A Tale of Two Images

March 24, 2010

It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us,
we had nothing before us,
we were all going direct to Heaven,
we were all going direct the other way
–Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

What would you feel if I told you I was going to show you an image of a naked, crying, terrified, 9-year-old girl, who’d just had something horrible done to her?

What would you feel if I told you I was going to show you an image of a naked, healthy, 9-year-old boy, who appears to be masturbating?

The first image I can show you. It’s at Wikipedia, it won a Pulitzer Prize, it was the World Press Photo of the Year in 1972.

The second image I can’t show you. I don’t have the image, haven’t seen the image, and merely possessing or distributing such an image could land you in a Federal penitentiary for five years since it meets the Federal definition of child pornography. But there’s ample evidence that such images do exist.

The President of NCMEC (National Center for Missing & Exploited Children), Ernie Allen, says that images of child pornography are “are crime scene photos, images of the sexual abuse of a child. They are contraband, direct evidence of the sexual victimization of a child.”

I’d say the first image, Nick Ut’s famous photo showing the horrors of the Vietnam War is a crime scene photo. It’s evidence of what I would call a war crime or even a crime against humanity–the dropping of napalm on civilians.

I’d like to hear Ernie Allen’s explanation of what crime is being shown in the second image. Is the boy sexually abusing himself? Is it a crime for a nine year old boy to masturbate? I remember fondling myself at age nine and the wonderful tingling sensations it caused. Was I sexually victimizing myself? If so, I didn’t notice it then, and I don’t regret it now.

So why the great disparity in the treatment of these two images? I can think of a lot of reasons, but I don’t think the real reason has anything to do with sexual victimization, or with one or the other or image being a crime scene photo. Maybe, just maybe, the real reason is that a small minority of people actually enjoy looking at photos like the the second photo.

A writer for The Atlantic, Megan McArdle, did a piece on non-offending pedophiles. She dragged child porn into the piece, and demonstrates a limited and simplistic understanding of the subject, stating “because the man who purchases child pornography is encouraging its manufacture”. The unstated premise of that statement is that child porn is typically purchased, which is completely unsubstantiated.

In a brief follow up, she publishes an e-mail she received from an anonymous prosecutor. Part of the prosecutor’s e-mail says:

I have seen a good number of men go to prison for child pornography that is found on their computers, and I must say that I’m not exactly sure how I feel about it. During my first few years as a prosecutor I wanted them locked up for as long as possible for two obvious reasons: first, they may very likely act out on their desires and victimize a child (who will of course be likely to victimize another child when they reach adult age). Second, as a way to deter the manufacturing of child pornography by removing the possible market. I’ve come to realize that the second reason is about as hopeless as thinking that by locking up drug users I can stop drug dealers. The market will always be there.

The prosecutor’s first reason is really outside the scope of CP Explosion, so I’ll only say that I’m unaware of any study purporting to show a link between child porn viewing and sexual crimes against children that isn’t crippled by sample bias. The second reason though is eerily reminiscent of the position held by LEAP regarding drugs.

There are no scientific studies I’m aware of, but all the anecdotal evidence suggests that no “penalty” will discourage people from seeking out child porn. A combination of factors including long prison sentences, extreme ostracism, and a feeling that there’s little hope of even getting a fair trail if accused have completely failed to deter people from seeking out child porn. I don’t think that even implementing capital punishment for child porn possession would make more than a minor impact on the child porn trade. The use of the term “trade” rather than “market” is intentional and almost certainly more accurate.