Lawless space theory for online child sexual exploitation material offending

Chad M. S. Steel*, Emily Newman, Suzanne O'Rourke, Ethel Quayle

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Deterrence, treatment and legal response to online child sexual exploitation material (CSEM) offenders is enhanced by the joint consideration of technological behaviours and cognitions. CSEM offenders choose an environment based on both psychosexual needs and utility, and in turn that environment shapes future behaviour and reinforces cognitive distortions. This paper introduces lawless space theory, a theory of cyber criminality which posits that offenders will primarily choose and utilize a perceived lawless space that best meets their psychosocial and criminogenic needs in the most frictionless way; habituation and differential association in the lawless space will reduce the perceived risk; normalization will increase comfort in a particular lawless space, increasing friction costs that must be overcome to switch technologies; and additional countermeasures will only be implemented by offenders to reduce perceived risk and lower cognitive dissonance, but not at the expense of utility. The theory is explored through the exemplar of CSEM offences and offers explanatory power for the lifecycle of a lawless space,the use of legacy spaces in the presence of objectively more capable options, the simultaneous use of multiple spaces to meet different psychosexual needs, and the adoption of new technologies by offenders. Additionally, the gateway choice and progression of lawless space usage informs investigations, risk assessments, and deterrence efforts and provides behavioural treatment targets.
Original languageEnglish
Article number101809
JournalAggression and Violent Behavior
Early online date21 Nov 2022
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2023

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • child pornography
  • online offender
  • cybercrime
  • child sexual exploitation material
  • cognitive distortion
  • lawless space


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