| Youth who are gay or are questioning their sexual identity are significantly more likely than others to be victims of Internet-initiated sex crimes. However, the vast majority of those encounters are illegal because of the age of the participant, not because of coercion or violence.|
That finding was part of a very large comprehensive study, “Online ‘Predators' and Their Victims,” published February 18 in the American Psychologist. It was based upon three surveys; two were telephone interviews of 3,000 Internet users between the ages of 10 and 17 taken in 2000 and 2005; the third were 612 interviews with law enforcement officials.
Overall, it concluded that hysterical media coverage of isolated events and television programs such “To Catch a Predator” have left a distorted picture of both the scope and nature of this activity. It noted that from 1990 to 2005, reported cases of child sex abuse declined by half and the rates of runaways and pregnancy among teens also declined.
“The reality about Internet-related sex crimes—those in which sex offenders meet juvenile victims online—is different, more complex, and serious but less archetypically frightening than the publicity about these crimes suggests.”
Of the prosecuted cases, 99 percent involved youth 13 to 17, a time of growing independence and exploration, including sexual exploration. The median age for first intercourse is 17.
Romance and sex generally are key in those encounters, with sex discussed ahead of time online and anticipated by both parties. “Many victims profess love or close feelings for offenders” and 73 percent of the youth had more than one physical encounter with the same person.
The study concluded “Although a new medium for communication is involved, the nonforcible sex crimes that predominate as offenses against youths only are not particularly new or uncommon.”
Youth with a history of sexual abuse, sexual orientation concerns, and patterns of risk-taking are particularly likely to find sexual encounters online with older partners. About a third of those solicitations came in chatrooms.
Males were the victim in a quarter of all criminal cases. The fact that most met their sexual partner at online sites such as a gay chatroom strongly suggests that being gay or questioning one's sexual orientation is a risk factor.
Study co-author David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes against Children Research Center, said the survey did not ask the youth to self-identify their sexual orientation. He added, male victims off-line “tend to be younger, particularly 8 to 12 years old.”
He made the point, “You don't have to worry about gay sex offenders online; kids are made vulnerable by the fact that they are not able to get good information and support around sexual orientation issues from their family and schools, so they are out there online.”
Social stigma, concerns about confidentiality, inability to talk with and often alienation from parents often lead some gay youth to the Internet, and the potential for exploitation by some adults.
First amendment rights advocate Bill Dobbs said, “There is a great deal of hysteria around youth sexuality, and the Internet just inflames the issue.” He stressed the need to differentiate between prepubescent kids and teens “who may not be adults but are not children.”
“It is an age-old story, teens on a journey of life and getting around their parents.” He stressed the need for society in general to become more educated and accepting of a spectrum of sexual orientations.
The 19-page study is available online at www.apa.org/journals/releases/amp632111.pdf .
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