Friday, November 8, 2019

Funding to reduce CSA is never specifically to catch passive CP viewers

Occasionally a wealthy individual wants to donate some money with the goal of stamping out child sex abuse. It is a noble goal. Part of that problem is the child sex abuse that happens in front of a camera that is subsequently spread around the entire internet. Another problem is the people looking at this material once it has been widely disseminated.

But can you imagine a funder who says they want to donate money for the specific purpose of incarcerating those who download and look at child pornography? I have trouble doing so. Their funding goal will always be reducing child sexual abuse at the source. If you are considering donating a sum of money, that is the cause you will want to donate it to.

Sometimes you hear impassioned pleas that looking at CP is child sex abuse -- it is just as bad as doing the abuse yourself. This is rhetorical hot air. Simple logic would then say that abusing a child in person is no worse than looking at pictures of abuse that happened long ago and far away. And no one would want to endorse that. But funding is another line of evidence. If looking at CP was just as bad as doing it yourself, funders would be just as likely to donate money to punish CP viewing as to punish the abuse that happens when CP is made.

Far more than private funders, the government is a big source of funding to prevent child sex abuse. When it's time to allocate funds, legislators have to set aside rhetoric and look carefully at how to allocate limited funds among competing priorities. Have legislators ever allocated funds specifically for finding viewers of CP? I doubt it.

The money is instead allocated to stamping out child sex abuse. Low-hanging fruit will be eagerly plucked. But the problem is that the fruit remaining is rapidly limited to that above our grasp. Hands-on abuse is very difficult to prove if there is no evidence but a child's word, given tentatively or inconsistently. Makers of CP are often in foreign countries that do not put a priority on cooperating with western governments to track them down. Those remaining inside the western countries are clever with computer security and police cannot locate them.

So what do police departments do with these funds if they cannot effectively spend them to make progress on the intended purpose? One solution is to <entrap ordinary guys online> into looking like they seek sex with underage girls.

Another is to find those who download child pornography. Among the millions who download are many who aren't clever with internet security and can be identified by the IP address that downloaded illegal images. A search warrant can be issued on that basis, and they can be arrested and convicted based on the files found on their computers. In the context of justifying their budgets, the police point to their success in jailing hated pedophiles. Their narrow bureaucratic interest and public hatred of pedophiles feed off and reinforce each other.

But if we back up, the government and private funders did not allocate this money to find those who download CP, they allocated it to stop child sex abuse. Their purpose is not really being met. Once you recognize this, the solution is to allocate only the money that can be effectively spent in finding actual child sex abusers and spend the rest on some other vital need.

In sum, another line of evidence that simple CP possession should not be a serious crime is that no one allocates funding specifically for that purpose.

Why CP possession penalties are unjust -- a summary

I have over the years taken different angles in support of one central point: our society's criminal penalties for passive child pornography possession are far too severe. My next blog post will cover the next angle I have found: funding. But in this post I want to summarize the situation to date.

Some justifications for the serious penalties for CP possession can be dismissed by two separate levels of argument. The evidence of a relationship is itself weak, but even if the evidence were sound, nowhere else in the law would the penalties be comparable:

1. The idea that CP viewing can stand in for the crime of hands-on sexual abuse. Suppose we accept the highest estimate that 50% of CP viewers have committed hands-on offenses: Nowhere else in the law do we penalize something that is correlated with a crime we care about. Gang symbols are highly correlated with gang-related violent crime. We might prohibit gang symbols or paraphernalia in schools, but we never send someone to prison for having them.

2. The idea that CP viewing leads to hands-on offenses. The evidence is very weak, but also: Some extremists have argued that ordinary adult porn leads men to rape women, but their suggestion is that we might make such porn illegal -- even the extreme view does not suggest that we should send to prison any man who was subsequently found in possession of any.

3. The idea that passive viewing somehow creates a market encouraging more production. It may have been true 30 years ago, but it isn't any more. What's more: Explicit, detailed news coverage of terrorist acts clearly creates a market for more -- what terrorists want is news coverage. Yet few people feel guilty for watching such coverage, nor suggest we boycott news outlets that provide it -- and no one suggests a law banning such detailed coverage.

