The conviction of Nathan Matthews will focus attention once more on the threat posed to women and children by the viewing of violent pornography and sexual abuse online.
Matthews’s name can be added to the list of killers who apparently sought to act out perverted sexual fantasies on their victims, which were fed by the extreme pornography and abuse images they had watched on the internet. These include Mark Bridger, who killed April Jones, Stuart Hazell, the killer of schoolgirl Tia Sharp, Vincent Tabak who murdered Joanna Yeates, and Jamie Reynolds, who took the life of the teenager Georgia Williams.
All these men – like Matthews – amassed and viewed horrific images of abuse and violent pornography, often closely linked to the horrific acts they later inflicted upon their victims.
Hazell, for example, developed a sexual interest in 12-year-old Tia – the granddaughter of his girlfriend – and secretly filmed her. He had amassed images of child abuse and bestiality, often searching for pictures of girls who, like Tia, wore glasses. After Tia’s death, Hazell photographed her naked in a sexual position in an image he added to his collection. There was evidence that he had sexually abused her before she died.
Bridger, who abducted, sexually assaulted and killed five-year-old April Jones, kept explicit images of child sex abuse on his laptop. He had viewed a cartoon image of a bound girl being sexually abused by an adult just hours before April was abducted.
Tabak strangled 25-year-old Joanna Yeates in a sexually motivated attack in December 2010. Detectives found violent images of sexual abuse on his laptop – including explicit videos of a blonde woman being throttled. He also amassed indecent images of children, often involving pre-pubescent girls being sexually assaulted by adult men.
By the age of 22, Reynolds had collected 16,800 images and 72 videos of sexual violence. He wrote 40 stories about fatal attacks on girls and had drawn nooses on to copies of their Facebook photographs. He tricked 17-year-old Georgia, who was in his social circle, into coming to his house, pretending he was going to take artistic photographs of her. Reynolds had been watching extreme pornography immediately before Georgia arrived at his home, where he hanged her in May 2013. Photographs found on Reynolds’s hard drive show the last pictures of Georgia alive, smiling and posing with a red rope around her neck. The next series of photographs show her dead.
Giving evidence to MPs earlier this year, the lord chief justice, Lord Thomas, came close to directly linking the viewing of such images to sexual violence. The Reynolds case, he said, “left me in no doubt at all that the peddling of pornography on the internet had a dramatic effect on the individual … it played a real part in the way in which this particular murder was carried out”.
But there is no consensus in the published research on whether the viewing of violent pornography or child abuse images increases the likelihood of an individual carrying out contact abuse or even murder.
Dr Elena Martellozzo, senior lecturer in criminology at Middlesex University, who works with the Metropolitan police and specialises in studying sex offenders, said while there were certainly links between the viewing of such images and the violence an individual might go on to perpetrate, not everyone who viewed such abuse images would go on to commit violent sexual acts themselves.
“We have been working very closely with a number of sex offenders where once they have been arrested they were found in possession of a very large collection of indecent images of children,” she said. “But this is not to say that generally speaking, when people watch something particularly horrendous like this he or she may go on to commit an act of violence.”
Her colleague Dr Jeffrey DeMarco, forensic psychologist at Middlesex University, added: “We do talk about it as being a potential risk factor. So viewing violent digital literature, photographs, videos, images arguably – if these actions are in the narrative of this particular individual – would mean there’s an increased probability that their behaviour may go on to be of a violent nature. But there are a lot of people that are exposed to these kind of images that do not engage in violent acts.”
What is unequivocal, however, is the dramatic proliferation of online images of abuse and violent sexual acts over the last few years, and the huge increase in individuals who are accessing it. According to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (Ceop) unit, the number of unique child abuse images in circulation on the internet now runs into millions.
In 2012, Ceop received 8,000 reports of indecent images of children being shared, featuring 70,000 still images and videos. It estimated there were about 50,000-60,000 individuals in the UK involved in downloading and sharing indecent images of children. A nationwide investigation into internet paedophiles that began in 2014 identified digital traces of more than 25,000 people suspected of viewing images of child abuse in the UK. It led to 660 arrests, but the National Crime Agency said it would never be able to pursue all those caught up in the inquiry.
The case of Matthews is as bleak and horrifying as all those which have gone before. As he faces a lifetime in jail, what is clear to investigators is that while online abuse images continue to proliferate at such a rate, the threat to children and young women remains significant.