Note: In this series of posts I'm going to describe sexual situations explicitly. You have been warned.
Some CP shows children in distress.
One of my methods for getting clearer on CP is to think about similar non-sexual situations. Seeing children in distress is upsetting, but videos do exist of children being hurt accidentally (say by being hit by a baseball). We have news footage of children in areas of war, famine and disease. People might feel upset to know others found that exciting instead of just interesting or horrifying, but surely it is not a criminal matter.
But an added element here is distress that is caused intentionally. This too could be non-sexual in nature. Beating children is a criminal offense in the US, though surely it happens a great deal and I wager that the vast majority of incidents witnessed by others are not reported. Somewhere on the web there must be video of people beating children, made intentionally by the perpetrators. Someone probably thinks their child deserved the beating and wants to publicize it as part of the punishment. The official position is that child beating is a serious crime, and video that showed an identifiable assailant would very likely lead to his or her arrest and prosecution. But possessing such a video would not be a criminal matter. If people became aware of a porn community focused on sexual arousal from the non-sexual beating of children, it would probably stir outrage. I don't think that under existing law possessing such videos would be a crime.
But back to the original case, we have sexual material showing children in distress, and here is the paradigmatic case of "child abuse images", the most offensive of child pornography. This is the case that I think most people have in mind as they feel rage at CP. In this case the name "child abuse image" is well deserved. I imagine the classic horrible case would be a small child vaginally or anally penetrated by an adult penis, and physically damaged in the process. There is no question that an identifiable perpetrator would be prosecuted. Many people (including me) will feel a strong revulsion at the idea of someone finding this a sexual turn-on.
Another of my methods in thinking more clearly about CP is to think about similar pornography involving adults. An interesting parallel would be a video of an actual gang rape of an adult woman. Identifiable perpetrators would be prosecuted. But I don't believe that possession of such video would be a crime. Some people would surely feel it ought to be a crime -- but on civil liberties grounds I hope others would see that this would not be a good idea.
Men and women can decide for themselves how they would react if given a link to a video described as the real gang rape of a woman. Would some click on it out of fascination, even if they felt a little guilty about it? Would some of them find it sexually arousing once they started looking? There is evidence that many women find rape porn arousing, though none would actually want to be raped. Would others click on it suspecting it would be arousing, or keep looking even after they realized they were getting aroused? Might some rationalize their continued watching, noting that while it is unfortunate that the woman suffered, they can't alleviate her past suffering -- but it sure is hot? I think many would do all of those things. You might find it disgusting. But the relevant point to consider is not whether you think such a reaction would be disgusting, but whether you think the person ought to go to prison for years for looking and reacting a certain way. Does anyone seriously think that? That is the legal reality for anyone caught watching a comparable video of a child.
Another aspect of child pornography I'd like to brainstorm about is our reaction depending on why the person is viewing it. Police and prosecutors express disgust and even trauma at the need to view such videos as part of their work. But I have rarely heard they or the public say that there is a moral problem with viewing for such purposes. There is no sexual motive and presumably no sexual arousal. Now let's consider an ordinary person who happens to see some child pornography with a suffering child. If the public knew the ordinary person's reaction to any such videos was horror, sympathy for the victim and rage at the perpetrator -- with no sexual motive or hint of sexual arousal -- they would not be particularly upset or feel such a viewer deserved a long prison sentence for choosing to look at it.
According to Seto, child pornography with an obviously unhappy child is rare within what police seize, and by implication it is not very popular. This is a point worth making as an aside -- the vast majority of pedophiles choose not to look at material with a child who is obviously suffering. A common accusation is that pedophilia is a desire to rape a child. But it appears that when given the choice of fantasies, very few pedophiles want to see a child suffering. That's pretty good evidence that they do not want to make a child suffer. Even if an abuser realizes that will be a result of his actions, I think it's an important distinction from intending to cause suffering.
That ends the discussion of a child who is obviously suffering. Another way that I'm told children come across in CP is "dead eyes". They are doing what they are being forced to do and a sensitive person can see that they have suffered in the long term, and are emotionally withdrawn in the moment. Another is a neutral expression -- the way a kid might look when engaged in any ordinary activity like drawing or reading. It doesn't tell us much. But of course for us adults in sexual situations, we expect facial expressions showing active pleasure, and would expect to see that in an adult porn video of "happy sex" as well.
Sometimes children are smiling, showing interest. Other times their faces do show sexual pleasure. Perhaps finely attuned viewers could tell whether these expressions are genuine or faked. But surely in some cases they are genuine. Even staunch anti-pornography crusaders must recognize this. In the moment, among other feelings, pleasure is sometimes one experience. That recognition is completely compatible with the view that children put in such a situation are nonetheless victims of a a terrible crime.
In this post I've looked at how child pornography varies in just one dimension, and tried to relate it to other related videos that are not CP.
I note in passing a belief some pro-contact pedophiles have as to why police do not let independent parties look at CP. They think it will show children enjoying the experience, and the fundamental assumption that adult-child sexual activity is always wrong is undercut by the idea that children might enjoy it. A more neutral framing would be that the police naturally want to portray any crimes they have solved in the gravest way possible to show their work as effective and important.