Ultimately, support for draconian penalties for CP possession comes from a different place. It starts with the truth that child sex abuse is a serious crime calling for serious criminal penalties. Behind those crimes is the alien 'other' -- the pedophile. He is defined in the public mind solely by the fact that he molests children. As such, he deserves punishment just for existing. If he is found looking at CP, he is linked (by association rather than careful thought) back to the children who suffered in the creation of that CP, as the cause of that suffering. Our sympathy for the victims in those CP videos is brought forth to justify the CP viewer's years in prison. But that's not really the story, since a pedophile is subjected to similar penalties for looking at virtual child pornography made without any children, for looking at cartoon drawings, or (except in the US) for reading erotic stories.

Other assumptions around CP viewing typically include: The man approves of the fact that the child was molested and is only envious that he wasn't there to do it himself. He enjoys the very fact that the child is suffering -- there is an element of sadism. He feels no hint of shame. All of these are false in the vast majority of cases.

Let's start from the other end. A teen boy discovers he is attracted only to children. He is horrified. Society tells him he is destined to molest a child. He is likely to agree that anyone who molests a child is the scum of the earth, so he is inclined to agree he is the scum of the earth based on what they assure him he will do. More than a few teens kill themselves. If they reveal in a suicide note the reason, it is likely to be suppressed because of the shame that would accrue to his family. He also will find it extremely hard to talk to anyone about this, perceiving correctly that most people will not listen to him with compassion but condemnation. In recent years he has the additional very realistic fear that he will be reported to police based on mandatory reporting laws for nothing but his attractions. Professionals have a duty to report if they believe children are in danger. Many have been taught that all pedophiles eventually molest children, so it takes very little more than the attraction to make them file a report.

Somehow he makes it through those early years, still determined never to molest a child, but endowed with the same sexual drive as any other young man. Some of those ordinary young men will approach and date girls (or boys), or perhaps visit prostitutes. Those who can't (and even those who can and do) will also seek out pornography. In this day and age a flood of ordinary porn is available to young men, and most of them look at it and masturbate to it.

What does a pedophile do? One thing he might well do is look for some child pornography -- pictures of children being sexual in exactly the ways he would (at a gut level) like to be sexual with them. The child in the video may have suffered, but it is in the past, and he knows that his clicking and looking does not make the child suffer all over again. He knows he is not really hurting anyone. Nonetheless, he is also very likely to feel ashamed just for doing that -- he condemns himself just as society condemns him. Yet his sexual desire remains strong, and he may repeatedly give in to this desire in a way that fundamentally does not harm anyone.

When young men harm others in fairly minor ways, the law applies fairly minor penalties. Breaking into houses, stealing cars, fighting and beating people up, groping women on the subway -- first offenses are likely to call for probation. Prison sentences for subsequent offenses are likely to be short. In contrast, the CP viewing that did not harm anyone gives rise to longer penalties and several years on a sex offender registry, which is a penalty that in many cases ruins a person's life -- having nowhere to live and being unable to find employment are pretty much a ruined life. This difference in penalties with crimes that do cause real harm is profoundly unfair.

To be clear, there are things a pedophile might do where justice calls for serious penalties. Molesting a child is the most obvious one. You could make a case for penalties if someone pays for child pornography, or perhaps even if they give effusive praise to a maker of child pornography. But passive downloading and viewing has but one effect in the real world -- increasing a hit count somewhere. It simply does no harm.

A pedophile feels an attraction that is alien to many people, but it is one he did not choose and cannot change. He shares society's horror at child molestation and makes sure he doesn't do that. Then he does the same thing other young men do who can't find suitable partners -- he looks at pornography in line with his desires.

I'm certainly not saying looking at CP is just fine. It is morally problematic. But it is less problematic than groping women on the subways, breaking into people's houses and stealing things, or beating people up. Harsher penalties for simply looking at CP are an utter travesty of justice.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

An actual survey of CP viewers on attitudes to CP

The law in many western countries calls for very harsh penalties for possession of child pornography (even without making it, paying for it, or distributing it).

I have speculated that one key element of public support for those penalties is assumptions about the state of mind of the viewers. The average person assumes that the viewers take pleasure from the child's suffering, think it's just fine that the child suffered for their pleasure, and feel no remorse.

I have been conducting an ongoing anonymous survey in the Virtuous Pedophiles online support group on this subject.

As of today, 50% of those who have seen CP at some point have chosen "I feel really bad about getting sexual enjoyment from a child's abuse".

