Computer Crime Research Center


A typology of online child pornography offending

Date: May 16, 2005
Source: Australian Institute of Criminology
By: Tony Krone, PhD

... or digital format on a computer may be sufficient to constitute the possession of child pornography even if the offender has no intention of sharing it with any other person. The case of Lenny Lawson, referred to above, is an example of a private fantasy collection in video format.

For the offender engaged in private fantasy the risk of exposure is low, but it could occur in a number of ways: by tip-off from someone else with access to the computer or data storage device; in the course of searching a computer for evidence of other offences; when a computer is being serviced; when a computer is stolen; or even when a computer has been accessed remotely by a third party.


Among trawlers there is little or no security employed and minimal networking of offenders. Taylor (1999) lists three motivations. The sexually omnivorous user is oriented to a range of sexually explicit material of which child pornography is simply a part but not the focus. The sexually curious user has experimented with child pornographic material but has not pursued it. The libertarian is driven to assert a claim to be free to access whatever material they wish.

Non-secure collector

The non-secure collector purchases, downloads or exchanges child pornography from openly available sources on the Internet or in chat rooms that do not impose security barriers. Security barriers include passwords, encryption or the requirement to trade a minimum number of images. There is a higher degree of networking among non-secure collectors than among trawlers.

Secure collector

In contrast, the secure collector uses security barriers to collect pornography. In addition to encryption, some groups have an entry requirement that locks its members into protecting each other - each member is required to submit child pornography images to join. The W0nderland [sic] Club was one such international child pornography ring exposed in 1998. In order to join, members had to submit 10,000 child pornography images. Both open and private collectors may be driven by the desire to amass a collection. As a result, extremely large numbers of images can be involved.

In a WA case, R v Jones [1999] WASCA 24, the court considered the size of a collection as an aggravating feature on sentencing: 'the degradation of the children is more serious because there is a larger number of images involved.' The defendant had 162,000 images on a CD-ROM. The appeal court took into account both the number of children involved and the number of images of each child as aggravating features. The original two-year suspended sentence was replaced with a gaol term of 18 months.

In an English case the offender, Andrew Tatum, was jailed for five years for possessing 495,000 indecent images of children. An indication of the obsessive nature of his collecting is that the images upon which his conviction was based counted for only about five per cent of his personal collection of more than 10 million pornographic images (The Age 2004).

Online groomer

The online groomer is a person who has initiated online contact with a child with the intention of establishing a sexual relationship involving cyber sex or physical sex. Child pornography is used to 'groom' the child - it is shown to the child to lower that child's inhibitions concerning sexual activity. The proposed Commonwealth law referred to above covers indecent material as well as pornographic pictures and text when communicated to a child for the purpose of making it easier to procure that child for sexual activity, or to make it more likely that the child will engage in sexual activity (Attorney-General's Department 2004). The same proposed law includes specific offences of procuring a child for sexual purposes and refers to sending communications with the intent of facilitating a meeting as a precursor to sexual activity.

The current Queensland legislation contains an anti-grooming provision. The first successful prosecution under this law led to the sentencing of an offender to nine months imprisonment in February 2004. The 26-year-old had tried to procure a 13-year-old girl for sex using an Internet chat room. The 'girl' was in fact a police officer involved in a sting operation (Townsend 2004). Western Australia is developing similar legislation (Gallop 2004).

Physical abuser

Physical abusers are actively involved in the abuse of children and use child pornography to supplement their sexual craving. The physical abuse may be recorded for the personal use of the abuser but is not intended to be further distributed. In cases of this type, a charge of making or possessing child pornography will usually be incidental to a charge for the physical abuse that has taken place.


The producer of child pornography is involved in the physical abuse of children. He or she provides images of that abuse to other users of child pornography.

The distributor of child pornography may or may not have a sexual interest in child pornography. For example, the Western Australian case of R v W (2000) 27 SR (WA) 148 involved a child who was prosecuted for possessing child pornography with the intent to sell it. The offender had set up a web site offshore to make money from advertisers. The content of the web site included images and textual references to child pornography. The court held he was properly convicted.

Profiling offenders

To the categories listed above might be added the child user or the youthful user who pursues material reflecting their own level of sexual maturity or exposure by adults to child pornography. It has been reported that children under 10 who have been exposed to sexually exploitative material have themselves become users of it (including child pornography) and abusers of other children (Stanley et al. 2003).

Research in the United States shows that the typical person arrested for child pornography offences is a Caucasian male over the age of 26 years (Wolak et al. 2003). Little is known, however, about the characteristics of offenders in Australia. Even if there were consistent patterns of gender and age among offenders, it would be wrong to assume that offending fits a homogenous profile. The typology presented above shows that there are at least eight different ways of offending, with four of these having no direct contact with children, three involving either online or physical contact, and one where there may or may not be contact with children. There are also significant differences in the level of security applied and the degree of networking engaged in. More research is required to explore the ways in which these different types of offending are interlinked. The most important research issues to address are:

- How can victims be identified to prevent ongoing abuse or provide support in relation to past abuse?
- What effects are suffered by victims portrayed in child pornography?
- What is the extent of recidivism among child pornography offenders?
- What are the most effective ways of rehabilitating a child pornography offender?
- Does the use of child pornography follow a typical progress from the marginally pornographic to the most extreme images?
- Is there any causal link between use of child pornography and the physical abuse of children?

Implications for law enforcement

Police are devoting increasing attention and resources to combat child pornography and online sex offences. Investigations are necessarily complex and time consuming because they are often coordinated across jurisdictions, they involve networks of offenders using varying levels of security, and an individual offender must be linked to the misuse of a computer.

Perhaps the most important factor in law enforcement is the reliance on networks by many offenders. Concentrating on these linkages is likely to help address the problem of the proliferation of child pornography. Stopping the physical abuse of children requires an intensive investigation effort concentrating on finding new material and on cracking into the more secretive world of individual and networked producers.

Police may use stings to locate individual offenders. The greater long-term value in any sting operation may lie in exploding the view that the Internet is an anonymous domain in which it is safe to offend. Such sting operations may need to operate on a number of levels to capture the various ways in which offences may be committed online.

- Police stings using false web sites target unsophisticated users (Cyberspace Research Unit 2003). By catching trawlers and deterring those who may be thinking of experimenting with child pornography, an admittedly low level of offending will be disrupted. The Australian High Tech Crime Centre has joined the Virtual Global Taskforce of police from the UK, US and Canada to run such sting operations and other coordinated activities (The Guardian 2003).
- Sting operations aimed at groomers are more finely targeted at those who represent a real threat in terms of contacting children and acting out their sexual impulses. Queensland police have been able to operate with an anti-grooming law in that state to locate and prosecute groomers. We do not know how prevalent grooming is, and stings of this type may rely on the police officer and the offender drawing on a 'shared fantasy' of the 'compliant and sexualised child' (Taylor &Quayle 2003).

Much more needs to be done to understand the problem of online child pornography. The literature on adults with a...
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