Last month, disgraced glam rocker Gary Glitter was deported from Vietnam after serving a two-and-a-half year prison sentence for sexually abusing young girls. He had fled Britain nine years earlier after receiving a two-month sentence for possessing child pornography.
Despite the length and breadth of his subsequent offending career, the apparent ineffectiveness of his brief first sentence hardly rated a mention. Yet just days after his deportation, Scotland Yard issued a warning. The problem of child abuse is a far greater threat to society than first thought, it said, with “huge” numbers of pedophiles now scouring the Internet.
Since 1998, Internet crime involving sexual exploitation of children has risen by more than 400 percent; downloading, possessing and trading or distributing child pornography has also grown rapidly. Ever more sophisticated technologies have facilitated illegal online activities, making it easier to avoid detection.
As a result, illegal material can move faster and in significantly greater quantities than before. And it is a highly profitable business: commercial child pornography was estimated two years ago to be a US$20 billion industry worldwide.
Yet it is not only the quantity that is disturbing. There is also the increasingly extreme nature of the material, as reported in the Internet Watch Foundation’s (IWF) study earlier this year.
Detectives for the London-based Child Exploitation Online Protection center are uncovering evidence that pedophiles are concentrating more on pre-verbal victims. Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in the US, said recently that child pornography has become “a global crisis.”
Child sex offenders are usually habitual fantasists. They are prone to distorted thinking; dissembling and deceit go with the territory. And it seems they are particularly skilled at disowning and evading responsibility, a trait prevalent among sexual abusers generally.
Partly as a result of this, less is known about online child pornographers and their treatment than almost any other group of offenders. And even less is known about the correlation between the use of pornography and hands-on offenses. So despite some recognized advances in policing and containment recently, this lack of empirical knowledge is thwarting the professionals who seek to tackle the problem. The damage, meanwhile, continues to escalate.
Psychologists Michael Bourke and Andres Hernandez conducted a study two years ago at a federal correctional institution in the US, in which they compared two groups of men in a voluntary treatment program for sex offenders. All 155 had been sentenced for the possession, distribution or receipt of child-abuse images. Only 40 of them were known to have committed any hands-on sexual offenses previously, averaging 1.88 victims each. The others claimed never to have committed such offenses: Their activities, they said, had been restricted to viewing images.
But after participating in an 18-month therapeutic program, a very different picture emerged. It was a picture that not only belied the normal, law-abiding lives depicted by most of these men prior to their arrest, but one that also contrasted with the frequent assertion that such offenders are “only” involved with images.