Now, this is not a random sample of pedophiles or CP viewers. The VP support group is primarily composed of those who are against legalizing adult-child sex. So it is a biased sample.

Still, when you hear that someone has been found with CP images, keep in mind the strong possibility that they feel terrible about it -- and felt that way before they were caught, a point after which expressing remorse might involve self-interest. I don't in this post want to list the other options (though the vast majority of the others did not want the child to suffer), because they are ones that tend to give rise to an emotional response. I want to focus attention on the 50% who did not choose those options.

Elsewhere in the law, we assume the best intentions of criminals until worse intentions are proven. First degree murder involves premeditation, and the prosecution has to prove premeditation. If it is unclear, then the suspect can be convicted only of second degree murder. Another case is that often there are more severe penalties if a crime is motivated by the victim's race (or religion or ethnicity) and thus a hate crime as opposed to motivated by more ordinary factors. The prosecution has to prove the motivation involved the victim's race.

In considering proper penalties for CP possession, you (as a citizen whose voice ultimately determines the proper penalties for crimes) should be assuming that the victim felt bad about their viewing. You might feel that more severe penalties would be warranted for those who feel no remorse, but if so it should be up to the prosecution to prove lack of remorse.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Hysteria vs Analysis Regarding CP Images Online

On Sunday, September 29, the <lead article in the New York Times> was titled: "The Internet Is Overrun With Images of Child Sexual Abuse. What Went Wrong?" by Michael Keller and Gabriel Dance. This is my critique of it.

The title as well as the article are designed to maximize our outrage. And while there is genuinely outrageous behavior involved, the problem becomes more complicated when we think more carefully about it -- when we consider realistic remedies. The authors are gravely negligent for failing to consider those issues.

The article makes a big deal out of how dramatically the quantity of illegal images has grown. The introductory graphics wow us with how many little dots there are now, each representing an abuse image. But there has been explosive growth to all images and videos over the same time period. Revenge porn, hate speech, and Russian disinformation have all grown at the same rate, along with video of cats and laughing babies. There is no evidence presented that the actual number of children being abused has gone up dramatically, just that far more video of it is now available online.

There is a comparatively small group of people who abuse children, film it, and distribute those films. There is a far larger group of people who only look at such videos but never create, buy or distribute. The article itself does not suggest this division, but it is apparent when articles like this are read with a careful eye. All the low-hanging fruit of the first group have already been captured, and the rest of them are protected by encryption and/or their location overseas. When US law enforcement is given money and told to solve the problem, the best they can usually do is go after the second group. While this is a very large group, their main "crime" is to feel a sexual attraction to children. The crime of looking at child sex abuse images is quite minor by any objective standards.

Why a minor crime? There is no allegation that all this CP is distributed for the money -- we used to hear it was a multi-billion-dollar business. Law enforcement has realized that so little money is changing hands that it's time to quietly stop talking about it. The other common allegation is that people looking at the material encourage others to make more. The article says, "A private section of the [Love Zone] forum was available only to members who shared imagery of children they abused themselves." It sounds like a small group of detestable people want more children abused so they can see new material, but these producers do not actively want their material seen by as many people as possible. Viewing by the second group, the passive consumers, does not encourage making more. All a passive access of a CP image does is to increase the number of hits, and it turns out that even those hits aggregated by the thousands don't encourage more production either.

The article interviews law enforcement personnel who are frustrated that they have the resources to deal with only a small fraction of the cases they could. They need more resources to perform the mission they have been given. But they have enough to investigate producers. The cases they cannot investigate are entirely from the second group of passive consumers. Though it may sound radical, society should instead stop supporting this mission entirely.

The article laments that not enough money and attention is directed to this problem -- even less than legislation requires. My hunch is that policy-makers who look at the problem can see that the real problem of the creation of child sex exploitation materials cannot be solved by allocation of further funds or high-profile reports. For political reasons they cannot express their reservations directly, so they do so by passive means.

Another target of the article is US tech companies, who reputedly do not cooperate adequately with law enforcement. For instance, they do not keep records long enough or provide complete information. These problems can be easily remedied and probably will be without expenditure of government funds, though it is not clear that their cooperation will make any major difference.

The article lumps these child exploitation images with hate speech and terrorist propaganda as things that proliferate on online platforms and need attention by the big tech companies. They are all difficult problems without easy solutions. One possibility that the article implicitly suggests is to regulate encryption technology so that criminals cannot use it to hide from law enforcement. This is a grave step with serious civil liberties implications. Governments cannot be trusted to use private information only for certain clearly stated legitimate purposes.

