Sunday, 12 April 2009

Pornography, punishment and protection

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.


Julie said...

Very thought-provoking post.

So if child porn can be made without using actual children, in the way that adult porn can be made without any harm to adults (assuming that people accept that, I think it is a bit controversial?) should it be illegal?

I'd be interested in Emma's thoughts on this.

I guess the ickiness in part comes from fear of people who get turned on by the idea of children as sexual beings. We other them as we other rapists, because it's too scary to think they might be around us. I have no idea what the research shows on this, but I suspect there are a lot fewer people into child porn than there are rapists?

Actually your post has got me thinking about rape scenes on television etc and what it must be like to act them. Pretty tough I imagine. Sorry, that's a bit OTT.

For me one of the most chilling rape related scenes I ever saw didn't feature a rape at all. It was in Firefly when that guy who invades Serenity threatens Kaylee with rape, just verbally, and I went all cold inside and out. I don't know that it's necessary to have an actual rape scene to make it clear that rape has occured in the narrative.

Ok just rambling now. See how I managed to get away from the point about child porn? Possibly because it's so icky.

Giovanni said...

So if child porn can be made without using actual children, in the way that adult porn can be made without any harm to adults (assuming that people accept that, I think it is a bit controversial?)

Nothing controversial about it, you can write or draw a story without involving any actual people in the process. Then it becomes purely an issue of whether society thinks it might be a gateway towards messing with kids, as opposed to, say, a form of release for people who have those particular feelings.

Anna said...

An example I should have used is so-called erotic literature, that describes sexual acts without visually depicting them.

A guy I know made the argument to me that porn is a good thing, because it gives an outlet to guys who would otherwise commit sexual violence against women. I thought this was an apologist pile of crap - ie suggesting that men can't be expected to control their sexual urges. When the same argument is made in relation to people who use non-porn materials to gratify their sexual desires for children, I'm somehow less hostile to this argument. I'm not sure why exactly - but I'm guessing it has something to do with the social belief that it is more 'normal' or understandable for a man to commit sexual violence against a woman than against a child. Morally, we should condemn both equally.

AWicken said...

Child porn isn't a special classification, it's just another image that leaps the bar into "objectionable":

So the test is "promote or support", or even "tends" to do so.

Note that this wording also applies to adult sexual violence, violence, bestiality, etc.

Essentially, within these guidelines it's up to the censors to determine whether a particular item is "objectionable" - and I think it's human that people tend to be extra-cautious regarding children as opposed to treatment of adults.

Looking at movies and computer games over the past 20 years, publishers have tried to strike a balance between providing as much violence as possible (esp. in computer games) while inserting enough "plotline" so they can say it's justified by the plot. This isn't new, though - pulp publishers have for years (if not millenia) been distributing sexual novels that never have a single specifically sexual word in them (ISTR a lecture that John Cleland's "Fanny Hill" was along these lines).

Material to promote or support sexual violence (not consensual sex) between adults is just as banned as that against children - acting or not. So the "adult porn" analogy doesn't hold up - unless the "adult porn" is just the run of the mill dairy top-shelf adult publication consisting of and depicting consensual adults (which seems pretty inappropriate for a rape fanticist).

Anna said...

That's really the point, though - 'offensive' is clearly a pretty broad classification, and what we consider offensive (and why) is obviously based on our ideas about sexuality, and can differ between people.

Sentencing someone for participating in the porn industry is pretty clear-cut. Offensiveness, not so much - particularly since, when it comes to kids, our idea of offensive is very much tied in with perceived danger to our kids. I think that may be one reason that sexual material involving children seems so much more offensive to many than sexual violence involving adults.

And, even when the material itself isn't offensive, what if the use a person makes of that material is offensive? Morally, is it much different to fantasise carrying out sexual violence over a pornographic text or a Farmers' catalogue? And if it is the same, what do you do about it in a legal sense?

Awicken said...

While "offensive" differs between people, the law says "injurious to the public good", as determined by the censor according to criteria in the act. They take into account the entire context of the publication/film: a package of generic photos of kids at the playground might be fine for use as sample fillers for photo frames from Kmart, but the same photos published in a book titled "legal kiddie pictures" would be a lot more likely to run foul of the censor (probably the same with a homemade album of cut-outs).

As for an unedited Farmer's catalogue, it would probably be more "injurious to the public good" to start Hayes Act-style choreographing of junk mail just because otherwise a few people might find some of the images sexual and use them as a sort of child porn methadone.

