26 February 2005

Legal Kiddie Porn

Law & Politics
Movies
Sex
Society

You hear a lot of talk about kiddie porn on the internet. It seems that every legislator on the planet is trying to eradicate it. It's the one category of material that no one on the internet permits; read the terms of service for web hosting services, and if they give specific examples of material they won't permit, child pornography and pirated copyrighted material are the two items always forbidden... but since nearly every music lover in the post-industrial world downloads tunez, it's apparent that only one of those is really universally condemned: kiddie porn.

Except that it's just as obviously not universally condemned. A review of my site logs (as I was just doing) shows that.

Think about it: the reason kiddie porn is such a hot item on law-makers' and law-enforcers' agendas is that it's popular. This isn't just a handful of nutcases with a rare psychosis. Child pornography is something that lots of people out there are looking for. By a wide margin, the single most-hit page on this blog is one in which I prominently mentioned "kiddie porn" (in the context of snuff films, hate crimes, and other targets of recent legislation). That phrase is also the most-common search-engine key showing up in my referrer logs, despite the fact that I've written lots more about a lot of different topics. If I'm getting hundreds of instances of that phrase every month, imagine what Google is getting. And the fact that people are risking prosecution to sell it shows that it's popular enough to be rather profitable.

That raises the question of what this says about our society. The obvious response is that we're heading to hell in a handbasket, we've abandoned morality, etc. I don't buy that.

The modern obession with pornography in general isn't anything new. The only thing that the inventions of photography, motion pictures, video recorders, and the internet, have done over the past century or so, is to make porn easier to produce and distribute. People have always been attracted to images of people in the nude and especially having sex. Any student of art history can tell you that. I see no reason to assume that interest in seeing young people like that is new, either. All you have to do is look at the millennia-old traditions of adult men taking girls in their early teens as wives to confirm that pedophilia - or at least ephebophilia (the attraction to pubescents and adolescents) - has been around for a very long time. Evidently it's a part of human nature.

So what this contemporary hullaballoo over kiddie porn really says about our society is that our society is in conflict with itself. One of the most popular search subjects is also one of the most banned subjects.

I'm not trying to argue that just because it's popular, that makes it right. I understand that spouse-beating and pre-emptive invasions both have long and popular histories, but I'm definitely not advocating either of them. But by the same token, the fact that something's illegal doesn't necessarily make it pernicious, as demonstrated by the prohibition of alcohol in the U.S. in the 1920s, or laws against consensual homosexual activity. You have to look at it objectively, on its own.

The one thing that nearly everyone does agree on regarding child pornography is that abusing children to produce it is wrong. Of course there's some considerable difference opinion about what exactly constitutes "abuse", but there are also some pretty clear "wrong" areas and "right" areas. For example, if a child is physically harmed, that's obviously "wrong". If there are no actual children involved, that seems rather harmless.

After all, we let movie studios use special effects to simulate murder, dangerous stunts, animal abuse, and other things that would be horrible to allow in real life. If a video game showing a virtual soldier blasting the living fuck out of other virtual people isn't a threat to society (the only thing we question is whether children should have access to them), why is a movie showing a virtual 15-year-old masturbating? (I don't mind saying that I personally find the former a lot more disturbing.)

Out of curiosity, I did some research about this. It may surprise you (it surprised me) that the U.S. Supreme Court has said pretty much the same thing, at least as it applies to the question of "obscenity". They ruled that material that was produced without any actual minors - such as illustrations from imagination, or virtual porn - is not "child pornography" and therefore isn't automatically "obscene". (It can still be ruled obscene if it lacks artistic merit and so forth, just like any other sexually explicit material.) Which would be a relief to John Singer Sargent, who painted the accompanying image. On the other hand, other countries have taken the opposite position, and created legal concepts such as an "indecent pseudophotograph of a child", which are outlawed on the grounds that such things would promote child abuse.

If Prohibition, the so-called war on drugs, and the utter failure of efforts to get rid of sex in popular entertainment have shown us anything, it's that where there's an interest in something, you can't just legislate it away. If - as with alcohol, drugs, and porn - there are potentials for abuse and for people to get hurt, then the most reasonable course of action is to let them be... with regulation to limit their harmfulness. So why not let the NAMBLA guys draw their naughty pictures, let dirty old men make virtual-school-girl movies, and so forth... and put the hurt of the law on anyone who abuses actual boys or girls?

I'm not saying, "If you can't beat them, give up". I'm saying, "If you can't beat them... maybe you're playing the wrong game."

# 2005-02-26 12:51 PM | TrackBack
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