Apr 2011

Is There a Link Between Child Pornography and Child Molestation?

Is there any connection between possessing and/or viewing child porn and commission of an actual act of child molesting? For the past few years, prosecutors across the country have pointed to a flawed study conducted in a federal prison to answer “yes, there is.”

That study was conducted at the Federal Prison in Butner and came to be commonly known as The “Butner” Study. From 2002 to 2005, psychologists studied 155 inmates at that facility that had taken part in an 18 month treatment program. All 155 had been convicted of child pornography crimes, and were asked in their treatment if they had ever also molested children. The study suggested a “strong link” between the use of child porn and child sexual assault. It was originally published in the April Journal of Family Violence (Vol. 24, No. 3), and has been subsequently reported in several professional journals: Tori DeAngelis, Porn use and child abuse: The link may be greater than we think, a controversial study suggests, APA Monitor on Psychology, Volume 40, No. 11 December 2009; Michael L. Bourke and Andres E. Hernandez, The ‘Butner Study’ Redux: A Report of the Incidence of Hands-on Child Victimization by Child Pornography Offenders, Journal of Family Violence (Vol. 24, No. 3, April 2009)

However, momentum has been building to see the Butner study in its true colors, yet the latest example of junk science to be dragged into courtrooms by the prosecution. For starters, even the author of that study claims that it is being misused by prosecutors when they do so:

“Some individuals have misused the results of [BOP study] to fuel the argument that the majority of CP offenders are indeed contact sexual offenders and, therefore, dangerous predators. This simply is not supported by the scientific evidence.”

Andres E. Hernandez, Psychological and Behavioral Characteristics of Child Pornography Offenders in Treatment (April 5-7, 2009).

Furthermore, several other experts in the field have joined the chorus of commentators critical of the use of Butner, including: R.W. Wollert, et al., “Federal Internet Child Pornography Offenders (CPOs) Do Not Have Florid Offense Histories and Are Unlikely to Recidivate” (book chapter in The Sexual Offender, volume 7, Civic Research Institute, in press). Wollert points out that the study was inadequately designed and misleading in its results. Former Butner patients have disclosed that “they were expected to disclose new offenses on an ongoing basis as part of their treatment participation.” (Wollert, 21). See also Richard B. Krueger, M.D. and Meg S. Kaplan, Ph.D., “Non-Contact Sexual Offenses: Exhibitionism, Voyeurism, Possession of Child Pornography, and Interacting with Children Over the Internet,” (in press) in Volume 7 of “The Sex Offender.”

Finally, criticism of misusing Butner has started to gain a foothold even in courtrooms. In US v. Johnson, 588 F.Supp.2d 997 (S.D. Iowa 2008), a Federal District Court Judge in Iowa found Butner to be: “not credible,” and “highly coercive.” The results are seriously skewed in favor of the desired findings (that viewing child porn leads to more serious sexual offenses), quite possibly because, “[u]nless offenders continue to admit to further sexual crimes, whether or not they actually committed those crimes, the offenders are discharged from the program,” meaning that “the subjects in this Study had an incentive to lie.” The District Court Judge determined, quite properly, that this “whole approach is rejected by the treatment and scientific community.”

In fact, the science suggests just the opposite to be true. The highly regarded, and universally cited study by Seto & Eke (the first study to ever study the issue of recidivism by child porn offenders), Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, Vol. 17, No. 2, pp. 201, et seq., (April 2005), found that in an average of 2.5 years only 3.9% of child pornography offenders reoffended for that offense, and those with no prior criminal record of any offense had a contact sexual offense only 1.3% of the time, which in this study was a single subject in the sample. Only one of the offenders with only child pornography offenses committed a later contact sexual offense in the follow-up period. More of this group of offenders might subsequently commit a sexual offense as the duration of the follow-up period increases, but the finding does contradict the assumption that all child pornography offenders are at very high risk to commit contact sexual offenses involving children.
Furthermore, Volume 7 of “The Sex Offender,” published by the Civic Research Institute, by Richard Wollert, Ph.D., Jacqueline Waggoner, Ed.D., and Jason Smith, Psy.D., entitled “Federal Internet Child Pornography Offenders (CPOs) Do Not Have Florid Offense Histories and Are Unlikely to Recidivate,” confirms Seto & Ecke’s findings. It found that few federal child pornography offenders have any history of child molestation, and none of the 72 child pornography offenders who were monitored over 4 years committed contact sex offenses against children, and that these results were consistent with other studies and Department of Justice research.

Mark A. Satawa is a partner at Kirsch & Satawa (, PC in Southfield, MI. He practices in the area of criminal defense, specializing in defending sex crimes, child molestation, internet stings, and child pornography. He is a contributing author in the book, INSIDE THE MINDS: STRATEGIES FOR DEFENDING INTERNET PORNOGRAPHY CASES (Aspatore2008). (

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