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.

Stasi Officer: “Sit Down. Hands under your thighs, palms down. What do you have to tell us?”
East Germany citizen: “I’ve done nothing. I know nothing.”
Stasi Officer: “You’ve done nothing, know nothing… You think we imprison people on a whim?”
East German citizen: “No…”
Stasi Officer: “If you think our humanistic system capable of such a thing, that alone would justify your arrest.”
-The opening scene of The Lives of Others

One of my passions is film. I especially enjoy Indie and Arthouse films, and also old European classics. In the past year I’ve seen many films that would be a little interest to the average American moviegoer. But two of the films I’ve seen are surprisingly relevant to the media discussion of child porn. The first being Pier Giuseppe Murgia’s 1977 film Spielen wir Liebe (aka Maladolescenza, aka Adolescent Malice) and the other Dusan Makavejev’s 1974 film Sweet Movie.

Spielen wir Liebe has a cast of just three, Laura Wendel, Eva Ionesco, and Martin Loeb. The cast members would have been about 13, 13, and 18 years old respectively when the film was released. One review of Spielen wir Liebe begins

Children aren’t always as innocent as they seem if Maladolescenza is anything to go by, in many ways a discomforting drama from 1977 that undoubtedly has to be among the most controversial and scandalous movies ever to come out of Italy. With a cast consisting of no more than three it takes the form of a tense chamber play whose plot is played out in a pictorial forest where the two adolescents Fabrizio (Martin Loeb) and Laura (Lara Wendel) are meeting every day in their summer holidays – just like they’ve been doing for the past few years. Laura is deeply in love with the somewhat older Fabrizio, even though he constantly makes fun of and teases her with it. He wouldn’t, however, mind sleeping with her but she’s not ready to go all the way like he wants her to. Enter the chilly, pretty Sylvia (Eva Ionesco) – a little, manipulative blonde and quite a bit of a seductress. She doesn’t hesitate to seduce the lustful Fabrizio with her willingness and easily manages to twist him around her little finger, which ignites a cruel ménage à trois with a dramatic and fatal outcome.

Sweet Movie comes second only to Salo as the most visually shocking film I’ve ever seen. A reviewer at the IMDB says

First reaction to this challenging and astonishing film might be to pronounce it depraved or that the director is but then there is no suggestion that one will come away from this unique film a less moral person and so the accusation fails. Certainly I would like to think that for everybody there will be at least some part of this they find hard to take, indeed I don’t think I would like to sit too closely to anyone who lapped up every frame. Excess of all kind on display here plus a really difficult striptease among young children. And yet, I think despite some of the more flip and seeming silliness, Makavejev is screaming out for the individual to rediscover his private and public freedom. The Soviet Union comes in for most of the kicking, but then why wouldn’t it in 1974 when they were still presiding over the director’s birthplace and still denying the massacre of Poles so distressingly shown in original b/w footage.

These are serious films, enjoyed by aficionados who see film as art, who see film as a vehicle for social change, who see film as a means to strike out at those responsible for repression and injustice. These are not chick-flicks. These are not films you screen for your significant other on Valentine’s Day.

These films, Spielen wir Liebe and Sweet Movie are ART. These films are also considered by some to be child pornography.

In Spielen wir Liebe there’s a scene where Laura lies on her back, naked on the ground. Fabrizio, also naked, is shown briefly caressing her breasts. He’s then shown with his head at her pubic region, and Laura says “I feels warm, but it is not bad.” Soon he mounts her in the missionary position, and his naked body is briefly shown atop hers. This scene is not explicit sex like you would find in an adult pornographic film. It’s comparable to a sex scene in one of today’s R-rated movies. Further into the film, Fabrizio and Sylvia are naked, with Fabrizio appearing to perform oral sex on Sylvia. Shortly after he’s shown atop Sylvia and moving as if they are having intercourse, though their genitals are not visible. Fabrizio and Sylvia are shown naked several more times and in additional sexual encounters. As I was writing this I checked and found Spielen wir Liebe for sale on eBay.

The striptease in Sweet Movie involves a woman, barely dressed to begin with, who performs for four (?) boys in a bizarre candy shop. The boys seem to be eating candy and appear to be about 9 years old. The woman’s breast is shown about a foot from one boy’s face. She slowly unzips another boys pants. She kisses two of the boys and wraps some of her discarded clothing around their heads and necks. One boy lightly touches her bare stomach and slightly touches her bare ass. Near the end, the woman’s crotch, almost completely exposed, is within 6 inches of another boy’s face. You can rent Sweet Movie from Netflix and see it for yourself.

Now remember the case of the Pennsylvania Grandmother, Donna Dull, arrested on child pornography charges (dropped 15 months later) for a picture of “A little girl with her bare butt showing, kind of looking over her shoulder.”

