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Online Sex Abuse Cases Not Characterized by Deception, Abduction and Force, Research Shows

Findings From National Sample of Law Enforcement Agencies Indicates That
Current Prevention Efforts Emphasizing On-Line Deception May Be Missing Their Mark

Kimberly Mitchell, Ph.D., 
Janis Wolak, M.A., J.D. &
David Finkelhor, Ph.D.,
August 1, 2004

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Warnings about Internet child molesters often depict them as predators who impersonate peers to befriend children and lure them into encounters that end in abduction, rape and murder. But
a new study of a national sample of such cases from U.S. law enforcement agencies paints a
different and disconcerting picture of the dynamics involved in these crimes.

According to the study:

Most offenders did not deceive victims about the fact that they were adults interested in sexual relationships

The victims, primarily teens aged 13 to 15, met and had sex with the adults on more than one occasion

Half of the victims were described as being in love with or feeling close bonds with the offenders

Few offenders abducted or used force to sexually abuse their victims.

These findings suggest the need for parents, educators and the media to revise their approaches to preventing Internet sex crimes, according to the authors of the research, Janis Wolak, M.A., J.D., David Finkelhor, Ph.D., and Kimberly Mitchell, Ph.D., of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. Dr. Mitchell will present their findings at the 112th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association (APA) in Honolulu.

The researchers surveyed local, state and federal law enforcement investigators from 2,574 law enforcement agencies between 2001 and 2002, to identify sexual offenses against juvenile victims that originated with an online encounter and ended with the arrest of an offender.

Findings show 

that despite the stereotypes of Internet sex crimes against minors, offenders targeted adolescents, not younger children 
(99% were age 13 to 17 and none were younger than 12). 

Only 5% of offenders tried to deceive victims about being older adults. 

Only 21% lied about their sexual motives, and most of these deceptions involved insincere promises of love and romance. 

Few offenders used 

force (5%) or 

coercion (16%) or 

abduction (3%) 
to sexually abuse their victims. 

The research also suggests that it may be misleading to categorize offenders in such cases as strangers, because victims and offenders had typically communicated, both online and by telephone, for more than one month prior to meeting in person.

According to the authors, the study has several implications for prevention. Rather than emphasize the dangers of deception, 

“the data suggests that a major challenge for prevention is the population of young teens who are willing to enter into voluntary sexual relationships with
adults whom they meet online. This is a reality that people may be reluctant to confront, but effective prevention requires public and private acknowledgment of what actually happens in these cases,” according to the researchers. 

They add that teenagers may benefit from being told directly about why such relationships are a bad idea and made to understand that adults who care about their well-being would not
propose sexual relationships or involve them in risky encounters.

The authors also urge prevention efforts to focus special attention on the most vulnerable populations for Internet-initiated sex crimes against minors. These include 

adolescents who have poor relationships with their parents, 

those who are lonely or 

depressed, or 

gay teenagers or 

those questioning their sexual orientation who turn to others on the Internet for
support or information.

The authors also recommend training for law enforcement since some of the targeted youth may not initially see themselves as victims and may require sensitive interviewing in order to cooperate with investigators. 

The research was funded jointly by the National Center on Missing and Exploited Children and the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and will be published online in the November issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health.

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