“I felt conflicted when I viewed the imagery,” Ben* confessed.
“It’s easy to avoid seeing the child in the picture as a real victim being harmed.”
He held the phone to his ear and waited for a reply.
“Did you feel any guilt?” the person on the other end asked.
“Or is it a different world where abnormal standards of behaviour became normal?”
“Yes I did feel guilty about the whole thing,” he said.
“But I still chose to… view all the images I had access to.”
Ben is in his mid-30s. He has a job and he lives in the United Kingdom.
He is also a convicted child sex offender.
Data from the Australian Federal Police shows there are thousands of people like Ben in Australia.
Between July and September this year, the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation received 4371 reports of child exploitation.
“Of increasing concern is that the violence in child abuse materials is getting more extreme, and the age of victims younger,” an AFP spokesperson said.
“The AFP is also receiving more and more reports of children aged as young as four engaging with online child sex offenders from around the world.”
Ben was caught by police nearly a year after he first started scouring the internet for photos and footage of children being sexually abused.
“I spent seven months in prison, lost my job and lots of friends because of what I’d done,” he said.
After his arrest, Ben called Stop It Now! every day for two weeks.
Founded in the United States, Stop It Now! offers an anonymous phone helpline that provides counselling to people who are worried about their own, their friend or their partner’s sexual urges toward children.
The service aims to prevent people – mostly adult men – from acting on their sexual thoughts about children.
Now, experts fighting to prevent child sex abuse in Australia are pushing to roll out a four-year national trial here.
They say it could help stop potential perpetrators before it’s too late.
Dr Gemma McKibbin, a social work academic at the University of Melbourne and program trial leader, said the number of people viewing child exploitation material in Australia was a lot higher than expected.
“In our society, we deem these people the absolute worst of the worst … but the reality is most of us would know someone who watches child porn,” Dr McKibbon told The New Daily.
“These people could be our husband, our brother, our father.”
When the service first came to the UK and Ireland in 2002, helpline workers were so overwhelmed by demand that thousands of phone calls went unanswered. Last year, the number of callers doubled from 1421 in 2017 to 2804 in 2018.
A trial ran in Bundaberg, Queensland, from 2006-2016.
Dr McKibbin said Stop It Now! differed from other child sex abuse services because it shifted the responsibility onto perpetrators to change their behaviour.
She said most offenders knew what they were doing was wrong and wanted to stop themselves, but felt paralysed by shame or fear of being reported to the police.
“Right now, there is nowhere for them to go,” Dr McKibbin said.
She said there was about a 10-year delay between child sex offenders first fantasising about children and actually abusing them.
“That is a big prevention window,” she said.
Research shows most perpetrators are aged between 20 and 50 years old. Offending usually starts when they are in their late 20s or early 30s – about the time their friends start having children.
Matt Tyler, executive director of The Men’s Project at Jesuit Social Services and fellow trial program leader, said the Stop It Now! helpline had to be confidential if it was going to work.
“They’re not going to call if they know the police are going to come knocking at their door,” Mr Tyler told The New Daily.
“We will have people who are clinically trained, who are able to strike the right balance between empathy and accountability, to give them strategies to minimise their risk of offending.”
The nationwide pilot program is projected to cost about $8 million over four years.
“There is a huge financial impost, separate from morality, to invest in this program,” Mr Tyler said, pointing to the billions of federal money spent on prisoners, policing costs and vital victim support services every year.
“This is about stopping child sexual abuse. We all want the same thing.”
The trial has the backing of Queensland’s Detective Inspector Jon Rouse, who has dedicated his career to protecting and rescuing children from sexual abuse.
“From the law enforcement perspective, we’re very good at investigating these crimes but we’re not stopping it,” Detective Inspector Rouse told The New Daily.
“To give offenders alternate pathways is critical – it forms another piece of the pie that includes industry, law enforcement, police and government.”
Detective Inspector Rouse said the internet had made it easy for child sex offenders to meet in “enormous online communities” where they can feel normal about their behaviour.
“Most of the arrests in Australia are related to the possession and distribution of child sex abuse material online,'” he said.
“There are disruption strategies going on in those communities… but they don’t have any clinical support. If we give these people an alternative strategy that stops them from acting on their sexual desires then that has to be a good thing.”
Lifeline 13 11 14
Beyondblue 1300 22 4636
Bravehearts 1800 272 831
PartnerSPEAK 1300 590 589
Ben* is not his real name.