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Sex, Tech, and Harm to Children

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Infopolicy – Zacqary Adam Green

Infopolicy – Zacqary Adam Green

Information technology, among all that it does, brings together two things which are wonderful when apart, and frightening when combined: children, and sex. For the past couple decades, this has, understandably, freaked us all out. We need to calm down and have a talk about it.

In his defense of freedom of “icky speech”, Neil Gaiman observed, “The Law is a blunt instrument. It’s not a scalpel. It’s a club.” This exemplifies how much of the world has reacted to the intersection of technology, sex, and children: by wildly flailing around with a gigantic legal club, more often smashing itself in the head than solving any problems. Let’s explore how:

Kids Looking At Pornography

The Internet is really, really great for porn. Porn is so easy to find online that even a child could do it. The problem, so it would seem, is that this is exactly what children end up doing. And as they approach and go through puberty, boy oh boy do they find porn.

Such porn-finding is unstoppable. Nobody ever clicks “No, I am not 18 years of age or older” when visiting a porn site. No web filtering software can stand up to the resourcefulness of a curious and hormonal teenager. No law will convince a maturing human being not to seek out sexually explicit material. The underage psyche interprets barriers to pornography as damage, and routes around it.

For some reason, this is seen as a bad thing. Exposure to graphic depictions of sex are considered somehow harmful to children, teenagers, and anyone below the arbitrary age of 18, 21, or whatever. But as generations of kids raised on surreptitiously-accessed Internet porn grow older, little evidence of harm shows itself. Rampant porn-viewing hasn’t been shown to increase rates of sexual assault or sexual violence; in fact increasing availability of porn has correlated with a decline in rape. On that note, what pornography may also do is aid in young people’s exploration and discovery of their own sexualities as they mature — a hypothesis which, if true, isn’t particularly malignant.

Yet, we insist on criminalizing this perfectly normal behavior by sexually developing human beings. In many cases, this illegality concerns the willful distribution of pornography to a minor — giving the pornographer, not the minor, the blame. But here’s the thing: nobody has to distribute or market pornography to a minor. They’ll find it all by themselves.

Kids Willfully Creating “Pornography”

It starts to get a bit more problematic when that exploration goes beyond passive viewing; apparently, kids these days are into something called “sexting”. At its most innocuous, a child or teenager snaps a nude or sexually explicit photo of themselves, and sends it (often via MMS) to a friend, crush, or significant other. All of a sudden, through their own free will, the kid’s become a child pornographer.

Of course, this behavior is far from unique to minors. Information technology has enabled consenting adults from all walks of life to share sexually explicit imagery of themselves with one another. MMSes and emails between friends aren’t even the half of it. Webcams and video chat software weren’t on the scene for five minutes before somebody realized that they could be used to transmit their genitalia. There are sexually explicit social networks and YouTube-clones where people can expose themselves to millions of anonymous viewers. There’s even a fusion of these two in live video broadcasting websites which permit people to stream real-time images of themselves doing scandalous things without very much clothing on. As with all sexually-charged things that consenting adults do, sometimes minors decide to give it a try themselves.

Child pornography laws are meant to prevent the abuse of minors. When minors decide, by their own volition, to take nude or sexually explicit images of themselves and share them with loved ones, friends, or even anonymous acquaintances, it’s hard to describe how that could possibly constitute abuse. Sadly, because of the law, all parties involved end up liable for the heinous crime of child pornography: both the recipient, regardless of age, and the exhibiting minor.

Laws intended to protect children from sexual abuse now have the effect of criminalizing behavior that — in the context of our contemporary world — is perfectly reasonable for a pubescent minor to engage in. It’s not really that weird, strange, or appalling that sexually-developing young people might want to show off their bodies to their fellow sexually-developing young people; the only weird part is this new medium of exhibition they’re using. Before the Internet and cellphones, kids just took off their clothes for each other in person.

Much like with physical, flesh-and-blood sexual intimacy, educating children about why they shouldn’t make themselves into porn stars isn’t going to work; they’ll still desire to, and they’ll still do it. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. The sanest course of action is to educate them about responsibility: “use a condom” is to real sex as “don’t send pictures of your boyfriend’s dick to all of your other friends” is to explicit image sharing. But the reason for that advice should be basic common sense and human decency, not because doing so will force you to register as a sex offender at age 14.