Now consider this statement (source) by Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children

Child pornography is misnamed and misunderstood. It is not pornography. It is not protected speech. It is not victimless crime. These are crime scene photos, images of the sexual abuse of a child. They are contraband, direct evidence of the sexual victimization of a child.

A little girl with her bare butt showing, kind of looking over her shoulder. Crime scene photo. Direct evidence of the sexual victimization of a child. I don’t see the connection. Former York County District Attorney H. Stanley Rebert apparently did.

Something doesn’t add up. I notice this in most everything I read and hear about child pornography.

I don’t think the war on child porn is something those waging it ever plan on winning. Too much is at stake. The war on child porn is a proxy for other things. Like establishing government monitoring of the Internet. Like finding something to replace the war on drugs in case the war on drugs should continue to lose favor with the public. Like controlling the sexual thoughts of the public. Like restricting the work of artists, who have a nasty habit of challenging authority.

For now, the government doesn’t dare go after films like Spielen wir Liebe and Sweet Movie. But the way things are going, it’s only a matter of time. Better see them while you still can.

P.S. Eva Ionesco was a very attractive thirteen year old girl. If you’re a man and watch Spielen wir Liebe when you’re alone you–on second thought, I probably shouldn’t say that. Eva Ionesco is supposedly the youngest person to pose nude for Playboy (in the Italian edition, October 1976) when she was eleven. I haven’t seen this issue, so I can’t say what the images show. But I’d like to see it. Even better, I’d like to hear what Ernie Allen has to say about Eva Ionesco’s Playboy pictorial. Is it child porn, Ernie, or is it art? What about Spielen wir Liebe, Ernie, is it child porn or is it art? Looking at Eva Ionesco’s filmography at the IMDB, it doesn’t appear that the Playboy pictorial or Spielen wir Liebe has hurt her career.

Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. suggests in a recent column that “maybe we should legalize drugs.” I suggest maybe we should legalize child pornography.

Then there’s the collateral damage. ”When somebody gets arrested,” says Cole, ”it’s not only that person whose life is crippled. It drags down their whole family.” This, because the conviction makes it nearly impossible to get a job, go to college, even rent an apartment.

With child porn, the collateral damage also affects whole families. Increasingly, the child porn witch hunt is ensnaring the very people the anti-child porn laws are supposedly meant to protect.

If the girls are charged and convicted of child pornography violations, the plaintiffs contend, they would have a felony record and could be subjected to state Megan’s Law provisions, which would require them to register as convicted sex offenders.

What warrants such punishment? The rape of a child? No. The sexual abuse of an infant? No. How about:

The first image shows two teenage girls lying side by side in their bras. One of them is talking on a phone, while the other makes a peace sign.

In another picture, a third girl is seen just as she emerged from a shower, wrapped by a towel but with her breasts exposed.

There’s more on this case at a Wall Street journal blog post. That is what the child porn witch hunt has come to. I’m sure some hard core child porn does exist, but over-zealous police and prosecutors and lawmakers are no longer content to go after those responsible for the real abuse of children. Now children themselves are the targets.

Pitts writes more:

And for what? This ”War” has been an exercise in futility. In 1970, says Cole, about 2 percent of the population over the age of 12 had at some point or another used an illegal drug. As of 2003, he says, that number stood at 46, an increase of 2,300 percent — yet we’ve spent over a trillion dollars and imprisoned more people per capita than any country in the world in order to reduce drug use?

The laughable “war” on child porn follows the same trajectory. More police, more resources, more prosecutions, more time in prison, more sacrifices of our civil liberties, and what do we get for our efforts? A problem that is “exploding”.

How many hundreds of billions of dollars will we spend, how many hundreds of thousands of men will we imprison for decades before we realize the uncanny similarities between the “war” on drugs and the “war” on child porn? How long before we realize that when there is a demand, and when there are people (suppliers) able and willing to meet that demand, the demand will be met?

I’m Back

March 10, 2009

After a long hiatus from posting I’ll be making more frequent posts. I’m returning by quoting a paragraph from an online book by John Robin Sharpe, who is the subject of a child porn case that reached the Canadian Supreme Court. The bold text is my doing, not Sharpe’s.

