The Centre for Gender Equal Media is concerned by recent comments by the Director-General of the National Crime Agency (NCA), Lynne Owens, regarding accessing images of child sexual abuse and/or child abuse material. Only recently, experts warned the NCA about not trying to make the meaningless distinction between, to quote Ms. Owens, 'those who are involved in the actual abuse' and those ‘just viewing the images.' Such a separation is particularly meaningless given that most contact child sexual abuse is unknown to the authorities.
Viewing images of child sexual abuse and child abuse material is a form of child sexual abuse. Many images are themselves a record of abuse. For the children and young people in those images, the act of downloading, sharing and/or viewing it extends the abuse they have lived through. Even where the images are spliced or manipulated and no ‘real’ child is involved (child abuse material), these form part of a conducive context for child sexual abuse including offline offending.
Men and women who choose to sexually abuse children, both non-contact and contact offences, must be dealt with through the criminal justice system in recognition of the seriousness of the offence. A recent BBC documentary highlighted the range of life changing impacts for survivors, including feeling unable to have adult sexual relationships, experiencing flashbacks, night terrors and other symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, dissociation, and coping through developing controlled eating patterns, the use of drugs and alcohol, and cutting. These impacts are further entrenched for those who know that their abuse lives on in the form of a visual record. Despite this, specialist therapeutic services for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse are chronically underresourced.
Ms Owens’ proposal for counselling interventions with non contact child sexual abusers who cannot be identified, feeds into the dangerous minimisation of this type of sexual offending. Resources need to be invested into finding the identities of these offenders as is practice for other forms of sexual offences. The scale of the problem identified by Ms Owens points to the need for broader prevention work with men and boys regarding the harm of abusive images, rather than investment in interventions which are unsupported by evidence and are based on an assumed difference between online and offline offenders.