Sunday, August 24, 2014

The elusive harm of viewing CP

I want to address the idea that watching a record of child sex abuse is itself morally wrong because of the effect it has on the child in the images. We hear this not just from survivors' organizations -- these are from <US statutes>: "Child pornography is a permanent record of a child's abuse and the distribution of child pornography images revictimizes the child each time the image is viewed." and "Every instance of viewing images of child pornography represents a renewed violation of the privacy of the victims and a repetition of their abuse." I poked fun at the literal interpretation of this in <my last post> -- that there really is a literal path of harm from an act of viewing to the victim.

Harm from obtaining the material is slightly different. If a person bought the material and we could follow the money back to a producer of child pornography, we could argue that there is a financial incentive to produce more -- but this is hardly ever the case. Most people who possess CP don't even get past the first step since they didn't pay anything for it. If a person downloaded it for free, the only trace this leaves in the world is perhaps some increment in a counter of downloads -- entirely negligible. Only 1/4 of CP producers ever distribute what they produce.

But returning to viewing, where is the harm to be found? It is argued that victims suffer knowing that their images are on the web being viewed. Taking the broader view, the main harm comes from the person who perpetrated the abuse. Another major harm comes from the person who recorded it, and another from the person who first released it to an unrestricted set of people. There is no documented proof of the differential harm the victim suffers between knowing the material is still being viewed as opposed to being sure it has all been deleted. There have been no measurements of differential harm between knowing 100 people have viewed it and 1,000 -- let alone between 1,000 and 1,001. An economist might frame the cost of the next download as marginal harm -- and it is surely very small.

We can consider attributing a trace of harm to any person who views this video, since if no one viewed it, no one would download it, and in that case the victim would not think it was being widely shared. I think this is better viewed as a highly rarefied moral question rather than a question of measurable harm -- perhaps Kant's Categorical Imperative would apply. Consider some roughly comparable examples: Terrorism lives off of publicity, and anyone who does not boycott a news organization that reports terrorism is himself or herself reinforcing and creating a market for more terrorism. If rising sea levels cause devastation to poor people in low-lying areas, we can allocate personal responsibility to every single person on earth who caused carbon dioxide emissions beyond the bare minimum needed for survival. The suffering of animals in factory farming can be traced directly to everyone who is not vegan. In all of these cases, the harm is clearer and more direct than the viewing of CP, and it is a rare person indeed who take individual responsibility in these cases seriously. (We could even accuse vegans of having moral responsibility for animal suffering to the extent that they benefit from the labor of anyone who is not a vegan and derives some of his or her nourishment from animal products!)

Harm to victims from an individual act of watching CP is a flimsy fabrication, a bit of pretense to get around the common sense idea that what a person does that no one finds out about cannot cause harm. The driving force is the very loud voice of prejudice shouting that pedophilia is just plain wrong. One way we see this is that revulsion and penalties are nearly as severe for virtual CP, where there can be no harm to any individual. Another way we see it is how society treats the viewing of CP by law enforcement and members of the jury. Society may have sympathy that they must watch such things, but it doesn't think the victim suffers from watching when it's not being done by a pedophile.

As a footnote that might make a CP victim feel a little better, there is considerable range as to the attitude a pedophile might bring to an act of CP viewing. Conceivably, he is excited by the prospect that the girl or boy was being forced into something, but the unpopularity of CP showing this explicitly suggests it is very rare. More commonly, he might be excited by what is portrayed without thinking one way or the other about the victim's experience. Or he might be excited while at the same time feeling sorry for the victim. If it is extreme CP, he might watch it out of fascinated horror and rage at the producer but without any erotic associations.

The harm from CP lies with the perpetrator, the recorder, and the distributor. An inability to locate these people is no excuse for taking it out on one of thousands of viewers whose individual actions are undetectable.

It is quite a different matter for individuals to decide that for them personally, getting sexual pleasure out of someone else's suffering is wrong or unhealthy. A great many pedophiles feel this way -- both among those who never view CP and those who do so out of guilty weakness.

(<I dealt with this issue before> but felt that I had new things to say on the subject.)


  1. This is a very difficult question for me to resolve in any satisfactory way.

    To begin with, I'm absolutely opposed to censorship. The murder of James Foley was an act of brutality and cowardice and a sickening denial of all that is good in humanity. I would prefer no record of that act existed and I feel deeply for the family of the murdered man, for their knowing that this act is on record in such a graphic way.

    Nevertheless, this is only one man's death among billions. We all have to die some time and I've personally borne witness to far more pointless deaths than this. I would argue against censorship of these images because they are sickening, not because they reflect any admiriable ideal.

    Furthermore, I would argue that much of our modern rejection of violence as a solution to the world's problems has been driven by the mass media. We have plenty of examples of sickening violence captured on film: Phan Thi Kim Phúc fleeing her burning village, the execution of Nguyen Van Lem, the images of Lord Russell's "Scourge of the Swastika" and so on up to the present day, ad nauseam. Are these images harmful or helpful?

    As a child I was very familiar with "The Scourge of the Swastika" and I was made to watch the Vietnam conflict on television, night after night, offensive after offensive. Blood dripped from burnt and bloody stumps as soldiers were stretchered to helicopters. It was disturbing, but it made me hate war. Even as I reveled as a ten year old in B grade WWII action flicks, in a deep way I understood that war was, at its core, neither heroic nor exciting.

    So I'm opposed to censorship, even of the most vile material, because it bears witness to the most vile acts.