The metaphor of “sending messages” is a favourite of those who advocate harsh penalties including judges. Somehow it is assumed that the intent of the message sent is identical with the meaning of the one received. But what message do harsher penalties send to those who engage or are tempted to engage in prohibited activities? It is true that some, the more timid and less aggressive potential offenders may be dissuaded. Harsher penalties are an escalation of social conflict and lead to violence, murders and more resources and “glamour” for the police. The adjustments to more restrictive laws and harsher penalties favour organized crime, corruption of our police and justice industry, and the use of weapons. We have seen this happen in the case of drugs where the police, courts and corrections, as well as the legal profession are as dependent on our drug laws as any junkie is on heroin. With high taxes we know we can create a similar situation with respect to cigarettes and smuggling. A few centuries ago during a crime hysteria much like the present one hanging was introduced by the “Reform Party” minded of the day for crimes such as theft and robbery. While some would be robbers may have been discouraged others took the logical step of eliminating witnesses to their crime. As a result murders increased. Because of a “tough on crime” attitude it was centuries, and thousands of unnecessary murders and executions later before the penalties were “softened”. Eventually juries and judges often refused to convict despite overwhelming evidence of guilt. The popular theory promoted by politicians, the media and advocate/activist groups is that harsher penalties, with a dollop of “education” will solve problems of crime. It is seen as a sign of moral weakness to acknowledge that the severity of penalties feed back into the type and nature of crimes committed.

The United States seems in the midst of a artificially constructed child porn panic designed to strip its citizens of liberties and funnel money to its law enforcement agencies. All this comes at the expense of its taxpayers, of men who look at legal adult porn featuring youthful looking women, and even of teenagers who make risque pictures with their cell phone cameras. Will child porn become the next vice on which the police, the courts, the prison system, and the legal profession become dependent?

The decades of the war on drugs, which physically exist and must be physically transported from producers to consumers, has been a disaster. Almost all child porn trade would seem to now take place in the virtual world, were it traverses the globe in seconds. We can’t keep drugs, a physical item, out of our prisons, yet people think we can keep JPEGs and MPEGs off the computers of people who want them?

The more I read about the anti-child porn efforts, the more I see similarities between the war on drugs and the war on child porn. We’re throwing more and more money at the child porn problem, characterizing teenagers and comic book collectors as child pornographers, and opening the door to government surveillance of the Internet. And what do we get for all the money, damaged lives, and curtailed liberties? We get a problem that isn’t getting any better, but is getting worse, possibly as a result of our misguided efforts to fight child porn in the first place.

Even someone who recognizes how the scope of materials considered child pornography continues to grow may find such materials repugnant. But repugnant as it may be, do we really want to have control over the production and distribution of such materials left to a criminal underworld, or would we be better off with a legal but tightly regulated marketplace for child porn and child erotica (they’re not the same thing)?

Interesting Quotes

April 26, 2008

“Child porn prosecutions have become the modern-day equivalent to McCarthyism, the Spanish Inquisition, or the Salem witch trials. Once accused, it seems that there’s no defense that can save you, not even innocence.” -Me, in a comment I left to Megan’s Flaw.

“That is a very scary statement, and exactly how the witch trials were conducted.” -The blog author’s comment back to me.

“When the possibility of child pornography consumption is raised, the court system slips into some sort of guilt-until-proven innocent trance.” -David Berlind, an Executive Editor at ZDNet, in Beyond a shadow of a pornographic doubt, don’t rush to judgment.

You’re fooling yourself if you don’t believe it. You’re kidding yourself if you don’t believe it. -Styx, “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)”

Apologies to Styx for the strike-through, but after reading a recent Reuters article about the G8 Summit in Germany I knew I needed to quote this song. The lyrics needed a minor modification to make them fitting. The story reports that:

The G8 has been working with Interpol for years to combat child pornography and helped it establish the International Child Sexual Exploitation Image Database, which is intended to help police identify and rescue victims of such abuse.

They’ve been working for years, but by most accounts that problem is just getting worse, not better. Really, the very title of the story (“G8 needs private sector help to end child porn”) shows just how foolish our political leaders, law enforcement officials, and the media have become when dealing with child porn.

So now I pose the question that no politician, law officer, or journalist ever thinks to ask. Do they really think that we will ever end child porn?

I don’t think we will ever end child porn, and I suspect the current policies used to deal with child porn are having the unintended consequence of causing more and more child porn to be made. In drawing the conclusion that we cannot end child porn, I draw heavily on reading I’ve done about the failed war on drugs. The sites Drug War Facts, and LEAP, are informative.

Drugs are a physical item that must be physically moved, often across continents. Large quantities of drugs are heavy. Despite all resources poured into the drug war for many years, illegal drugs are still widely available in cities, suburbs, in rural areas, even in our prisons. We cannot even keep illegal drugs out of our prisons!

Child porn, in contrast, exists today mainly as data. Child porn can be moved from one continent to another electronically, in a matter of seconds. Child porn can be duplicated and still retain its value to its users.

I we cannot keep a physical item like drugs out of our prisons, how can we ever expect to keep a electronic data out of the hands of child porn aficionados? We can’t.

