As a result of a casual conversation over dinner at an international NOTA (National Organisation for the Treatment of Abusers) conference in Dublin in 2015, Mary Sharpe was asked by Dr Dan Wilcox to contribute to this excellent new book Working with Sex Offenders – a Guide for Practitioners. Much of the treatment for sex offenders is based on social science, especially psychology and sociology. The Reward Foundation has a focus on the neuroscience research about the impact of internet pornography on the brain. Bringing the two together has brought a fresh dimension to the discussion and possible treatment of sex offenders.

In recent years, courts have witnessed a huge rise in offenders charged with possession of child abuse imagery. Traditionally such offenders are regarded as pedophiles. Society considers them as risks to commit contact offences. They might groom children online with a view to seducing them in person. Most had been abused themselves in childhood. Today the courts are dealing with a rising number of offenders without such abuse or trauma in their childhoods. These are men who say they would never groom children or seek to meet them in person.

Tolerance and escalation

Instead they are porn addicts who have escalated to watching and interacting with sexual images of children. Tolerance, a typical feature of addiction, causes a lack of physical response to a now habituated level of stimulation and drives a need for more intensity.

Attraction to more shocking, new and different websites can drive escalation to child abuse imagery in the brain of someone who has become desensitized to lower levels of stimulation. Withdrawal symptoms, headaches, brain fog, depression etc, all typical characteristics of addiction too, can drive a user to seek out more shocking material to stay ahead of the pain and discomfort of withdrawal. A further characteristic brain change seen in behavioural and substance addictions is “hypofrontality”. That is, a reduction in the grey matter in the frontal lobes. it is the part where we put the brakes on impulsive urges and feel compassion for others. Such a reduction in grey matter has even been recorded in moderate porn users, not addicts (Kühn & Gallinat 2014).

In Working with Sex Offenders Mary Sharpe addresses some hard questions. Awareness of this is important for the treatment of sex offenders. The possession of indecent images is a serious offence. It begs the question about the suitability of being placed on the Sex Offenders Register. Is it the appropriate punishment given the draconian implications of this for the future of the offender? We live in interesting times.