Delving into the darknet to discover the secret world of paedophiles

28 March 2017 | Story by Newsroom

“Paedophilia isn't a crime. Child sexual abuse is the crime.” This controversial statement is bound to evoke mixed and strong emotions from all corners – most particularly because it's a statement made by a South African researcher in a country where heinous sexual crimes are committed against children at a frightening rate. However, it is probably the least controversial statement made by Andrew Verrijdt, who is vehemently opposed to child sexual abuse and whose research is in progress at UCT's Department of Psychology.

Verrijdt is a practicing educational psychologist with a special interest in trauma, abuse, resilience, positive psychology and the problems and benefits of technology.

He recently walked away with top honours in the social sciences category of the UCT arm of an international competition, the Three Minute Thesis (3MT). It is the elevator pitch of the academic world.

For his presentation, entitled “Paedophile websites on the 'darknet': What's up with that?”, Verrijdt offered the following descriptor:

“I identified a pair of secret, underground websites for paedophiles, and I've been analysing what they say to each other. They were on the darknet, a part of the internet that is partially hidden and only accessible via specialised software. The research did not involve any pornography, only conversations. But the darknet's anonymity means it's the first research on paedophilia where they don't have an incentive to lie. As a result, I was able to study aspects of their beliefs and behaviour that have been relatively unexamined, including the possible identification of a new subtype of paedophilia: 'paedo-sadism'.”

Illness or illegality?

Verrijdt, like the Australian Institute of Criminology and the American Psychiatric Association, draws a distinction between a paedophile and a child sex offender.

“Paedophilia is a sexual fetish for people below the age of puberty or around there,” explains Verrijdt. “However, paedophiles will not necessarily act on it.”

Contrastingly, a child sex offender is one who may not necessarily be a paedophile but who has or intends to molest a child. They are not, unlike paedophiles, necessarily aroused by the prepubescent child; some may simply see an opportunity and take it.

Verrijdt has also identified a group he terms 'paedosadists'. Both the prepubescent child and the acts of violence inflicted on the victim fuel arousal in the paedosadist.

Separating these groups is crucial because child sex offenders and paedosadists often hide among non-offending paedophiles.

The research value of anonymity

Verrijdt began researching his original idea two years ago. It revolved around image board, 4Chan. 4Chan is visible on the 'clear net', the controlled online environment to which the majority of internet users are exposed.

A friend later suggested Verrijdt look into paedophilia and the Darknet, which is when the change in research was made.

According to Verrijdt's research, paedophiles do exist on both 4Chan and on other clear net websites. However, neither are ideal places to conduct research.

“There is a strong incentive to lie,” says Verrijdt, explaining that law enforcement officials could simply subpoena a site to give up user details.

While navigating the clearnet sites, Verrijdt came across mentions of darknet sites such as Hurt2theCore (H2TC), Hard Candy and 7axxn. After installing the anti-surveillance browser The Onion Router (Tor) – which is needed to enter the darknet – Verrijdt found himself on the edge of the abyss.

Tor was initially created to protect United States intelligence communication. Since then, it has evolved into a free speech tool and a platform for whistle-blowers. Using Tor, Anonymous – the hacking collective (the term is used loosely) – sent “care packages” to Arab Spring activists, assisting them in protecting their identities and distributing banned material online. Tor has, in this way, been instrumental in protecting democratic freedoms.

It also offers its users a cloak of anonymity; as a result, this parallel internet has become home to the stygian cesspool that fuels and validates the most awful of minds.

“If paedosadists exist, they're going to be found in the dark, underground web,” says Verrijdt.

And there, he found them.

Entering the darkness

Despite now having the tool to enter the darknet, Verrijdt was still unable to access the relevant sites.

“You don't necessarily know where to go,” says Verrijdt. “You need to know the URLs. They're impossible to find and impossible to remember.”

Verrijdt found Hard Candy, a reference list for child pornography sites, and discovered an 'open' discussion forum. Before entering, Verrijdt ensured that images were disabled on Tor, so that he could not see any criminal material.

“If you see child porn on your PC, you are in possession of child pornography,” explains Verrijdt.

On this site, Verrijdt was upfront, identifying himself as a psychologist and researcher. A debate ensued. Users finally agreed to speak to and accept the presence of Verrijdt, as long as he obeyed the site rules.

It is at this point that Verrijdt reiterates his argument for the differentiation of paedophiles and child sex offenders.

When paedophiles approach psychologists to seek emotional support and counsel, all too often they are castigated, vilified and rejected by those arguably best suited to offer help.

“Saying paedophilia is itself a crime is the problem,” says Verrijdt. “The problem is child abuse: that's where our focus should be.”

Verrijdt adds: “If you exclude [paedophiles] from emotional support, you will drive them into the arms of dark websites and it will make the problem worse.”

Interaction with child sex offenders and paedosadists then worsen the paedophile's inner conflict. The former encourage the molestation, convincing paedophiles that their urges are normal and do not cause harm to the victim. The latter group advocate outright for violent sexual assault.

Using the dark for light

Verrijdt hopes to use his research to combat child sexual abuse.

“I am more than eager to assist anyone out there who needs or can make use of my research,” he says.

Among the tools Verrijdt can share – once his work is peer-reviewed – is a typology based on questions, and research on preventive therapy. The former helps to place an individual into one of the eight categories that identify the type of paedophile or child sex offender. The latter includes the use of recordings of victim testimonies to convince non-offending paedophiles that they will cause harm should they act on their impulses.

For those who do commit the crime, Verrijdt advocates for detainment. If released – something he is vehemently opposed to when it comes to active paedosadists – Verrijdt calls for vigilant monitoring. Preventative therapy, such as victim testimonies, would have the opposite effect on paedosadists, arousing them rather than steering them away from their actions.

How to protect your child

Verrijdt's advice for parents is the following: “The best way to protect your child is to have the kind of relationship where the child feels comfortable discussing sex and sexuality,” he says.

Added to this is the importance of comprehensive sexual education – a responsibility that should be shared by parents and the schooling system – and an end to treating sexuality and sex as taboo.

“Child sex offenders are scared of the child that has an open, communicative relationship with someone they respect,” says Verrijdt, “because they know that's how they'll get caught.”

Story Carla Bernardo.

UCT Research and Innovation

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