The LEAP site includes this quote about the decades long drug war.

The stated goals of current U.S.drug policy — reducing crime, drug addiction, and juvenile drug use — have not been achieved, even after nearly four decades of a policy of “war on drugs”. This policy, fueled by over a trillion of our tax dollars has had little or no effect on the levels of drug addiction among our fellow citizens, but has instead resulted in a tremendous increase in crime and in the numbers of Americans in our prisons and jails. With 4.6% of the world’s population, America today has 22.5% of the worlds prisoners. But, after all that time, after all the destroyed lives and after all the wasted resources, prohibited drugs today are cheaper, stronger, and easier to get than they were thirty-five years ago at the beginning of the so-called “war on drugs”.

The current approach to dealing with child porn makes it likely that years from now we will be saying, “after all that time, after all the destroyed lives and after all the wasted resources, child porn today is cheaper, more abusive, and easier to get than it was thirty-five years ago at the beginning of the so-called “war on child porn”.

Child porn will always used for the same reason that illegal drugs will always be used – there is a demand. And some people are always going to be willing to do whatever it takes to get access to those materials.

Unintended Consequences

One area where some success has been made is in efforts to prevent credit cards from being used to purchase child porn. In 2006 there was the formation of the Financial Coalition Against Child Pornography, covered in a NCMEC press release). There is some evidence that this effort is having success. The Reuters article includes

Germany recently smashed a child pornography ring thanks to credit card data provided by financial institutions and credit card companies.

Unfortunately, credit card fraud appears common among those buying child porn. (Big surprise there?) See Wired and the BBC for more information. Of course, making it more difficult, or risky, to use credit cards to buy child porn doesn’t appear to be making any dent at all in the availability of child porn. Judging by the typical story child porn is still Exploding.

Have any of the people battling against child porn ever stopped to consider that making it more difficult to buy existing child porn might lead to the creation of more new child porn? If someone can’t buy child porn, but still wants to get child porn, what do they do? Does anyone know? Does anyone care?

On the Internet, I have seen rumblings that the new currency for child porn is child porn itself. Specifically, new child porn. If one can’t buy it, then one must either find it, beg for it, or trade for it. I’ve seen discussions on the Internet that suggested that for someone new to begin trading with an established collector, the only option is for the newcomer to bring something new. New child porn. And how does one get new child porn? One probably makes it?

Another theme common to news accounts of child porn investigations is that the ages of the children involved are getting younger and younger and in some cases involve babies or even newborns. Rarely do those news accounts speculate why child porn involving such very young children is becoming more common. Is it that tastes are changing and child porn aficionados are developing a preference for babies? Or is it that first-time child porn producers choose babies because they know that the baby can’t tell anyone what happened, and in all likelihood, the baby will not remember what happened. It certainly avoids the Kylie (or Vicky) problem, doesn’t it?

Mixed Messages

April 23, 2007

That these two news stories appeared on the same day makes me chuckle. From a story in the UK paper the Guardian, “Watchdog: Online Child Porn More Brutal,” we hear that

Child pornography on the Internet is becoming more brutal and graphic, and the number of images depicting violent abuse has risen fourfold since 2003, according to an Internet watchdog report published Tuesday.

The report comes from the Internet Watch Foundation, which may be a European version of the USA based NCMEC, an organization that’s been know to toss around unsubstantiated figures about child porn. (See The $20 Billion Lie)

Across the globe comes a story on the AsiaMedia site, “Magistrate clears magazine of wet T-shirt child porn charge,” where we learn that

Easy Finder magazine was acquitted yesterday of publishing child pornography when it ran pictures of a young pop singer in a wet T-shirt.

Kwun Tong Magistrate Gary Lam Kar-yan conceded that one of the four pictures of Renee Lee Wan, published last June when she was 14, did suggest the outline and shape of her left breast and nipple.

However, he acknowledged that all parties, including her mother, her agent and her wardrobe artist, agreed the girl was wearing an “invisible” silicon self-adhesive bra, more than 1cm thick and flesh-coloured, under her white camisole.

This “nude” bra meant it was almost impossible to reveal her chest, Mr Lam said, adding that he was not convinced the pictures amounted to a sexual depiction of her breast.

Sarcasm: on – Just think of the harm this poor child would have suffered if the photo had been declared to be child porn. By finding that the photo was not in fact child porn, the magistrate has actually spared young Renee Lee Wan a lifetime of abuse. See example #1 in The Big Lie for details. – Sarcasm: off

Maybe a sensible definition of child porn (unlike this one) could help us resolve the dilemma between whether child porn is increasinly “brutal and graphic” or whether it is the outline of a 14-year-old girl’s “silicon self-adhesive bra” covered breast.