If someone downloads child pornography onto their computer, is that an indication they're a pedophile, or might become one in the future?
That question is gaining the attention of forensic psychiatrists as never before, thanks to recent legislation making possession of Internet child pornography a federal crime constituting an unlawful transmission of information across state lines.
"A large number of cases are going to court and attorneys are calling us, wanting to know what is the reason this person has child porn on their computer," said Dr. Humberto Temporini, a forensic psychiatrist at UC Davis Health System. The answer is often unclear -- not least because Temporini and his colleagues are still in the process of developing a standardized way to evaluate the risk, or lack of it, posed by someone who collects kiddie porn on the Internet.
The stakes are high. Dr. Charles L. Scott, associate professor of clinical psychiatry at UC Davis Health System, described the challenge facing forensic psychiatrists this way: "How do you assess the possession of Internet child pornography without the risk of offending, without the risk that the person will actually go out and molest a child?"
Such questions will be addressed at a panel discussion Sunday at the Marriott hotel in downtown Chicago dubbed "Internet and Child Pornography: The Impact on Forensic Assessments." The panel, part of a four-day conference sponsored by the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, will be chaired by Temporini, an assistant clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. Scott, chief of the department's Division of Psychiatry and the Law, is part of the panel.
The AAPL conference, an annual event for forensic psychiatrists, seeks to cover the major issues facing the profession. Because Internet porn is still a relatively new phenomenon, Scott said there is a dearth of studies on its relationship to sexually criminal behavior. As a result, Scott will address the issue of Internet child pornography by taking a look backward.
According to Scott, two federally commissioned studies, one in 1970 and the other in the 1980s, failed to find a strong correlation between viewing erotica and acting out sexually. He said that the decriminalization of pictorial pornography in several northern European countries in the 1960s and 1970s was not accompanied by an increase in the frequency of rape. Case studies of sex offenders -- which Scott describes as potentially limited because they depend on self-reporting -- have also not shown a clear link between pornography and the commission of sexual crimes.
A study of 11 pedophiles found that the majority did not begin viewing child pornography "until after they had started their offending activity against children," Scott said. And in a 1991 study of 160 adolescent males charged or convicted of sex crimes, 70 percent reported that pornography played no role in their illegal activity.
Scott said the nature of the pornographic material is a key factor. Extreme porn depicting sadism, bestiality and the like may be "part and parcel" with sexually criminal behavior. But he said it's difficult to say that any type of pornography causes someone to commit a sexual crime.
"Now, does it foster such behavior or continue it?" asked Scott. "That hasn't really been studied."
Both Scott and Temporini said one thing is clear: The Internet has made it easier for large numbers of people to view child pornography.
"The ease of use and sense of privacy is greater," Scott said.
According to Temporini, people caught with child porn on their computers typically claim that the material was sent to them unsolicited.
"You can accept that if it's just one or two images," Temporini said. "But if it's 200 or they've created a special folder for the images, then such excuses aren't very believable."
One thing that muddies the water a bit, Temporini said, are so-called "vigilantes," people who collect child porn through the Internet as a way to flush out pedophiles. Temporini said forensic psychiatrists can determine a person's "pedophile interest" by subjecting them to a battery of tests regarding their sexual history and other issues. But he said it remains difficult to predict what someone possessing Internet pornography might do to a child.
"The tests don't tell us much about that," Temporini said.
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