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+ - The Perverse Politics of Virtual Porn

Submitted by
Brian Ribbon
Brian Ribbon writes "In 2006, the UK Home Office (which has since devolved many of its powers to the Ministry of Justice) announced plans to criminalise the possession of "non-photographic images of child sexual abuse" (BBC, 2006). The justification for this law was based upon several assumptions, none of which are supported empirically.

The first and most significant claim of ministers, made in the original "consultation on possession of non-photographic visual depictions of child sexual abuse", was that "fantasy images themselves fuel abuse of real children by reinforcing potential abusers' inappropriate feelings towards children" (Home Office, 2007). The Home Office noted "an absence of research into the effects of these images", but proceeded to ask if their proposal was "nevertheless justified".

Upon publishing the "summary of responses and next steps", the Ministry of Justice (2008) was unable to provide any evidence for the claims made in its paper, explaining that it had taken the decision to legislate against computer-generated images on the basis of a public consultation (in which the opinions expressed were far from unanimous) and closed meetings with "interested parties". Those "interested parties" were comprised mostly of charities which have a financial stake in the matter, as well as the Child Exploitation & Online Protection Centre, which receives funding to investigate potential sexual offences committed online and is currently seeking public support for a doubling of its funding.

Evidence-based legislation?

In 2009, the Coroners and Justice Bill — which intends to criminalise the possession of virtual child erotica — was introduced by Jack Straw and Lord Bach. The accompanying research paper (Almandras et al, 2009) cites a report by the Longford Committee (1972) and Ray Wyre's appendix in Tim Tate's (1990) book on child pornography as evidence, however both works discuss photographic pornography rather than computer-generated or drawn imagery.

The Longford Committee's findings were published several years before the "discovery" of child pornography, which was not the subject of public or scientific debate prior to 1975 (Stanley, 1987; O'Donnell & Milner, 2007) and was not subject to legislation until 1977 in the USA or 1978 in the UK. The committee's findings therefore cannot be taken as conclusive evidence with regard to child pornography, nor can they be assumed to be applicable to computer-generated pornography (which was not available at the time). The findings of the committee — as cited in the research paper — are also rather vague. According to the Ministry of Justice, the committee's report stated that "pornography clearly must have some effect" but admitted that "only in very rare cases can a causal connection between pornography and anti-social behaviour be conclusively proved" (Longford Committee, cited by Almandras et al, 2009). The evidence provided by the Longford Committee clearly does not support the beliefs expressed by legislators in proposing the prohibition of virtual child erotica.

Child pornography had been acknowledged and formed part of the criminological discourse when Tate's book was published, however there is no empirical (or even anecdotal) evidence of the existence of computer-generated child pornography prior to the publication of Tate's book. Wyre's argument was based solely upon his experiences in working with sex offenders at the time, and was therefore based upon his observations of how offenders allegedly used photographic child pornography. Even if one discounts the fact that virtual pornography is yet another step away from reality in relation to photographic pornography, the reliability of Wyre's argument remains debatable. One must remember that a correlation may not involve a direct causal link; while many of the contact child sex offenders which Wyre studied may also have used pornography — and may have used it as an excuse for their behaviour — it is quite possible that the contact offenders would have committed a contact offence regardless of their use of pornography. If, as Wyre suggested, a contact child sex offender "will use anything — including child pornography or child erotica" to "make his behaviour seem as normal as possible" (Wyre, cited by Almandras et al, 2009), child erotica is not necessary for the facilitation of contact offending, as the offender would find other ways to justify their behaviour. The government's use of Wyre's work in supporting the proposed legislation is actually a serious misinterpretation (or misuse) of the text and does not justify the ban which is proposed by legislators.

Contrary to the largely irrelevant research cited in the research paper for the proposed legislation, there is a significant body of evidence which suggests that child erotica has a positive effect on the behaviour of people with a sexual interest in children, providing a sexual relief which reduces the likelihood of contact offending. Sheldon & Howitt (2008) found that despite the popular belief that fantasy leads to action, "fantasy deficit may be involved in contact offending against children" as contact offenders are unable to generate mastubatory fantasies without engaging in contact offences. The correlation between liberalisation of pornography laws and a decrease in cases of contact offences is also worthy of note here. A major correlation was observed in Denmark and West Germany (O'Carroll, 2000), while a correlation between an increase in the availability of virtual pornography (including child and rape pornography) and a decrease in contact offending has been observed in Japan (Diamond & Uchiyama, 1999). While the O'Carroll and Diamond & Uchiyama studies only prove a correlation, it is unlikely that the increased availability of child pornography and a decrease in contact offences against children could have a common causal factor, indicating that the legal availability of pornography (both child and adult) reduces the risk of sexually harmful behaviour.