Actual Child Pornography and Pedophilia

What about the actual abuse from which children need to be protected? The sexual abuse of children — or anyone, for that matter — is rightfully illegal, and absolutely reprehensible. But in our zeal to destroy reprehensible things, most societies have gone further, and made it illegal to access or possess images of this abhorrent abuse. Unfortunately, the uncomfortable truth is that banning the possession of child pornography doesn’t do any good.

First of all, child pornography is a wonderful scapegoat. Copyright lobbyists regularly use child porn to incite moral panic, and make their proposals to censor the Internet more palatable. And much like these “piracy-stopping” censorship schemes, child pornography bans don’t stop the sexual abuse of children involved.

Before the Internet, child pornography was distributed secretly among close-knit networks of pedophiles. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that the recipient of child porn might be no more than two or three degrees of separation from its creator — the actual person who had committed the sexual abuse. Today, a single child rapist can anonymously distribute their “work” to thousands of people with a single click of a mouse. The downloaders often have absolutely no idea who the perpetrator was; their arrests solve nothing.

Furthermore, there is no conclusive evidence that viewers of child pornography are more likely to act on their fetishes and commit sexual abuse of a child. In fact, based on the aforementioned “porn lowers rape rates” study, one could reasonably hypothesize that the exact opposite is true.

The criminalization of viewing or possessing child pornography only serves to get “revenge” on people who are interested in it. It does not lead to the imprisonment of child rapists, it does not give justice to the victims, and it does not stop potential pedophiles from acting on their urges.

What would, in fact, stop potential pedophiles from acting on their urges is mental health treatment. If at all possible, societies should not view sexual diversity or fetishism as a mental illness; it’s not a particularly harmful thing if somebody is sexually aroused by, oh, let’s say, being hit in the face with a pie. Sexual attraction to children, on the other hand, isn’t something that can be reasonably accommodated — hence, a mental health problem.

But much as the criminalization (and resulting stigmatization) of drug use makes addicts afraid to seek treatment, people suffering with pedophilia fear the consequences of getting help. In researching this article, I got an anonymous source to put it in his own words for me:

When I was 17 I looked at a lot of porn, just like anyone my age. I was curious about it all. I didn’t even know I was gay until I got curious about gay porn. So I looked at all the varieties, twinks, jocks, black guys, Asian guys, groups, all of it. Weirder stuff too like bondage, BDSM, some of it I liked for a while, some of it I never went back to. Then I started looking at kids. I was curious, and a horny teenager, so it wasn’t like it was that creepy. But every time after, I felt horrible. I could see how scared those kids were in the pics but I didn’t stop. I told myself, it’s just because I’m young, I’ll grow out of it, but I’m 20 now and still can’t stop myself sometimes. I wouldn’t ever go and do it for real, I know that. I like guys my own age and older, so it’s not like I can only get off to kids. But I still hate myself for it. But if I go out and tell someone I need help, the feds might come and knock down my door. So I don’t know what to do.

This is the sort of person who needs a therapist’s couch, not a prison cell. But our irrational rage at all things pedophilic deny this man his health, his sanity, and his right to be a productive member of society. He’s not alone, he’s just the one brave enough to break the silence.

Conclusion

The intersection of sexuality and children is understandably frightening. It’s a very primal instinct to want to protect children, and sex — as something that many full-grown adults still haven’t fully come to terms with — seems threatening with its emotional complexity, and its potential for abuse. The Internet and other information technology make it easier for everyone to encounter all types of information, and consequently, for children to encounter sex. But there are two things we must remember:

  1. Sex is perfectly fine, and something that children need education of, not protection from.
  2. Sexual abuse is not perfectly fine, and is its own distinct concern.

If we truly care about protecting children from sexual abuse, then it behooves us to do it effectively. Knee-jerk reactions, moral panics, and emotion-based policymaking do not protect our children. Ineffective laws only serve to make politicians and civil servants look like they’re doing something, in a ploy to win public support. And that is almost as disgusting as abusing a child.

