1. Conceptualization, Assessment, and Management of Sexual Interest in Children: Most of my research has focused on improving the conceptualization and assessment of sexual interest in children and understanding its link to sexual offending in forensic populations. A significant focus of my work has been on hebephilia (sexual interest in pubescent children; Stephens & Seto, 2016), which is much less understood than pedophilia. My doctoral research suggested that there is strong conceptual overlap between pedophilia and hebephilia (Stephens, Seto, Goodwill, & Cantor, 2017) and there are more similarities than differences in sexual offending behaviour in men who perpetrate sexual offences (Stephens, Cantor, Goodwill, & Seto, 2017; Stephens, Seto, Goodwill, & Cantor, 2018a).
I continue to pursue this line of research by examining the degree of overlap between pedophilia and hebephilia and how it impacts forensic assessment. I have been involved in the revision of a popular clinical measure, the Screening Scale for Pedophilic Interests (Seto, Stephens, Lalumière, & Cantor, 2017). More recently, I have been examining how the high degree of overlap between pedophilia and hebephilia impacts what we can conclude from the SSPI-2 (Stephens, Seto, Cantor, Lalumière, under review).
Over the next several years, I will continue to conduct research on sexual interest in children using several co-owned clinical databases that I expanded on during my PhD. These databases have provided opportunities to pursue side projects on topics, such as risk assessment in those with intellectual disabilities (Stephens, Newman, Cantor, & Seto, 2018) and the latent structure of pedophilic interests (Stephens, Leroux, Skilling, Cantor, & Seto, 2017).
2. Victim Age Polymorphism and Non-Exclusive Sexual Interest: Although a large focus of my research has explored the connection between sexual interest in children and sexual offending, not all those with child victims have a sexual interest in them. A subset of individuals who commit sexual offences offend indiscriminately (e.g., victimizing young children, adults, and the elderly). This indiscriminate offending pattern is referred to as victim age polymorphism. A significant focus of my research has been on better elucidating victim age polymorphism, which has direct implications for how we manage those who have committed sexual offences (e.g., if there is a likelihood that someone who has victimized adults might be at risk to children, we may need to limit access to children). The research I have conducted suggests that victim age polymorphism is more frequent than previously thought, and that these individuals are at a higher risk of reoffending due to a greater number of victims (Stephens Seto, Goodwill, & Cantor, 2018b). Further, when examining the crime scene behaviours of men who are polymorphic they appear to be more opportunistic in nature than those who target only one type of victim (Stephens, Reale, Goodwill, & Beauregard, 2017). In a current research project, I have partnered with a local Forensic Sexual Behaviour Program to use an archival clinical database to examine several predictors of polymorphism.
One question that I am beginning to explore is whether polymorphism reflects an underlying indiscriminate sexual interest. There is some research to suggest that some men respond indiscriminately to very different sexual stimuli during forensic assessment (e.g., Michaud & Proulx, 2009) and it is unclear how this relates to offending behaviour. Based on this research, I am currently exploring the best method to conceptualize indiscriminate sexual interest using psychophysiological data and whether indiscriminate sexual interest in community samples is associated with hypersexuality. As part of this research, I have been awarded an internal faculty grant to collect pilot data to examine this in a non-clinical sample of men. In the future, I will examine these relationships in men who have committed sexual offenses.
3. Childhood Sexual Abuse Prevention Programs: Despite the focus in my work on men who have committed sexual offences, I have always had a strong interest in early intervention and prevention to address childhood sexual abuse. This will be a significant focus of my research over the next several years, as I have become very interested in holistic programs that address risk for victimization and perpetration.
The academic community increasingly recognizes that not all individuals with a sexual interest in children commit sexual offences, as there is incredible diversity in those with sexual interest in children. Although there are individuals who do not require mental health treatment, there are a subset of individuals with sexual interest in children who want help in addressing mental health needs (e.g., depression, anxiety) and others who may wish to access service because they have difficulty managing their sexual interests. Regardless of the focus of the treatment, these individuals face significant barriers when trying to access evidence-based services.
Over the past two-years, my colleagues and I have been conducting research to inform the development of comprehensive programming for individuals with sexual interest in children, supported through funding from Public Safety Canada. We are conducting research with individuals with sexual interest in children who have not been involved with the legal system to better understand unaddressed mental health needs, stigma, treatment motivation, and potential treatment targets.
The second aim of the grant from Public Safety Canada is to explore legal and ethical issues that can arise in the treatment of people with sexual interest in children. For example, mandatory reporting introduces significant complexity, as clinicians must report cases where a child is at-risk of being abused. With colleagues, I recently completed a comprehensive review of legislation, ethical guidelines, and case law about mandatory reporting to consider how it impacts service provision for those with sexual interest in children. Although there are potential challenges, we concluded that early intervention and prevention in this area is possible (McPhail, Stephens, & Heasman, 2018). As a follow-up to this review, we have started a research project with those who provide mental health services to examine clinician understanding and interpretation of mandatory reporting laws, as well as clinician attitudes towards individuals with a sexual interest in children.
Lastly, I have become very interested in the ability of clinicians to provide mental health treatment to individuals with sexual interest in children. A focus of my research in this area is developing interventions for clinicians to decrease stigma and increase competency to respond in an ethical manner to clients with sexual interest in children.