The Dynamics of Recidivism – Questioning the Relationship Between Child Pornography and Child Sexual Abuse

The Dynamics of Recidivism

Questioning the Relationship Between Child Pornography and Child Sexual Abuse

As digitalization has made it easier to produce, copy, and distribute images, the number of convictions for posses­sion and distribution of child abuse images and videos (in legal terminology: child pornography offenses) has risen steeply. The increasing severity of criminal sanctions targeting child pornography (also referred to as child sexual exploitation material) is justified as necessary to pre­vent child sexual abuse. One of the arguments is that the con­sumption of child pornography needs to be sup­pressed because it leads to an increase in the likelihood of imita­tive behavior. But is this assumption true? Do per­sons who possess and distribute child pornography pose a partic­u­larly high risk of committing hands-on offenses? This question is relevant from the perspective of criminalization theory, and it is pressing if legal decisions are based on risk assessments of the individuals concerned. Not only criminal justice officials and criminal courts but also youth welfare offices and family courts have to assess the risk of hands-on offenses if individuals with no prior convictions for sexual offenses have been found to possess or distribute child pornography.


Expected outcome: scientific articles
Project language:German
Photo:© Jake Walker/Unsplash


Detailed project description

A number of studies have addressed the question of the likelihood that persons convicted of child pornography will subsequently commit hands-on offenses. Most of the research shows that child pornography offenders have low rates of recidivism with hands-on offenses; the results, however, are not homogeneous. Given the diverse datasets used by the various studies and the small size of the samples on which most of them are based, this comes as no surprise.

The goal of this project is to contribute to a better understanding of the dynamics of recidivism. It starts from the as­sump­tion that persons who commit child pornography offenses are not a heterogeneous group but rather can be di­vided into a number of different subgroups. One subgroup consists of persons who act out of curiosity or against the background of common juvenile delinquent behavior. A second subgroup is composed of persons with pedophile or hebephile sexual orientation who use pornography as an outlet to achieve sexual gratification but who do not commit hands-on sexual offenses. While these two subgroups do not engage in sexual abuse, a third subgroup is the focus of concern: those whose deviant behavior encompasses the sexual abuse of children as well as the distribution and pos­ses­sion of abuse images. The connection between child pornography and sexual abuse in this subgroup could be cor­rel­a­tive for some (offenders switching between hands-on offenses and the use of images, depending on opportuni­ties, situations, etc.) and for others perhaps causal, as postulated by the imitation thesis.

For the project, the authors evaluate the current state of research with regard to the various subgroups of offenders, and they make use of a dataset available at the Max Planck Institute to gather more statistical information about the se­quences and frequencies of offending and re-offending. Two major aims are to assess the size of the particularly prob­lem­atic third subgroup and to better understand the characteristics of child pornography offenders. The data, supplied in pseudonymized form, come from the German Federal Register (Bundeszentralregister, BZR), which records all convic­tions handed down by German criminal courts (see also the project “Criminal Sanction and Recidivism,” a longitudinal study in which the criminal behavior of all convicted individuals in Germany is analyzed over a long period of time).

Preliminary results show that of the offenders in the first subgroup (persons convicted exclusively of child pornography offenses) only a tiny minority (1 %) recidivated with child sexual abuse within a three-year and a six-year follow-up pe­riod. Of course, it must not be forgotten that the BZR, with its focus on convictions, provides only a limited dataset (the dark figure of unreported crime, for example, is left out of consideration entirely). Nevertheless, the data argue against the thesis that there is a strong correlation or even a frequent causal relationship between child pornography and sexual abuse offenses.

Core statement

Is the use of child sexual exploitation material an indicator that users will sexually abuse children in the future, as is often assumed? Using data from the German Federal Register (Bundeszentralregister), our preliminary results show that persons convicted exclusively of child pornography only rarely incur subsequent convictions for sexual abuse.

Other Interesting Articles

Go to Editor View