Background: Interventions for individuals involved in sexual offending behaviours are likely to be more effective if adapted to focus on their specific characteristics, suggesting that men who engage in sexual offences against children over the internet should be treated differently from those who have actual physical contact against children.
Aims: The goal of this study is to explore possible associations between the criminogenic cognitions and behaviours of men using online child sexual exploitation material (CSEM) and variables relevant to intervention. We hypothesized that antisocial tendencies, sexual, emotional and relational problems and self-regulation problems, as well as cognitive distortions, would be associated with CSEM use.
Method: Ninety-eight men who had been convicted of at least one online CSEM-related offence, but no child contact sexual offences, at any time between 2001-2020 were recruited in the province of Quebec (Canada). Cases were reviewed to identify cognitive and behavioural criminogenic factors according to a coding sheet developed after reference to prior literature. Variables were extracted from official criminal records, sexological and psychological reports, as well as investigative and forensic reports and interviews. Exploratory factor analysis was carried out to identify potentially relevant dimensions.
Results: Analysis confirmed five distinct factors which, together, accounted for 60% of the variance: dissocial traits, dysfunctional intimacy, passive alienation (internalised sense of alienation), normless alienation (social norms experienced as alien) and coping with threat.
Conclusion: Because online CSEM-related offenders present heterogeneous risks and needs, a ‘one-size-fits-all’ intervention is unlikely to be optimal for most of them. Our findings suggest a way of classifying risks and needs to facilitate more focused interventions. Future research should evaluate the relative effectiveness of general interventions compared to those tailored towards the dimensions of risks and needs identified in this study.
Keywords: child sexual exploitation material, internet sexual crimes, intervention, criminogenic, cognitions, treatment
The continuous growth and expansion of the internet has led to the development of new types of sexual offending. Individuals use the internet to download and upload sexual depictions of children, to trade them and to engage in sexual communications with minors. Consistent with a growing body of literature on the topic, the term “child sexual exploitation material” (CSEM) is used to better reflect the nature of images consumed by some individuals, rather than “child pornography” as it may give the illusion that children are voluntarily taking part in the abuse. In the current study, CSEM refers to both still images and videos. Interested reader should however be aware that other forms of material may fall under the definition of child pornography, depending on the jurisdiction, including sound recordings, writings (e.g., sexual textstories), or child sex dolls.
Use of CSEM constitutes the largest part of sexual crimes perpetrated online (e.g., 95% of the reports for online sex crimes were against children in Canada; Canadian Center for Child Protection, 2016). Other online sexual crimes against children include child luring (sexual solicitation), using telecommunication to make arrangement with anyone to commit sexual offence against children, and exposing children to sexual content.
The management and treatment of persons involved in sexual offending relies on the Risk-Needs-Responsivity model (Bonta & Andrews, 2017), which postulates that treatment should be adapted according to persons’ level of risk and needs (Keeling et al., 2007). Responsivity should also be assessed to identify potential obstacles, such as severe mental disorder, needing treatment before beginning treatment for the sexual offending behaviour (Bonta & Andrews, 2017). While treatment programmes have been designed for individuals involved in offline sexual offending who have contact with known/identifiable victims, there is evidence that they are not appropriate for CSEM-related offenders who have no physical contact with their victims (Henshaw et al., 2020; Middleton et al., 2009). CSEM offenders differ in many points from offline sexual offenders, including in their criminogenic needs, risks and responsivity factors (e.g., Babchishin et al., 2015; Elliot et al., 2013). Among notable differences, CSEM offenders were found to have very low recidivism rates (5-6% for CSEM-related recidivism, 1-2% contact sexual recidivism, Seto & Eke, 2015; Eke et al., 2019), thus challenging the very idea of how to measure treatment effects. CSEM offenders who also engage in contact sexual offences were more likely to reoffend and exhibit antisocial traits than CSEM-only users (Babchishin et al., 2015; Elliot et al., 2013). Just as for other sexual offenders, however, many crimes committed by CSEM offenders remain undetected, suggesting that we have not yet captured the full extent of the problem. Men who use CSEM who go undetected may nevertheless have specific or more severe problems that could benefit from intervention. If some CSEM offenders have special needs – different from those of contact sexual offenders – this advocates for the implementation of specific intervention programs based on the characteristics of these individuals (see Brennan & Perkins, 2017; Henshaw et al., 2020; Paquette, 2022). Several authors noted the importance of developing customized interventions based on individual needs instead of applying a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model (Beech et al., 2005; Chopin & Beauregard, 2019). There is evidence indicating that intervention programmes based on cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has led to positive effects when delivered with a range of individual characteristics taken into account. A key aim of CBT is to help the offender to restructure his problematic cognitions and eliminate undesirable behaviours using reinforcement strategies (Grossman et al., 1999; Marshall & Hollin, 2015). Almost by definition, CBT takes into account cognitive problems (Moster et al., 2008) as well as problematic emotions and actions (Yates, 2013). Studies have shown that CSEM offenders presented with both specific criminogenic characteristics and offence-supportive cognitions (Babchishin et al., 2015; Elliot et al., 2013; Paquette & Cortoni, 2021). As such, identifying the relationships between these two groups of factors should allow the delineation of tailored dimensions which could inform interventions.