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About The Author: Zacqary Adam Green

Zacqary is an activist in the New York Pirate Party, where his official title is "Cat Herder." He is an open source game developer, and the Chief Executive Plankhead of Plankhead, a free culture arts collective. Despite believing that money is a superfluous social construct, he has a Gittip profile.

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25

  1. 1

    Dude, I agree with you 100%

    You are probably going to get shit from SOMEONE, but that’s because that person believes that we should protect all the things, instead of realizing that there is a difference between what we WANT to do, and what we can do. If we can’t do it, then why fuck the good people over while the pedeofiles do something else?

    Also I think we should be exposed to more sexuality, less violence.

  2. 2
    Rnonymus Today

    While I agree with many things you say, it’s not that simple. All of these topics in fact also have a different legitimate side in my opinion.
    Lets start with the kids viewing porn part. Of course a teen of this generation will find a way to look for porn if s/he wants to (and most teens in puberty want to at one point or another in my experience) but it is a whole different thing when pre-pubescent children (like my then 8 year old sister) stumble upon and look at mainstream porn with all its debasing acts (“facials” ect) before even getting the chance to actually feel anything sexual. Things like these can and should be stopped by even the most rudimental child-security mechanisms.
    I have heared of enough stories of teen boys and girls thinking that all these male targeting fantasy settings found in the majority of porn are normal and that re-enacting them is the best way to please their young partners. And of course pornography MAY help with discovering their sexuality but I really don’t think its the best way to accomplish that. Educational texts and videos, erotic stories written by peers and forums about sexuality always seemed more helpful and more honest to me.
    Now on the topic of minors creating pornographic material I totally agree with you that the way the courts are punishing these acts is totally silly. But in my opinion it should still be forbidden in the same way that smoking, driving and alcohol consumption is forbidden to minors until a certain age. And just as both a 14 year old and her parents can be punished when the kid drives around with the family car regardless of parental permission or not, the same should apply to the case of circulating explicit material (albeit at a lower penalty as the consequenses of driving can be lethal). The damage that can be done by some private photos falling into the wrong hands and circulating all over the schools can be higher than a year of underage smoking.
    What I want to say with the above is that while the punishments at the moment are far too extreme it should by no means legal, nor should its illegality be a trivial formality. What would stop children from making porn because of economical pressure otherwise for instance?

    On the topic child pornography and pedophilia I have some major disagreements with what you wrote in this article. While I agree that being aroused by children is comparable to being aroused by people being humiliated or in pain (except that consensual BDSM is a legitimate lifestyle while relationships with children is not as long as we agree that statutory rape is something real) there is still a difference between that and actual criminal behavior (under current laws). According to the above analogy the anonymous contact whose letter you published is no different of a sadist scouring the internet for real rape or snuff videos (which I hope are just as illegal or even more so). You can argue that this is compulsive behavior due to a mental dissorder, but that means they are acting in ways they themselves find wrong and deem themselves unable to stop. That and you could argue that actual child predators, sex assaulters and worse are also only acting on a mental dissorder.
    I hate using the slippery slope argument but if a person does not have the self-control to not look for illegal, difficult to find videos that were clearly made in immoral ways just because they need to see the “real thing” (instead of makebelieve like young adult pornstars dressing up or hentai and the like) what guarantees that they will be able to keep themselves from following the urge of “experiencing the REAL real thing”? For that reason alone (meaning making the ability to get them hard and needing premeditation) videotapings of rape, murder and any other types of cruel felonies and their circulation should be illegal (except of course as incriminating proof made by bystanders). The state should have the right to track down and act against anyone whose behavior (compulsive or by choice) is a potential danger to the rest of its citizen.
    On the topic of how they should be handled I guess some (maybe most) should get therapeutic help as you mentioned it and that severe prison penalties just for the acquisation and/or viewing of illegal videos are unwaranted (paying for them and sharing them being higher crimes with higher penalties of course). But just like a thief or an arson should go to prison while a kleptomaniac/pyromaniac needs mental help and differentiating between them can be difficult the same should apply when evaluating a sexually compulsive pedophile and a common curious pervert mith no moral boundaries.

