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Special Report: What drives a perpetrator of child sexual exploitation to commit a crime?

New research into the motives and behaviours of perpetrators of child sexual exploitation who were convicted alongside other perpetrators has been published by The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.

The report, which was produced by specialist research agency Tonic, was commissioned to inform interventions that could help stop children being sexually exploited. It found that perpetrators of child sexual abuse could loosely be categorised into three broad groups.

Dr Sarah Senker, who led the research at Tonic said: “By speaking directly to prisoners convicted of child sexual exploitation, we have shed new light on what motivates perpetrators, and how their networks operate and function. This is a very sensitive crime, the research was complex to undertake and the findings are nuanced.”

The research is based on interviews with 26 prisoners, aged between 22 and 66 years old and which included two women and 24 men, across England and Wales.

The perpetrators were convicted for a range of crimes including rape, sexual assault, taking indecent photographs, trafficking, grooming and facilitating child sex offences. The victims, who were both male and female, ranged from four months to 15 years old.

The participants in the study fell loosely into three categories:

Group A: The perpetrators in this group admitted their offence and discussed a historical sexual attraction to children. They described living a double life, spent an excessive amount of time online, and felt unable to access support before things escalated.

Group B: This group either denied or partially denied their offence, did not admit attraction to children and refused to take part in treatment programmes in prison. They suggested they were vulnerable rather than their victims, and described a hedonistic lifestyle of heavy drinking and partying.

Group C: Participants in this group either denied, partially denied or admitted their offence. They claimed to have been exploited or groomed by co-defendants, and some claimed they were unaware their actions were illegal.

The characteristics of the groups were as follows:

Group A

They tended to be White British and an average age of 45 years old. Participants often described that, at the time of their offence, they were living a double life. To other people, they would be seen to be working and sometimes in long-term relationships. However, privately they were spending an excessive amount of time online talking to others with a similar sexual interest. Their crime related behaviour started online accessing indecent images and this behaviour escalated to contact offences. Drugs and alcohol featured strongly in some of their lives.

Participants in this group said they had a longstanding but not exclusive sexual attraction to children and were aroused by the power imbalance in child-adult sexual imagery. Six participants reported male victims who were much younger than victims from Groups B and C while three participants described having to hide their identity as a ‘gay man’ from friends and family.

Their motivation for carrying out an offence was largely characterised by seeking approval, validation and sexual gratification from the online community. They reported online chats as a type of escapism, and described them as ‘addictive’. They stated they were sexually aroused by the thought of a contact offence and said they felt disappointed or did not get the pleasure they were anticipating afterwards. As a result, they reported it was unlikely for them to contact-offend again after the first occasion.

In Group A, five of the seven participants totally admitted their offence, and one participant partially accepted his offence. One individual was categorised as being in both Groups A and B and he categorically denied his offence. Participants showed more insight and remorse than those in Groups B and C. This was enhanced if they had attended a treatment programme. They detailed they would have liked an anonymous safe space in which to talk about inappropriate sexual thoughts before they offended.

Five had contact offences and online networks for Group A therefore provided access to victims, and participants talked about ‘co-offending’ (at the same time and in the same place), unlike participants in other groups.

Group B


There were 13 participants in total in Group B, one of these was also in Group A, two were also in Group C. They were all male and 10 were from ethnic minority groups while three were White British. Their average age was 36-years-old.

Group B was the most heterogeneous of the three identified groups. Participants described ‘partying’ or living a hedonistic lifestyle at the time of their offence. Individuals in this group also may have had families and employment alongside this hedonism. Infidelity was common, and some participants detailed that they had fathered children with their victims. Participants suggested they had notoriety in their area through other activities such as sports achievements, their employment or financially. Several had previous offences for drug dealing or violence and these participants detailed being involved in the sale of drugs rather than drug use.

The victims of people in Group B were predominantly teenage females. Participants either had one monogamous relationship or multiple casual sexual relationships (including those with their victims). They suggested they only slept with young girls because they were readily available, denying it was fuelled by a sexual attraction to young people and, rather, was more opportunistic.

For those who partially accepted their offence, they suggested that the motivation was hedonistic, and part of the chaotic nature of their lives, in which sex was one part of a bigger picture of partying, ‘chilling’ and ‘hanging out’. For predators who had a family at home, they explained that their motivation was a ‘buzz’ and a ‘thrill’ of escaping normal, mundane life, and they relished the attention that they described receiving from young females.

Five participants in Group B categorically denied their offence and maintained their innocence. Eight participants partially accepted their offence. No one accepted their conviction outright. Participants frequently cited a ‘lack of evidence’ in their case and stated they felt disappointed in the justice system. Several suggested they had been unfairly convicted or racially stereotyped. Four participants from this group categorised themselves more as violent offenders and vehemently rejected the label of ‘sex offender’.

