Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Internet child pornography consumers aren’t always pedophiles

The proliferation of Internet pornography has been a boon to both the novice and most seasoned consumers of erotica. Every taste and proclivity — from the most pedestrian soft core porn interest to the most twisted (e.g. sadistic or degrading) and illegal (e.g. child pornography) interests — can be indulged in the privacy of one’s own home, often at no cost. The more problematic the interest, the more likely it will engage penal sanctions, and the more important it will be for lawyers to understand what the behaviour is all about.

Internet pornography consumers are as heterogeneous a group as there is, and include, among others (of a non-exhaustive list): the repressed, the shy, the fearful, the insatiable, the compulsive and addictive, the impulsive, the inadequate, fetishists, masochists, deviants (a social and moral term) and paraphiliacs (a medical and diagnostic term) and oh yes, the “normals.” Major mental disorders like bipolar disorder (i.e. mania) are occasionally implicated.

Contrary to views held by some, including law enforcement, lawyers and perhaps even judges, not all consumers of child pornography are pedophiles. There are many reasons why an accused may have accessed or be in possession of child pornography obtained through the Internet. Prevention of victimization and denunciation of the behaviour are clearly forefront issues, no matter what motivations underlie the behaviour, but it is always important for the justice system to know who it is dealing with and to not mischaracterize the offender and the offence.

In dealing with issues and behaviours that have psychological or emotional underpinnings, there is no substitute for a detailed forensic psychiatric (medicolegal) assessment. These frequently multidisciplinary evaluations consider not just the problem behaviour, but the whole person in the context of his life history. In the case of accused caught possessing or disseminating Internet child pornography, a detailed evaluation of this kind is critically important in defining the motivation for the behaviour and assessing and managing future risk.

From defence counsel’s perspective, understanding what motivated her client to participate in the activity is critical. If there are mental health considerations or psychological issues that have played a role in the behaviour, then bringing that out in a detailed and well-reasoned report can and should influence a more therapeutic and risk- management oriented sentence. Of equal importance, it would be more challenging for the court to meet the aims of justice — ensuring punishment, protecting the public, rehabilitating the offender and preventing recidivism — without an assessment of this kind. Treating these offenders as a homogeneous group — which they are not — could also lead to a one-size-fits-all approach. A failure to discriminate between offender and offence variables that allow for tailor-made sentences is generally anathema to those interests and values the justice system works hard to uphold.

There are subclasses of Internet child pornography consumers, including those who pursue this type of imagery and stimuli deliberately and exclusively, those who stumble across it and who, apart from its erotic content, were further titillated by the forbidden and illegal nature of the material. There are individuals with polymorphous sexual interests for whom novelty and variety is at least, if not more important, than any one particular type of material.

This latter group, as well as those who exhibit addictive and compulsive cybersex propensities (Internet use addiction is a contentious diagnostic area), may become gripped by their need or addiction and obsession to a degree that impacts or dampens their judgment in discriminating from one (acceptable) source to another (unacceptable) source.

While there are limitations in an expert’s ability to definitively diagnose or rule out pedophilia (an erotic preference for pre-pubescent children — a key diagnostic consideration for Internet child pornography users) — an in-depth evaluation is the best means for getting at the truth of the offender’s sexual interests and makeup, or any other psychological motivating factor. The assessment subsumes a detailed psychiatric and sexological evaluation, phallometric testing (a physiological measure of sexual arousal), access to collateral information (individuals who have known the accused and potentially interacted sexually with him), as well as laboratory investigations and, often, psychological testing (including use of risk assessment tools).

Experienced forensic psychiatrists generally approach cases featuring this behaviour with a high index of suspicion (i.e. a questioning and even cynical approach — an occupational hazard) about the nature and purpose of the behaviour and the diagnostic realm to which it belongs. Pedophilia is invariably hypothesized, but is only tenable if the individual has a fairly entrenched and predominant interest in prepubescent children that has manifested in (masturbatory) fantasy, urges and behaviour and he has acted on these urges, is distressed by them or has experienced interpersonal difficulty as a result.

There may be subgroups of pedophiles out there who have lived exclusively in fantasy and have the wherewithal, self-control and enough of a repertoire of acceptable sexual interests and behaviour to have successfully avoided acting out (some have just avoided getting caught). In the (false, as it turns out) security of their home, computer access created the first instance in which a miscalculation (possibly brought about by the bounty of forbidden and erotically stimulating material) caused them to fly headfirst into the radar.

Again, distinguishing the pedophile from an accused who viewed and downloaded Internet child pornography because, among so many things (on his computer), it met his needs for novelty and diversity is a different diagnostic matter, has different implications for society’s risk and wellbeing and, arguably, is an entirely different situation for the justice system.

It would be very important for the assessor to consider, apart from all of the information noted above, the manner in which the accused went about accessing the child pornography (did he pay for it, join chat lines, take steps to access or meet children), the exclusivity or degree of representation of child pornography in his collection of erotic or pornographic material and the degree to which any interest in children, deduced from the materials seized or websites visited, reflects previously enacted subtle or overt sexually motivated behaviours toward children.

The lawyer and expert should communicate prior to the assessment so that the lawyer can be informed and, in turn, inform the client of what to expect, allay concerns, review confidentiality and duty to warn considerations and stress the importance of honest disclosure (and the pitfalls of a lack thereof). Ongoing communication is ideal. The lawyer will want to know where the assessment is headed and the implications of either a potentially positive or negative assessment on legal strategies.

Individuals convicted of crimes falling under the general category of Internet child pornography will already bear the designation “sex offender.” If the truth about the offender’s sexual diagnosis (or lack of one) and motivation is not brought out, then he may further be labelled a “pedophile” — an even more noxious pejorative and socially loaded designation that could dog him for life.

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