Treatment-malleable (dynamic) factors can be grouped into three broad categories: sexual deviance, emotional and intimacy problems, and antisocial orientation (Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2005; Mann et al., 2010). Paedo/hebephilia, sexual preoccupation and relationship difficulties were more frequent among CSEM-only users than among persons involved in offline child abuses (with or without CSEM) and child luring (Babchishin et al, 2015; Henshaw et al., 2018; Seto et al., 2012). CSEM-related offenders have been found to get higher scores on measures of emotional loneliness compared to individuals involved in contact sexual offences (Bates & Metcalf, 2007). They also exhibit more antisocial characteristics, such as greater likelihood of substance abuse in comparison with those involved in contact child abuse (e.g., Långström & Seto, 2006). Other studies found that CSEM offenders were less likely to be involved in contact sexual offending against children (past and future offences), to have been victimized during childhood or to have a criminal history than contact sexual offenders (Babchishin et al., 2015; Eke et al., 2011). Also, CSEM offenders tend to have a more favourable socio-demographic profile than contact sexual offenders against children, as evidenced by higher rates of professional employment, levels of education completed, and scores on intelligence measures (Babchishin et al, 2015).
Most sexual offender treatment programmes in North America incorporate CBT and focus, among others aspects, on restructuring problematic cognitions supportive of deviant sexuality, dysfunctional relationships, and antisocial behaviours (Center for Sex Offender Management, 2000). CSEM offenders have been found to have a different set of cognitions from men involved in contact sexual abuse (Babchishin et al., 2015; Howitt & Sheldon, 2007; Paquette et al., 2019). Indeed, it has been shown that, although they share similar cognitive themes (e.g., the general belief that the world is dangerous) with other types of sexual offenders, the content of their cognitions is specifically related to the nature of the offences they committed (e.g., the specific cognition suggesting that, unlike offline interactions with people, online interactions are safe) (Paquette & Cortoni, 2020a). Among problematic cognitions specifically related to CSEM use, offenders believe that: (a) children are sexual beings, consenting and enjoying being photographed/filmed in sexual situations; (b) the offline world and relationships are dangerous; (c) some men have a special status and are entitled to act as they please, including viewing illegal content online; (d) some CSEM offenders cannot have control over their sexual urges and behaviours on or offline; and (e) the virtual environment does not represent reality and that children in sexual depictions are not real victims, or even real people, but rather digital composites (Paquette & Cortoni, 2020a).
Altogether, this corpus of knowledge highlights the need for further research on the specific clinical considerations for optimising treatment of CSEM offenders. Further, inappropriate treatment can produce iatrogenic effects, such as increasing the risk of recidivism (Wilson & Yates, 2009).
Our aim, therefore, was to fill a gap in the scientific literature on the specific cognitive distortions and needs suitable for cognitive-behavioural treatments of CSEM-related offenders. We hypothesized that relevant dimensions will be antisocial tendencies, sexual, emotional, relational and self-regulation problems, as well as cognitive distortions.