Not to mention the fact that nothing would ever be publishable because even the most banal, benign image or sentence will turned on somebody somewhere.

captiver said...

Completely OTT, but re:

many of us - particularly those who are parents - find it hard to have a cool, calculated discussion about the possibility of harm to children.

Non-parents are just as human as parents -- I think.

Emma said...

Okay, I'm going to assume people are all pretty aware that I take quite a strong view on the difference between porn that causes harm by its production, and the stuff that doesn't. The easiest place to see the difference is, as Gio says, with written and drawn porn that has never involved real people.

One of the first things you have to do when defining child pornography is define a child. Is it anyone under the age of consent? Whose age of consent? 13? 16? 18?

I find it odd and frustrating how quickly the concept of evidence disappears when people start discussing pornography. From all the reading I have done, there appears no conclusive causal evidence that the consumption of pornographic material turns people into rapists - either of adults or children. It's also interesting how, if someone has watched porn, it somehow makes the porn to blame for their acts, not the person.

"Enjoying the idea of sexual harm" is also an issue with BDSM porn, and the somewhat boggling concept that 'sexual harm' can be entirely consensual and hugely enjoyable for what might appear to be a victim.

Our current attitudes to pornography as inherently harmful no matter what the form have lead to the kind of freakish fringe prosecutions that we talk about at Up Front. When you're prosecuting a fourteen year old girl under child pornography law for taking photographs of herself - and therefore victimising rather than protecting her - something has gone seriously wrong.

If there were proof that viewing child pornography (produced without harm to children) actually encouraged sexual violence against children (by, say, making the perpetrator feel his or her feelings were more normal) then I would want it to be illegal. But as it is, if you make writing about child sexual abuse illegal, then you make talking about it illegal, you drive it further underground, eliminate pathways of expression and therapy for the victims... the practicalities get in the way of the ideology for me. Banning can't be done well, there's a cost, and I remain entirely unconvinced there's any attendant benefit.

AWicken said...


Heh - you didn't see all my cut/paste/rephrase/re-edits.

Anna said...

Captiver, there was no implication at all that non-parents aren't concerned for the welfare of children, or aren't fully 'human'. I'd never suggest that, and I think it's a bit unfair to construe it. A lot of people do feel more sensitive to issues of children's welfare after having their own (biological or other) kids, and I don't think that acknowledging that is casting any sort of slur on non-parents.

Emma, for what it's worth, I'm not opposed to porn (broadly defined) per se - only to the exploitative conditions in which it might sometimes be produced, and the fact that a lot of it seems to support fairly narrow ideals of beauty (as does all other imagery in advanced capitalist societies, pretty much). It's worth bearing in mind that hetero couples are quite large-scale porn consumers, which should make us consider any preconceptions we have about who uses porn, or the effects of it on their behaviour.

Having said that, it seems likely that there would be a correlation between child sex offending and child porn - not because porn causes offending, but potential offenders would be more likely to be interested in child porn. But even if porn doesn't cause crime (and I doubt very much it does), I wouldn't dismiss out of hand arguments that it promotes negative societal attitudes to some people.

Emma said...

But even if porn doesn't cause crime (and I doubt very much it does), I wouldn't dismiss out of hand arguments that it promotes negative societal attitudes to some people.

My only problem with this is 'it'. What's it: all porn? Or a sub-set of porn that doesn't include the work of, say, Comstock Films or Candida Royale?

I'd just prefer, in very general terms, if people didn't say 'porn', unqualified, when they only mean a small subset. And perhaps (I'm exploring the idea, not laying down a law) those attitudes are prevalent in some non-sexual material as well, and not prevalent in some sexual material? In which case maybe the problem isn't porn per se?

And I didn't mean to imply that you were anti-porn, Anna. I appreciate very much the fact that, in general, the attitude at the Hand Mirror is more open-minded and interested in exploring ideas than some of the other sites I can't stop myself reading. I wouldn't comment here if it wasn't.

muerk said...

NB: This post is specifically about pornography relating to sexual images of children.

I've always wondered about access to an online group that supports something like child porn.

Prior to the internet, if people wanted child porn they had to either produce it themselves or try to find someone who would sell it. It certainly must have been harder than today where it it some clicks away.

Did that have an impact on reducing the amount of porn? And did it make it harder to become a user of it.

As it was you knew that if other people found out there would be a backlash.

Now the isolated individuals who enjoy this stuff can find others who have the same desires. Does this make their desires feel more normative or acceptable?

Alex said...

