I've been wondering how I can share these thoughts without seeming slightly loony. Here goes nothing...
Browsing Stuff the other day, I saw an article about a guy convicted for possession of child porn depicting very serious mistreatment of children. (I'm not going to link to the article, because I found it really disturbing.) As he handed down the sentence, the judge made clear that the guy was being punished for participating in an industry that harms children. (The judge also ordered the guy to stay away from areas frequented by children, although he hadn't directly offended against children. I guess the judge was assuming that using child porn shows a disposition towards sexual offending - I've no idea whether evidence supports this, and its a whole other debate.)
The sentence answered a question I've wondered about from time to time: when we punish people who use child porn, what are we actually punishing them for? Taking part in an industry that harms children, having desires our society finds repugnant, or both?
It seems that people with sexual feelings for children might find a lot of ways to gratify these feelings, some of which mightn't involve direct participation in the porn industry. I'm sure pornographic images can be made using Photoshop or other programmes. People might find images of children being exploited which were not made with a pornographic intention, and be aroused by them. Some might find completely non-sexual images of children titillating. Direct, criminal harm to children might not have occurred during the making of these images - but most people would still find the idea of using them for sexual gratification disturbing, and some would likely support a criminalising response.
This same issue occurs in relation to sexual violence against adults. Such sexual violence is illegal, but it's not illegal to feign sexual violence - and it's not uncommon to see rape or attempted rape scenes in movies or on the TV, included for prurient reasons. A great many people find this horrifying, but I suspect that fewer would support criminalisation of those who enjoy watching sexual violence against adults.
Enjoying the idea of sexual harm against anyone, child or adult, is morally repugnant. But what responses should society bring against it? Leaving aside larger issues of the efficacy and fairness of the justice system, should the person who actively participates in the porn industry be treated the same way as the person who may share the same unpleasant fantasies, but doesn't act on them so directly? When do these sexual desires deserve a criminal response, some sort of rehabilitative response, or no response at all because they're none of society's business? Issues like these are really difficult to discuss without sounding like an anything-goes individualist on one hand, or a kneejerk-censor-everything type on the other. And no matter the responses our logical brains may make, many of us - particularly those who are parents - find it hard to have a cool, calculated discussion about the possibility of harm to children.
I'm not sure what my own opinion is on where to draw the legal line when it comes to depictions of sexual violence, against children or adults. I think public reactions to child porn particularly reflect a lot of unspoken assumptions about the seriousness of different kinds of violence, and our beliefs about how the violence we see causes us to behave. It would be great to bring these assumptions into the open and debate them.
I'm really interested in hearing the opinions of THM's wise readers...although I'm going to moderate the bejesus out of any offensive comments. Rednecks, beware.