What we most want to prevent is child sex abuse. This has been a problem throughout human history. What has changed dramatically is how aware we are of this problem because so many images are now available online. There is little evidence that the actual sexual abuse of children has increased very much because images can be distributed.

The article says many abuse survivors and their families have had their view of humanity changed for the worse by the crimes captured in the videos and people's apparent interest in viewing them. They have glimpsed an unfortunate truth, but no amount of law enforcement can ever change their view back. Similarly, abuse survivors are haunted by the idea that people might recognize them from the images -- but they would still have that fear even if 90% of the copies of the images were removed.

Child sex abuse is a terrible thing. Reducing it, including cases where it is filmed, is a high priority. But once the images are released, the damage is already done. Societal obsession with the images is akin to the man searching for his keys under the streetlight because that's where the light is, even though that's not where he dropped them.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

"You think it's OK to fantasize about raping children"

Pedophiles "fantasize about raping children". That phrase produces over two pages of Google hits today. As with many contentious issues, "Non-offending pedophiles: accept or condemn?" is conducted as a war online, hearts and minds being won and lost with slogans and appeals to emotion. "You fantasize about raping children" is perhaps the most effective verbal weapon in the arsenal of the "condemn" side. As propaganda, it's a stroke of genius.

This post seeks to unpack that phrase and defuse its undeserved power.

The phrase implicitly concedes one point. It allows for the idea that many pedophiles never rape children and some of us never will. But our opponents feel we deserve fierce condemnation even if we will never harm a child, and seek to score points because we fantasize about something most people find disgusting.

The pieces for a syllogism are there.

1. A pedophile is by definition sexually attracted to children.
2. Everyone fantasizes about sexual intercourse with the people they are attracted to.
3. Sexual intercourse with a child is rape.
4. Ergo, all pedophiles fantasize about raping children.

In isolation all the points look pretty solid. The key weakness is the linkage between a fantasy and what the fantasy would be if carried out.

Compare this syllogism for an ordinary guy called John:

1. John fantasizes about sex with Scarlett Johansson (an arbitrarily chosen attractive celebrity).
2. There's no way on earth Scarlett would consent to sex with John.
3. If John had sex with Scarlett it would be rape.
4. Ergo, John fantasizes about raping Scarlett.

But that doesn't sound so convincing, does it? We know that in his fantasies, John is probably transforming Scarlett into someone who is enthusiastic about sex with him, and he is not fantasizing about raping this transformed person he has imagined. Like most people, he is probably very good at keeping fantasy and reality separate, and poses no danger of raping the real Scarlett.

So what's different about the two cases? Scarlett quite probably does like the idea of sexual intercourse with the right man at the right time. John and that man have many superficial similarities, including their physical bodies, so when John imagines substituting himself for one of Scarlett's actual sexual interests in her mind, it is a small transformation.

By contrast, no 4-year-old girl wants to have intercourse with an adult man, and full penis-in-vagina sex would cause great pain and physical damage if it was possible at all. But wait -- how did we go from "child" straight to "4-year-old girl"? In the war between non-offending pedophiles and opponents, the opponents will naturally pick the case that makes their point. They want you to imagine 4-year-old girls, and the <availability heuristic> will be working in their favor.

A major source of confusion is that there is no agreed definition of who the opponent is. "Pedophile" in common usage includes those who do sexual things with minors -- which includes boys and girls in the 13-17 range, including a great many who are sexually mature in physical terms. Young teens are not all that different from Scarlett, psychologically. They are very interested in the idea of sex and look forward to it with the right person at the right time. Adults who fantasize about sex with young teens are unlikely to be fantasizing about rape any more than John was fantasizing about raping Scarlett.

Fantasies can cover a great deal of ground, but surely they include all cases of actual child sexual abuse, which cover plenty of ground themselves. Boys are on average less picky about their sexual partners than girls are. Most abuse does not involve physical force, and a great deal involves no clear coercion. Sexual abuse of young teens comprises most of child sexual abuse, and abuse becomes much rarer as age goes down. This mirrors people's attractions. Most ordinary men feel a strong attraction to girls in their mid-teen years. But among true pedophiles (much rarer to begin with), attraction to 4-year-olds is much less common than to 10-year-olds.

