When sexual deviants are caught in the Net

From a speech by Kimberley S Young, the founder of the Centre for Online Addiction at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association
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The Independent Online

Sexual offences against children constitute a significant proportion of all reported criminal sex acts. Cyberspace now provides an easy environment for child-sex offenders to engage with and meet children, rather than in playgrounds and schoolyards, as in the past. Paedophiles on-line demonstrate a history of sexual conduct with children and transfer this sexual interest to cyberspace; this generally involves producing illegal images to trade on-line or making contact directly with children through chat rooms.

Sexual offences against children constitute a significant proportion of all reported criminal sex acts. Cyberspace now provides an easy environment for child-sex offenders to engage with and meet children, rather than in playgrounds and schoolyards, as in the past. Paedophiles on-line demonstrate a history of sexual conduct with children and transfer this sexual interest to cyberspace; this generally involves producing illegal images to trade on-line or making contact directly with children through chat rooms.

But at an alarming rate, the legal system has seen an increase over the past several years in the number of prosecutions for on-line paedophilia. A disturbing number of these cases involve offenders with no previous psychiatric or criminal history. In fact, their sexual interest in minors occurred exclusively in cyberspace and stemmed from the ease of availability of this material on the internet. In other words, these individuals are "fantasy users", who acted out child-adult sexual fantasies through adult-only chat rooms. Participants do this without the intention of making direct contact with children. Fantasy users participate in these rooms with other adults who share their interest.

Research has shown that chat channels are one of the most addictive applications available on the internet. A chat channel is a virtual community designated with a specific name where people with common interests can get together to exchange ideas or files. The theme of the room is described by its name, and many internet service providers permit sexually oriented chat channels to exist with names that clearly indicate the types of sexual practices that will be "discussed" by the participants. Those practices range from the most ordinary to the most deviant.

On-line subscribers invent "screen names" or "handles" that permit persons to participate anonymously in all on-line activities. The idea of becoming someone different lures many users into excessive internet use because of the fantasy escape that the activity provides. People engage in erotic dialogue in sexually oriented chat channels, and this is often known as cybersex, with two on-line users engaging in private discourse about sexual fantasies, a conversation that may be accompanied by sexual self-stimulation.

It is important to emphasise that what a participant says and does on-line does not necessarily represent what he or she desires in real life. A woman who role-plays a rape or bondage fantasy does not desire to be raped or tortured in real life. Users progress gradually into such deviant fantasies, with topics and interests they would have formerly found reprehensible becoming acceptable. After continued use, users become "desensitised" to the experience.

Clinical research suggests that deviant sexual discussions that take place on-line do not always come from individuals with any pre-existing disposition to deviancy.

Addictive behaviour typically serves the purpose of providing temporary escape from negative or unpleasant situations. With the constant and immediate access to the internet, cybersex serves as a convenient escape mechanism during times of stress.

On-line addiction and the involvement of otherwise law-abiding persons in illegal pornography has been on the increase as the availability of the internet has grown. Research has confirmed that traditional notions about the type of person involved in pornography or related activities frequently do not apply to internet utilisation.

My research and that of my colleagues seeks to document this recently evolving phenomenon for use by professionals, academics and the general public. New and continued research will also assist the courts to achieve accurate and just evaluation of such matters as they become increasingly frequent.

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