In the past 15 years there has been a rise in convictions for the viewing, circulation, and production of online child sexual exploitation material (CSEM) (Radford et al., 2011). Subsequently, this has stemmed a growth in research on CSEM offenders (CSEMOs) to understand whether they are a distinct type of sex offender from child contact sex offenders (CSOs), or the same just using a new medium to offend. A CSO is an individual who has physically committed sexual abuse with a victim who is under the age of 16 (Mews, Di Bella & Purver, 2017). This essay will evaluate whether the principles proposed by theories of sexual offending are able to explain both contact offending against children and non-contact offending, specifically focusing on CSEM offending. Firstly, it will evaluate the applicability of the Pathways Model (Ward & Siegert, 2002), an etiological theory of contact sexual abuse, in explaining CSEM offending. Secondly, it will provide evidence that CSEMOs do not share the same psychological vulnerabilities with CSOs, which is taken to be an explanation of why the Pathways cannot explain a proportion of CSEM offending. The issue relating to the use of traditional psychometric measures in classifying applicability of the Pathways to CSEMOs and differences between offending types is then discussed. The essay then touches on general criminological theory’s ability to explain both offending types. Finally, the Motivation-Facilitation model (MFM; Seto, 2013), originally developed to explain contact sexual offending, is discussed in terms of its ability to adapt its principles to explain CSEM offending. Overall, the essay shows that CSEMOs and CSOs are distinct groups, however current theory has the potential to explain both offences by the same underlying principles.  


Theories of sexual offending against children are assumed to be effective in understanding psychological profiles of individuals that commit sexual offences. As using the internet is a fairly new way of executing a sexual offence, current theories of sexual offending against children are mostly based on research on CSOs (Bale, 2017). Hence, by applying these theories to CSEMOs, it is assumed that the same principles underlying contact offending can explain CSEM offending. Ward and Siegert (2002) developed The Pathways Model which is a multifactorial model with four distinct etiological (causal) pathways to child sexual abuse. The model proposes that ecological factors (biological, environmental & cultural factors) interact with a group of common traits (emotional problems, cognitive distortion, intimacy deficits and deviant sexual arousal) to increase a person’s vulnerability to sexually assault a child (Ward & Siegert, 2002).  This vulnerability leads to four etiological pathways to sexual crimes emerging, each with a core set of psychological vulnerabilities. Specifically, the first pathway (‘Intimacy Deficits’) describes offenders with emotional loneliness, the second pathway (‘Distorted Sexual Scripts’) includes individuals with cognitive distortions and deviant sexual interests, the third pathway (‘Emotion Dysregulation’) contains offenders with difficulty self-regulating their emotions and the fourth pathway (‘Anti-Social Cognitions’) include individuals who have general criminal attitudes. Finally, there is a further pathway (‘Multiple Dysfunctional Mechanisms’) which describes offenders who display dysfunction is all four pathways. Connelly (2004) investigated whether the Pathways Model can apply to contact sex offending against children by interviewing 13 CSOs about their developmental routes and experiences early in life. Results showed that the majority of CSOs could be allocated to one of the five pathways. However, due to a small sample size, these findings are unsurprisingly tentative.  In contrast, Middleton, Elliott, Mandeville-Norden and Beech (2006) assessed the applicability of the Pathways Model on 72 CSEMOs by analysing their psychometric scores relating to the dysfunctional psychological mechanisms in each pathway. Middleton et al. (2006) found that almost half of the CSEMOs could not be assigned to any of the five pathways. Those CSEMOs who could be assigned were assigned to the ‘Intimacy Deficits’ or ‘Emotional Dysregulation’ pathways. Therefore these results suggest that the underlying principles of the Pathways Model can explain child contact offending, however, it is unable to explain all aspects of CSEM offending. This suggests that there are unique CSEMO characteristics that cannot be explained by theory derived for CSOs.


Indeed, there is evidence that CSEMOs and CSOs have different characteristics. For example, Bale (2017) has recently carried out a systemic review of existing literature concerning the psychological characteristics of CSOs and CSEMOs. All studies in the review used traditional psychometric tools that measured personality traits, attitudes and emotional states. Overall, Bale (2017) found that intimacy difficulties, interpersonal function, mood regulation, higher sexual deviancy and lower victim empathy distortions were psychological features characteristic of CSEMOs. In contrast, psychological characteristics of CSOs were higher levels of aggression, over assertiveness, offence supportive attitudes and antisociality. This shows that CSEMO and CSOs have different psychological vulnerabilities and hence illustrates why Ward and Siegert’s (2002) etiological pathways to sexual crimes emerging cannot explain both contact offending and CSEM offending. However, it is worth highlighting that conviction data was used to allocate offender groups in the studies reviewed. Whilst conviction data is the most reliable source of information available, psychological characteristics might differ for those CSEMOs and CSOs undetected by the criminal justice system and hence these psychological vulnerabilities are not representative of the respective group populations (Bale, 2017). Although it would be challenging recruiting an undetected sexual offender sample due to legal reasons for revealing sexual abuse crimes to a researcher. Therefore, available research currently indicates that CSEMOs and CSOs are distinct groups whereby their offending must be explained by different principles.

