Adult sex with children is wrong. Making child pornography as we classically think of it is wrong.
Yet pedophilic sexual desire for children is not wrong. Many people think it is. Some think so based on religious beliefs -- the concept is similar to how lusting in your heart after a woman is a sin. In any case, it's just plain wrong, as a matter of values, and there is no productive discussion to be had.
Yet there are others who are socially liberal and inclined to believe that people should be free to do what they like if it doesn't harm others. They might even allow that pedophile sexual fantasies that remain undetectable by anyone else are OK. Yet, many such people believe that if children find out (sooner or later) that a man had sexual thoughts about them, this is a violation of the child. That is the subject of this post.
This is an argument raised against relatively innocent child modeling sites. A girl with the permission of her parents meets a photographer, who gives her a variety of outfits to wear. She then strikes various poses that the photographer suggests while he takes pictures, including sexy poses. The family then earns money in proportion to how many people buy the rights to view these pictures. Let's assume what I am led to believe is the typical case, that the girl looks forward to these sessions -- to the attention and the chance to wear fancy clothes. Many girls strike sexy poses naturally for fun anyway sometimes. Discomfort is mild and infrequent, along the same lines as how some children could feel exasperated in posing for ordinary portraits.
As the girl gets older, she is likely to realize that the money would come from pedophiles who had sexual thoughts about her. To those who think this is a violation of the child, the girl's willingness at the time is irrelevant. Parental consent is also irrelevant, the same as it would be if a parent pimped out their child for sex.
I see little reason to think that if a child discovered while still a child what the pictures are used for, she would be inherently upset. Childhood typically has some rough times. Parents make you do things you don't want to do. Your siblings and peers are likely to be mean to you sometimes. A few people will tell you you're worthless. You'll learn about the icky method for making babies. Your beloved grandparents will die. And you'll learn the cold, dread truth that you too will die some day. (Obviously children who face famine, war, and disease will suffer far more, but I set that aside. Just because some children suffer a lot doesn't mean we should ignore lesser suffering.) If you live on a farm, you'll also get used to seeing appealing animals slaughtered on a regular basis -- and it's hard to label that as abnormal or cruel to children.
In this context, finding out that men do things with their penises while looking at your pictures just doesn't seem like a big deal.
Labeling this child exploitation is very much an adult construct. The basic injury comes from an adult knowing that men think sexual thoughts while looking at pictures of them as children. It's a cultural choice. That doesn't mean it's necessarily a bad choice. I think that a prohibition on people having sex or masturbating in plain view in public is also a cultural choice, and at a gut level it feels right to me.
Yet when it comes to sexual thoughts about children, I think we should look at the role of prejudice. And for comparison I'd like to consider gay male lust for straight men. Let's assume that the straight men have absolutely no interest in gay sex -- this surely is true for a great many straight men. If we roll the clock back 50 years in the US, a straight man finding out that a gay man had sexual fantasies about him would likely have been very upset. Many thoughts might be involved. He might fear that he will be raped. He will likely think that gay sex is gross and disgusting, and that being the object of such desire also contaminates him. He may fear that this gay sickness lurks within him and the gay man has detected it. If the gay man knows he is straight and not actually interested, this makes the gay man's fantasy a fantasy of rape -- a sadistic impulse. This in turn reinforces the fear of actual rape.
The reasonably enlightened person today knows that those fears are misplaced if not laughable. My argument is that a pedophile's sexual fantasy about a prepubescent child is exactly parallel. There is one way it is not -- there are of course gay men who eagerly welcome the sexual interest of other gay men, and the consummation of that mutual interest is part of the good life. This is not however a relevant difference. We are comparing gay male lust for known straight men with pedophilic lust for prepubescents. How does the existence of reciprocated gay male lust bear on that question?
Consider the straight man's fears from the era of prejudice translated to pedophilic interest today. Images of a child are almost entirely distributed far away. If there are cases of men tracking down children from such images to rape them, they are extraordinarily rare and not a rational fear. As for gay sex being gross and disgusting, it would indeed be both disgusting and a serious crime if it involved a straight man who was not willing. Nonetheless the gay man's fantasy is not disgusting -- the gay man transforms him in imagination into an enthusiastic partner. The pedophile does the same thing with a child. As for some implicit accusation of latent gayness, we know now that gay men are simply attracted to men as men, and often to more masculine men, who on average are more likely to be straight. Pedophiles are attracted to children as children, not children with some defect that makes them of interest to pedophiles.
If we set aside the prejudice, we can imagine a society where learning of a pedophile's attraction to a child is treated the same as a gay man's interest in a straight man by enlightened people today. A shrug of the shoulders. Maybe even a touch of sympathy for the gay man who pines after someone he can never have.