As we go down in age to prepubescent children, the psychology changes. Now, the transformation required in the imagination is a bit more, and includes changing not just the target of the young person's sexual interest but their interest in sex at all. Sexual abuse of younger boys and girls usually involves no penetration but things like oral or manual stimulation. Judging from conversations online, those who fantasize about younger girls typically limit their fantasies in these ways as well. Yet fantasy itself has no limits. We can fantasize about flying through space in nothing but our clothes (if that), and dispatching our enemies with bursts of energy from our fingertips. Fantasizing about a 4-year-old girl who has a strong sex drive and a vagina like an adult woman's is no harder.

Morally, there is no relevant difference between the imaginary version of Scarlett and this imaginary 4-year-old girl. The closest real-life analogs would not consent to the imagined sex, but no real people ever find out about the fantasies.

The "you fantasize about raping children" gets a further boost from the fact that in most people's minds, the typical pedophile is a child rapist. Those are the ones who make the biggest news headlines. It seems highly plausible to an average person that the non-offending pedophiles are fantasizing about doing what the notorious offenders have actually done. But this is totally unwarranted. If somehow the primary way heterosexual men came to your attention was because of news of rape convictions, it would be easy to assume that John was actually fantasizing about raping Scarlett Johansson.

Another problem is that most people have no idea how it would feel to find a prepubescent child sexually attractive. It is foreign. It is icky. If someone claims that sexual fantasies involving them are fantasies of rape, that fits right in with the negative emotion and is easy to accept without question.

Further complicating matters is the fact that of course a few pedophiles do have darker fantasies. The simple retort, "No pedophile ever fantasizes about raping a child!" isn't accurate.

The water gets murkier because sex-positive people do not in fact want to condemn people who have antisocial fantasies. "A few pedophiles do fantasize about raping children and I hate them more than you do!" isn't going to work either for good-hearted people.

For those who are willing to look carefully at the issues, I believe I've explained why "You pedophiles fantasize about raping children" is fundamentally wrong. When called upon to refute it, the best I can do is to give a short version of the John and Scarlett story. But the accept-versus-condemn-non-offending-pedophiles war is not fought with careful reason but with slogans and appeals to emotion. I'm all ears if anyone has a succinct, hard-hitting retort to "you fantasize about raping children." I can't think of any.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

From a CP download trace to a crime -- all the ways to go astray

Law enforcement keeps a library of the digital signatures of known child pornography. Their primary way of detecting child porn viewing is by seeing digital signatures of such files going to a particular person. Then they get a warrant based on that information, seize the person's electronic devices and look for copies of the material on the person's devices.

Here I consider the many ways that things can go wrong in that process.

Law enforcement does not get a person's name associated with those files, they get an IP address. People who use the same WiFi system share an IP address. When police raid a home, they typically take all the electronics, as they don't know which family member they are looking for. This includes female relatives, who are statistically less likely to be looking at child porn. But is the family enough? The owner might have given WiFi access to neighbors who live close by as a cost-saving measure. If the network is not password-protected, it could be used by any neighbor or someone passing on the street. It could be used by a house guest who was given the password. It could be used by that same house guest months or years later, if they park nearby long enough to download their illegal material.

When police search a home for drugs or weapons, the search is concluded in a matter of hours. Anything that has not been taken is available for the family to use. This is not true of electronic devices seized in CP investigations. They are often not returned for months or years, even if they have no illegal material on them. The devices may contain confidential, personal material that is not illegal but embarrassing. They certainly contain vital information a typical person in today's world needs to navigate life. Most people who do not expect to get their electronics back for months will be obliged to buy replacements, making the old one if returned next to useless.

There is also a grave stigma attached to a child porn possession investigation, as there is to anything that suggests pedophilia. Drug possession has nowhere near the same stigma, especially in neighborhoods and social circles where it is common. Along with the risk of targeting too many people or the wrong people, the CP investigation will attach a serious stigma to them and other targeted people it decides not to prosecute.

The law has been framed so that any knowing possession of child pornography is a crime. But the intention is to catch people who look at the child pornography for purposes of sexual arousal. Since that is hard to prove, possession stands in for the actual wrongdoing. And yet how certain are we that possession really does show evidence of the crime that society intends to punish?

