May 21, 2017

Why are these men downloading child pornography?

… And how much risk do they pose to a fearful public?

Teachers. Businessmen. Military members. Politicians. Every week there’s another headline about a seemingly upstanding citizen caught with child pornography. The natural assumption is that the man is a closet pedophile, hiding his deviant desires behind a façade of normalcy.

This pedophile assumption is sometimes right, and sometimes wrong. Either way, its circularity stymies deeper reflection. “He’s a pedophile so he seeks out child porn. Duh.” It is only if we step away from its micro-focus on the creep of the hour that we may detect something else going on here. Something bigger and more ominous. Something that should awaken our collective concern.

Many of us in the forensic trenches have glimpsed it: a seemingly normal guy who’s become so wrapped up in the online smorgasbord of sexual fantasy offerings that he spends every spare minute frenetically downloading massive amounts of ever-more-deviant porn, as if trying to quench an insatiable thirst.

Medical doctors are seeing another facet: teenage boys and young men with enfeebled sexual desire, who cannot maintain erections or achieve orgasms. More than half of young men ages 16-21 in one study reported such sexual dysfunctions. Unlike with the elderly or infirm, nothing is physically amiss: The problem is all in their heads.

Screenshot: Visits to PornHub in 2016
These trends are developing so fast that they've caught us off guard. With the Internet so ubiquitous, it is easy to forget its recency. “Tube” channels streaming digital video content have only been around since the mid-2000s. But in the brief decade since their emergence, video porn sites have proliferated like mushrooms in a bog: One popular site boasts 91 billion (yes, that’s billion, with a “b”) videos viewed just last year alone, or 12.5 videos per every person on earth!  

The popularity of internet porn is generally attributed to the “three A’s” – anonymity, availability and affordability. People can learn about sex and engage in experimentation without interpersonal vulnerability or fear of embarrassment. There is no responsibility for another’s satisfaction.

There is little question that the rapid proliferation of internet porn is ushering in a sea change in sexuality, especially among digital natives – those in their teens and 20s who know of no other world. Porn viewing is near-universal among male youth throughout the Western world, with average first use steadily dropping to a current average of under 13 years of age. A connection between internet porn and the sudden, unprecedented surge in sexual dysfunction is also abundantly clear: Men seeking medical help for copulatory impotence report obsessive porn use and, just as telling, they quickly recover normal functioning if they can manage to curtail their porn viewing.

With the online porn explosion so new, medical researchers are just starting to catch up to its effects. But an emergent body of neurological research paints a disturbing picture of an oversatiated evolutionary system gone haywire.

The brain is a remarkably elastic organ that readily transmutes in response to environmental and behavioral input. Take the famous taxi driver study, which demonstrated that successfully navigating London’s byzantine streets causes the memory-processing hippocampus to bulk up like a pro wrestler’s biceps. In contrast to this example of plasticity’s utility, the evidence suggests that brain plasticity is maladaptive in the case of heavy porn use.

Wearing out the reward circuitry

Credit: Discover Magazine
Evolution has hard-wired humans to feel pleasure from activities like eating and sex that increase our chances of species survival. But because the brain is not evolutionarily prepared for incessant, artificial sex, constant masturbation to video porn overstimulates the pleasure-seeking circuitry and causes both structural and functional damage. Preliminary neuroimaging research indicates that the ventral striatum (the brain’s so-called “reward center”) shrinks in size. The neurotransmitter dopamine – the “feel-good” chemical that helps animals remember experiences both good and bad – reduces its signaling. Perhaps most alarmingly, the frontal cortex -- responsible for higher-order thinking and planning -- loses grey matter. It’s as if, says researcher Simone Kuhn of the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, the heavy porn user is actually wearing out his brain’s reward circuitry.

Psychologically, heavy porn use may foster a vicious cycle of avoidance and poor skills for coping with stress, much like that found in heavy drug users. People may use porn to escape their real-world stressors and anxieties, zoning out in a fantasy realm millions of miles away. Over time, this becomes a preferred strategy that is relied upon for handling stress. Experimental research suggests that such habitual pursuit of immediate sexual pleasure reduces one’s capacity to delay gratification for long-term benefit. The user becomes increasingly impulsive, spending more and more time sitting in front of his computer in a disinhibited state of chronic sexual arousal. As plans and goals are sidetracked, he feels worse about himself, leading to depression that – you guessed it – creates an even stronger urge to escape reality.

Meanwhile, habituation makes it harder and harder to achieve gratification. What was once new and exciting becomes stale and boring. To achieve the sexual release that was once so easy, the consumer must frenetically search for ever-more-exotic and novel stimuli. Today’s porn users, report the ever-helpful statisticians at the popular porn site PornHub, are no longer satisfied with “vanilla” erotica or the old “in-out, in-out”; they are searching for wilder and wilder fantasy.