This research received ethical approvals from the University of Montreal, and the Sûreté du Québec.
The sample consisted of men convicted of CSEM-related offences but no other type of sexual crimes in the province of Quebec (Canada) between 2001 and 2020.
Records based data included: official criminal records, psychological and sexual assessment reports, police investigative reports and interviews, forensic reports and public judgements. Research assistants were trained to code variables accurately, using a previously developed coding sheet based on relevant literature. Police interviews, lasting 4-5 hours on average, were coded by two trained research assistants to identify the presence of cognitive and behavioural criminogenic factors. While conducting research in a police setting may bias aspects of data collection, previous studies obtained convergent results from both clinical and police samples when assessing psychological constructs, including offence-supportive cognitions (see Seto et al., 2010). In our study, nine cases were coded by both reviewers to check inter-rater reliability. The coding of the cognitive and behavioural criminogenic factors reached an 85% agreement (see online supplementary material for details).
To determine the dimensions for intervention, we used two blocks of variables: the behavioural criminogenic factors and the criminogenic cognitions.
The criminogenic factor variables were led by studies focusing on risk factors associated with online sex offending (e.g., Babchishin et al., 2015). Ten dichotomous variables were used: (a) any offender experience of childhood sexual victimization during childhood), (b) occupation at the time of the crime committed (paid employment or student – yes/no), (c) intimate relationship difficulties, (d) evidence of prior sexual interest towards minors, for example previous diagnosis of paedophilia or offender reported sexual interest towards children or adolescents), (e) emotional congruence (e.g., offender had reported emotional identification to children or evidence of child pornography such as ‘romantic’ text stories in offenders’ computer), (f) preoccupation with sexual thoughts, fantasies, masturbation or other sexual behaviours), (g) boredom/loneliness, (h) alcohol or drug use problems, (i) previous non-sexual convictions, (j) previous online sexual convictions.
Offence-supportive cognitions. Five dichotomous variables, based on Paquette and Cortoni’s (2020a) findings, were included in this block to identify the presence (or absence) of offense-supportive statements: (a) dangerous world (i.e., cognitions suggesting that the offline world is a hostile place and where people exploit others), (b) entitlement (i.e., cognitions supportive of the illusion that some have the right to use CSEM with impunity), (c) virtual is not real (i.e., cognitions supportive of the idea that the internet does not represent reality, that its content cannot be known or unreal), (d) world/internet are uncontrollable (i.e., cognitions suggestive of the idea that offenders are unable to control themselves on – and offline), (e) the sexualization of children (i.e., cognitions suggesting that children are sexual beings, able to provide sexual consent, and that sexual activities are beneficial to them).
Exploratory factor analysis (EFA) was used to identify criminogenic needs to consider for intervention. While EFA is usually performed on ordinal or continuous variables, it can also be used with dichotomous variables (see Bartholomew, 1980; Mislevy, 1986; Yong & Pearce, 2013). In this study, this technique was used to identify dimensions by examining the relationships between criminogenic and cognitive variables (see Fabrigar et al., 1999). To select variables for the EFA, we used a correlation matrix and included only variables with significant correlations under 0.80, thus avoiding collinearity (Pett et al., 2003). To determine the appropriateness of using a EFA procedure with the data used in this study, we conducted both Kaiser-Meyer Olkin (KMO) and the Bartlett sphericity tests (Pett et al., 2003). Finally, we used varimax rotation to optimize the final solution (see Tabachnick & Fidell, 2019), while the best model was identified using the Cattell method (Cattell, 1966).
The sample includes 98 men convicted of CSEM-related offences. On average, they were 40.58 years old (SD=14.57; range=15-81). Fifty-six (57%) were still involved in an intimate relationship. Table 1 shows the numbers and proportions of the men with each cognitive and behavioural criminogenic variable. Nearly two-thirds held the view that the world/internet are uncontrollable (64%), whilst just over a third (36%) considered that the virtual world is unreal; 44% had sexual interest towards minors and 37% considered the sexualisation of children to be appropriate. 41% previous non-sexual convictions. Just over one-third (37%) were in paid employment; nearly a third (31%) reported a feeling boredom/loneliness. Each other characteristic was less prevalent.