What of the journalist who seeks to write a story about child porn? What of the scientist who wants to study it? What about someone who has been abused and downloads child porn and perhaps just cries while watching it as part of their attempt to come to terms with what happened to them? What of a child who learns about sex and wants to know if people their age ever do engage in sexual activity and if so what it's like? This might be very common in "children" of 14 or 15. What of someone who is just attracted to things that are forbidden? It could well be that none of these people is looking at this material with any intention or actuality of sexual arousal. Does society really intend to slam them with the harsh penalties of child porn possession?

Police can hopefully sort out some of these cases after the fact -- though journalists and scientists live in genuine fear of conviction even if the evidence suggests they were not using the material for arousal purposes. But in the mean time, the police have seized the electronics of clearly innocent people and deprived them of their use, and cast stigma on an entire family.

All of those downsides need to be weighed against the upside. What are child porn possession convictions actually accomplishing? In today's world, money hardly ever changes hands. There is no market that fuels further child sex abuse in the service of making a profit. No child is aware of any given act of viewing or possession. There is no evidence that looking at such material leads a person to commit hands-on abuse, and <some evidencethat it prevents it.

It's worth reflecting on why the law requires police to get a warrant before searching premises. From the police perspective, the best way to find wrongdoing is to search everyone's home. If resources don't allow that, next best is to conduct a search on the slightest whiff of suspicion. This is then subject to the abuse that they could suspect people just because they don't like them. People in general like their privacy and want to be left alone, free of intrusive searches. This is why the US has a constitutional amendment barring searches without a warrant. The police need to show probable cause that evidence of a particular crime will be found in a particular place at a particular time. As argued above, CP possession searches are especially intrusive.

The UK's 1999 <Operation Ore> illustrates many of these factors in operation. It resulted in "4,283 homes searched, 3,744 arrests, 1,848 charged, 1,451 convictions, 493 cautioned and 140 children removed from suspected dangerous situations and an estimated 33 suicides." There were 4,283 serious disruptions to privacy, with 1,451 convictions -- two thirds were false alarms. The 33 suicides are the tip of an iceberg of enormous distress that only rarely led to suicide. Removing children from dangerous situations is a laudable goal, but the wording is telling. Would not the police report proudly on the count of children who were not just in "suspected dangerous situations" but actually being abused if that was proven? Might that silence suggest the number was close to zero? And the cost to removing a child from a home is huge to the child. It's a good guess (see the <Westermarck Effect>) that almost none of the CP downloaders were an actual threat to their own children. On balance, Operation Ore caused far more distress than it alleviated or deterred.

But my main point about Operation Ore is that something under 3% of the searched homes turned up children at risk. If you searched 4,283 randomly chosen homes, you would find 3% with children suffering actual physical or emotional abuse or child neglect. But that would be precisely the sort of search that civilized societies have deemed unjust and wrong and that has led them to require search warrants.

Viewed from a rational perspective, tracking down CP possession crimes is simply and clearly not worth it.

What really drives these laws is a gut-level hatred of the very idea of adult sexual attraction to children. This hatred supports a willingness to punish many innocent people as the price of nailing some guilty ones -- and guilty of what? This is totally out of line with civil liberties and a free society, in which the law does not interfere with people's private behavior if it is not hurting anyone else.

Rectifying the injustice requires broader understanding of the basic facts: Pedophiles have a sexual attraction they did not choose and cannot change. Most mean no harm. A great many never act on that attraction with a child. Faced with no prospect of any sexual satisfaction in life, some give in to a temptation to look at past examples of child sexual abuse, though such looking does not directly harm anyone. This is morally questionable and no doubt disgusting to most people. But it is not a serious crime worthy of harsh criminal penalties. It is not worth allocation of scarce police resources and the disruption of the lives of innocent people.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The two morally distinct classes of CP viewers

Most people in society seem to think that all pedophiles are child molesters. The fundamental message of Virtuous Pedophiles (and an increasing number of other pedophiles online) is that this is not true. There are a great many people who feel a sexual attraction to children who never act on it.

"Acting on it" in the most obvious sense is acting sexually with a child who is right there, physically present, and aware of what's happening. Let's call it "hands-on abuse".

Another way of acting on it is to view child pornography. If email to Virtuous Pedophiles is any indication, this is much more common than hands-on abuse. I have tried in <a long series of posts> to analyze child pornography from many different angles.

