ATSA Forum - Vol. XXVII, No. 2
Research indicates that sexual offenders possess implicit theories that foster the rationalization, minimization, and denial of their crimes (Ward, 2000). Implicit theories, whose conceptualization is an extension of theories of mind, provide sexual offenders with cognitive conceptual frameworks for the explanation, understanding, and prediction of their victims’ thinking, and the planning and execution of their own sexual crimes (Ward & Keenan, 1999).
Ward and Keenan (1999) suggested—on the basis of a review of the content of psychometric questionnaires and of the literature on cognitive distortions—that there are five implicit theories specific to sexual aggressors against children: 1) Children as sexual objects: children are sexual beings; 2) Entitlement: some people are superior to others; 3) Dangerous world: the world is a dangerous place; 4) Uncontrollability: offenders cannot control their actions; 5) Nature of harm: sexual assault causes no harm to children. A sixth implicit theory was identified by Paquette, Cortoni, Proulx and Longpré (2014) in their investigation of the implicit theories of 20 sexual offenders against children: Child as a Partner, i.e. children are sexual offenders’ friends or lovers.
Sexual offenders against children have been reported to share these implicit theories with other types of sexual offenders (e.g. rapists, sexual murderers; Polascheck & Ward, 2002; Beech, Fisher, & Ward, 2005). However, research into the implicit theories of online sexual offenders (i.e. child pornography and child luring offenders) is only beginning and no definitive portrait has emerged of the similarities and differences between these offenders’ implicit theories and those of contact sexual offenders. The objective of this study was therefore to examine the implicit theories of online sexual offenders. The present article summarizes the methods and findings from this research.
The material for the study consisted of 60 videotaped police interviews conducted by the Sûreté du Québec’s Internet Child Exploitation unit with men arrested for child pornography (n = 20), child luring (n = 20) and mixed offenses (n = 20). Interview content was analyzed in order to identify cognitions emerging from these offenders’ discourses. These cognitions were organized into thematic categories, and these categories were compared to the implicit theories of contact sexual offenders against children. Categories that differed from those proposed by Ward and Keenan (1999) were conceptualized as new online-specific implicit theories. To determine the consistency of the implicit theories, two independent coders compared their coding of the implicit theories reflected in the content of 3 interviews. The inter-judge agreement was one hundred percent.
Three principal findings emerged from the analysis of the discourses of online sexual offenders. First, online and contact sexual offenders against children exhibited the same implicit theories related to interpersonal relationships and the sexual abuse of children. As seen in Table 1, both groups of online offenders overwhelmingly possessed the Nature of Harm (e.g., “I looked at the nude child [picture], but only for a few seconds.”), and the Uncontrollability implicit theories (e.g., “I was under the influence of drugs.”). While two-third endorsed the Child as Sexual Being implicit theory (e.g., “She undressed in front of the webcam.”), the Entitlement (e.g., “I was like a teacher, it was sex education.”), Dangerous World (e.g., “Adults are untrustworthy.”) and Child as Partner (e.g., “I chatted with the child to become his friend.”) implicit theories were less frequent.
In addition to the child molesters’ specific implicit theories, online sexual offenders’ discourse as it related to the virtual world, and especially the Internet, reflected two implicit theories never identified in contact sexual offenders: Virtual is not real and Internet is uncontrollable. The Virtual is not real implicit theory (exhibited by 91.7% of the sample – see Table 1) reflected online offenders’ perception that the Internet does not represent reality, that its content is unreliable (all lies or jokes), and that you never know with whom you are chatting. The Internet is uncontrollable implicit theory (exhibited by 41.7% of the sample) refers to the Internet’s facilitation, if not frank incitation, of sexual crimes by virtue of the access it grants to child pornography and children themselves. This implicit theory is reflected in the frequent reports by online sexual offenders that they had been unable to forgo using the Internet.
Finally, it was clear from analysis of the discourses of child pornography and child luring offenders that these two subgroups of online offenders shared the same implicit theories. The difference between these subgroups was in the cognitive content of crime-specific implicit theories. Specifically, child pornography offenders justified their crimes by saying that they had been curious about child pornography, while child luring offenders said that they had been curious to see what children had to say about sex.
The results of this study demonstrate that online and contact sexual offenders share some implicit theories supporting sexual abuse against children. The content of these implicit theories primarily reflects these offenders’ erroneous perception of interpersonal relationships and relationships with children.
In addition, the results indicate that online sexual offenders possess two implicit theories that are specific to the virtual world. The Virtual is not real implicit theory reflects the idea that the Internet does not represent reality, while the Internet is uncontrollable implicit theory reflects the offenders’ perception that they are unable to refrain from using the Internet and being influenced by its content. These results are consistent with Seto’s (2013) suggestion that some characteristics of the Internet, such as accessibility, affordability, and anonymity, may contribute to online sexual abuse.
Quayle and Taylor (2003) hypothesized that the interaction between known factors related to sexual offending, such as a sexual interest in children and the perceived anonymity afforded by the Internet, gives rise to unique cognitions that specifically support online sexual offending. Within this context, anonymity is likely to interact with implicit theories and contribute to online sexual offending. Research is currently being conducted in order to verify this hypothesis.
Beech, A.R., Fisher, D., & Ward, T. (2005). Sexual murderers’ implicit theories. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 20(11), 1366-1389.
Paquette, S., Cortoni, F., Proulx, J. & Longpré, N. (2014). An examination of implicit theories among francophone child molesters. Journal of Sexual Aggression, 20(2), 182-196.
Polaschek, D.L.L., & Ward, T. (2002). The implicit theories of potential rapists: What our questionnaires tell us. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 7, 385-406.
Quayle, E. & Taylor, M. (2003). Model of problematic Internet use in people with a sexual interest in children. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 6(1), 93-106.
Seto, M.C. (2013). Internet Sex Offenders. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Ward, T. (2000). Sexual offenders’ cognitive distortions as implicit theories. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 5(5), 491-507.
Ward, T., & Keenan, T. (1999). Child molesters’ implicit theories. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 14(8), 821-838.