[Insert Table 1 here]
Table 2 presents the correlation matrix which includes the 15 initial variables. Results showed that 13 variables presented correlations that were significant but less than 0.80; none had to be excluded on grounds of a higher correlation value. Significant correlations ranged from 0.20 to 0.42. Sexual interest towards minors correlated with relationship difficulties, sexual preoccupation, and both dangerous world and the sexualisation of children cognitions. Being unemployed correlated with substance abuse and the sexualisation of children cognition. Sexual preoccupation correlated with a feeling of boredom/loneliness and previous non-sexual convictions. A feeling of boredom/loneliness correlated with the cognition supportive of the idea of a world/internet as uncontrollable. Previous non-sexual and online sexual convictions correlated together. Substance abuse correlated with previous non-sexual and online sexual convictions. Cognition supportive of the idea that virtual is not real correlated with both dangerous world and entitlement cognitions. Childhood victimization and emotional congruence were not correlated with any other variables.
[Insert Table 2 here]
Table 3 shows the measures of adequacy and variance explained by the EFA. Results indicated that both the KMO test and the Bartlett’s Test of Sphericity presented satisfactory values, suggesting that the data used were appropriate for factor analysis. The analysis of eigenvalues showed that the model with five factors was the most appropriate according to the Cattell criteria. The five-factor solution allowed 59.75% of the variance to be explained. In social sciences, models accounting for 50% or more of the variance are considered satisfactory (Tabachnick & Fidell, 2019; Tacq, 1997).
[Insert Table 3 here]
Table 4 presents the five-factor solution. All of the factors included some criminogenic items. Two were made up entirely of criminogenic items – dissocial traits and dysfunctional intimacy factors.
Factor 1 included the lack of professional occupation (0.37), substance abuse (0.70), and the presence of previous online sexual (0.81) and non-sexual convictions (0.50) for which a label of dissocial traits best captured the grouping. Factor 2 included relationship difficulties (0.70) and evidence of sexual interest towards minors (0.66), which we will call dysfunctional intimacy. Factor 3 included the presence of sexual preoccupation (0.71), boredom/loneliness (0.79) as well as cognitions suggesting that the virtual environment is not real (0.46) and that the world/internet are uncontrollable (0.46), together suggesting a broad experience of internal separateness which we labelled passive alienation. Factor 4 included not being in recognised paid employment (0.55) and cognitions suggestive of a sense of entitlement (0.46), that the virtual environment is not real (0.38), and of the sexualization of children (0.76), also constituting a form of alienation but here chiefly from social norms, so we termed this normless alienation. Factor 5 included substance abuse (0.34), and cognitions suggestive of the idea that the world is dangerous (0.78) and a sense of entitlement (0.53) which collectively suggested to us coping with perceived threat, albeit aberrantly so.
[Insert Table 4 here]
Our aim was to explore how cognitive and behavioural criminogenic variables interact in order to inform more tailored clinical dimensions for men whose sexual offending has been confined to accessing child sexual exploitation material online. We found five distinct factors of potential relevance for intervention adding weight to the suggestion that a ‘one-size fits all’ intervention approach with this population is not appropriate. The finding that childhood victimisation and emotional congruence were not correlated with any other of the variables investigated is not surprising since past studies have shown that CSEM-related offenders were less affected by these variables than other individuals involved in contact sexual offending (Babchishin et al, 2015; Seto et al., 2012).
This factor brings together the problems that the men are already established recidivist offenders, their offending not confined to sexual offending, and lack of prosocial alternative, complicated by substance misuse. Established antisocial behaviours are recognized as an important risk factor for any recidivism (Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2005) and has been shown to characterize those who do not confine their abusive activities to CSEM but also commit contact sexual offending (Babchishin et al., 2015). The dimension has clear implications for intervention, suggesting a need for specific efforts to resolve the substance use on the one hand and to support development of prosocial activities on the other.