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However, psychometric tools that are designed primarily for assessing CSOs were the basis of insight into the applicability of the Pathways Model to explain CSEM offending and unique characteristics of CSEMOs. This is problematic as it may be that certain psychological vulnerabilities are existing in CSEMOs, but such psychometric tools were not able to highlight them (Middleton et al., 2006). As seen, scores on traditional psychometric measures resulted in no CSEMOs being assigned to the ‘Distorted Sexual Scripts’ pathway (Middleton et al., 2006) and cognition distortions not being characteristic of CSEMOs in Bale’s (2017) review. Cognitive distortions have been hypothesised to result from Implicit Theories (ITs; Ward & Keenan, 1999). ITs are a collection of interconnecting core beliefs that, when displayed with new information about the world or themselves, shapes one’s cognition (Bartels & Merdian, 2016). Ward and Keenan (1999) developed five ITs specific for CSOs, namely: ‘Children as Sexual Beings’ (the belief that children are driven by a want for sexual pleasure), ‘Entitlement’ (the belief that some individuals have the authority to affirm their needs over others), ‘Dangerous World’ (the belief that dominance has to be achieved as the world is a dangerous place), ‘Uncontrollability’ (the belief that there are forces out of one’s control that triggers their abuse) and ‘Nature of Harm’ (the belief that sexual activity does not result in harm to the victim). Ward and Keenan’s (1999) five ITs are what classify the items on traditional psychometric tools (e.g., Children and Sexual Activities Inventory (Howitt & Sheldon, 2007)). Therefore, due to the different nature of their offending behaviour, CSEMOs may have cognitive distortions of different value to CSO’s ITs and hence, the presence of their specific cognitive distortions are not captured by traditional psychometric measures (Bartels & Merdian, 2016). In turn, this means that CSEMOs could have the dysfunctional mechanisms underlying Ward and Siegert’s (2002) ‘Distorted Sexual Script’ pathway, but they could not be captured when using traditional psychometric tools.


Moreover, research has found that cognitive distortions are present in CSEMOs and that differ to CSO’s cognitive distortions (Kettleborough & Merdian, 2017). A recent study by Kettleborough and Merdian (2017) instructed a group of 16 professionals who work closely with CSEMOs (e.g., Psychiatrists, Probation Officers & Researchers) to complete a survey on the thinking patterns of CSEMOs. Participants firstly had to describe perceived thinking patterns of CSEMOs and how they differ to CSOs. A Thematic Analysis identified the four themes from their responses, namely the ‘Perceived Nature of Children’ (the belief that children in CSEM are not real and sexual beings), ‘Denial of Harm’ (belief that no harm is caused to the victim as they are just viewing images), ‘Non-sexual Engagement with CSEM’ (motivations to offend are not sexual (e.g., offending for enjoyment of image collecting or lessening negative emotions)), and ‘Expression of a General Sexual Preference’ (general interest in deviant sexual behaviours). From these findings, it is apparent that ‘Perceived Nature of Children’ and ‘Denial of Harm’ partially overlap with Ward and Keenan’s (1999) ‘Children as Sexual Beings’ and ‘Nature of Harm’ ITs. However, the survey also required participants to rate the applicability of Ward and Keenan’s (1999) ITs to CSEMOs. Mixed responses were given which shows that the ITs are not directly applicable to CSEMOs. Therefore, Kettleborough and Merdian’s (2017) findings show that cognitive distortion is clearly present in CSEMOs but, due to the nature of the offence, their thinking patterns are different to CSOs. However, as the study involved accounts from professionals as opposed to CSEMOs, only perceived thinking patterns of offenders are analysed. Therefore, these results could have been biased by subjective experience and hence, it is important that these findings are validated by a group of CSEMOs. However, using a professional sample was beneficial as social desirability bias associated with studying CSEMOs was removed. Regardless, the presence of cognitive distortions in CSEMOs is clear and psychometric measures should be developed in the future that classify the items based on these themes. This essay predicts that using such measures to investigate CSEMOs applicability to the Pathway’s Model would result in a proportion of CSEMOs being assigned to Ward and Siegert’s (2002) ‘Distorted Sexual Scripts’ pathway. Therefore the underlying principles of the Pathway’s Model could potentially explain both CSEM and child contact offending.


