Saturday, October 17, 2015

Critique of StopItNow's Anti-CP campaign

<StopItNow's Anti-CP campaign> is an online resource to help people take practical steps to stop using child pornography. As such, it is great. The fact that it is online and anonymous means people are more likely to access it, and avoid the shame and anxiety inherent in a telephone call of having to admit their attraction to a human being. Although tailored to the UK in terms of definitions of CP and consequences, the basic issues are applicable in any jurisdiction. I think it likely can provide help to people with a real problem.

That said... from the perspective of thinking clearly about complicated issues, there is a lot to criticize in the material presented.

In <this sectionwe are told just how extensive is the list of material the UK considers illegal. Assuming they are correct, it is a depressingly long list.

"Access to any images of children is illegal if they are being accessed to satisfy sexual needs. This includes nude, semi-nude and clothed images of children, even if they aren’t depicting a sexual situation."

This is about as close to defining a thought crime as it is possible to come. Of course ordinary parents are entitled to have multiple images of their clothed children. Yet if the courts determine that these same images are being "accessed to satisfy sexual needs", it is a crime. Perhaps this is restricted to looking at them while masturbating? Or perhaps not? How could that be proved in any case?

UK law is not the responsibility of StopItNow, of course. But how it is presented is. We can wonder what the boundaries are of laws that are enforced and those that are not. In the US, speed limits are routinely ignored (so routinely ignored that to obey them often creates a slow-moving traffic safety hazard). Perhaps StopItNow casting a very wide net is helpful in convincing people to stop looking at material. Another possible effect is that they will throw their hands up and figure it is hopeless. They already have viewed pictures of kids on the beach in bathing suits, so they are on the police's list already. Might as well just look at the hardcore stuff. That would be very unfortunate.

From what I have heard, the police have so many cases to handle that they restrict their attention to people who have downloaded hardcore, indisputable child pornography. They are detected by the digital signatures on a large library of known pictures of this type. Police are unlikely to start an investigation based on the downloading of a series of pictures of fully clothed children or those in bathing suits. I think there are vital distinctions to be made. A person is at far less legal risk from relatively innocent pictures than from the hardcore.

When people stop smoking, intermediate steps are often called for -- a nicotine patch, for instance. This step-by-step approach should be considered for child pornography viewing as well. And if a person never gives up nicotine patches, they have still spared themselves almost all the adverse health consequences of smoking.

This is in a section with the title "No Grey Area": "Uncertainty about a child’s age: As an adult, you will be able to clearly identify who is a child and who is an adult. There is no ‘grey area’ here. If there is ANY DOUBT, do not access the images."

I as an adult would have a great deal of trouble being certain that any person under 30 is more than a mature 17 years old. It is just flat-out false to say there is no gray area. If they mean to say, "Always Play It Safe", then that is a coherent message. But this implies that no one should look at pornography with the under-30 folks who are in the vast majority of adult pornography. Since clothed images are also cause for concern, large swaths of mainstream advertising should be assumed to be child pornography. Ordinary folks will be fine, presumably, but if there is any evidence you think of kids sexually, then to be safe, you should have no pictures of anyone without gray hair or visibly sagging flesh. It seems like vast segments of ordinary everyday material is illegal, but not to worry -- we should trust the authorities to only prosecute the people who in their opinion deserve it -- maybe the people they don't like. You can wonder if you live under the rule of law any more. This may be a criticism of the British legal system or how it is portrayed by the StopItNow program.

In terms of clear thinking, it is worth distinguishing (1) what is illegal, (2) what is harmful, and (3) what is immoral. I will leave out consideration of what is immoral, as they are particular to individuals' own moral sense.

An embedded video of "justifications people use when looking at CP" argues that looking at pictures of past child abuse is an abuse of the child. Now the focus has already shifted from legality to harm.

Harm is a matter of scientific fact. <Looking at pictures of past child sex abuse does not harm the child> . Even if it were valid, this harm only applies to pictures of children who are engaged in sexual activities -- yet StopItNow has told us of a far larger set of images that are illegal -- including innocent pictures of clothed children, pictures of scantily clad children that parents routinely take, and manga and other "virtual" CP where no children are involved at all.

The video also says, "Viewing sexual images of children creates demand for more to be made." Clear-minded investigators know this to be almost totally false. In the modern era, there is no money trail from consumer to producer -- most viewers aren't paying anything anyway. According to the highly respected researcher Michael Seto <only 1/4 of CP producers distribute the content they produce>. Whatever minute effect an extra tick to a "hit" counter can possibly have, it can have absolutely no effect on 3/4 of CP producers.

