How an online child abuser is classified by researchers is primarily based on the intended location of sexual climax – online or offline. Offenders driven by fantasy intentions are seen as only having contact with children in the virtual world – using the internet for sexual activities such as exhibitionism, voyeurism, masturbation and cybersex. Contact-driven offenders meanwhile are seen to use the internet as a medium to engage minors in physical sex.
However, our research into these two types of internet-initiated child sexual offenders has found these definitions are problematic. And that our lack of understanding about the behaviour of adults who abuse minors via the internet means that the laws protecting children exploited purely online is lagging behind those who are abused offline.
Offenders who commit non-contact sexual deviations offline (for example, voyeurism, exhibitionism and frotteurism) often also commit contact sexual deviations – such as rape and sexual coercion – too. So perhaps it is not so easy to distinguish offenders based on online fantasy and offline contact behaviour. In fact, there may be an overlap between these crimes.
Virtual contact crime
We recently completed an extensive and systematic review of all the relevant published studies that examined the behaviour of offenders who sexually exploited children online. Our aim was to determine whether a true distinction can be made between fantasy and contact-driven offenders and, if so, to identify the communicative and behavioural tactics that separate the two groups.
Our review shows that it is not always possible to verify where, or even if, sexual climax was reached. Patterns of online fantasy behaviour, such as online masturbation and arousal, were reported in studies examining both fantasy and contact-driven interactions. This suggests that groomers’ sexual gratification occurs with or without the intent to meet offline.
In addition, there were cases in which talk of offline contact was used to support the online fantasy, making it difficult to determine the true intent of the person. And so, to strictly define them as either fantasy or contact driven is misleading.
The behaviour of child sexual exploitation offenders can escalate online, particularly when combined with masturbation. So it is unclear whether intent or detection prevents online sexual fantasies from developing offline.
Importantly, the fantasy/contact distinction does not consider the existence of mixed offenders, who commit both online and offline sexual abuse.
Evidently, there is no neat distinction to be made between fantasy and contact-driven individuals. Though we did not find any communicative or behavioural patterns that separated the groups, it is clear both fantasy and contact-driven offenders use technology as an enabler for sexual abuse.
They achieve contact with victims in the virtual environment with the aim of sexual gratification. Fantasy-driven individuals incorporate talk of offline contact within interactions, and contact-driven individuals engage in online sexual activities. This indicates that abuse can occur both online and offline, as minors become cyber-victims through various methods of online exploitation such as cyber-rape (the aggressive coercion of victims into sexual behaviour on line).
Redefining online exploitation
Instead of using the fantasy and contact distinction, we think that the European Online Grooming Project’s three category system – of “intimacy seeking”, “adaptable” and “hypersexual” groomers – is a much better fit. The distinction between these categories is primarily based on the nature of the relationship, not the intent for online/offline sexual gratification.
“Intimacy seeking” groomers focus on developing a relationship, introducing sexual content slowly. They consider the “relationship” to be consenting and intimate. “Adaptable” groomers focus less on the relationship and more on the risk of being detected. They change their approach to match the victim and engage in both online and offline sexual behaviours. Finally, the “hypersexual” group introduce sexual content very quickly (sometimes in seconds), with the intent of immediate sexual gratification. Talk of offline contact and relationship building is limited here, and these individuals are often in possession of child and extreme adult pornography.
Just as adults that are sexually attracted to children vary in the degree of their sexual desires, so to does the extent to which they act upon them. Our findings provide empirical support that offline contact is not needed for victimisation to occur, which is why we need to continue working to clearly distinguish types of offenders. Doing so will help make better, more informed decisions in several areas, such as police investigations and victim empowerment