This intervention factor is characterized by sexual interest towards minors and intimacy problems. Many CSEM offenders are primarily driven by their sexual interest towards children (Seto, 2013). Having such interest might consequently lead to difficulty in establishing long-term stable intimate relationships with adults. Alternatively, people struggling with intimacy with another adult may find comfort in relating to children. Either way, the interest in children and the difficulties with adult intimacy will both need attention. The potential importance of this dimension is supported by previous findings that a coupling of paedophilia and intimacy problems are frequent among CSEM offenders (e.g., Babchishin et al., 2015; Seto, 2013). Behavioural intervention focusing on extenuating paedophilic fantasies and redirecting sexual fantasies towards consenting adults. Regardless of whether their sexual interest in children is preferential or not, attention should also be given to developing adequate relational skill to maintain positive intimacy with adults.
This factor combines sexual preoccupation, boredom and loneliness, as well as cognitions. This combination suggests that some CSEM offenders have difficulty controlling their behaviours, especially in a virtual environment where everything is perceived as unreal, fake or lies. In contrast to the dysfunctional intimacy factor, there are many individuals for whom the use of CSEM is part of a broader consumption of any types of pornography: legal, atypical (e.g., bestiality) and illegal (Paquette et al., 2022; Seto, 2013). For them, intervention efforts should prioritize criminogenic needs such as hypersexuality, regardless of interest in children. When experiencing sexual arousal, there is a temporal reduction in cognitive ability to think about anything other than sex (Ariely & Loewenstein, 2006, Fortin & Proulx, 2018). For sexually preoccupied offenders, it will thus be important to develop self-regulatory skills, to recognize how their cognitive resources become mostly dedicated to sexual thinking, and how it might facilitate offending behaviours in opportunistic situations (e.g., when feeling bored and having access to the internet). Interventions targeting relationships, emotional functioning and self-control may be worth considering for treating problems associated with this factor. Cognitive approaches of fantasy management, as well as self-compassion approaches may also be relevant for these CSEM offenders (see Henshaw et al., 2020).
This factor suggests focusing intervention efforts on the combination of cognitions supportive of atypical sexuality, a sense of entitlement, and the offender’s perception of the virtual environment. In parallel, it may be worth addressing the unemployment – possible lack of employability; this may be a consequence of the interaction of the problematic cognitions, but the cognitions may have become more intrusive and are likely to be sustained in the boredom engendered by having little meaningful to do. An important goal of CBT is to restructure problematic cognitions by helping patients to confront them in order to develop control and avoid relapse (Pithers et al., 1983). Practitioners are faced with a conceptual blurring between the notion of cognition and not knowing for what types of cognitions to intervene (see Maruna & Mann, 2006; Ramsay et al., 2020). In response, many studies were undertaken to determine the extent of sexual offenders’ problematic cognitions, specifically among CSEM offenders (e.g., Bartels & Merdian, 2016; Paquette et al., 2014; Paquette & Cortoni, 2020a; Seto et al., 2010). These studies found differential associations between specific schemas and behavioural markers of criminality (see Paquette et al., 2020; Paquette & Fortin, 2021). Specifically, endorsing ideas suggestive of a sense of entitlement and the sexualization of children were respectively found associated with the versatility in crime types and a greater propensity to engage in contact sexual crimes (Paquette et al., 2020). The idea that the virtual environment is not real was found associated with higher interaction with minors on online networks, being involved in child pornography activities, and using technological techniques to avoid detection (Paquette & Fortin, 2021). In the current study, these cognitions were found interrelated and thus, are likely to deserve special attention in cognitive behavioural therapy with CSEM offenders.
This last factor is characterized by cognitive and behaviour coping strategies against threat, combining substance abuse problems with cognitions supportive of a sense of entitlement and of the idea of a dangerous world. Similar to the dissocial traits factor, CSEM offenders in this factor would be more characterized towards antisocial actions and attitudes, although not being already involved in criminality, or at least as yet having no prior conviction. As suggested by researchers, some CSEM offenders may, in their early life, develop the belief that the world in unsafe due to childhood victimization, which is also associated with adulthood substance abuse problems (Chopin et al., 2022). As these criminogenic variables are also linked to a sense of entitlement, it is possible that this cognition and the use of substance abuse have emerged as a coping strategy in response to the lack of perceived safety. Thus, in addition to focusing on substance use problems and antisocial cognitions, intervention efforts should also focus on instilling pro-social attitudes, strengthening CSEM-related offenders’ sense of self-efficacy, and developing positive goals (in opposition to solely focusing on what not to do) that could further help inhibit the progression of a criminal career (Marshall et al., 2005).