With an endless menu of novel sexual stimuli available via the mere click of a mouse, this process of habituation sends heavy consumers spiraling down a rabbit hole, sampling ever-more-hardcore themes, from bestiality and bondage to myriad fetishes and – heedless of the legal risk – child pornography. About half of male porn users report that they have found themselves searching for content that they formerly considered disgusting or unappealing. Given what we know about habituation, it is not surprising that this progression to more deviant themes is predicted by the amount of time spent online, the quantity of videos viewed and the age of first porn use.

6-year-old model in fashion ad
But the progression to culturally taboo fetishes is also promoted by the industry itself, which uses the allure of the forbidden to increase its profits. Indeed, it is rather ironic – even perverse – that the very culture that condemns child pornography as the twisted fantasies of the deviant pedophile engages in the widespread eroticization of children to sell products. As British criminologist Yvonne Jewkes points out, the titillation of mass audiences via sexualized images of children can be seen as “the soft end” of a culturally pervasive continuum that at its extreme features hard-core child pornography. 

Jewkes and her colleague Maggie Wykes go so far as to call the current moral panic over child pornography a "smokescreen" that serves to divert attention from the real sexual harm to children in patriarchal societies. After all, the overwhelming majority of child sexual abuse occurs within the home and is committed by a male family member, not a teacher, doctor or even a priest.

In fact, the very term “child pornography” distracts from the incestuous nature of much of the sexual violence depicted, in which fathers callously videotape the abuse of their young daughters for profit and status within their deviant subculture.

“The images found on computers [have] led to calls for an international database of missing children, thus ignoring the evidence that most children are abused at home and so are not ‘missing,’ ” they point out. “The power of moral panic lies not in what it does address but in what it doesn’t.”

The irony doesn’t end there. In our current climate of “paranoid parenting,” in which parents are charged with neglect for letting their kids walk home from a suburban park without adult supervision, the fear of digital child images is making everyone see the world through the lens of the pedophile, thereby colluding with commercial sexual exploitation by fetishizing youthful bodies.

So, what about risk?

Broader cultural discourses aside, on an immediate practical level the questions for forensic psychologists revolve around risk: If a man is caught with illegal child pornography, what is his risk for molesting an actual child? And what is his risk of reoffending by downloading more child pornography?

The fact that reported child sexual abuse has continued to plummet in recent years despite the meteoric rise in child pornography argues against any direct causal link between child porn and hands-on offending. But direct research on child porn consumers is tricky, because such people are less than keen to step forward and reveal themselves. This has forced researchers to focus on those who have been apprehended, likely skewing data toward the more deviant and criminally oriented.

Despite this limitation, the cumulative data bring good tidings: Overall, men who have been arrested and/or convicted for child pornography offending pose a very low risk to the public.

Aggregating nine extant studies on reoffense risk using meta-analytic statistical methods, prominent pedophilia researcher Michael Seto and colleagues found that, on average, a man who has been caught with child porn has about a 3.4% chance of committing another non-contact offense. The risk he will actually molest a child is even lower, around 2%.

These extremely low risk levels -- especially for child pornography offenders with no known history of hands-on offending -- is further evidence that much of their misconduct is driven by curiosity and internet-enhanced impulsivity. Once caught, all but the most deviant learn their lesson and apparently refrain from further misconduct. 

In any body of scientific research, of course, there is always that pesky outlier. In this case, there is one loner study that reached very different conclusions from the pack (and got a substantial amount of attention in the process). That article, based on convicted offenders at a federal prison in Butner, North Carolina, is regarded as an unreliable anomaly. Prisoners at the facility have alleged that they were coerced into falsely claiming that they had molested children under threat of being expelled from the treatment program and shipped off to more dangerous penitentiaries. Further, they were never informed that they were part of a research project, and did not give their consent (which if true would be a violation of the Nuremberg Code). Federal judges have been harshly critical of the study. Based on its multiple identified problems, there is even an effort underway to get the Journal of Family Violence to issue a retraction.

The first big wave of child pornography prosecutions caught forensic psychologists off guard. With little extant research and no established tools to assess risk in this emergent criminal class, some practitioners turned to instruments like the Static-99 that were designed to assess reoffense risk among hands-on sex offenders. Not surprisingly, given the obvious differences between sexual assault and online pornography viewing, these instruments turned out to greatly overestimate the risk to the public posed by pornography-only offenders.

Michael Seto has been on the forefront of trying to rectify this situation. He and his colleagues have developed a new instrument to try to distinguish between garden-variety child pornography offenders and the tiny fraction who pose a greater risk to the public. The risk factors on his Child Pornography Offender Risk Tool, or CPORT (publicly available HERE), are largely common-sensical: Men at greater risk are those with more entrenched pedophilic and/or criminal propensities, as indicated by such factors as criminal history or prior contact sex offending against minors. 

