrast evidence that CP increases offending against children.

Correlational studies are the formal version of the observation that increased CP viewing preceded offenses against children, and they suffer from the same flaw -- they don't distinguish between a causal role for porn and the idea that a rising tendency to offend causes both porn viewing and the later offense.. Most studies consider the different case of ordinary, legal pornography and sex crimes against adults. Some are limited to the viewing of violent pornography (not pornography in general). Seto himself notes that very little CP that people download is violent.

Experimental studies expose people to pornography (not CP) in a lab setting and compare them to a control group. Some find that more porn exposure leads to various indirect measures of increased aggression. I see two major flaws with them. One is that when people are shown porn in a lab, there is the implicit message that the experimenter and the institution sponsoring the research both think that it is OK to view this material, and that may be the cause of any effects in contrast to the normal case where an individual decides himself whether to seek out such material. Another is that subjects who are aroused in a lab setting never proceed to orgasm and release in the experiment. The frustration of arousal without release might itself lead to aggressive attitudes.

A group performed <a detailed and careful study>  of sex crimes in different regions of Norway correlated with when broadband internet became available. They attributed 3% of sex crimes to this availability. It's a good study, though it's only one and there are alternative explanations. Limitations aside, note that 3% is a rather small number. The effects observed in the correlational and experimental studies are also quite small.

Putting it all together, what's the effect of CP? We don't know for sure. On the one hand, some small portion of a 50% drop in sex crimes could be attributed to CP availability. On the other hand, other studies with their own flaws suggest an increase on the order of 3%.

To me the most relevant result is that CP viewing does not cause a dramatic rise in sex offenses against children. Freedom and liberty suggest that if something is not inherently harmful, criminal penalties should not even be considered unless it has a dramatic effect on crimes that do cause harm. CP production of course should remain a crime because of the harm to children in the production process. When it comes to virtual CP, there is no reason to prohibit either production or viewing.

We could also do better by adopting different rules for different people. If an individual finds viewing of CP to be putting him on the verge of offending, any sensible person would argue strenuously that he should stop. Seto's view is that CP viewing has a bad effect on at-risk individuals, not on average people. One solution he suggests is banning those who have been convicted of a contact offense from viewing virtual CP while allowing it for everyone else.


  1. CP is wrong but it's still better than actual abuse. If someone views CP in order to satisfy their needs without abusing a child in real life, it's immoral but still better than raping/abusing a real kid. I think whether CP viewing and offensing connect with each other, depends on an individual person.
    Paweł C, celibate pedophile from Poland

  2. Pawel, I think you have to distinguish between virtual CP and CP involving actual children. I agree that viewing CP involving real children is wrong because children may have been harmed in the production. On the other hand, things like virtual CP and erotic fiction don't involve real children, so if there isn't any convincing evidence that they lead to increased contact offenses, I'm with Ethan.


    1. Yes, I know that things which don't involve real children aren't wrong. I didn't say that precisely but I meant that real CP is wrong. I'm also with you :) I'd like to access this "virtual CP and erotic fiction" but I'm not quite sure where to find it :D
      Paweł C, celibate pedophile from Poland

  3. As the two replies suggest, 'child pornography' is not a homogenous category. In fact, it's definition is so vague as to be practically useless, incorporating as it does images ranging from actual records of rape to holiday snaps of naked kids playing on the beach.

    So, ike most art/entertainment genres, 'child pornography' crosses a spectrum of motivation, representation, execution and effect. The ethics of images of naked and nude children are not preordained, they are contingent on particulars.

    So are the effects contingent. Beatrice Faust draws a distinction between pornography, which objectifies, and art, which particularizes. The popular and legal concepts of 'child pornography' are inadequate to the task of distinguishing harmful from beneficial images and cannot be the basis of just laws.

    Personally I think hard core child pornography is both harmful and unethical, and I would recommend any minor attracted person to stay well away from it. On the other hand, I feel quite differently about child nudes, including more explicit material, such as Will McBride's work in "Show Me!".

    Nothing justifies the excesses of current legal responses to child pornography offending, but I would welcome the establishment of a free counseling service to help minor attracted people who develop compulsive behaviours that may be harmful to themselves or others.