While innovative, this study has its limitations. First, most variables considered were taken from previous studies that have compared CSEM-related offenders with contact sexual offenders. Although they appeared to be problematic factors for CSEM offenders, we may have missed other relevant variables. Secondly, despite being appropriate, the use of dichotomous variables to compute the EFA present methodological limitations, such as less precision in identifying the latent structure of the data (see Bartholomew, 1980; Mislevy, 1986). Thirdly, as in other research on offence-supportive cognitions, our study is limited by the fact that we were not able to determine whether cognitions existed prior to the offenses or emerged post-hoc. Clearly, further research is needed to clarify the exact role of cognitions in the process leading to the use of CSEM. Lastly, as this study was conducted in police setting, we were unable to assess directly CSEM offenders’ cognitions using psychometrically sound measures. Seto et al. (2010) reported similar finding when studying CSEM-related offenders’ offence-supportive cognitions in police and clinical settings at different stages in the criminal justice process (pre-trial and post-conviction). However, to ensure the current study capture the entire range of CSEM offenders’ offense-supportive cognitions, additional research conduct with different methods (e.g., in clinical setting, using psychometric measures) would be needed.
This study was the first to explore factors emerging from cognitive and behavioural criminogenic factors associated with the use of child sexual exploitation material online. Factor analysis of records and interview data from 98 men whose sexual offending convictions had been exclusively related to this revealed five factors: entrenched dissocial traits, dysfunctional intimacy, passive alienation, normless alienation, and coping with threat.
Evaluation of treatment for such men is compromised by their very low rates of apparent recidivism, this outcome, in turn, affected by low rates of criminal charges and convictions in this field. Accurately judged psychological work with them is likely to be important in limiting further damage. Our findings show that these men are not a homogenous group likely to be best managed by a single, blunt approach, but rather that identification of specific weaknesses and needs can inform a tailored approach both likely to be more acceptable to each man concerned and, in part for this reason, better effecting the combination of desistance from harmful acts and establishment of more successful and safe behaviours.
Initiatives for future research include the replication of this study to confirm findings with larger sample size. Additional research conducted in a clinical setting could also help get a more precise picture of CSEM offenders’ level of endorsement offence-supportive cognitions. It would also be interesting to compare clinical dimensions relevant for CSEM offenders with and without other sexual crimes. Moreover, while this study contributes to the identification of the treatment needs among CSEM offenders, the next logical step is to investigate these needs in association with offenders’ level of risk of recidivism. Future studies should also focus on the examination of the role of offence-supportive cognitions in the process of online sexual offending. Using longitudinal research method would be useful to determine whether cognitions reported by CSEM offenders reflect their core beliefs, thus indicating a need for treatment intervention, or if, in contrast, they are only post hoc justifications. With the hope of developing more specific treatments, next steps must also include specific intervention developments and their evaluation. Our findings suggest that outcomes should include employment and cessation of substance use as well as specified changes in cognitive style and evidence of healthier intimate relationship development.
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Table 1. Descriptive analysis of criminogenic and cognitive variables (N=98)
Table 2. Correlation matrix of criminogenic and cognitive variables (Pearson Correlation)
Childhood sexual victimization
Without any professional activities
Sexual interest towards minors
Previous non-sexual convictions
Previous online sexual convictions
Virtual is not real
World/internet are uncontrollable
The sexualisation of children
Note. *p ≤ .05. **p ≤ .01.
Table 3. Total variance explained (N=98)
Extraction Sums of Squared Loadings
Rotation Sums of Squared Loadings
% of Variance
% of Variance
% of Variance
Kaiser-Meyer-Olkin Measure of Sampling Adequacy
Bartlett's Test of Sphericity
Table 4. Exploratory Factorial Analysis Principal Components – Varimax – (N=98)
Coping with threat
Note: only factors loading >0.30 are shown