    • 2.1
      Rnonymus Today

      wow… got carried away there. Text seemed so much smaller in the posting box…

    • 2.2

      I appreciate you taking the time to write all of that, but my response to every point can be summed up in a single word: “Evidence.”

      Current policies have been implemented based on the type of “I feel like” thinking you espouse here. I completely understand why you might feel that way. But as I’ve pointed out, many of these feelings have been debunked. Some of it’s uncomfortable, I’m sure, but those are the facts. We need to do what works; it may not feel right at first, but once we see it in action, it will.

      • 2.2.1
        Rnonymus Today

        I sadly don’t have time to research the evidence at the moment But I’ll list my points and concerns in an overviewable fashion just in case I come back with more time or someone wants to do the dirty work for me :P

        Children watching porn:
        + I agree that trying to stop teens to get access to porn is not recomended and not feasible either way.
        - I believe however that the most easily and intuitively available porn is not a good medium for sexual education.
        =>Therefore children should get more humane/sophisticated sexual education before overexposure to porn. This may also come from research on appropriate sites (i.e. non-commercial material).
        ! But most prepubescent children have difficulties grasping concepts like lust and sexual attraction.
        =>Therefore having security mesures in place that limit access to explicit material until sex-ed could have been feasibly given is a good thing.
        * If this hasn’t happened until before the children develop genuine sexual interests it’s to late and the parents are to blame (and to a lesser extend the educational system).

        Teens creating sexually explicit material:
        + I agree that convicting minors that portray themselves on video/photo in a sexually explicit way and distribute it on the level of child abusers makes absolutely no sense.
        - Making this practice legal and leaving it in the hands of the parents only however does not seem like the right course of action to me and there may be many problematic aspects. (This is a feeling I have and with some research I may see that my concerns are totally unwarranted but that would not be what I expect).

        Child Pornography and the Law:
        1. I have the opinion that doing acts that cause suffering and/or diminish the well-being of a fellow person for personal pleasure or the pleasure of a third person is wrong. (In this case abusing a child for sexual pleasure and filming it for the enjoyment of others).
        2. Even the mere act of downloading and distributing the “artistic” creation of a person can be enough of a compliment to encourage the creator to continue.
        => Therefore I have the opinion that obtaining, showing appreciation for, sharing for the purpose of mutual enjoyment, paying for footage and/or supporting any of above mentioned acts is wrong because it encourages its continuance.
        =>And hence there should be laws against it.

        Pedophilia/Crime:
        I have the opinions that:
        1. People that commit crimes because of a mental disorder should not be immune to the law. While prison might not be appropriate for them the state should have the right to detain them against their will if necessary. The state should preferably grant therapy to these people with a higher priority than to those not deemed mentally ill.
        2. People that have a mental disorder that compulses them to do actions because of a specific desire even though they themselves deem the actions wrong are at risk of doing actions that either they or society deems even more wrong to fulfill their urges. At least as long as a psychological examination prooves otherwise.
        =>Therefore pedophiles and other people with compulsive sexual disorders that lead them to browse for illegal footage should be tracked by the state, monitored and given into mandatory psychological and/or psychiatric care.
        * Seeking help on their own should be supported and rewarded as to discourage hiding out of fear.

  3. 3
    kmens

    I think it’s a good text.

    A little remark though:
    I think you shouldn’t say: “Sex is natural” & “Sexual abuse is not natural”

    They are both natural, although the latter is unwanted.
    As you state it, it might look like a naturalistic fallacy.

  4. 4
    Rnonymus Today

    …Somehow with all the controversal text and my disagreements I have partially missed that we DO agree on the most important part, which is the conclusion of your article. Anyway, I had much fun and enjoyed both the reading and the writing. You won’t loose me as a reader soon :D

  5. 5

    This is a really well articulated statement on a topic that rarely gets a reasonable look.