    Why then would I object to the publishing of a record of a rape in progress? In some circumstances I wouldn't, but if the image served no positive purpose or if it were explicit in a way that aroused a sexual response or if the victim were identifiable and had not agreed to publication, I would not excuse it.

    The reason reduces to an impulse to defend the dignity of the victim or survivor. To have one's personhood violated in a sexual crime is a psychological injury. To have this injury played out repetitively on public record is psychological torture. The fact that most of these victims are women and children makes my instinct to protect even stronger. Wrt child pornography, I'm sympathetic to people who seek legal redress against those who profit from vicarious participation in acts of sexual violence, and one kind of profit is pleasure.

    On the other hand, there are zealous attempts to extend the concept of sexual violence to include consensuaol acts, especially where children are involved and competence to consent is at issue.

    In these situations, I am far less 'protective'. Children have sexual rights, and one of those rights is to be represented as a sexual being. When a child willingly allows himself to be photographed nude or engaged in sexual conduct, that is not a record of a crime, it's a portrait.

    There is a clear distinction between what is morally acceptable and what is legally prudent.


    1. That's a very interesting position -- to both favor legal redress from men who simply watch nonconsensual CP and to favor legalization of the production of material that you think can be classified as in fact consensual. I haven't thought about that too much, though I am not opposed to pictures of clothed children taking erotic poses with the permission of parents, and I can imagine extending that to some material that is currently classified as illegal.

    2. I'm quite clear on my position, even tho it's contradictory. I'm starting with what I'm reasonably sure of and trying to work out the best conclusion, rather than starting with a conclusion I want and trying to justify it.

      I'm fully aware of the absence of logic that infests child pornography laws, but I also see problems with the alternative of doing nothing. Let's say a child voluntarily engages in a sex act and either allows someone she trusts to film her or is filmed covertly. Even if she agrees to posting an image online, it is doubtful she will really understand what that might mean, so if that record finds its way to the public domain, that is a gross breach of trust.

      Dealing with the bulk of amateur child porn, I understand it's mostly mildly exploitative child molesting that has been filmed and shared online, probably without the child's knowledge.

      To me, this is a very similar situation to revenge porn, where an adult partner has consented to sexual activity and maybe to a recording as well, but would never want that recording to be made public. The relationship goes sour and the sex tape is released to the wild.

      There are laws that seek to redress this kind of behaviour and I think the same should apply to child pornography. The penalty should be more severe because the sexual activity itself is illegal, but the most culpable act is betrayal of the child's trust. For those who participate in this betrayal by multiplying the image, I don't know what is appropriate. As they stand, the laws in many countries are unbalanced and draconian, but there should be some disincentive.

      On the other hand, there are children who have posed nude for images intended for the public domain, who have strongly defended the images and those who created them. Two well know examples are Sally Mann's children and also Bill Henson's young models, who have gone on record declaring that these experiences have very positive. Even when images of children are explicitly sexual and depict sexual behaviour, as in Will McBride's photographs for "Show Me!", I think the intent of the images, the mutual trust of photographer and model, the care taken around informed consent and the positive social value attached to use of these images combine to make them works of high cultural value. Work like this must be protected from censorship.

      I had a teacher when I was ten or so who drew nudes of some of my class mates. There was a little more to it than that, such as afternoons of nude sunbathing. He was obvously attracted to boys and I desperately wanted to be part of his coterie. Unfortunately, I was years away from that 'cusp' of puberty that I think most interested him, so I was rebuffed.

      In hindsight, I think if I had been included, it would have been very positive for me and I realise that what I was desperate for was affirmation of my value as a person. To have had somebody admire me as he obviously admired those other boys (the drawings were quite beautiful) would have had a hugely positive impact on me. As it was, I was a bit of a lost soul as an adolescent and developed very low self esteem.

      For this and other reasons stemming from childhood experiences, I strongly defend children's right to a meaningful degree of sexual agency and autonomy. I recognize that children are vulnerable to exploitation, but they are also vulnerable to hysterical, puritanical and thoughtless suppression of their emerging sexuality. All of these questions converge on the genre of child pornography and I think there is a discussion to be had that is not currently possible, due to the extreme bias with which the issue is presented.


  2. CP is wrong. Anyone who contributes to the harm of a child is evil. Even if it's the 1000th person watching abusive video and victim doesn't know. Even if they had been hurt 999 times, they wouldn't like to be abused for the 1000th time. Even if they didn't find out. If you spy on a little girl having a bath, she might not know about this. Later you can say, "I didn't hurt her because she didn't know I was spying on her. I saw her naked but she doesn't realize that so therefore she isn't suffering.". It may seem logic but it's wrong attitude. This is a selfish view. People who care for others and don't want to do anything evil to anyone and are at least slightly altruistic won't do that.

    And even if the child willingly agrees to be abused, she (or he) doesn't really understand long-term effects of that choice. Not to mention that before age of 18 she isn't mature enough for that. It's like age limitation for marriage.

    But I don't understand why someone could hate us for having fantasies, viewing virtual CP (which doesn't hurt real kids) or writting/reading fictional erotic stories with kids. It's like you'd be punished for writting/reading fictional murder stories. People who have trouble with resisting their urges ought to refrain from that but there're many of us who don't have these problems.

    I mentioned some of these issues in another comment for a similar post but I had to repeat them there. And add some new. I'm a celibate pedophile with attraction to girls before puberty so it's painful to accept all these things I wrote. I also don't like them, I crave erotic sensations with little girls. But there's no other choice. We can't do anything that would even slightly abuse the child.
    Paweł C, celibate pedophile from Poland