We are delighted to have been able to interview Dr Mike Burke, a world expert in working with individuals who sexually exploit children. Dr Burke’s answers make fascinating and informative reading. Please note that this interview was conducted in 2013.

Expert Interview with Dr Mike Bourke

Dr Mike Bourke is the Chief Psychologist in US Marshals Service Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU). He formally worked as a Psychologist and treatment provider in the Butner federal institution sex offender programme.
1. What would you say are the most common misconceptions about sex offenders?
I think one of the greatest misconceptions about contact sex offenders is that they lurk in public places; stalking children and waiting to seize an opportunity to grab one and run away with him or her. Certainly such events occur, and when they do they receive extensive media coverage. This attention creates what’s called an availability heuristic, the phenomenon that the more sensationalistic or dramatic the news coverage, the more people will recall the event and subsequently over-estimate its occurrence. As a result, parents come to believe that strangers pose the greatest risk to their children when in fact the reverse is true — the overwhelming majority of children are abused by individuals they know and trust. Of course, this does not mean parents should not be vigilant of strangers who interact with their children; the point is they similarly should not become complacent or dismissive if any “red flags” appear involving someone they know well.

I believe the most dangerous assumption about Internet offenders is that they necessarily restrict their behavior to online criminality (e.g., downloading indecent images). One of the more problematic things I see – and it’s particularly frustrating when it comes from otherwise competent professionals who simply do not know this population well — is the tendency to describe or “type” offenders on the basis of the behavior for which they were apprehended. So offenders who download indecent images get placed in a category called “collectors,” and another group of offenders who were discovered molesting a child are put into a group named “contact offenders.” Oddly, few individuals seem to realize that the motivational pathway – a sexual interest in children – is the same, and therefore there is little reason why the behaviors would not (and in fact, do) co-occur.

2. What research are you currently undertaking?
We have a number of projects underway. Several address what we call psychological safeguarding, the process for building resilience in personnel who are involved in this difficult line of work, as well as helping provide them with coping strategies for dealing effectively with secondary traumatic stress. Other research has to do with developing better understanding of fugitives, particularly sex offenders who have absconded or have failed to comply with our sex offender registry. We have one study that involves female sex offenders that is just now getting underway, and another involving interviewing skills that I’m quite excited about. Finally, we take part in operational research, which involves developing techniques for helping criminal investigators identify, locate, and apprehend sex offenders. I cannot discuss much of that research, but our efforts in that arena are very rewarding.

3. Your 2009 research changed our understanding of the link between viewing abusive images and contact offending. Can you outline the key findings and the significance?
Subjects in the “Butner Redux” were incarcerated men who had been convicted of receiving, possessing, and/or distributing child pornography. Our methodology was quite simple – we first recorded how many of the 155 men were known to have committed hands-on offenses before their arrest for these online offenses, based not only on their criminal history, but also from other official records (e.g., child protective services investigations). We then examined how many of the subjects, while in sex offender treatment, acknowledged they committed undetected hands-on offenses. Polygraph was used in approximately half of the cases to verify disclosures.
At the time of sentencing, 40 subjects (26%) had known histories of abusing a child via a hands-on sexual act. The number of victims known was 75, an average of about two victims per offender. By the end of treatment, 131 subjects (85%) admitted they had at least one hands-on sexual offense. The number of reported victims known at the end of treatment, among all offenders, was 1,777 an average of a little more than 13 victims per offender. Thus 85% of our sample of so-called “child pornographers” were also undetected “hands-on” offenders. Incidentally, a number of these men also had committed other sexual offenses or sexually-motivated crimes, including voyeurism, exhibitionism, and online enticement of a child. While we did not focus on these other behaviors, this finding is consistent with the extant literature.

4. Your paper was controversial and led to considerable discussion in the field. What are your reflections on the debate it generated?
After the paper was completed it was not put into press for an extended period. This was due to internal bureaucratic issues and had nothing to do with any methodological shortcomings or inaccuracies with the document, itself. Nevertheless, hypotheses began to emerge on professional message boards about the reasons for the “suppression” and, like any form of gossip, certain opinions and musings began to grow and fester. While there was no truth to these assertions, there also was an amazing lack of fact-checking – no one contacted us to ask if the statements were true. So we would read about how we supposedly removed people from treatment, who did not disclose victims, or that we carefully selected candidates for treatment, or that we somehow rewarded offenders for disclosing victims, etc. The experience of watching uninformed professionals discuss our work often was simultaneously fascinating and painful. Perhaps I was naïve, but overall I became quite disappointed in my colleagues. Unfortunately, some of these rumors still persist, although recently I have been able to go “on the record” in certain official proceedings and the truth is starting to emerge.

Having said that, I should make the general comment that I greatly enjoy intellectual inquiry and I respect the scientific method. To that end, I am pleased the paper was provocative and inspired debate and discussion. The topic is too important to allow for any sort of intellectual laziness, and the thought that the article might have made smart people sit up and do something makes me happy.