    You mention, above, the lack of evidence, and I think that pinpoints the glaringly present flaw in many areas of law (e.g. drugs, gun control, welfare, speed limits, security…) And one that somehow needs to be addressed. **Actual** solutions cannot be created until **effective** laws are in place, and of course effective laws can’t be put in place without addressing the evidence.

    But it’s difficult, I think, because the evidence often contradicts common logic. For example, the supporting arguments of child porn laws are often quite reasonable, well thought out, and totally logical, like Rnonymus Today’s above. They make sense and we think “Oh, okay, I guess that sounds right.” But that’s the difficult thing: research often contradicts our internal logic.

    Somehow future lawmakers need to get over that.

  6. 6

    I come from the “Girls, keep your knees locked!” generation of high school ‘health’ classes. Regardless of what we think of porn, it’s not going away. Don’t like it, don’t look. Child abuse is a separate issue. Prosecute the abusers, don’t block our Internet! Porn certainly has the potential to skew healthy gender relationships because young people may have difficulty in discriminating the fantasy of porn from the reality of the back seat or living room couch. However, parents must bear the brunt of responsibility for harm to young people of all kinds. If you’re not going to talk to your kids and teach them your values, hey, shoulda had a vasectomy! I live in Thailand where my principal activism is against censorship. We make sure all our computers, including our pubescent 13-year old daughter’s, has an uncensored connection. However, she is not permitted unfettered use. Her computer screen faces mine or my wife’s so that we can monitor what she’s doing. No Facebook where a lot of the trouble starts. If she comes across something disturbing, confusing or disgusting, the issue is not deferred—we’re right there to talk about it. No govt should have the right to be citizens’ morals police.

    • 6.1
      Anon

      The best approach I ever heard. Calculated guess tells me most parents are in a total dark and even way over in lala-land when it comes to even knowing and later dealing with these issues if finding out about them.
      Narrow mind when it comes to the topic and technological handicap preventing insight might be the primary reasons for that.

  7. 7
    Jan Hansen

    I think your post is pretty good, but you neglect to address some of the well known points made by the lets neuter the internet movement, namely “Possession of child pornography should be illegal, because demand for this kind of material is a contributing factor in incentive to create it.”

    • 7.1

      That too, but to avoid making the article go on too long, I decided to leave off arguments which didn’t pass the laugh test.

      Political blogging is like jazz; it’s the bullshit you don’t debunk. :P

      • 7.1.1
        Rafinius

        I don’t get what your trying to say. That the argument above is unbased and laughable or that talking about it is not good for the article (for length, readability, political or whatever reasons)?

  8. 8
    Anon

    “Sexual attraction to children, on the other hand, isn’t something that can be reasonably accommodated — hence, a mental health problem.”

    No, that is pure non-objectivity derived from personal opinion which has a misleading motive “I do not like it so I will ban it for everyone”.
    Pedophiles might have mental health problems, but how can you claim it being the sole reason?

    We know sexual debut creeps lower and lower, so who says teens aren’t ready compared with generation from oppressed-generation of 1940-1970?
    Most parents think of this as life or death situation, mostly for them selves as social expectations have a firm grip on what is considered allowed and not.

    Do I advocate free sex for all regardless?
    No.
    But let’s get into the 21th century sometime soon and show we have moved on from 1940-1970′s collective oppression times.
    Something natural as sex is still being a topic of punishment/censorship in the so called civilized western world, which is scewing things for sure.

    • 8.1

      Pre-pubescent children. I should have clarified. Adolescents are more than capable of sexual consent, assuming sufficient education.

      • 8.1.1
        Rafinius

        I guess the moment a persons body tells it that sex would be a good thing and the mind knows what its doing (including risks ect.) you can speak of consent. But who would decide if that is actually the case or if a kid was just guiled into participating doesn’t want to harm the beguiler? And how?

        • Morten

          Perhaps this could be judged on a case by case basis like all other assault cases? It’s not like once you hit the age of consent, you can get legally raped. (except in countries where they have arranged marriages)

  9. 9
    Ducks

    I agree with you.

    However, I think that one needs to look into the issue of adult-child sex. Are all such relationships inherently abusive, or do we merely think this is the case? Suppose a parent and a child have a moderately sexual relationship that involves no physical harm of any sort, and both parties enjoy it and are willing. What would be wrong with that?