Public reaction is that CP viewing is just as bad as hands-on abuse. If some concede it is not literally as bad, it is in any case over the line in the arena of unforgivable, despicable crimes calling for long prison sentences.

In part, this is understandable. In order to have something to film, child pornographers must abuse a child. While some hands-on abuse might be somewhat understandable as an impulsive decision made in a given moment that is deeply regretted later, this can't be true of CP makers. They must decide, in a not at all impulsive fashion, to post these images for others to see.

Another connection is people who buy this material. If CP makers are making it to earn money, then blame lies on those who buy it, just as we accept that those who wear fur or eat meat are responsible for whatever cruelties are needed to produce fur and meat.

However, I suggest that in today's world, where a veritable flood of images and videos is available for free on any subject imaginable, there is a separate class of CP viewers which is quite different from those who make, distribute, or buy.

Why they deserve sympathy:

Everyone has sexual attractions. Most people in society can find a willing adult partner to have satisfying sex with. It is typically considered part of the good life. Many of us want a long-term partner for a relationship that must contain sex as one of its elements. Others are satisfied with a series of briefer sexual encounters. If any young person laments that they see no prospect of a sex life, we are sympathetic -- it is reasonable for them to feel distressed about that. That is exactly the position that exclusive pedophiles (those with no attraction to adults) are in. They have an attraction they did not choose and cannot change. If you believe that the vast majority of pedophiles solve this problem by molesting children, you will not be sympathetic, of course. But if you accept the reality that a great many do NOT ever molest a child, you should feel the same sympathy for that group.

People who are attracted to adults who don't have any prospect of a real "hands-on" sex life achieve partial fulfillment vicariously. Both sexes get the hots for attractive people in films. Beyond that, women tend towards romance novels, while men tend towards plain old pornography. The men see people doing the sexual things they would like to do, are aroused, and masturbate as they imagine themselves in the same situation.

Pedophiles enjoy innocent videos. This includes girls doing gymnastics or dancing or swimming, child modeling sites, and innocent family videos. Some also look at child pornography. How should we think about such men? One way is that they are part of the entire child porn industry and deserve the same condemnation as hands-on molesters. This is too simplistic.

A crucial question as we consider the morality of CP viewers is how they think about it. There is a continuum. A few might enjoy watching children who are visibly suffering. A few others might think it is good that this apparently happy child is actually feeling distressed. Others might not actively want the child to suffer, but are willing to have the child pay that price so they can enjoy what they are watching. Others might feel strongly that they wish such material was never made, but also figure that what's done is done and they might as well enjoy the resulting video.

But at the end of the continuum is another group, and I have reason to think it is a large group. They feel terrible about the idea of getting enjoyment out of video of a child's suffering, and they are horrified at the idea -- except in those moments when lust is powerful and they feel the desperate need for some sort of sexual fulfillment. As soon as orgasm has taken the edge off that desire, they feel awful about themselves. Some report self-loathing that makes them feel actively suicidal. There is also a large group that feels terrible masturbating to innocent videos of children. All these pedophiles have a strong sense of morality. I tried to paint a sympathetic sketch of <one such viewer> .

Compare the other ways that men sometimes act when sexual desire is strong. We have too much plain, indisputable rape. Society rightly treats this as a very serious crime. But we also have many lesser insults, such as <subway molesters>, groping, wolf whistles, public and obvious leering, or sexually suggestive remarks in the workplace. They are rarely treated as crimes at all, but simply nuisances. "Me too" is rightly trying to raise awareness of how damaging they can be and make them less common. But few people are seriously proposing years in prison as an appropriate penalty.

In contrast, no child is aware of a given act of child porn viewing. There is no direct harm. Yet that viewing is considered a serious crime, worthy of years in prison and a lifetime on the sex offender registry. This is unjust.

But criminal penalties aside, how should we think of those men who do view child porn sometimes, who feel bad that it was ever made? They despise themselves for getting sexual satisfaction from a child's suffering. They seem to have the same moral standards as the rest of us, though trouble living up to those standards. Still, they never engage in hands-on abuse. Can't we come up with some genuine sympathy for these men?

I hope we can, and start the process of reducing penalties for simple child porn possession.

There is the other class -- those who make and distribute CP, who pay for it, or who are happy that it was made. We can rightly continue to despise them. But they are quite distinct from the others who deserve our sympathy.