Online Child Sexual Abuse

The Real Risks of Online "Curiosity"

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Cybersex, or engaging in sexual activity based on images and interactions generated through a computer screen, has raised important questions about what constitutes sex.

What does it matter whether we call it sex or not? Well, when it involves an adult having “cybersex” with a child, we need to figure this out. It’s not just a matter of parents setting boundaries with their kids, it’s also a matter of whether an adult or child have actually already committed a sexual act by engaging in cybersex, even if they have no intentions to ever meet and have sex in real life.

While some may consider cybersex to be safe sex, others consider it to be sexual exploitation when it involves a child. Do text messages, in which an adult suggests or entices a child to become involved in sexting, or exchanging sexually explicit messages or images, constitute “luring” or is it non-sexual because of the lack of physical contact, and simply fantasy?

Sexual experiences clearly occur in the mind as well as in the body. And with cybersex, it is possible to share a sexual experience in the mind and body without ever meeting the other person. But can we police the exchange of words?

It is recognized that there are several different types of individuals who exploit children using cybersex.  While some "dabblers" are simply curious, others seek out children to exploit, as well as child pornography. Still others engage in cybersex involving children as part of a prank that go too far.

Yet all are well recognized by law enforcement agencies, and approaches for identifying and managing cybersex offenders are becoming increasingly sophisticated. 

Research indicates that around 90% of those convicted of internet-initiated sex offenses are caught through sting operations. And research with first-time offenders whose only known crime was downloading child porn images showed a disturbing pattern of these individuals engaging in deviant sexual behaviors early in life, a tendency to lie about their preference for very young children and images of adults having sex with children, and their sexual use of child porn.

The excuse of fantasy is well known to law enforcement, along with a string of other excuses typically given by those caught. These include:

  • I downloaded them by accident.
  • I did not know it was child pornography.
  • It was just fantasy. I never intended to have sex with a minor.
  • I just had dirty pictures. I did not hurt anyone.
  • A hacker put these files on my computer.
  •  I have them so I will not abuse children.

Whether internet contact is at any time initiated by the child is irrelevant. If he or she is below the age of consent, the adult, not the child, has the responsibility to set appropriate boundaries. In fact, blaming the victim makes the situation even more abusive to the child.

Engaging in cybersex can cause lasting harm to children, although it is not yet known whether the impacts are similar to the long-term harms sexual abuse causes.


Bowker, Arthur; Gray, Michael. "The Cybersex Offender and Children," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 74(3), 12-17. (2005).

Briggs P; Simon WT; Simonsen S, "An exploratory study of Internet-initiated sexual offenses and the chat room sex offender: has the Internet enabled a new typology of sex offender?" Sexual Abuse 23: 1, 72-91. 2011.

Buschman, Jos; Wilcox, Dan; Krapohl, Donald; Oelrich, Marty; Hackett, Simon; Cybersex offender risk assessment. An explorative study. Journal of Sexual Aggression, 16(2), 197-209. 2010.

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