    So what I’m saying is we need to make a distinction between abuse, rape, and sex.

    Rape: the act of forcing through physical or threatening means sexual activity of any sort with another person.

    Abuse (physical): causing any sort of physical harm to a child, whether it be sexual in nature or not, or whether the child allows it or not.

    Abuse(mental): To in any way bring about a great deal of emotional distress in a child, to use them for one’s own sexual gratification WITHOUT caring about their feelings and gratification.

    Child-adult sex: Sexual activity such as touching, kissing, etc. in a sexual manner that is not physically harmful, and is willingly allowed by the child and adult, but involves NO physical harm whatsoever.

    Also, keep in mind that sexual education must have occurred prior to any activity for it to merely be considered child-adult sex. So to do anything sexual to a child without them knowing about sex is a type of rape, but if they know the basics of it and are willing to allow sexual conduct, I see no problem. Age should just be a number, not a determinate of whether they can have sex or not.

    Please be open minded and think about it.

    • 9.1
      Rafinius

      Depends what you mean when you say child. If you are including anyone under 18 I agree but as Zacqary said, prepubescent children are a whole other issue. I at least don’t believe that children before puberty can really grasp sexual feelings and therefore can’t be considered truly sexually educated, nor understand what drives their adult “partner” no matter how onestly it is explained (I’d like to see an example explanation of that kind aimed at an 8 year old…).
      And keep in mind that even the beginning of puberty is just the START of all the mental and bodily changes so by no means o kid should be “fair game” because the first body hair is beginning to grow.

  10. 10
    roger

    This is a touchy subject for many people and I both agree and applaud the author for writing about it.

    The most bizarre for me is the anti child porn laws. Viewing an image of a crime is in itself a crime?
    Well shouldn’t we all be put in jail then when they show some terrorist group execute somebody on the evening news? Even more strange is the inclusion of drawing or generated images into these laws where nobody was hurt in the process.

    What if lots of people got turned on by toaster owens Would we ban images of those too because it’s abnormal and a sign of some mental condition?
    Surely not.

    To the internet data is just data, bits and bytes. Data can not be illegal, it has no bias, it can do no harm. Restricting it is just wrong just like burning books is wrong.
    So it’s only when it’s intepreted by a human it can give rise to a feeling, a thought and an action.

    It’s the person who is responsible for his/her actions, no matter what information they have “consumed”. There is the criminal. But here in this case, this human at the other end of the internet doesn’t actually do any criminal act. Watching images and then abusing yourself does not hurt anyone else. If the image is of a person and that person is under 18, only then does it become a crime.

    So who is actually hurt here? who does this law protect? well it must be the sensibilities of us all who feel horrible at the thought of somebody getting aroused from these images. A sort of revenge and thought crime law. Such laws doesn’t belong in an enlightened society, and is at the same time used as an excuse to censor the net. Why not use all those resources spent to lock up the net to catch the REAL criminal, the person who abused and raped the child in the first place??

    • 10.1
      Rnonymus Today

      The reasons why “just” watching for pleasure is forbidden (I think that applies to gruesome videotaped executions/mutilations and rape/snuff pornography too and not only to child pornography) were already mentioned by several posters above, me included. Also the difference between a child and a toaster oven is that our society is biased against inanimate objects and doesn’t care when these are scarred for life by being sexually abused on tape…

      • 10.1.1
        elk25

        No, I am pretty sure that laws do not apply to consuming media of gruesome murder, mutilation, etc. There are websites readily available through Google that are reported to show such things. Could you provide a law that says otherwise?

        I can’t find anything saying rape videos are illegal. Then again, I can’t find any compelling evidence saying they aren’t.

        I am quite sure that child pornography and snuff pornography are in unique legal standing in US laws, at least.

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Zacqary is an activist in the New York Pirate Party, where his official title is "Cat Herder." He is an open source game developer, and the Chief Executive Plankhead of Plankhead, a free culture arts collective. Despite believing that money is a superfluous social construct, he has a Gittip profile.

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