Improving Practice in Child Sexual Abuse Image and Grooming Investigations through Identification of Offender Characteristics

Natalie Davis

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Information regarding online sexual offending behaviour has been almost entirely gathered from self-report (interviews and questionnaires) methods from offenders. This thesis focuses on objective information produced as a result of a law enforcement investigation into the offending behaviour, including interviews with offenders, questionnaires completed by investigators, court reports and examination of items seized during investigations.

This study compared the characteristics of 136 (average age 46 years, range 21–79) online child sexual abuse offenders in Australia based on theories of characteristics of child sexual abuse contact offenders. Using data gleaned from Australian Federal Police investigations, characteristics that may influence offenders with a preference for increasingly graphic and violent child sex abuse images (based on the Combating Paedophile Information Networks in Europe Project (COPINE) typology of image preferences) were analysed. Important findings were the lack of significant effect of some variables expected on the basis of theoretical approaches to understanding sex offending such as Beech and Elliott (2009), and including variables such as intimacy deficits; the
tendency for escalation in image preference to be associated with callousness in
offenders; and a preference for images, video and written stories being associated with a preference for COPINE Levels 8, 9 and 10. Post hoc analysis investigating victim age, gender, format of material and level of deviance (as shown by the highest COPINE ratings) revealed that offenders that preferred all age groups also preferred all genders and formats of material.

This thesis further considered the nature of grooming behaviour in online offenders that progressed to contacting victims online. Previous models of online grooming behaviour suggested offenders progress from contact to grooming based on a five-stage model involving 1) friendship forming, 2) relationship forming, 3) risk assessment, 4) exclusivity and 5) sexual stage; however, some offenders did not necessarily progress directly through this linear process. Although only two of the offenders in this study progressed to contacting children online and grooming them for sexual purposes, the
research was able to analyse 1,117 of their contacts with prospective victims. An NVivo analysis of these contacts suggested a more direct and non-linear path to recruiting potential victims with scant heed paid to strategies such as risk assessment or relationship development, and progression to the sexual stage within minutes of initial contact.

In psychology, it has been hypothesised that online child sexual abuse offenders have similar characteristics and behaviours to those of contact child sexual offenders. Clinical models hypothesise that offending can relate to intimacy and social skills deficits, distorted sexual scripts, emotional dysregulation and cognitive distortions have been used to explain the offending. The current study found that offender callousness towards the victim and indiscriminate interest in child abuse material—through preference for all victim age groups and genders—and format of material (image, video and written stories) appeared to be more important to the offender.

It has further been hypothesised that online grooming behaviour is similar to contact offending in that the offender follows a process to form an attachment with the child and to progress through risk assessment, an exclusive relationship and finally the sexual stage; although at times online offenders do not follow all stages. The current study found that some online grooming offenders did not follow a linear process and very quickly progressed to the sexual stage. It is therefore proposed that for some online groomers there is no intention to meet with the victim and the purpose of grooming online is for fantasy development.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Charles Sturt University
  • Lennings, Christopher, Co-Supervisor
  • Green, Tracey, Co-Supervisor
Place of PublicationAustralia
Publication statusPublished - 2016


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