Experts say child porn finds varied audience

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A real estate developer. An unemployed man with a drinking problem. A sports radio announcer. A radiologist.

Not much in common, except this: They have all been charged in recent months with either possessing child pornography or attempting to solicit a child online.

Arrest rates for these crimes have skyrocketed in the past 10 years, and popular television shows, such as Dateline NBC's "To Catch a Predator," have dedicated themselves to catching the people -- almost always men -- who commit them.

Knowing that undercover law enforcement officers are constantly trolling online to get one of these men to bite, why, then, do people, who often have good jobs, loving families, money and community standing put themselves at such risk?

Because, experts say, often they can't help themselves -- despite the widespread societal belief that these men are simply "perverts."

"The behavior is driven by the powerful biological sexual drive," says Dr. Fred Berlin, the founder of the Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorders Clinic. "When people have these kinds of intense cravings, self-deceptive behavior -- denial, rationalizing, minimizing -- occurs."

Most adults, he continued, who are sexually attracted to their peers can turn to legal, adult pornography.

"When that same powerful drive gets misdirected to children, it's still a drive that wants to be satisfied," Dr. Berlin said.

And so, often those people turn to child pornography.

Though some argue that simply looking at child pornography victimizes no one, experts agree that's not true.

By viewing the images or movies, it creates a demand for them. That, then, fuels the producers to victimize even more children to make more money.

The children in the images suffer from a number of problems, ranging from a lack of self-esteem to emotional instability to an inability to trust, as well as the possible physical harm.

"If children are damaged, we absolutely have to protect them," Dr. Berlin said.

It also makes him want to understand and treat the cause, as well.

Sexually explicit images of children and sexual attraction to children have always existed. But with the advent of the Internet, child pornography -- and opportunities to solicit children -- is much more easily accessible.

The Internet, too, offers a feeling of anonymity, loosening inhibitions and creating the illusion that there is no chance of getting caught.

"Most people think the likelihood of getting caught is very small," said David Finkelhor, the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

There is also a blurring of the line between fantasy and reality in the online world, Dr. Berlin said.

And the Internet also offers something that sex offenders, in years gone by, rarely had: Knowing that there are other people out there just like him.

Ken Lanning, a retired FBI special agent in the Behavioral Science Unit who specialized in this area for 25 years, said sex offenders use the Internet to validate their behavior, "to convince themselves they are not bad, evil people."

And that's what they find online.

In a matter of seconds, a person who has these feelings can find hundreds more who are just like him by going to a chat room.

Typically, he added, those offenders who are more likely to seek validation are the ones who are more intelligent, well-educated, or religious.

"When people want to believe something, they will go to unbelievable measures to make it happen," Mr. Lanning said. "They know cops are out there online, but they can't believe they're everywhere."

They may not be everywhere, but in recent years, law enforcement officials across the country have devoted huge amounts of resources toward fighting these types of crimes.

In the federal court's Western District of Pennsylvania, the number of indictments for child pornography and solicitation have gone from five in fiscal year 2001 to 36, so far, in 2007.

And across the state, the Pennsylvania attorney general's office has arrested 85 people since creating its Child Predator Unit in January 2005.

"Law enforcement has been increasing its efforts to combat these crimes primarily because of the increase of sexual exploitation that has been driven by the Internet," said U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan, who has made such cases one of the No. 1 priorities of her administration.

The images, she said, have been escalating in the level of violence against the children, and the ease of communication among offenders is "a bad thing, because this is aberrant behavior."

Ms. Buchanan has been working on a campaign that will tackle the problem from all angles, from teaching children and parents about Internet safety, to informing would-be offenders of the potential penalties they face if caught committing these crimes.

Dr. Berlin calls people who want to look at child pornography afflicted.

People don't choose what type of imagery they will find arousing, Dr. Berlin continued. Instead, it's something they figure out as they grow up.

"They're not just people who have decided to experience an alternative state of mind."

But Mr. Finkelhor said there are a number of reasons why people view child pornography.

Besides the group of men who are attracted to children, there are others who are simply curious, he said, and another group that actually just wants to collect the images.

For some people viewing child pornography, it is purely voyeuristic, Dr. Berlin said, and can be an end in itself.

"There are people who are very much drawn toward imagery. It's a compulsion, an addiction," he said.

But for others, it's clear that viewing child pornography represents only a means to an end -- trying to find a child to victimize.

When it comes to child sexual offenders, Mr. Lanning believes there are two types: situational/opportunistic and preferential.

The situational offender doesn't seek out a victim, but seizes the opportunity if it comes along.

Preferential offenders are those whose sexual drive for children runs their lives.

"For most of these kinds of offenders, it's need-driven behavior," Mr. Lanning said. "It's not thought-driven behavior."

They can't stop.

"You've always got to be looking for new victims," he said. "You can never find the perfect victim because they grow up."

But not all sexual predators are the same, Mr. Lanning said.

"Since we have limited resources, we simply cannot afford to treat all these people the same," he said.

All of the experts said much more research is needed to figure out what causes these sexual drives, the best methods of treatment, as well as the risk factors for a person escalating from child pornography to molestation.

There have been few studies done on that particular issue, since obtaining funding is difficult. The ones that have showed varying results.

One study showed just 15 percent of people convicted of possessing child pornography actually molested a child; while another had the number at 33 percent. A more recent study, which has not yet been published, put the number at 85 percent.

"This idea that every one of these guys progresses is a mistake," Mr. Lanning said. "There needs to be an offender-based analysis, not an offense-based analysis."

Much like an alcoholic is never "cured," it is the same for people who have sexual interest in children, Mr. Finkelhor said.

It is difficult to change a person's sexual interest, but it is possible to inhibit their behavior, he continued.

"For so long, we've looked at it as only a moral issue," Dr. Berlin said.

He, too, compared it to alcoholism. "We recognized that good people can have these problems, and they are still people who deserve our help. But a pedophile is not a decent person who's troubled," he said. "They're seen as less than human."

Because of that common belief, he continued, society has been slow to approach the issue in either a medical or scientific way.

While he believes it may not be a person's fault that he is attracted to children, it is his responsibility to seek help for those feelings.

"I think we do have to have a strong criminal justice approach, but an equally strong public health approach," Dr. Berlin said. "We make so little effort as a society to look at a preventive standpoint."

Since the FBI started its Innocent Images National Initiative in late 1995, it has opened 19,345 cases involving child pornography and online child sexual exploitation.

Here is the the number of cases in each fiscal year:

19961131997301199869819991,49720001,54120011,55920022,37020032,43020042,64520052,40220062,135*-20071,654*-as of May 30, 2007

Source: FBI

 

Paula Reed Ward can be reached at pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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