Why do people access sexual images of children?

Is a sexual interest in children a new phenomenon or has it just been hidden from view until recent years?

The wide availability of the internet and the huge variety of adult pornography to be found there may be linked to the apparent explosion in the number of people regularly viewing sexual images of children.

Whilst the internet may have led more people to use legal pornography than would have done before it arrived, the question remains how and why it becomes a problematic and illegal activity for some and not others.

The process of offending

Many people who sexually offend say the offences ‘just happened’ or ‘it was a one off’.  The truth is sexual offences rarely ‘just happen’. No-one does anything without wanting to do it and thinking about it first (although some people do spend longer thinking things through). In 1984, the sociologist David Finklehor developed the Preconditions Model, which breaks down the process someone goes through in order to commit a sexual offence.

Finkelhor’s Preconditions Model (1984)

What is the Preconditions Model?

David Finkelhor created the preconditions model or ‘steps to offending’. It can be used to help professionals, family members, young people and offenders understand the process of sexual abuse, including online abuse, and what they can do to prevent it/reduce the harm caused by it. He argues that four preconditions must be present in order for a sexual offence to occur. The model is based on a cognitive behavioural approach; examining the link between thoughts, feelings and behaviour.


There are many more reasons why people access sexual images of children other than the ‘obvious’ one of sexual interest, some of which include:

  • Feeling rejected
  • Feeling abandoned
  • Sexual gratification
  • Sex addiction
  • Substance abuse
  • Own experiences of abuse
  • Inability to relate to people/relationship problems
  • Curiosity
  • ‘Addiction’ (established dependency on pornography)
  • Desensitising to legal adult pornography
  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Loneliness
  • Decreased or no sex life
  • Excitement
  • Comfort
  • ‘Buzz’/risk taking
  • Boredom
  • Stress

Some people who view sexual images of children report that they are mainly sexually attracted to adults. Others say that they are attracted to both adults and children; while others acknowledge that they are exclusively sexually attracted to younger, pre-pubescent children. They have no sexual interest in adults at all and may never have had an adult sexual relationship.

It is often a combination of factors.

To sum up: people’s sexual interests vary, and so do their motivations for accessing sexual images of children.

Step 2: OVERCOMING INTERNAL INHIBITORS (justifying offending and making excuses)

Most people who commit sexual offences know that sex offending is harmful or wrong in some way. If illegal material is readily available and affordable – and especially if viewing it seems ‘safe’ – it can be very tempting to some people to do so, particularly if they are sharing the images with others. This can normalise the behaviour and help people to believe that it is not wrong or harmful. Even if they don’t care about the fact that offending is wrong they will worry about getting caught.

To commit a sexual offence, the offender must ‘silence’ the thoughts pulling them away from offending. This part of the process is referred to as overcoming internal inhibitors (or conscience). Here are some examples of things people say to convince themselves their behaviour is not ‘that bad’:

  • ‘children enjoy sex’
  • ‘s/he was smiling’
  • ‘it’s only pictures/I was only looking’
  • ‘lots of other people are doing it, so it can’t be wrong’ (normalisation).


The third stage requires creating the opportunity to go online and look at the images. The offender has to create the opportunity to look at sexual images, by making sure that his partner, parents or other family members and friends do not know what he is doing and that he is able to access the images in private. Sexual abuse thrives on secrecy. David Finklehor calls this the removal of external constraints.


The final stage of the model involves making the child do what the offender wants. With sexual abuse online this has already been done by the person taking the photograph. The child victims who appear in images and videos will have been groomed in a variety of ways in order for the images to be made – they are not willing participants. Some people who offend online will use chat or webcams to persuade children to send them naked pictures or do sexual activity, this does involve them using grooming and manipulation.

For whatever reasons a person begins to view sexual images of children, it has become clear that, for many, it becomes very difficult to stop.  Of all the kinds of behaviours that might cause distress to partners, family members and friends, the thought that someone they love is looking at sexual images of children online is one of the most upsetting. For this reason – and because of the fear of the consequences of getting caught – it is almost impossible for people to talk to anyone about it.  Usually, the first time that anyone else becomes aware of the behaviour is when the police arrive on the doorstep.

Back to top