Additionally, it is sometimes possible to distinguish men with primary pedophilic attractions from those who fell down the rabbit hole by analyzing the totality of their downloaded images. The pedophiles will tend to have a preponderance of child images, often quite well organized, whereas those without fixed sexual interests in children will have a wider variety of images, including those of adults and other themes such as bestiality, bondage and the like, with child photos in the minority.

Criminologist Jewkes is correct that the current obsession with prosecuting child porn cases distracts from the bigger picture. It not only encourages a warped and ineffective approach to child sexual abuse prevention, but it also sidelines critical analysis of legal adult porn. Because it is legal and its harm is more subtle (albeit far more pervasive), adult porn doesn't generate the moral outrage of child pornography. But just as child porn promotes distorted beliefs about children and child sexuality, much mainstream adult porn promotes destructive messages about women – what they like, and how they should be treated. It fosters objectification, and legitimates violence and abuse.

Whither this social experiment?

Zooming even further out, online porn -- whether legal or illegal -- can be viewed as just one facet of a massive social experiment into completely uncharted waters.

Realdoll sex dolls rolling out this year
Echoing the Sci-Fi movie Ex Machina (kind of an isolationist Stepford Wives for the 21st century), the market in sex dolls and robots is booming, as “fembots” and “sexbots” become ever-more realistic in appearance and feel; they're now even being programmed with "personalities" (sexual, shy, naive, brainy, etc.). As Europe’s first android brothel opens its doors in Barcelona, some predict we are on the brink of a sex-robot tourist industry. Others go so far as to predict that “sex with humans could soon be a thing of the past.”   

Although one is tempted to scoff at such alarmist predictions, in trend-setting Japan, there is much government hand-wringing over the steadily growing proportion of 18- to 34-year-olds who remain single and virgins. Whether porn’s ubiquity is a cause versus a symptom of these larger, global sea changes in sexuality and family life remains an open question. But it is certainly safe to say that online pornography will do nothing to make it easier for people to reach out and connect, either sexually or socially.

After all, there is mounting evidence that porn contributes to young people’s insecurity about their physical adequacy and attractiveness. Heavy porn consumption also weakens men’s commitment to romantic relationships. Real-life partners are mundane and flawed in comparison, incapable of living up to the idealized fantasy model. And, unlike sex-bots, they do not always obey.

Maybe I’ve been watching too much Black Mirror (my episode rankings are HERE), but in this era of increasing social isolation and alienation it doesn't take too much imagination to envision a dystopic future in which people wall themselves off in lonely cubicles, growing old alone as they desperately scour digital media for satisfaction and companionship that remains tantalizingly out of reach.

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  1. thank you for the article, i found it highly interesting.

  2. You forgot to mention the F.B.I.'s Operation Pacifier. They confiscated Playpen from the dark web. For 13 days, the FBI ran Playpen from their own servers in Virginia in order to deploy the NIT to potential pedophiles. Defense lawyers in one of the affected US cases have argued that by running the site themselves, the FBI in effect distributed child pornography. They also upgraded the services making it easier to access and download. How was this not a scandal I do not know.

  3. AnonymousMay 24, 2017

    Another thing of note which you kind of touched on in your article, every mainstream porn site pushes "teen", stepdad/daughter incest, and many other videos where women 18 or older dress up as high school kids for sex videos. They are basically promoting the sexualization of children using adult actors/actresses.

    1. AnonymousMay 26, 2017

      LOL men like 'em young. If there were no legal restrictions the most popular age for girls in porn would probably be about 14. The porn industry knows this but the scientific establishment is kind of in denial about it.

  4. Thanks for these comments.

    Jackie: I agree with you about the FBI's Operation Pacifier. What a crazy operation!

    Anonymous: I also agree with you about the promotion of teen and incest content. If you go to PornHub's statistical analyses (which I found fascinating), these are among the most popular categories.

  5. AnonymousMay 25, 2017

    Hi Karen,

    Although adult-teen sex is illegal for some very good reasons, such an attraction on the part of adults for developing adolescence is normal as far as the psychiatric field is concerned. Since this is the case, why would the popularity of teen-related categories be considered a surprise? I recall hearing some time ago that the schoolgirl fembot was voted the most popular--and common--of all sex toys. I was not the least but shocked. Better engage with a fembot than the real thing.