A charitable concern?

Two of the primary campaigners in favour of the prohibition of cartoon child erotica are the NSPCC (a children's charity with statutory powers) and CHIS (a coalition of charities in which the NSPCC is an influential member). In a response to the Scottish consultation on the proposed prohibition of virtual child erotica, CHIS argued that "advances in technology have made it possible to create materials which are entirely artificial but which, in turn, are indistinguishable from photographs or videos of real events" (CHIS, 2008). Such an argument is clearly misleading as a reason for legislating against virtual child erotica, as erotic photo-realistic images of children are already illegal under UK law and possession of such images carries the same maximum sentence as actual photographs (Sentencing Advisory Panel, 2006). It is evident that CHIS was already aware of the illegality of photo-realistic indecent images of children when they responded to the consultation, as they quoted from the relevant law on the same page of their response. It is therefore difficult to interpret the CHIS response as anything other than an attempt to mislead the public, media, and undereducated civil servants.

Before progressing to a further analysis of the children's charities' use of misleading information, it would be careless not to mention that the same manipulative tactics are also being used by politicians. When the Ministry of Justice announced the intention to criminalise virtual child erotica, Justice Minister Maria Eagle issued a press release claiming that "paedophiles could be circumventing the law by using computer technology to manipulate real photographs or videos of abuse into drawings or cartoons" (Eagle, 2008). Regardless of whether or not this is true (there is no evidence for or against the claim), Section 69(3) of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act (2008) criminalised the possession, distribution, showing and making of images derived from indecent photographs or pseudo-photographs of children three weeks prior to Eagle's announcement. In short, the "loophole" which Eagle referred to had already been closed. The implications of her announcement are therefore quite disturbing; either the Justice Minister was unaware of the content of a major bill which had just been enacted, or she was deliberately attempting to mislead and manipulate the media and public into supporting her department's proposals.

Despite the misleading statements of CHIS, the motivations of the NSPCC themselves are of the greatest concern. The NSPCC has a history of using sensationalism, half-truths and deception in its campaigns for donations. In 2007, it emerged that the NSPCC had mailed fake stories of child abuse — presented as genuine accounts — in order to garner donations from concerned members of the public (The Daily Mail, 2007). Prior to this discovery, Sociology professor Frank Furedi (2004) described the NSPCC as "a danger to the nation's children". His article drew attention to the NSPCC's use of expensive marketing companies and misleading statistics to frighten both parents and children into donating to the organisation. Similar concerns were also expressed in an article in the Observer (Rayner, 1999) and by the Social Issues Research Centre (1999).

Of greater concern with regard to the proposed law against virtual child erotica is the NSPCC's conflict of interest in responding to the proposal. Unbeknownst to the general public (and possibly even to legislators), the NSPCC conducts a significant number of sex offender therapy programmes (NSPCC, 2008). The amount of funding which they receive for conducting such programmes has not been disclosed, however intense public fears over child sex offenders and the costs associated with finding staff who are prepared to work with such offenders would suggest that the NSPCC receives significant funding for carrying out this service. Considering the revenue which the NSPCC is likely to generate from providing such services, expecting them to provide objective input on a proposal which will increase the number of people who use those services is highly optimistic.

