Crossing the Line:
Distinguishing Fantasy and Intent In Sexual Crimes
Michael C. Seto, Ph.D.
Director of Forensic Rehabilitation Research, Royal Ottawa Health Care Group
Author of the forthcoming book, Internet Sex Offenders (June 2013, American Psychological Association)
Gilberto Valle, a New York City police officer, is currently on trial for plotting to kidnap, torture, rape, kill and cannibalize women, including his wife and some of her friends. This case has drawn a great deal of media and public attention for its disturbing details, and for shining some light into the shadows of the Internet, where extreme websites are available for almost every conceivable sexual variation, including cannibalism, necrophilia, and sadism.
A key aspect of this case are computer records of Mr. Valle’s chats with others about how he would carry out his alleged plans, and a charge that he illegally accessed a law enforcement database to gain information about one of the women. Does this digital evidence indicate Mr. Valle was plotting to commit these crimes, as the prosecution has claimed, or is it evidence that Mr. Valle was expressing his sexual fantasies online, with no intention of carrying them out, as his defense has argued?
There has long been interest in the connection between fantasy and behavior in forensic and legal arenas. This has been a central question in my research and clinical work over the past 20 years. The question usually is prompted by behavior rather than fantasy: Someone commits a sexual crime – molests a child, rapes a woman – and he (the perpetrator is usually male) is arrested, prosecuted, and convicted. Psychologists or other mental health professionals are then asked to try to understand what his motivations were: Is he a pedophile, sexually attracted to young children, and acting upon that attraction? Is he sexually aroused by sexual violence? What are his sexual fantasies, and how might that translate to crimes he might commit in the future?
Pre-Internet, mental health evaluators had to infer the contents of someone’s sexual fantasies because our understanding was constrained by a simple fact: Only the perpetrator really knew what was in his mind, and he might not tell us the truth, for very understandable reasons given the legal consequences. (Who would choose to admit to atypical sexual fantasies when facing years in prison?) The Internet has changed this, so that we can now gain valuable insight into someone’s sexual fantasies and desires by examining the pornography he views online, the websites he visits, and the content of his emails, instant messages, and message board posts. Even if he denies it, evidence of persistent and repeated access to particular kinds of pornography and sexual content is indicative of his sexual interests. For example, one study my colleagues and I completed suggested a majority of men convicted of child pornography offenses would meet diagnostic criteria for pedophilia; yet we found in another study that many of these men have never sexually molested children in the past (based on criminal history and their self-report).
What then distinguishes those who express their fantasies online only, and those who also act on those fantasies in the physical world? What is the likelihood that someone will act on these sexual fantasies? Our ongoing research suggests child pornography offenders who act on their sexual interests and fantasies differ from those who do not by younger age, impulsive personality, callousness, and substance abuse. Another recent study suggested that offenders who sexually approach minors online can be distinguished into “fantasy-driven” and “contact-driven” offenders. Fantasy-driven solicitation offenders spent more time online and engaged in more protracted interactions with minors. Their main interest was sexual gratification while online, including sexually explicit chats, masturbation in front of a webcam, and exchange of pornography. The contact-driven solicitation offenders, in contrast, spent less time interacting online; their main interest was in finding minors who would be interested in meeting them in real life.
We know that some sex offenders engage in “practice” behavior, such as following children or women before they commit a sexual assault, or exposing themselves to child or female victims over a period of months or even years before committing hands-on offenses. As I discussed with Rachel Aviv, the author of a recent New Yorker piece on sexual offending, the clinical and legal challenge is determining when someone is expressing their fantasies online, and when someone is preparing to act. I was involved in a similar case where the offender had accessed child pornography and written violent, sexually explicit stories about how he planned to abduct, rape and kill his friend’s young daughter. There was physical evidence to suggest he was making the transition from fantasy to action, though he vehemently denied any intentions to act.
The same dilemmas in differentiating individuals and forecasting the future are faced in other situations involving online evidence: When is someone simply expressing his frustrations with other students and/or teachers at his school on social media, and how can we tell if he is actually working himself up to committing a mass shooting? When is someone expressing his outrage at perceived American slights in online chat rooms, and how can we tell if he is instead preparing to commit a terrorist act?
There is science to guide these determinations, but our ability to predict future behavior is imperfect. There are risk factors we can look for in clinical interviews and careful review of files – including personality traits, criminal history, and sexual history – but they are noisy correlates, and no factor is definitive: Many young, impulsive, callous, and substance-abusing men break the law, but they are very unlikely to commit sexually motivated homicides, which are fortunately quite rare. This is the central problem of criminal profiling: What is the truly distinctive feature or set of features that can help investigators find the right suspect? The same noise-to-signal problem is faced in counter-terrorism efforts, in trying to identify the truly risky individuals from the chatterers.
Decisions can be informed by scientific knowledge, but we cannot clearly and confidently mark the line between expressing fantasies online and action in the physical world: Our scientifically based opinions about risk are expressed in probabilities, not certainties. Moreover, the Internet has created a new psychological space where sexual fantasy (usually private) can be expressed in a public domain, and where the distinction between expressing fantasy and expressing intention is even further blurred. Hanging over this confusing psychological space are the serious costs for making a mistake in either direction: Incarcerating someone for “thought crimes”, no matter how heinous or abhorrent; or not intervening before something truly terrible happens.