Participants mainly denied knowing all members of the network. They sometimes reported they knew only one or two co-defendants through being family, friends, work colleagues or loose associates.

Group C

Within Group C, there were eight participants, two of which were also in Group B. Six were male, two were female and their average age was 35 years old. Six of the perpetrators in this group were White British and two were from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Perpetrators within Group C described a less stable environment than those in Groups A and B. They often were not working at the time of the offence. Three participants described that they would drink most days, and one declared he was an alcoholic at the time of the offence. Two said they did not use drugs or alcohol, and two participants described their use as recreational. The two females in this group were single parents at the time of the offence, and their children were suspected victims of exploitation or of featuring in indecent images.

Participants were unlikely to discuss their offence in the context of sexual activity or preference. Two participants had male victims, and six participants had female victims. The victims ranged in age from 3 to 15 years. Four participants had non-contact offences (conspiracy, facilitation or indecent image offences). For the other four who had rape convictions, two categorically denied rape – one said the offence occurred in the broader context of having sex with the victim and other co-defendants for money (using the term ‘rent-boy’ in interview), and one stated he had a casual sexual relationship with the victim.

Six participants had seemingly been implicated in the offence as a result of being groomed by their co-defendants. They suggested they had been motivated by a desire to be loved or accepted by their co-defendant. Some articulated they had been emotionally blackmailed and told they were already implicated in the offence, and were fearful of repercussions if they did not comply.

Two participants categorically denied their offence. Both these participants said they never had sex with the victim. Five participants partially accepted their offence and understood how they had come to be convicted, although disagreed with how it was outlined in court or the media. One participant fully accepted her offence, although she maintained that she was groomed and blackmailed by her co-defendant. Some participants stated they needed help before the offence took place to help them see they were being exploited.

Four individuals had been convicted alongside only one or two others, and described co-defendants as romantic connections or family members. Other cases knew of their co-defendants and discussed how they had been exploited by a larger criminal gang.

The research found that, based on the perpetrators’ accounts, networks were found to be far from organised, lacking a ringleader or hierarchy. An organised approach with a ringleader or hierarchy was only discussed when talking about other crime types, such as supply of drugs. Participants described their connections with co-defendants as loose associations or connections with a small number of people and rejected the labels of ‘network’ or ‘gang’.

Those in Group A, although admitting to seeking indecent images, stated they were not seeking a victim for a contact offence. They said that this offence was opportunistic and the option was presented to them by a co-defendant. Six participants, one within Group A and the rest in Group B, described that they had casual sex with the victim (a teenager). For some participants it was blurred as to whether they considered or defined this as a relationship due to its casual nature. One participant, however, said he was ‘deeply in love’ with his victim, and two participants had fathered children with the victims.

Participants acknowledged the vulnerability of their victims, for example, they had come from care or had a history of abuse, but they talked about opportunistic contact rather than purposefully targeting vulnerable young people.

Group B participants regularly asserted that victims had deliberately lied about their age or dressed in a way that made them appear more adult. Some in this group also suggested that some victims’ motivations for reporting sexual exploitation was to gain financial compensation or revenge after a relationship ended. Participants in Group B implied that victims had willingly participated in the sexual activity that had occurred, denying harm, injury or coercion.

For those in Groups B and C, attempts to discuss possible prevention and disruption strategies were largely hindered by a diffusion and displacement of responsibility. Group A participants, who admitted a sexual attraction to children, acknowledged their obligation to prevent children and young people being harmed. They stated that at the time of their offence, they did not feel there was anywhere or anyone to turn to, to speak to about the thoughts they were experiencing. This group stated that they would have valued being able to access support before committing a crime. Some reported negative experiences with charities after they had been arrested, saying they felt judged.

Some participants, who tended to be in Groups A and C, felt they had benefited from treatment and therapy in prison. One participant from Group A, who admitted his offence, described he had benefited from the peer support he had got while in prison. There were other benefits to the justice system, such as access to education or help coming off substances, that were noted.

Dr Verena Braehler, Head of Research at the Inquiry, said: “The Inquiry commissioned this small scale study to understand how and why people work together to sexually exploit children so that we can make effective recommendations to help stop children being abused in future. The Inquiry is considering the findings with care.”

Chris Tuck, a member of the Victims and Survivors Consultative Panel said: “As a survivor, reading what perpetrators of child sexual abuse had to say made me feel angry, particularly when they'd either minimised or refused to accept what they had done.

“But I believe a lack of understanding about what drives abusers, and how they operate, allowed me to be sexually abused as a child. I am pleased the Inquiry has been brave enough to commission this research and I hope that its findings will help stop children being failed in future,” he concluded.

An explorative study on perpetrators of child sexual exploitation convicted
alongside others



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