Realise that this post is about child porn, (will come to that at the end of this comment) but Julie said, "adult porn can be made without any harm to adults" - noting that this comment about adults not being harmed is a bit controversal.

Of course the statement about adult porn not harming adults is controversal! Porn harms both the participants (women more than men as they are general are having things done to them... rather than the other way round) and those watching it (both men and a disturbingly high percentage of women). For an excellent and easy to read discussion of the harm of porn to society and women in particular see the excellent book pubished last year by Emily Maquire, "Princesses & Pornstars". The book is avaliable at Auckland Central Library. For a review of the book, see

Applying Maquire's thesis then to child porn, if some types of child porn are legalised (eg computer generated porn) what is to stop people (men?) who are watching child porn from conciously or subconciously believing that sex with children is normal, nay heathly?

Anonymous said...

The question of whether or not a person who is not already predisposed to sexually abuse children will be motivated to do so after seeing child porn images is a difficult one. I think regardless of this though, there would be a concern that people who are already abusing children, or close to doing so, may feel validated by such images. There is also evidence that such images are used in the 'grooming' of potential child victims. Also, I know this post is not specifically (or possibly at all) about censorship, but 'offense' has no bearing on the classification of images (or DVDs, films, magazines, or any other material) in New Zealand, as AWicken pointed out above.

Anonymous said...

Another thought I had (continuing from my previous comment) - if we are talking about real images of child sexual abuse then the more of a market there is for such material, the more children are abused in order to create images to satisfy the demand. So even if the person looking at the images never touches a child themselves, they are certainly contributing to the industry. I think this is the poing the judge would have been coming from.

Anna said...

V interesting points made by everybody...

Emma, your comment made me realise that I don't actually have a specific definition of porn in my head. I've made an implicit division between stuff involving consenting adults on one end of the spectrum, and stuff which involves committing illegal activities to produce on the other (and feel completely comfortable opposing the latter). There's a giant grey area in the middle, of course, and I suppose the thing I struggle with is where to draw the ethical and legal lines, what harm is being caused (or not), and to whom.

The issue of the attitude behind porn is really interesting. In some ways, I'm far more comfortable with the idea of porn - in the sense of consenting adults producing sexual images for use by other consenting adults - than the use of sexual imagery in advertising. Porn is what it is, rather than a Trojan horse using women's sexuality to sell Coke Zero, which seems demeaning of women's sexuality to me.

Back to the issue of child porn - there is no circumstance in which exploiting a child to produce porn is justifiable. But there's still that giant ethical grey area of using any imagery, text, or whatever to arouse or justify sexual interest in children. These texts may not fill the legal definition of offensive or involve direct exploitation, but they may give legitimacy to undesirable behaviour, as Muerk points out.

Anonymous said...

This article on wikileaks sums up the issue very well,
it's long but relevant and also a healthy dose of reality

moz said...

Anna, I'm also quite concerned about what counts as "porn" and what is just normal images of everyday sexual abuse and violence that we accept. There's the issue of why watching extreme violence is "fun" or "informative" but add a flash of nipple and even everyday scenes become objectionable. The more debatable (in the sense of "acceptable to debate") point is why quite nasty advertising and news are acceptable where less dramatic material in a slightly different context is bad, bad "porn".

I've had to view things like teenage bedrooms full of magazine images for work, and that recontextualising can be quite scary. I'm not sure whether the girls who want to be someone like heather locklear are worse than the boys who want (presumably) to have sex with her. And quite why draping a sexually inviting woman over some random product is acceptable I'm not sure. I mean, it's definitely effective so I can see why the advertisers want to do it, but why we accept that is beyond me.

Especially when exactly the same women in the same clothing and poses is classified as pornography when targeted at males instead of females.

For the "actors are victims of porn" proponents, are those women only victims when it's Playboy paying the bills, or does Cosmopolitan also create victims?

Joe Hendren said...

Thanks Anna for a thoughtful post.

It would be a shame if efforts to stamp out child pornography led to the restriction of other images that are clearly not in any way sexual.

In particular I am thinking of the image of the girl fleeing a Napalm attack on Vietnam. That image said so much about what was wrong about the war, and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1972.

Anonymous said...

I remember reading something a while ago about how a significant group of consumers of "child pornography" are adolescent males. Has anyone else read this? If it is fact it must have an impact on how the issue is approached.

Re: the link between the consumption of child pornography and offending, Wikipedia cites studies that seem to argue a connection:

Also interested to know if "children" as being discussed here are minors, or pre-pubescents.

Anonymous said...

(above posted by katy)