Families of the perpetrator: The hidden victims of online sexual abuse

Late last week I attended a conference on online perpetrators of sexual abuse hosted by the Lucy Faithful Foundation, the aim of which was to make us reflect upon the reality of downloading and viewing child sexual abuse imagery in the UK (i.e., that is 100,000 individuals downloading material in the UK currently), but especially in the South West of England, as well as how to best respond to it. Although the conference was interesting, informative and worthwhile, it was the questions that were not answered or addressed that had the biggest impact on me. Not the questions about perpetrators, policing or offence characteristics; but rather, the questions about the collateral consequences of downloading and viewing child sexual abuse imagery on the families, friends and communities linked to the perpetrator.

When we talk about sexual abuse we tend to talk about perpetrators and victims. We do not tend to talk about the surrounding family and peers that are indirectly affected by the abuse and its consequences. Often there is an assumption in contact offending that the perpetrator is offending against members of their families, that members of their families are always at risk and that partners are complicit in the abuse; but this is generally not true. If it’s not true for contact offenders, is it also not true for individuals who download and view child sexual abuse imagery? The short answer is that we don’t know!

The conference really highlighted to me that we do not really know, empirically, what the impact of having a parent convicted of online sexual abuse, viewing inappropriate images, grooming children online or networking with other perpetrators on the dark web is. There is a perception that the collateral consequences of being convicted of viewing online child sexual abuse imagery is the same for the perpetrator and their families as being a contact offender, that is

  • That perpetrators receive a prison/community sentence, they go on the sex offenders register, are often being exposed in the press &/or community during their trial, have the possibility of losing their family, friends, peers, home, job and have a resultant social stigma;
  • That families of perpetrators are too being socially stigmatised because of their relationship to the perpetrator, can be exposed in the press &/or community by default have the possibility of losing a family member/friend, might lose their home, may lose additional income, may lose social standing and suffer from suspicion around complicity (i.e. a feeling that somehow you should have known).

These assumptions are problematic as we do not really know if they are as true in online offending as they are in contact offending. What we do know, which the conference discussed at length, is the recognition that the lives of people related to the online perpetrators have their worlds turned upside down, directly and indirectly, by the behaviour and that they struggle to cope with the related outcomes (i.e., the removal of technology, the police investigation, the re-evaluation of who the perpetrator is and what you really knew about them); but that there is not a lot of support for these indirect victims of online sexual abuse (i.e., they were not abused but they have been impacted by it). Which is problematic because families feel at a loss because of the nature of the offence and that there are many misconceptions about the perpetrators of online sexual abuse, the risk that they pose and the reality of their offences by the public – which includes members of the public misunderstanding what online offending looks like, its level off seriousness (is it as serious as contact offenders?), whether online offending leads to contact offending, whether it is easier to forgive the perpetrator compared to contact offending or who the victim is? All of which means that the families of online offenders can face collateral consequences similar to those of contact offenders, but with less understanding, nuance and (possibly) less sympathy. Over the past 10 or 15 years the level of support and help for the families of individuals who have downloaded and viewed child sexual abuse imagery has grown, but it still not common place and these individuals do not always get the help that they need. Research is starting to be done in this area. Lisa Thornhill presented on her recently concluded research on the impact of having a father or family member that has been arrested on suspicion of downloading and viewing child sexual abuse imagery. This research is important is as it will give us an empirical base to start developing and implementing appropriate services for people directly impacted by having a parent of family member who has child sexual abuse imagery so that they can understand the offences, the consequences of the offences, be helped to process and move past the impact that the offences have on their lives. Sexual abuse, in all its forms, impacts not only the perpetrator and the victims but also the communities in which it happens; therefore the more that we can help these communities understand and move past sexual abuse the more adaptive they will be.

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