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Virtual girl leads to arrest of online child abusers

Thanks to the virtual girl Sweetie created by Terre des Hommes, more than a thousand men who had webcam sex have been identified worldwide. They thought they were chatting with a ten-year-old girl. Whether that is punishable by law depends on the country, Leiden legal experts conclude.

Controversial international study

The men flocked to the Filipina girl with the angelic face like moths around a flame, Hans Guijt, project manager at Terre des Hommes, explained.  At the conference on ‘The legal aspects of Sweetie 2.0’ in Leiden on 2 July, together with Leiden and Tilburg legal experts he presented the outcome of this controversial international study. In 2013, 15 chatbots were active for 10 weeks in online chatrooms for under-age children. Four of the researchers pretended to be a ten-year-old Filipina girl, christened 'Sweetie' by the researchers because that was the name used most often by men using the chatrooms.

Information handed over to Europol

Once the Filipino avatars went online, they were approached by men throughout the world, 71 countries in total. The Philippines is well-known for offering child prostitution. The chatbots registered more than 20,000 webcam conversations, the details of which were passed on to Europol. The images recorded show men masturbating during the chats. As Terre des Hommes does not have any personal information about these webcam users, the organisation refers to child abusers rather than paedophiles or paedosexuals. 


As far as we know, Sweetie resulted in arrests in Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Poland. There was just one arrest purely on the basis of the chats with Sweetie. In most cases, Sweetie was the trigger for a further search of the houses of the suspects and men were arrested on the grounds of possession of child pornography. Terre des Hommes is now working on Sweetie 2.0. Using chatbots, many more chat rooms can be monitored and more (potential) offenders can be deterred.

Is sex with a virtual girl illegal?

There is no complete overview of the arrests because it is not standard practice for the national police authorities to report back to the researchers. Leiden and Tilburg legal experts examined the situation in 18 countries to see whether webcam sex with a virtual girl can actually be punishable by law. The problem is that the victim is not a real person. Not only that, the virtual girl remained clothed throughout; for moral and legal reasons Terre des Hommes did not wish to create any form of child pornography. 

Scope for legal prosecution

‘Legislation always lags behind new technology,' Leiden lawyer Bart Schermer explained.  In most countries, webcam sex with an under-age girl is prohibited. But it is much more difficult to prove abuse if the person is fictitious. Prosecutors have to focus on the attempt and intention to have online sex with a juvenile. There are two important legal concepts here. The first is 'relatively inadequate attempt'  (the action is factually impossible). Schermer likens this to a thief who tries to steal something but the cupboard is bare. The other term is 'absolutely inadequate attempt' (the action is  in legal terms impossible).

Conditions for 'stings'

Leiden legal expert Ilina Georgieva found that in 13 of the 18 countries attempting to have sex with a virtual, under-age child can be punishable in law because the webcam user assumes that he is chatting with a real child. The legal experts also looked at the conditions that Sweetie has to meet in order to be a valid instrument for legal study because tools used as bait also have to observe particular rules. The chatbot could not approach chat room users itself and could not encourage online sex if the other person was not solliciting it.

Children forced into webcam sex

Sweetie is an initiative of Terre des Hommes the Netherlands. Why has combating online webcam sex become so important? Guijt explained: ‘Five years ago we saw that in brothels in the Philippines there were suddenly fewer children involved in prostitution. At first it seemed to be a positive development, but we discovered that a lot of children were being forced into webcam sex, in many cases even from their own homes. Such children become traumatised for life, which manifests itself in sexualised and anxious behaviour. Not only that, they are often absent from school because they spend the whole day in front of the webcam.'

More paedophilia as a result of webcam sex

There is another important concern to take into consideration. Guyt: ‘The enormous online availability of these children also attracts a lot of men who would otherwise not feel so readily attracted to sex with children. It often starts with a quick look or chat out of curiosity, but before they know it, they also start downloading images. Research shows that 1 in 4 people who download child pornography also tries to have sex with children offline.' 


According to Terre des Hommes, every day thousands of children are victims of webcam sex. Estimates indicate that at any point in time 750,000 men are looking for sex with children via internet in more than 40,000 public chat rooms. The ‘Sweetie’ study shows the size and nature of webcam child sex tourism worldwide. Terre des Hommes will publish a report on the results of the study at the end of July 2016. 

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