Manipulation online and in person – two worlds not so far apart

Some argue that the anonymity afforded to us by the internet provides an environment in which we can feel safe to act outside social and moral boundaries, behaving in ways that we would not ordinarily when social expectations are in place (Suler, 2005).

Anonymity allows those who are criminally minded to adopt online identities/personas, which are difficult to verify and may be used for the purpose of deceiving and manipulating others. One such example is where the anonymity of the internet lends itself to what has been called the ‘grooming’ of children for sexual abuse. Often the focus of academic and practitioner discussion regarding this topic is on the deception and manipulation of the child with the end result being a physical meeting with the offender. However, just as concerning are interactions of a sexually abusive nature that take place solely online and via webcam.

While it can certainly be proposed that the internet and its Triple A Engine – anonymity, accessibility and affordability (Cooper, 1998) – has facilitated the scale of the sexual abuse of others, the techniques used by offenders to achieve this are not new. Anonymity in the physical world is exploited by criminals when they target victims who are strangers to them. They are unknown to their victims in the sense that their true identities remain hidden and they do their best to keep them hidden and evade detection. Similarities in the methods of manipulation are directly observable when you compare our research findings of the strategies used by offenders to manipulate children for sexual abuse (Chiang & Grant, 2018; Kloess, Hamilton-Giachritsis, & Beech, 2017; Kloess et al, 2015) and those used by offenders to commit sexual violence in the physical world against adults and children (eg, Grant & Woodhams, 2007; Woodhams & Labuschagne, 2012).

In research of online interactions carried out in the Centre for Applied Psychology, we found that some offenders spent considerable time conversing and interacting with victims in a way that resembled a process of relationship-building. Here, although sexual content was introduced more gently, this still occurred relatively early in the interactions, with a clear progression in terms of sexual topics discussed and sexual activity engaged in. In other online interactions, other offenders immediately introduced sexual themes, presenting with no interest in ‘getting to know’ victims or having a conversation with them.

Most commonly used strategies by offenders included flattery, compliments and affection, as well as persistence and manipulation. Throughout interactions, offenders may modify their initially more gentle strategies, subsequently becoming more directive. Offenders employing a direct approach made use of strategies that were of an aggressive, persistent, non-compromising and pressurising nature in order to incite victims and achieve their compliance in requested engagement (alias ‘sexual extortion’; Chiang & Grant, 2018). Other strategies, such as initiating sexual topics and sending sexually explicit material, was found to serve the purpose of sexualising conversations and manipulating victims, through presenting sexual contact with children and depicted sexual activity in a normalising manner. In terms of deception, only one offender disguised the fact that he was an adult male by presenting as an adolescent girl of the same age as his victims. The remainder did not disguise that they were adults, but presented as younger than their true age, which is consistent with previous research (Whittle, Hamilton-Giachritsis, & Beech, 2014b; Wolak, Finkelhor, Mitchell, & Ybarra, 2008).

Research from the Centre for Crime, Justice and Policing has examined how sexual offenders operating in the physical world use deceptive and manipulative techniques to obtain control of their victims and how the techniques can vary due to cultural influences (eg, Woodhams & Labuschagne, 2012). From this research, clear parallels can be seen between our research on strategies used by online child sex offenders and those used by stranger sex offenders in the physical world.
For example, with stranger sexual offences, research has consistently identified three themes of interpersonal interaction. The first is ‘victim as a person’ and is also sometimes referred to as the pseudo-intimate style. This involves behaviours such as complimenting the victim, asking personal questions, inquiring as to the victim’s enjoyment or typical sexual practices, and showing concern for him/her. The style of interaction referred to as the ‘victim as an object’ is much more impersonal. Other similarities include examples of offenders beginning with a more ‘gentle’ approach which becomes more aggressive and directive in time.

In the study of stranger sexual assaults, distinctions are made between styles of approach. One is called a ‘con-approach’ and while some cons are short-lived, others can last hours and even days. The aim of the rapist here is to manipulate the victim into a more vulnerable situation (perhaps with no/fewer witnesses present), or to present a plausible deception that hides the offender’s true intentions of rape from the victim. Once the victim is manipulated into a more vulnerable situation that is conducive to the commission of rape, the façade is dropped and the offender reveals his true intent. During the ‘approach’ phase of a rape where the offender is using a con-approach, lesser acts of sexual intimacy can be introduced by the offender to determine the reaction of the victim and attempts at greater intimacy follow. The more direct approach observed in our research into online interactions also resonates with the ‘surprise approach’ seen in stranger rape where there is no initial attempt at conversation with the victim and the offender is open with his intention to rape from the start.

There are, therefore, individual differences between offenders in the ways they deceive and manipulate their victims to facilitate sexual abuse in both the physical and virtual worlds. Our research into online interactions found that offenders appeared to be relatively consistent in terms of the strategies they used across interactions with different victims. This mirrors Woodhams’ work on stranger serial sexual offending in the physical world where, in general, offenders show sufficient consistency and distinctiveness in their sexual offending behaviour for their crimes to be linked together based on observed crime scene behaviour (a process called crime linkage).

Dr Juliane Kloess
Lecturer in Forensic Psychology in the Centre for Applied Psychology

Professor Jessica Woodhams
Director of the Centre for Applied Psychology and co-Director of the Centre for Crime, Justice and Policing, University of Birmingham