Large numbers of young people are encountering unwanted sexual solicitations that, in the most serious cases, involve being targeted by offenders seeking children for sex. Research conducted by the University of New Hampshire and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) disclosed that one in five children ages 10–17 received a sexual solicitation over the Internet in the past year (Finkelhor, Mitchell, and Wolak, 2000). One in thirty-three received an aggressive solicitation—that is, the solicitor asked to meet them somewhere, called them on the telephone, or sent them regular mail, money, or gifts.

Unfortunately, the Internet is a nearly perfect medium for offenders seeking children for sex. It provides privacy, anonymity, and a virtually unlimited pool of unsupervised children and teenagers who may be susceptible to manipulation. Cloaked in the anonymity of cyberspace, sex offenders can capitalize on the natural curiosity of children, seeking victims with little risk of interdiction. These offenders no longer need to lurk in parks and malls. Instead, they roam from chatroom to chatroom looking for vulnerable, susceptible children.

Today's Internet is also rapidly becoming the marketplace for offenders seeking to acquire material for their child pornography collections. More insidious than the exchange of sexually explicit material among adults, child pornography often depicts the sexual assault of a child and is often used by child molesters to recruit, seduce, and control their victims. Although not all molesters collect pornography and not all child pornography collectors molest children, significant consensus exists among law enforcement officers about the role pornography plays in recruiting and controlling new victims. Pornography is used to break down inhibitions and validate sex between children and adults as normal, and it enables the offender to have power over the victim throughout the molestation. When the offender loses interest, pictures of the victim are often used as blackmail to ensure the child's silence, and when these pictures are posted on the Internet, they become an enduring and irretrievable record of the victimization and a relentless, shame-inducing violation of that child's privacy.

The debate about the role child pornography plays in triggering actual victimization continues. Many in the law enforcement community believe that the validation and nearly constant stimulation afforded to sex offenders by the Internet put minors at greater risk for sexual exploitation. By creating a demand for new material, the Internet also creates a demand for more victims, and it may cause some individuals to move from voyeuristic activities to acting out their fantasies with live victims. In fact, findings from a recent Federal Bureau of Prisons research project (see sidebar on "Incidence Rates of Sexual Offending Involving Contact Crimes") appear to indicate that the number of sexual contact victims per sex offender may be grossly underestimated and that these offenders may be more physically active than suggested by the perceived passiveness of trading or possessing child pornography (Hernandez, 2000).

Incidence Rates of Sexual Offending Involving Contact Crimes

In 1990, the Federal Bureau of Prisons established the Sex Offender Treatment Program (SOTP) at the Federal Correctional Institution in Butner, NC. This voluntary program, in which participants do not receive special privileges or reductions in their sentences, uses a variety of cognitive-behavioral and relapse prevention techniques for male sex offenders, of whom the majority are Internet offenders.

In the interest of examining incidence rates of sexual offending involving contact crimes (e.g., child sexual abuse, rape), the Federal Bureau of Prisons conducted a study of participants in the SOTP program, including inmates who were convicted of offenses involving child pornography but who had not been convicted of sexual contact offenses. Inmates were classified into three categories, depending on their offense:

  • Child Pornographer/Traveler: 62 inmates convicted of an array of child pornography offenses, including the luring of a child and traveling across State lines with the intention of committing child sexual abuse.

  • Contact Sex Offender: 24 inmates convicted of sexual molestation, abuse, or assault of a child or an adult.

  • Other: Four inmates convicted of nonsexual crimes, such as bank robbery or drug trafficking.

Information from Presentence Investigation (PSI) Reports was examined and data were extracted on the documented number of sexual contact crimes the perpetrator was known to have committed before entering SOTP. Additional information was gathered on the number of offenses involving any type of sexual contact crime against a child or adult that the perpetrators subsequently self-reported over the course of participation in SOTP but that were not documented in PSIs. Although the study revealed that all three groups disclosed sexual contact offenses in addition to those documented in their PSIs, further examination of the data unexpectedly revealed that after participation in the program, inmates in the Child Pornographer/Traveler and Other groups disclosed an inordinate number of previously undocumented sexual contact offenses involving children and adults. Surprisingly, offenders in the Child Pornographer/Traveler group (excluding 15 participants who divulged no additional sex contact crimes) committed the highest number of sexual contact offenses, with a rate of 30.5 victims per offender. The Other group averaged 15.5 victims per offender, while the Contact Sex Offender group averaged 9.6 victims per offender.

Number of Offenses Child Pornographer/
( n=62)
Contact Sex
( n=24)
( n=4)

Based on PSIs
After SOTP

Source: Self-reported contact sexual offenses by participants in the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Sex Offender Treatment Program: Implications for Internet sex offenders, by Andres E. Hernandez, Psy.D., Director, Sex Offender Treatment Program, Federal Bureau of Prisons, FCI Butner, P.O. Box 1000, Butner, NC 27509. Presented at the 19th Research and Treatment Conference of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, San Diego, CA, November 2000.

Previous Contents Next

Protecting Children in Cyberspace:
The ICAC Task Force Program
Juvenile Justice Bulletin January 2002