    That said, the research on child porn mentined in this article fails to distinguish between the porn depicting teens and porn depicting prepubescent children. Many viewers download only teen porn while others focus on prepubescent children or even both. These viewers are not all pedophiles, yet they are clustered together as if they were. My point here, though, is that such in-depth research on the subject should elucidate the distinction, especially where differences are important. I was merely curious why this was not discussed, especially in a science-oriented article.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts. Certainly, I doubt that many people are surprised by adult men's sexual attraction to teenagers. My foci here were on (1) the exploitation of this attraction by the porn industry, and (2) the process via which non-pedophilic men "fall down the rabbit hole" and download material that is illegal. In the legal arena in which forensic psychologists see these men, it doesn't really matter whether the porn depicts teens or pre-teens, because the downloader (much like the man in a "Catch-a-Predator"-style sting) is putting himself at equal risk of arrest.

  6. AnonymousMay 26, 2017

    Can the U.S. court system charge FBI for such its questionable endeavors with Playpen and/or any other website? If so, why hasn't it? How can any law enforcement agency argue away any attempt to enforce the law by blatantly breaking the law?

  7. Several thoughts, 1. Is that you can't trust counters, they can be set by people on the other side to make things look the way that they want them to. 2. Is this definitely child porn at porn hub? 3. Shouldn't it be illegal for anyone (as in the feds, etc. to see those porn pictures and post them as bait? There is something just WRONG with that! and finally, 4. Porn IS an addiction and while I think that many look at porn because of their addiction, I still don't understand why it's LEGAL for people to be employed and post those porn pictures, it's wrong and if it was a picture of me and I found out I would be H bent to sue! Oh, and finally, shouldn't there be more money, time and thought into education about the penalties of porn instead of money socked into setting traps?

    1. The pornography at PornHub is of adults, so it is legal. Only child pornography is illegal.

  8. AnonymousMay 30, 2017

    Well done. I live in an upscale middle-income community where every mother walks their child to school. Nonsense and bad for children to raise them believing that every stranger is a child molester. Even Ms. Wetterling, who lost her son Jacob to a stranger, thinks we have created a monster. I think we must change this nonsense to a better message, which is, “This is a relatively safe world for children who need to keep their eyes open and use common sense with stranger.” By far, the risk is with the family. A child has more likelihood of being hit by a meteor than of being molested by a stranger. (Quote from Ms. Wetterling)

    1. AnonymousJune 07, 2017

      sorry, couldn't find this Wetterling quote. could you direct me to a link to this quote? thanks!

  9. Hi Anonymous #2:

    I don't know what specific quote (if any) Anonymous #1 was referencing, but Ms. Wetterling has been outspoken on the topic of sex offender laws. Among the best reporting on her son's case, with in-depth interviews of Ms. Wetterling, is last year's podcast series, In the Dark. The series is HERE; my Oct. 22, 2016 blog post on it is HERE.

    1. Attention important new information.
      SB 421 is the new sex offender registration Tier System law that will fix the outdated and broken California sex offender registration system by weeding out all the low threat, lower level no longer dangerous offenders leaving only the higher level dangerous offenders to be on the registration list.
      This is a modern stable yet flexible system and it works. And is good for tens of thousands of individuals who no longer belong on the registration list.
      Support SB 421 by advising the governor to sigh it into law. It is in the best interest for the majority of the California tax payers and citizens and law enforcement and the children of the state of California.

  10. Anybody ever hear of a Japanese inspection? If the Japan port authority do not want a specific trailer filled with let say strawberries to be brought into port let say the trailer is owned by a group that is not liked by the port authority for one reason or another. they let the trailer sit and sit until all the strawberries have gone rotten. They did not say yes! bring it to be inspected and they did not say no eather rather they just let the strawberries rot nothing to inspect. This is what has become of the making of a new and better law SB 421 the Sex offender Tier System. The committee will just let it in limbo until past the due date and it becomes a dead bill. No one said yes and no one said no. And nobody is saying a damn thing not the Dem. and not the Rep. Not law enforcement (who is the ones that a registry is meant to help in public safety) not the Courts or the Judges or the DA(s) not the Office of the Public Defended nobody am I am just one person who nobody will pay any attention. What's really and Honestly going on. This new law works and it puts the most needed offenders out in the open (the serial pedophiles and Sexual Violent Predators) and persons who are not sure if they are dangerous. Only those low level
    misd. Offenses and the moderate level non violent felonies that occurred over 20 plus years ago without another sex crime and no criminal history of violence.
    The only bad point I can see is that the static 99 R exam is no good for persons very young and if the crime occurred over 20 years. But Karen you yourself said a few years ago the this exam is bad science that it does not work like they make it out But you did say it my not show who is going to commit serious and violent sex crime but you said it does work very good showing who is not. But that is not what they want to hear or know they don't care who is not going to commit a violent sex crime they only care who is.
    What is your views after so many years of this registration laws rules and regulations that were by mostly majority made through wrong, misunderstood, false, folklore and propaganda ( like stranger danger etc.) and the now stable yet flexible System using true and real facts and works that has been put
    on the back burner until the gas runs out.
    Neil Fisher


    offenses .