5. If you had one piece of advice for professionals who work in the arena of child sexual abuse, what would it be?
Take care of yourself to an extraordinary degree, because this work is more difficult than you know or may feel at any given time. The effects are insidious – they can creep up so slowly that even the most experienced among us occasionally will not recognize the ways it has encroached upon our well-being; we deny the work has changed us, but admit that for some reason everyone around us shows up differently. Remember that this field is emotionally unique – it can drain, anger, disgust, and sadden you, perhaps all within the same hour. Of course, it can also enliven, inspire, strengthen, and fulfill you, but only if you are in the right “place.” So pay attention and listen to your body and your spirit, and have others around you pay attention, as well. Let them contribute to you and help you maintain balance. Our work is noble, and good – stay around long enough to make a difference

Digestible Research

There’s not always time to stay up to date with research in this field and decipher the results that could impact on your work. Through this newsletter, we’ll keep you updated with recent research developments, in digestible chunks.
If you intend to reference any research in a report or document, our advice is always get a copy of the article and read it thoroughly and be clear that the point you want to make is actually supported by the research.
So grab a cup of tea and catch up with the latest literature.
A Grounded Theory Analysis of Sexual Sadism in Females.
Full Reference:
Pflugradt, D. & Allen, B. (2012). A grounded theory analysis of sexual sadism in females. Journal of Sexual Aggression, 18, 325-337.


This research aims to provide information regarding the characteristics of female sadistic sex offenders, particularly in comparison to their male counterparts. Interviews were conducted with 5 female offenders diagnosed with sexual sadism.
The behavioural characteristics specific to female sexual sadists (and not to males) appear to be:
•    Female sexual sadists have a greater tendency to involve a co – offender
•    Female sexual sadists tend to know their victim
•    Female sexual sadists tend to have a greater arousal to psychological abuse (e.g. embarrassing or ridiculing the victim).
The offenders seemed to believe that the victims deserved the torture and therefore did not feel uneasy about causing pain to their victims. The frequency and intensity of abuse increased over time.
Despite the severe abuse, the offenders sometimes demonstrated nurturing behaviour. This was often used as simple conditioning of the victim; often they were given rewards (e.g. food) for compliant behaviour and punishment (e.g. deprivation of basic needs) for resistance.


This is an area which has seen little research to date and the findings are fascinating. The standard rule with referencing qualitative research, which will by its nature have a small number of participants (referred to in research as a small ‘N’), is that the findings are not generalisable. Hence, you cannot conclude from this research that women who co-offend with others are likely to be sadistic. However, the benefits of this type of research lie in the quality of the information uncovered and the issues they suggest we should explore in similar cases Consequently we should explore the nature and extent of the psychological abuse perpetrated by a woman who has disclosed sadistic sexual interests.
Online Solicitation Offenders are Different from Child Pornography Offenders and Lower Risk Contact Sexual Offenders
Full Reference:
Seto, M. C., Wood, J. M., Babchishin, K. M., & Flynn, S. (2012). Online solicitation offenders are different from child pornography offenders and lower risk contact sexual offenders. Law and Human Behavior, 36, 320-330.
The purpose of this research was to compare convicted offenders of online solicitation (those using technology to communicate with young people for sexual reasons), child pornography offenders and low risk contact offenders. 156 convicted child sex offenders were involved in the study (N=156, for those of you who are paying attention).
The main findings included:

•    The three offender groups were generally demographically similar.
•    The two perpetrator groups whose offending was associated with the internet had more education than the contact offenders.
•    Online solicitation offenders were more likely than contact offenders to view child abuse images online and to have victims who were unrelated or strangers.
•    Online solicitation offenders were similar or less likely to commit future sexual offences against children, than child pornography offenders. It is important to remember that the vast majority of child sexual abuse goes unreported. Furthermore, of the cases that are, very few result in convictions. Therefore data produced by actuarial risk assessments (as used in this study) are limited due to the reliance on reconviction data. However, this research used polygraph testing in addition to actuarial risk assessments.
•    Accuracy of the participants’ responses was measured using polygraph and found similar levels of general deception between the three groups.
•    However, only 29% of online solicitation offenders admitted undetected contact sexual offences when compared to convicted contact offenders (50%) and child pornography offenders (51%).
•    This finding contributes to the notion that online solicitation offenders may be at less risk of future offending. This was surprising as the authors expected that solicitation offenders would place between pornography and contact offenders in terms of risk of sexual re-offending against children.


Michael Seto is one of the most respected researchers in the field of sex offenders in the last 10 years. He has made a significant contribution to our understanding of sex offender behaviour. So anything that he was written or contributed to is well worth spending the time to read in full.
An interesting finding is the numbers of the participants who disclosed undetected contact offences during the study. Almost 1:3 of the online solicitation offenders and 1:2 of those with child pornography (indecent images) offences admitted undetected contact offences. This highlights the dangers of categorising offenders by their known offending. Labelling someone a child pornographer may lead practitioners to wrongly conclude this is the extent of their actual sexual offending.
A Review of Young People’s Vulnerabilities to Online Grooming

Full Reference:

Whittle, H. C., Hamilton-Giachritsis, C., Beech, A., & Collings, G. (2013). A review of young people’s vulnerabilities to online grooming. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 18, 135-146.
This article reviews the literature regarding what makes a young person vulnerable to being groomed on the internet.
The main findings include:
•    Factors typically associated with making a young person vulnerable to sexual abuse offline (such as problems within the family, social isolation and low self-esteem), are likely to lead to vulnerability towards grooming online. Furthermore, these vulnerable young people are less likely to be resilient if confronted by a groomer online.
•    However there are some vulnerability factors which are specific to online grooming. These include being an adolescent, lack of parental involvement with internet, risk taking behaviour online and high levels of internet access.
•    Girls are more likely to experience unwanted sexual attention online (including from groomers). However, a significant number of victims are male and the online grooming of boys is likely to under-reported.
•    Recognising which factors increase a young person’s vulnerability towards online grooming can help identify methods of protection. For example, encouraging parents to increase communication with their children about their internet activities could help protect them from online grooming.


Look out for literature reviews in journals as they can save you an enormous amount of reading time. This is a particularly good example of how one paper can provide a wide ranging insight into contemporary thinking on a topic and focus your thinking on the key issues identified by research.

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