Differences in situational opportunities can also be used to explain the different offences. This is shown by Babchishin, Hanson & VanZuylen (2015) meta-analysis of literature that compared both demographic and psychological variables characteristics of CSEMOs and CSOs. Significantly, CSEMOs were more likely to have access to the internet than CSOs, where access to the internet was indicative of ‘young’, ‘low education’ and ‘racial minority’ variables. In comparison, CSOs were found to have more access to children than CSEMOs (e.g., have biological children). These findings are consistent with the Routine Activity Theory (RAT; Cohen & Felson, 1917), a general criminology theory that proposes that situational factors, such as appropriate targets and lack of supervision, are underlying principles that can explain offending. Therefore, the RAT is able to explain both CSEM and contact sex offending. However, as the internet is now more widely accessible and has a larger influence on the lives of young adults who grew up with it, it would be interesting to see if contemporary CSEM offending can be explained by the same principles as previous CSEM offending (Seto, 2017). Future research could investigate cohort effects to investigate whether access variables can still explain contemporary CSEM offending.


Finally, theories have been developed that propose sexual offending can be explained by a combination of situational and psychological underlying principles (Seto, 2013). For example, the Motivation-Facilitation Model (MFM) of sexual offending against children (Seto, 2013) identifies primary motivations of sexual offending against children to be ‘paraphilia’, ‘high sex drive’ and ‘intense mating effort’ and proposes that there are trait (e.g., antisociality) and state (e.g., negative mood) facilitation factors which enable acting on such motivations when situational opportunities arise (Seto, 2017). The MFM was originally developed to explain contact sex offending whereby paedophilia (motivation factor), antisociality (facilitation factor) and access to children (situational opportunity) are proposed to be core contributing factors to the onset of contact sexual offending (Seto, 2013). However, principles of the MFM can also be adapted to explain CSEM offending whereby the difference between the two types of offending appear to involve facilitation factors (Seto, 2017). CSEMOs are motivated individuals because of their deviant sexual interest (Bale, 2017). However, because of low facilitation traits, for example, low levels of antisociality and high victim empathy acting as a barrier to their deviant impulses (i.e. high self-control) (Bale, 2017) and less access to children (Babchishin et al., 2015), they do not commit a contact sexual offence. Instead, consistent with the RAT, when situational opportunities arise, like having access to the internet, their self-control is not adequate enough to contain their paedophilic motivations (Seto, 2017). This results in committing a CSEM offence. Furthermore, principles of the MFM can explain the cross-over from CSEM offending to contact sex offending (Seto, 2017). CSEMOs that subsequently re-offend with a contact sexual offence have been found to have greater criminal history (i.e., show more antisociality), less self-control, as well as having more access to children than those that did not re-offend (Babchishin et al., 2015). Therefore, MFM combines different principles from facts and theories about sexual offending to be able to explain the onset of both CSEM and child contact sex offending. However, the MFM proposes that sexual desire is only the primary motivation for offending and hence, no non-sexual motivations are included. This is an issue as it does not support the ‘Non-sexual Engagement with CSEM’ theme found to be a specific perceived thinking pattern of some CSEMOs (Kettleborough & Merdian, 2017). Therefore, although the MFM is versatile in explaining both CSEM and child contact sexual offending, it is unable to explain a specific subtype of CSEM offending whereby sexual desire is not the primary motivation. 


To conclude, this essay has evaluated the current theories of sexual offending and empirical evidence to assess whether CSEM and child contact offending can be explained by the same underlying principles. The essay firstly discussed how the principles of the Pathways model can explain contact offending by not CSEM offending (Connelly, 2004; Middleton et al., 2006). This essay suggests that this could be due to the apparent differences in psychological vulnerabilities between the two groups (Bale, 2017). However, the essay also discussed that it could be due to the fact that psychometric measures developed to assess CSO were used to assign CSEMOs to pathways. Following on, CSEM-specific cognitive distortions were found (Kettleborough & Merdian, 2017) whereby if psychometric measures in the future included these, CSEMOs could then be assigned to the ‘Distorted Sexual Scripts’ pathways. Hence, the principles of the Pathways Model could explain CSEM offending. Finally, the essay discussed the versatility of the MFM (Seto, 2013), which incorporates the RAT (Cohen & Felson, 1917), in explaining both CSEM offending, child contact offending and the cross-over between from CSEM to contact sex offending (Seto, 2017). However, the MFM cannot account for CSEM offending whereby the motivation to offend is not sexual. Ultimately, current sexual offending theory has the potential to explain different types of sexual offending by the same underlying principles. Future research should focus on validating Kettleborough and Merdian’s (2017) themes with a group of CSEMOs, developing a CSEM-specific psychometric tool around such themes to further investigate the fit of CSEMOs in the Pathways Model and finally, to explore the principles that explain the non-sexually motivated subgroup of CSEMOs. 

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