When the police arrived at my house I was about to go to work. Another couple of minutes and I would have been in the car. They were polite and did not ransack the house, but the assumption of the guilt of my husband was obvious to me. After two and a half hours they left me with a piece of paper explaining that there is a significant risk that internet offending can lead on to contact offending against children. I disputed my husband’s emotional capability to physically hurt a child, and I continue to do so. The written information also suggested a small number of organisations that may help us, including the Samaritans. I was bewildered and very shocked. I had no idea what was going on. Worse followed.
Within 3 hours of the police leaving our home my husband had killed himself. After 30 years of living together, bringing up a family as a respected and loving couple, I was alone. My beautiful young adult children suddenly had no father. He was witty, sensitive, caring, loving; an admired, kind, moral, loving, protective, conscientious, reliable hands-on dad as they grew up. I had to unpick the extreme psychological trauma of realising that the man I loved so much had been looking at images of teenage girls and behaving inappropriately on chat lines. I never ever thought he would do anything like that.
My career has stalled. I suffered suicidal thoughts and debilitating depression for months. I have not done anything wrong and neither have our children. Had he lived we may have been implicated through association with him and so our jobs may have been compromised, our address listed as being linked with a sex offender. This is wrong. Could I have thrown him out when he needed us most? How would we have managed financially as he would undoubtedly have lost his job? I never had to face these issues. My heart genuinely goes out to the families who do have to.
It became obvious to me very quickly that if my kind and loving man could get entangled with ghastly, illegal use of the internet, then other kind decent men could also do so. And so other innocent families (some with young children) will suffer – with so little help available, and the horrific need to not tell people at a time when you need so much kindness, understanding and support. This shocks me still, and my faith in the criminal justice system has been seriously shaken. We need a much more effective and compassionate way forward.
I do not feel sorry for myself but I became aware very early on that this was the worst thing I had ever experienced and that, if I was to get through this, I would need to retreat from life for a while and look after me. Luckily I was in a job that allowed me to do this. Not everyone can. The police have subsequently been supportive and helpful, and surprisingly non-judgemental. They accepted very early on that they had a ‘moral responsibility’ towards me. I had become a victim. They understood before I did that I would need gradual drip-feeds of information to gradually help me understand what had happened. I was unable to even start to grieve for months until I understood internet sexual offending and what had happened.
It broke my heart when I discovered after his death that my husband had tried to access help for his behaviour. He had, before we met, conquered a drink problem and sustained sobriety very successfully for many, many years; and it seems so tragically sad that he succumbed to another addiction. It had concerned me that he liked, and trusted, the internet too much. He would have responded to help I feel sure if he had been able to access it in time. He was not a coward but the stigma and labelling he would have probably had to endure, not to mention a criminal prosecution, were obviously too much for him to bear. He had a mild learning disability and found stress debilitating. What he did was wrong but many people, as well as his family, miss him so deeply. He was a good and genuinely kind and decent person who died frightened and ashamed.
I have subsequently read academic research, books, testaments from internet offenders, and spoken with people who understand this strange new 21st century crime, including the police – who provided the only support I had for some considerable time. There is frighteningly little help ‘out there’ for families affected by a partner’s internet crime. The suicide made me even less able to access the small amount of help available because services are not geared up to deal with the complexities of emotion that I have gradually and painfully waded my way through. I have had to be tenacious and push for professional help.
It is obvious that the stigma around sexual offending of all kinds is based on public misinformation, fear and prejudice. For internet offenders the legal and social implications are huge and, in my opinion, very cruel. I believe this is a health issue. Only a tiny minority of men of previous good character will go on to commit a contact offence against a child but, it appears, this is not yet acknowledged by sufficient long term research.
There is to my knowledge no accurate easily-available information for the public about the possible risks of viewing pornography on the internet, and the possibility of addiction and escalation to illegal activity. It does appear that the intent and motivation of offenders like my husband can be linked with factors such as the addictive nature of the internet and/or sexual activity, impulsiveness, an overpowering need to escape into a fantasy world, all of which can become self-reinforcing and inescapable over time. The effects on the exploited children are horrific. The fallout on innocent families is devastating. Internet offenders frequently protest that they could never physically hurt a child in ‘reality’. They probably tell the truth in this respect. The huge increase in these crimes has gone hand in hand with the development of the internet over the past 20 years.
It is so obvious to me that therapeutic and practical (possibly financial) help needs to be easily available and accessible to people who need it BEFORE the police arrive – and the world collapses for families. People do respond to treatment. This crime is not understood in wider society and needs to be. Offenders are not monsters. Apart from a need for greater compassion there is also a need for public information to educate and warn people. The internet can pose a huge risk to people who would probably never have offended before easy access, 24 – hour pornography became available in our homes. If internet pornography use becomes uncontrollable and escalates to illegal activity, as it does for some – and the police call – there is no going back for anyone. Families and children are the hidden innocent victims who receive no compensation.
At present we are just letting this happen – and nobody talks about it once it has happened to them.