Dr. Salla Huikuri
Project manager, researcher
Police University College, Finland salla.huikuri[@]poliisi.fi
For years, Darknet has offered a favorable environment for widespread sexual violence against children. The amount of online child sexual abuse material (CSAM), including pictures, videos, and live streaming, grows exponentially (EUROPOL 2020a), but who are the users of such criminal contents?
Pedophilia is medically defined as persistent and intense sexual attraction to children, which may lead to mere sexual urges or physical abuse of children (American Psychiatric Association 2013; World Health Organization 2018). According to recent research, there are two types of pedophilia: developmental and acquired ones. Developmental pedophilia is a permanent disorder, that corresponds with the psychiatric diagnostic. Acquired pedophilia, in turn, develops later in life and is a neurological condition, caused by amongst others a brain tumor or dementia (Camperio Ciani et al. 2019; Blagden et al. 2018).
Online framework allows another way to distinct between different types of child sexual abusers. “Online pedophiles” commit crimes exclusively on the internet, while “offline pedophiles” use internet to prepare their offences. The latter ones groom children with the purpose of committing physical sexual violence. The use of CSAM is oftentimes justified by fulfilling sexual desires or as an escape from negative feelings, such as lonesomeness, anxiety, or sexual frustration (Henshaw, Ogloff, and Clough 2017; Babchishin et al. 2018).
Not all CSAM users are pedophiles, but for instance persons who use the contents sporadically, impulsively, and out of curiosity or those who are also interested in other obscure contents, such as necrophilia. Internet is used to share CSAM with peers and for grooming children, but also for its production and, thus, financial benefit (Beech et al. 2008). Accordingly, online sexual violence against children is manifold. It covers, amongst others, possession, sharing, and producing of CSAM, grooming, sexual coercion and blackmailing, online prostitution, and live streaming of sexual violence (EUROPOL 2020b).
As is often reported in the news, CSAM users are well connected with each other. They interact in large, international communities in the Darknet, which share similarities with social networks, such as Facebook. The divider, however, is that these groups are based on criminal activities and, by definition, on distrust and the following attempt to remain anonymous.
The members of CSAM users’ Darknet groups have different roles, such as moderators, active conversationalists, those who are exclusively interested in using CSAM, and those who publish, share, and trade CSAM. To become a member of the community, users need to demonstrate activity for instance through participation to a certain amount of conversations. The status of a single user depends on his activity within the community: the more he shares contents or participates within the group, the more he enjoys other members’ respect and admiration.
Online communities of pedophiles come and go. Some of them have existed for years. In addition to criminal activities, members of these groups share the feeling of connectedness in the margin of the surrounding society that strictly condemns their doings. Procsead (PReventing Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse on Darknet)-project of the Police University College, Finland started in the beginning of 2021 and is part of ReDirection-project. It produces new research on the activities of CSAM users’ groups on Darknet as well as their contribution on sexual violence against children.
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Camperio Ciani, Andrea S., Christina Scarpazza, Valeria Covelli, and Umberto Battaglia. 2019. ‘Profiling Acquired Pedophilic Behavior: Retrospective Analysis of 66 Italian Forensic Cases of Pedophilia’. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry 67: 1–9.
EUROPOL. 2020a. ‘Exploiting Isolation: Offenders and Victims of Online Child Sexual Abuse During the COVID-19 Pandemic’.
———. 2020b. ‘Internet Organized Crime Threat Assessment (IOCTA)’.
Henshaw, Marie, James R. P. Ogloff, and Jonathan A. Clough. 2017. ‘Looking Beyond the Screen: A Critical Review of the Literature on the Online Child Pornography Offender’. Sexual Abuse 29 (5): 416–45.
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