This video then shifts from these highly questionable points of fact to the entirely sensible idea that there IS help available -- and they are to be commended for providing that help.

The presentation then goes to <consequences>. No major issues there. It is not the fault of StopItNow if the legal consequences in the UK (as in most other countries) are far out of proportion to any harm from the crime (simple possession).

Then it proceeds to "<Consequences For Me>". This section is fine, because it is inviting people to decide for themselves whether those consequences apply to their particular case. For some people there might be none. There are pedophiles with no relationship partner who are morally and emotionally untroubled by what they are doing and whose CP access does not interfere with other life priorities. I would likely be in violation of UK law interpreted as including a sweeping prohibition on looking at ANY pictures for sexual interest. Fortunately I am in the US.

If I were in the UK, I still might be highly motivated to stop because of the legal risk. I might not, however, if I thought the law would not be enforced on such borderline cases. I also might not if I thought there was no point -- since I have the past history, I can't escape criminal responsibility. I have heard no evidence that someone having stopped viewing illegal images on their own before police investigation begins entitles them to more lenient treatment.

The next major section of the StopItNow course is <Self Awareness>. It deals for instance with people using the internet too much. This is fine, though I note that changes in this behavior could be useful to some people entirely separate from child pornography. People may suffer consequences in their lives for too much internet activity with entirely legal subjects.

The following subjects seem to be mostly about how to change, and are entirely a good thing. I have no problem with them.

Setting aside all my objections, I think the StopItNow resource can be of real practical benefit. An awful lot of men do look at hardcore child pornography, it does put them at serious legal risk and it does influence their lives negatively in other ways. StopItNow's online resource seems like a great resource to help them stop. An even clearer benefit will accrue to those who can manage never to start looking at CP in the first place.


  1. >"From what I have heard, the police have so many cases to handle that they restrict their attention to people who have downloaded hardcore, indisputable child pornography [...] Police are unlikely to start an investigation based on the downloading of a series of pictures of fully clothed children or those in bathing suits. I think there are vital distinctions to be made. A person is at far less legal risk from relatively innocent pictures than from the hardcore."

    I wish that were true - there was a year ago the case of Robul Hoque who was successfully prosecuted for child porn offenses on the basis of having explicit anime images on his computer.

    I suspect that the real rationale for this Orwellian approach is that it makes ALL paedophiles actionable, and thus brings non-offending paedophiles under the control of the law, and (so the antis and haters must imagine) thus preventing them going on to offend against real children.

    It seems that non-offending paedophiles are being seen as more and more of a problem because, as an anti might explain:

    1/ they are ticking time bombs bound to eventually break the law - so we need to get them convicted now
    2/ they can have their ('sick') thoughts, beliefs and desires and, remain unpunished for them
    3/ they almost certainly have broken the law anyway but just that no evidence has yet been found of them having done so - prosecuting them for 'virtual' CP offenses is a good way of gaining access to their lives and looking for evidence of 'real' crimes.

    1. The question is whether Robul Hoque made the news as a typical case or as a highly unusual case. My suspicion is that it is a highly unusual case.

      With regard to your list of 3 points, I agree. With regards to point 3, it has been raised explicitly (though I can't find the reference just now) as a justification, since the discredited Butner study result that some huge percentage (90%?) of CP offenders had also abused kids. is an interesting if by now dated explanation of the evolution of CP law.

    2. Leonard Man describes the situation precisely. That's the real purpose of any "help" out there. Actual harm to children is irrelevant.
      Unless someone is describing a way to get off faster and avoid attention from law enforcement they are of no use to pedophiles.

  2. The majority of cases are not reported nationally unless they are unusual in some way (the first revenge porn, the most images found, etc). When they are reported (locally or nationally) they are generally reported poorly and uncritically.
    It appears that a lot of "CP" cases come to the attention of the police as a result of some other complaint, arrest or search. It probably IS unlikely that a person having photos of clothed children would come to the attention of the police as a result of that possession, but if that possession comes to the attention of the police, the police WILL proceed. The police are perfectly happy to prosecute as child porn images culled from TV shows and films on general release as well as adult pornography. That hardly shows the police want to restrict themselves to "hardcore, indisputable child pornography".

  3. Thanks so much for those thoughts. Is that based on experience with the UK police, or does it apply more broadly? I suppose an updated hypothesis would be that as long as you avoid any OTHER causes for complaint, arrest or search, the softcore images are unlikely to lead to trouble? I suppose as a general rule it makes sense that once police have arrested/investigated someone, they look better if they can pin a crime on the person -- and the more crimes, the better?