First, set aside real child pornography. There is no question that engaging a child in sexual activity is wrong. Filming it and distributing it makes is worse. People who are caught doing this face stiff prison terms, which is as it should be. I have never seen any, but I gather some of it is revolting. Some of the worst is produced within families by fathers abusing their own daughters and traded within communities of such criminals. I don't want to see any such material, and the idea of it makes me sick to my stomach. Children were harmed in its production.
However, there is a lot of material that would fit under the heading of "virtual child pornography" -- material that is intended to be arousing to pedophiles but does not involve any real children in its production at all.
In many countries production and possession of this material is against the law. The US courts have <upheld these laws> on the rationale that viewing such material might arouse pedophiles and lead them to abuse children.
In <a previous post> I cited evidence that even real child pornography does not lead to increased crimes against children and may even lessen them. However, those supporting these laws cite other weak evidence supporting their view and so far that prevails.
Even if viewing this material did raise child sex abuse slightly, I want to look at how truly extraordinary these laws are for a free country.
Some people complain that violent video games or movies cause some people to do violent things. Possibly, if they had their way, the production of such games or movies might be curtailed. But can you even imagine locking someone in prison for the crime of having a copy of such a game or movie?
It is perfectly legal to produce adult pornography glorifying rape. If in some future such videos were banned, can you imagine it being a felony to have a smuggled copy in your possession?
Virtual child pornography doesn't convey any knowledge to help a pedophile commit a crime. For comparison, maybe it's illegal to have classified documents on how to build weapons of mass destruction -- I really don't know. It isn't illegal to produce (let alone possess) material telling you how to hack sites on the internet, make crystal meth, set up Ponzi schemes, or instigate any number of other crimes -- we are guaranteed freedom of speech to learn about how to break laws.
The danger is in how looking at the material might make you feel, and this is somehow sufficient to justifying making possession of a copy into a serious crime.
In the US, the First Amendment protects the written word strongly, and so far it is not illegal to possess fictional written accounts of sexual activity with children, <though some have tried to prosecute authors>. But elsewhere in the English-speaking world, Canada, Australia and now Britain consider the possession of such fictional written material a serious crime.
It is illegal in the US to possess pornography involving actors or actresses who appear to be underage, even if they are not. Pictures of a clothed 17-year-old that emphasize the genital regions are also illegal -- or at least no one could assure you they are legal. Although there have been few prosecutions, it is far from clear that the cartoon depictions of child sex in shotacon and lolicon are legal.
You can watch violent movies even if it might make you act violently. You can look at pictures of expensive products even if it might make you steal them. You can look at adult rape video even if it might make you more likely to rape. You can look at movies glorifying drug use even if it might make you use drugs.
In today's society, possession of stuff you just look at is never outlawed just because it might possibly induce a person to commit a crime -- unless the person in question is a pedophile. What's going on here? I can think of only one explanation. Fundamentally, the public and the courts view pedophilia as a thought crime. They can't literally detect thoughts, but there is a strong impetus to prosecute a person if there is material evidence suggesting they have these thoughts.
I am not alone in finding this profoundly unjust. <The venerable ACLU agrees> that production and possession of virtual child pornography should be legal.
The technology to create realistic animations has of course progressed dramatically in recent years. I am not aware of the existence of high-quality animated virtual child pornography, which might be hard to distinguish from the real thing. (Perhaps since they are both illegal, real CP is preferred because it's easier to produce.) I get uneasy thinking about some of what I might see if it became legal. Some of it might make me sick. Many celibate pedophiles would think it was immoral and not want to see it. But I do not think its possession or even production should be illegal. If you do, is there some rationale that doesn't boil down to supporting the existence of a thought crime?