Friday, October 17, 2014

John Grisham on CP: The bad and the good

This may be the first time I've made a blog post based on a current news story. Most bloggers do that routinely, right? Why haven't I? I've had a lot to say built up from years of life experience with pedophilia without needing to respond to news. And I'm not finished yet!

So, John Grisham <talked about child pornography>. 

The bad: He said prison has all too many 60-year-old white guys who have done nothing but look at child porn (CP). I hope with a little thought he would agree that what he said was ill-considered. If his point is that people like him are going to prison, that is of natural concern to people like him. If young Hispanic men are being put in prison, that's naturally of disproportionate concern to young Hispanic men. But the fact that being white, well off, and at the "CEO age" of 60 are all privileged categories causes indigestion. There's no reason poor 20-year-old black men should be serving time for CP possession while 60-year-old white guys go free. Let's eliminate all distinctions of class, race, age, and gender and say that whatever penalties are appropriate should be based on the crime alone.

The good: To most of society, his far worse sin was saying that child pornography possession convictions were hitting people who didn't deserve them, noting the case of a friend of his who allegedly was just clicking around on his computer one night while drunk. He went on to say that penalties were too harsh, and that looking at child porn isn't as bad as abusing a child. As my regular readers will know, I agree with him. I don't think child porn possession should be a crime at all -- a position I hold primarily based on my commitment to civil liberties. The ACLU agrees with me.

I was disheartened by <just how far some of the reactions went> (just one example). 

He claims his friend was only looking at 16-year-olds. Commenters are adamant that this is the same crime as raping a 5-year-old. Some probably despise the entire pornography industry, so their gut-level rage would apply if the people in the pictures were 18 or even 25. But in most of the Western world, it is legal for a 16-year-old to have sex. It is legal for 16-year-olds to work. Quite possibly working as a "child" pornography model at 16 earns a living the same as at 18. Was there exploitation? Possibly, though that is also possible with 18-year-olds, or women of any age. There is exploitation in the production of many of our consumer products made in the Third World. The problem is the presumption of exploitation in a situation where that isn't clear, and years of prison based in part on that presumption.

The same old exaggerations and falsehoods are brought out once more.

"It creates a market for more production." The effect of downloading free CP on the production of child pornography is effectively zero. The majority of CP is made for private use and never distributed at all. People who make it are hardly ever paid for it. The main motivation seems to be status or trading rights among a small community of people who make such things.

"These men are watching video of children being raped." Very little of the CP features children being raped as we classically think of it -- according to Michael Seto's analysis working with law enforcement, the children are almost always smiling. That's not to say they are happy or consented, but the men are not enjoying seeing children in pain. There's no guarantee that men found any particular piece of CP as sexually arousing -- perhaps any extreme content in a mix was viewed out of horror and sympathy, much as we might react to a terrorist execution video.

"Every time a man watches this, the child is being victimized all over again." Right. If you believe in telepathy. It's understandably upsetting to think of thousands of men looking at images of you, but once the cat is out of the bag, it's too late to get it back. The extra harm caused by one more person looking is effectively zero.

And there is no concern that CP sentencing should be brought in line with penalties for crimes that do similar amounts of harm. The natural reaction to any given crime is that it is outrageous and a long prison sentence is in order. But in fact crimes like manslaughter, robbery, and drunk driving are actually punished by modest amounts of time in jail.

Grisham issued a quick apology and reversal. But surely no one thinks his original statements were an accident. Maybe some people will think about what he said and change their minds. The comments on the Washington Post version of the story include many that are sympathetic. Maybe a day will come when a celebrity can express opinions like that without endangering his career.

Update 2:04pm: <This analysis> defends Grisham in considerable detail.


  1. I completely agree with all these points, Ethan—well said. Particularly on the, I think, rather debatable "re-victimisation" claim that is often used in courtrooms in such cases. That is not to say that it should be dismissed out of hand—yes, many victims quite understandably feel violated again knowing that people are seeing and deriving sexual pleasure from these images—but that is a response to a generalised phenomenon, not the specific instance of Viewer A clicking on that image.

    Yes, of course, if no-one did it then that "second victimisation" wouldn't have occurred, but we're getting into the territory of rarefied ethics here, not case-closed cause-and-effect criminal behaviour. We may as well be talking about buying fair trade or voting for George W. Bush. We don't throw people in jail for buying t-shirts from sweatshops, and we shouldn't be throwing people in jail for clicking on a link either.

    Creators and distributors, on the other hand, should still feel the full force of the law.

  2. As a preteen I was subjected to significant physical and emotional abuse by adults with authority over me, as a consequence of my consensual sex play with peers.

    Whenever I see these SAME kinds of ideology at work abusing others, according to idiosynceratic understandings of normal sexuality, -=:I:=- feel revictimized. When I read stories about children dragged into police stations and branded as deviant criminals ( because of their natural sexual curiosity, my own childhood abuse comes flooding back and I feel consumed with rage.

    The treatment I was subjected to in my childhood has blighted my life, and yet my abuse was motivated by the kind of sanctimonious moralizing that we usually associate with 'child protection'. How ironic.