Supportive Distortions: An Analysis of Posts on a Pedophile Internet Message Board

Article excerpt

A covert observation of posts on a pro-pedophile Internet message board investigated evidence of distorted cognitions that were supportive of sexually abusive behavior. Implications for the treatment and supervision of members of online communities that support pedophilic interests and behaviors are discussed.


Researchers and clinicians have long believed that cognitive factors play an etiological or maintaining role in the perpetration of sexual abuse. Bandura (1977) proposed that individuals engage in inappropriate behavior and avoid negative feelings associated with their actions through cognitive restructuring. These restructured cognitions, or cognitive distortions, may be defined as a set of beliefs, assumptions, or self-statements that are used to deny, justify, minimize, or rationalize deviant sexual behaviors. The view that cognitive distortions influence sexually abusive behavior has substantial support in the literature (Abel et al., 1989; Bumby, 1996; De Young, 1988; Durkin & Bryant, 1999; Hayashino, Wurtele, & Klebe, 1995; Murphy, 1990; Neidigh & Krop, 1992; Pollock & Hashmall, 1991; Stermac & Segal, 1989). Hanson, Gizzarelli, and Scott (1994) found that pedophiles not only perceived children as sexually attractive but also as willing and motivated to engage in sexual behaviors with adults. Stermac and Segal (1989) reported that convicted pedophiles were more likely to view sexual abuse as beneficial to the victims and more likely to hold victims responsible for the occurrence of abuse. It has been further suggested that cognitive distortions allow individuals to defend against negative emotional states they might experience subsequent to committing a sexually abusive act (Langton & Marshall, 2000).

Murphy (1990) has adapted three major cognitive processes proposed by Bandura (1977) for application to sexual offenders. The first of these processes is the Justification of Reprehensible Conduct. Subcategories within this larger categorization include (a) Moral Justification (i.e., the abusive act was beneficial to the child), (b) Psychological Justification (i.e., blaming external forces, such as innate sexual orientation, for the abuse), (c) Palliative Comparison (i.e., viewing the abuse relative to other behaviors that are perceived as more heinous), and (d) Euphemistic Labeling (i.e., substituting agreeable expressions for those carrying negative connotations).

The second cognitive process that Murphy (1990) adapted from Bandura (1977) is Misperception of Consequences. This process includes minimizing (e.g., "the child didn't suffer"), ignoring ("I don't care"), and misattributing the consequences of the abuse ("irresponsible caregivers are to blame"). Third and finally, Murphy (1990) identified the process of Devaluing and Attributing Blame to the Victim. This final process includes the dehumanization of the victim (e.g., "she's a slut anyway") and attribution of blame (e.g., "most women want to be raped"). It has been suggested that the degree to which individuals harbor distorted cognitions, such as those proposed by Murphy (1990), is closely related to their potential for perpetrating sexual abuse (Malamuth, Sockloskie, Koss, & Tanaka, 1991).

Current approaches to the treatment of sex offenders have increasingly focused on addressing the cognitive factors that have etiological significance, or maintain deviant behaviors (Murphy, 1990). Despite widespread acceptance that distorted thinking plays a contributory role in an individual's decision to commit a sex offense, cognitive distortions among sex offenders have proven difficult to investigate empirically (Barbaree, Marshall, & McCormick, 1998). This difficulty may be largely attributed to the fact that most measures designed to assess cognitive distortions have high face validity, making it easy for an individual to provide socially desirable responses (Hanson et al. …