Doubts Cast on Study Linking Child Pornography and Hands-On Offenses

A group of federal law enforcement officials has published a paper implying that a slight majority of child pornography defendants have also committed hands-on child sex offenses. The article, titled “The Use of Tactical Polygraph with Sex Offenders,” has been published in the Journal of Sexual Aggression. However, the paper overlooks some of the study’s flaws.

Study subjects were 127 volunteers who were “under investigation” for child pornography crimes, with no distinction among the three crimes of possession, receipt, and distribution of child pornography. Also unknown is how many of the volunteers were convicted of child pornography crimes.

Also, the study was primarily about polygraph testing, but not all study subjects underwent identical polygraph examinations.

The paper does not discuss whether polygraph testing is effective in eliciting the truth. But polygraph testing has been criticized widely for eliciting false confessions. In a Slate article, psychologists Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld argue that polygraphs are “an arousal detector, not a lie detector.” Both the innocent and the guilty may “become frightened, indignant, or agitated. Their hearts pound, their breath labors, and their palms sweat.” Boise State psychology professor Charles R. Honts found that the polygraph testing policy of the FBI “increases the number of actually innocent people subjected [to] interrogation and false evidence by 190% with a minimal increase (15%) in interrogating the actually guilty.”

The shortcomings of a similar study—known as “the Butner study”—have also been publicized. The report of that study also implied that child pornography defendants commit hands-on offenses. One of the authors of the study, psychologist Andres E. Hernandez, has since clarified that “the argument that the majority of [child pornography] offenders are indeed contact sexual offenders… simply is not supported by scientific evidence.”

Some court decisions have rejected the Butner study. An example is United States v. C.R., 792 F. Supp. 2d 343 (E.D.NY. 2011 ).