Another argument proposed by the NSPCC and by other proponents of the legislation is that the availability of cartoon child erotica implies tolerance of child sexual abuse, therefore encouraging paedophiles to act out (Hilton, 2009). The first problem with this argument is that the broad definition of "prohibited images" in the Coroners and Justice Bill includes images which simply focus on certain areas of a child's body and are perceived to be "grossly offensive" or "disgusting" (Coroners and Justice Bill, 2009), even if no sexual activity is depicted. Furthermore, the claim that the availability of cartoon child erotica — even if it depicts sexual abuse — implies a tolerance of child abuse is unfounded and grossly illogical. Firstly, a glance at (legal) discussion boards for paedophiles — such as Boychat.org and Annabelleigh.net — indicates that paedophiles are extremely aware of the negativity of attitudes towards paedophilia per se as well as child sexual abuse. Contrary to the argument of the proponents of the proposed legislation, the fact that child erotica is only legal in cartoon form clearly suggests that society is so opposed to any indication of child abuse that it prohibits material which depicts real children in a potentially sexual manner. By criminalising mere cartoons, the government risks providing additional justification for the (justifiable) belief that much of the crusade against paedophiles is a matter of prudism or playing on people's fears, rather than an attempt to protect children. The prevalence of this belief is clearly problematic for a government whose policies rely heavily on a veiled politics of fear, using the "think of the children" mantra as an excuse for abuses of state power. By providing additional evidence for the belief, the government also challenges any message of the kind which the NSPCC were referring to, as it characterises pornography laws as an attempt to legislate morality rather than a disapproval of child abuse.

One of the original arguments in favour of the prohibition of cartoon child erotica is the belief that contact offenders could use cartoons to "groom" children (The Register, 2007). While this may be true, the act of grooming a child is already a serious criminal offence in the UK. If someone is prepared to violate laws against grooming, committing an offence with intent to commit a sexual offence and attempting sexual activity with a child, they are unlikely to be deterred by laws against the possession of virtual child erotica.

Everyone needs a release

One major concern raised by the proposed prohibition of virtual child erotica is that such a prohibition may encourage some paedophiles to use real child pornography. While viewing or possessing child pornography per se is unlikely to encourage production, the purchase of such material may stimulate production, which must surely be of concern to those who have an interest in protecting children. Criminalising the possession of virtual child erotica will obviously criminalise a legitimate and responsible release for paedophiles' sexual urges. If virtual child erotica were criminalised, the only available releases (other than clothed and non-erotic images of children) would be illegal activities, such as the use of illegal photographs or harmful behaviour involving real children, or the new offence of using virtual child erotica. While the sentence for possessing illegal photographs of children is slightly harsher than the recommended sentence for the proposed crime of possessing "prohibited [virtual] images of children", an offender would be outed as a "paedophile" in both cases, with all of the destructive social and financial effects which that entails. It would therefore be unsurprising if anybody who required a release involving some kind of erotic stimuli depicting children chose illegal photographs, as the consequences would not differ significantly from those which would result from viewing cartoons. The greater issue is with the minority of paedophiles who have no concern for the welfare of children or believe that having sex with children is harmless. In the case of people who avoid sexual contact with children solely as a result of the legal consequences — and who desperately require the release which virtual child erotica provides — the consequences of banning virtual child erotica are a major concern.

Conclusion

Children's charities and legislators are clutching at straws and ignoring the plethora of evidence which indicates that child erotica has a socially positive effect on paedophiles. While the motivations of children's charities are presumably financial, one must ask why the government are so insistent on legislation which will have no benefit to the safety of children or any other person.

A more cynical interpretation of the proposed legislation would be that the government is attempting to tighten its grip on the population. By exploiting the natural concern of protecting children as an excuse for monopolising power within the state, power-hungry legislators are able to increase their ability to further their personal political agenda. While such a belief could be dismissed as a conspiracy theory, one must consider the intentions of someone who chooses a political career; a career which does not provide huge financial rewards for people whose necessary social engineering skills could achieve seven-figure salaries in the private sector. Inevitably, politicians will be motivated to influence and control others.

Many politicians find that arguing for "child protection" laws is an easy way of soliciting votes from a public which is misinformed by the media and manipulative "childrens'" charities. Politicians may also find that they can persuade the public to support controversial legislation by claiming that such legislation is "for the children". Furthermore, any elected politician who disagrees with any legislation which is "for the children", however reasonable their grounds, is liable to lose their position at the next election.

The current political system supports politicians who crusade under the guise of protecting children in order to justify policy types which support their own world view or increase their power over those who they govern. The laws which result from such policies threaten the civil rights of everyone, as they may be used to justify further intrusions into the private lives of citizens. The proposed law against the possession of cartoon and drawn child erotica is one such law, and the effects which it may have should be of significant concern to both civil libertarians and people who genuinely care about children."
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The Perverse Politics of Virtual Porn

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