by Raywat Deonandan
June 24, 2004
This is an original Podium article
“The more I saw it, the more I longed for it in my heart,” said Michael Briere of the images of child sex he watched prior to his rape and murder of Holly Jones. According to the convicted killer, it was child pornography that compelled him to commit his foul deed. Not surprisingly, his testimony has triggered renewed calls for a crackdown on the porn industry, with a focus on those who manufacture and distribute images of children in sexual situations.
It is an unfortunate reality that the sexual abuse of children is related to both the seedy kiddie porn industry, child prostitution and the growing global phenomenon of sex tourism. It is certainly an appropriate response to weed out and punish those who abuse society’s most vulnerable, on camera and off, and there are few rational arguments to the contrary.
The debate becomes murky, however, when a society seeks to punish those who merely possess or have viewed such materials, but who played no role in producing them. The question of whether exposure to illicit materials compels or enables sexual criminal activity is one for scientists to wrestle with. But until a definitive answer is available, our legislatures must consider the relative costs, benefits and philosophical implications of seeking to punish those who have deliberately exposed themselves to child pornography.
The economic argument for criminalizing porn possession is fairly intuitive and seemingly rational: that by providing a market for such things, someone who views such materials encourages the industry to produce more of it, hence abusing even more children. But if the fantasy of child sexualization is indeed pathological, it can be argued that the demand for kiddie porn among such deviants is impervious to both market forces and the threat of prosecution; even if it costs him his freedom, someone with “need” of such materials will continue to seek them out, and few things compel irrational behaviour more than does sexual desire. Consider the drug trade: demand-side economic control of illicit drugs in the USA, via the vigorous prosecution of drug addicts, has not resulted in a noticeable abatement of either illegal drug importation or its demand.
Like the drug trade, traffic in child pornography might best be dealt with from a medical perspective, whereby production and sale of the materials is still a crime, but desire for such materials is seen as a kind of illness. Unlike the drug trade, though, the most heinous and damaging aspect of the transaction is at the point of production: the filming of actual children engaged in real sex acts.
While prosecution of those who produce such imagery seems like a fairly obvious tack, the nature of our times undermines such certainty. In an era when we can walk into a movie theatre and be convinced of the veracity of hobbits, elves, alien spaceships and flying dragons, a virtual sexualized child is not an impossibility. Animated pornography has already found a home on the internet. Sexually explicit Japanese animation, called “hentai”, is enormously popular in video stores around the world. The question we must soon ask ourselves is whether the sexualization of unreal children also qualifies as kiddie porn worthy of criminalization. If we accept that the primary purpose of prosecuting those who produce child pornography is to rescue those children involved in the shoots, then the answer is no, since there are no real children to rescue. But our response is less clear if we begin to consider whether the existence of such virtual materials contributes to a culture of abuse which might eventually lead to the abuse of a flesh-and-blood child.
And what of narrative fiction? Does a stylized narrative of child sex, written in novel form, qualify as criminalizable pornography? Here we enter the more uncomfortable world of “thought crime”, wherein the state may punish an individual for the images in his own mind.
Imagine a fellow dreaming of robbing the bank on the corner. He writes a story about his vision, which includes meticulous detail of how he would commit the crime. He then publishes the story on a website and goes on about his life. Has he committed a crime? Now imagine that someone else reads his story and actually robs the bank, using similar methodology to that proposed in the fictional account. Has the writer enabled the crime and is he therefore ethically and legally responsible for it? Replace bank robbery with the rape of a child and the question becomes confounded by a torrent of unpleasant emotion.
Briere’s testimony has incited our lawmakers to move against child pornography. But the task now before them is not so straightforward as many suppose it to be.
Raywat Deonandan is an epidemiologist.