Redacting search engine results and sending warnings to people trying to access images of child pornography online are two approaches the Government has announced to combating paedophilia. But with more than 50,000 people in the UK looking at or downloading underage porn each year, child campaigners say much more needs to be done.
Tom, a married father of three in his 40s, started looking at porn late at night, often after a few glasses of wine, and quickly became interested in images of younger girls. Police tracked down Tom (not his real name) and in court he admitted he had downloaded about 5,000 illegal images. He received a two-year probation order and had to sign on the sex offenders register. But going to court was only the beginning of his sentence. Speaking to Paul Cahalan, Tom describes losing his job and being shunned by friends while his children faced chants of “Your dad’s a paedo” – and argues internet controls would have stopped him offending.
I looked at adult pornography for some time and I found it easy to go across from that to younger teenage girls.
I went through a period where I was a bit depressed, a bit lonely and stressed at work and I was hooked on it for a year or so, downloading images. I was under the impression there were a lot of people doing it. I would binge, fuelled by loneliness and a few glasses of wine. Then I would think this was disgusting, but three or four weeks would go by and I would be looking at images again and thinking I shouldn’t be doing this.
There are two lines, legal and moral. You know it’s an illegal image, but I thought, a bit like doing 35mph in a 30mph zone, that it was tolerated and understood. You can marry and have a family with a 16-year old but a lot of people don’t realise that looking at images of a 17-year-old is illegal.
It is easy – on Google you are within a couple of clicks away from crossing a boundary. It is a fantasy world you lock yourself into, often late at night. I was divorced from reality. I wasn’t in touch with anyone else or paying for images and I never spoke about it. It never transferred into real life.
There was escapism but it was curiosity, loneliness and anger – some suppressed from issues with my parents – that drove me on.
I was looking for something, I think trying to recapture my lost youth, perhaps through images of girls I would have gone after as a teenager. It is the idea of just one more click – let’s see what’s in this file.
A lot of the teenage stuff I did find stimulating. I was curious, a bit like car crashes and deaths on the internet. There’s a fatal fascination.
I got hooked on collecting images; it was almost a hobby.
There’s a satisfaction in hunting images down and collecting them. Sometimes there would be encrypted files and you had to wait three days for the password. It’s like a detective hunt. The pictures were there; a lot of them I deleted, but they were still there.
Ninety-five per cent of my stuff was level one, images of erotic posing, with no sexual activity. We all have our own moral boundaries, and they don’t always accord with the moral boundaries we think we have.
The internet has the same sense of detachment as TV for me – it is called disinhibition, acting differently on your own – like picking your nose. When on your own, on the internet at night, you do things you shouldn’t do. But on the computer you can find yourself doing something illegal quite quickly.
When I was out there on the street looking at children it never occurred to me to look at them the same way. I am good with children and never had a problem with my three. I was pleased I didn’t have any feelings for children. I didn’t like seeing children being upset. I feel bad when I see a child being smacked in a supermarket.
One day the police turned up and said, ‘We have come to seize your computer and you’. They left me some leaflets and the next day I phoned up the Stop It Now! hotline in acute distress. I expected to be read the riot act and told what a beast I had been. They said things that were enormously helpful. ‘You have done a bad thing but you are not a bad person’, is something I have clung on to. They also said that I wasn’t alone. They run a course and I enrolled on that – I’m quite intelligent and introverted and I wanted to know why I had done what I had done. I have had therapy for the last two years and have completed an internet sex offenders’ programme.
The court case and the sentence were only a small part of it. If I could have gone to jail for six months and then been Mr Joe Normal again – all forgiven and forgotten – I would have happily done that. It is the stigma, people pointing at you, wondering if people know about it. Some people don’t know, some do, and I worry about those who don’t know and I think about if I should tell them or not.
Telling my children was the hardest thing I have ever done. They were shocked – it is not nice to think about your parents and anything to do with sex – but eventually understanding.
They understood, deep down, that men look at pornography. My marriage struggled, my wife was very shocked but stood by me. I am very lucky.
The shame is absolutely awful. It is dreadful. The popular media is convinced the country is swamped by dirty perverts who are going to rape and kill children and stick them in their lofts. You get tarred with that brush. Some people and friends still won’t talk to me any more. I’m excluded from things. My story was in the local paper, I left my job and my children have the stigma of ‘your dad’s a paedo’. However much people tell you that ‘today’s papers are tomorrow’s chip wrappers’, that is not the case with the internet – it is there forever. I have to live with it for the rest of my life.
I think the public is struggling to find ways to express the disgust they feel they ought to be expressing.
I have a lot of shame and a lot of guilt and anything I say to mitigate it just seems like a pathetic excuse to people. I have told you the truth as I see it.
It feels terrible, I am shaking now, but I am determined to get over it. Research has shown that increasing people’s shame just makes them go inside themselves and shut off from the world, and sometimes reoffend. My guilt waxes and wanes. Sometimes I feel really disgusted with myself but then I just think: I have done something wrong, I have been punished, it is some time ago, I have learnt, and I’m not going to do it again.
Occasionally it is a bit tricky. With Google you are literally a couple of clicks away from those images. If warning signs, like they have in Sweden saying you are entering an illegal site, had come up I wouldn’t have gone there. If there had been a warning that police were going to track me down, there is no way I would have done it. If there had been more publicity, there is no way I would have done it – and if the internet hadn’t have been there, there is no way I would have done it.
The internet engenders curiosity, that is what it is for – it is ‘See what you can find’. Porn is one avenue that’s easy to go down and harder to turn back from.”
If you are affected by the issues raised by Tom’s story call the Stop it Now! helpline on 0808 1000 900