I have already discussed the issue of sexual grooming after having read Child Pornography and Sexual Grooming by Suzanne Ost. Now to approach the difficult topic of child pornography. Why difficult? After all, shouldn’t we be able to have a rational discussion about such an important issue? Well, as I will argue, the reason it is made difficult is precisely to discourage a rational discussion. This is part of the politics of this issue.

As Ost reveals in her book, the issue of child pornography has been largely decided under the pressure of moral panic. As a result the debate is deeply irrational, confused, contradictory and down right hypocritical.

Make no mistake. Child pornography exists and it is a serious problem. But it is here we face our first confusion. A confusion that is deliberately manipulated by those who benefit from moral panic. Any photograph or film that depicts a child engaging in a sexual act is evidence of child sexual abuse. For this reason police and professionals working in this area prefer to use the term child abuse material. When they uncover this material one of their main goals is to identify the child and rescue them from their abusers. This is as it should be and the police are becoming increasingly sophisticated and successful at tracking child abuse material. I support this approach and support better funding.

However, the term child pornography is used in a variety of polemical ways and this is the subject of this series of posts. For this reason, and this is absolutely essential to understand, I make a distinction between child abuse material and child pornography.

Mary Whitehouse

But before I get to that, it is important to examine one of the primary methods of the moral conservatives and that is exaggeration. Ost uses the example of the polemic used in the lead up to the passing of the British, Protection of Children Act 1978. The leading champion of the moral panic was morals campaigner Mary Whitehouse. She had used figures provided by American morals activist Judianne Densen-Gerber who had claimed that around 600,000 American children were involved in child pornography. This startling figure shocked many people into action. The only problem is that it was completely fabricated – made up out of thin air. Two independent investigations (see here) found that her claims were unsubstantiated. One her claims was that the city of Chicago was used as a stopover for boy prostitutes traded between the west and east coasts. This prompted the State of Illinois to set up an inquiry under the authority of the Illinois Legislative Investigation Committee. In cooperation with the FBI and other relevant agencies, the ILIC found that there was no substantive trade in either child prostitutes or child pornographer, and that the trade was small, with the largest underground magazine only attracted sales of around 1,000. In 1986 a Senate Commission under the chairmanship of William V Roth confirmed the findings of the ILIC.

So how was the figure of 600,000 constructed? In 1976, a journalist working for the NBC, Robin Lloyd wrote a book called For Money or Love: boy prostitution in America. In that book he claimed that around 300,000 boys were involved in prostitution. When questioned by the ILIC he admitted that the figure was hypothetical and was used solely as a fishing exercise. He had also admitted that he had originally used of figure of just 30,000 and that on the advice of some police, inflated it by a factor of 10 to 300,00. He was unable to provide any evidence to support either figure. When Judianne Densen-Gerber read and believed Lloyd’s book, she says she guessed that if 300,000 boys were used in prostitution, then there must also be 300,000 girls. Thus the original hypothetical figure of 30,000 became 600,000. But it gets worse. For polemical effect the figure was further rounded up to be around a million. This was further inflated to 2 million by conservative congressman John Conyers Jr, chairman of a committee considering a Federal law against child pornography. So a made-up figure of 30,000 becomes 300,000, is doubled to 600,000, is rounded up to I million, then further doubled to 2 million. But what is not explained is why a bogus figure relating to child prostitution was turned into a figure about child pornography.

As a result of Mary Whitehouse using a completely fabricated figure to shock the public, there was a successful campaign to press for law reform. As Ost says in her book:

This suggests that Parliament was influenced by a grass-roots moral panic model, with the public demanding that the law reflect its perception of the problem of child pornography.

There were a few brave voices of dissent. In the second reading of the PCA 1978 in the House of Lords, Lord Houghton said:

This is what I would describe as a buffalo Bill. It is a stampede. This is not legislation, this is a rush… What is the evidence upon which these proposals rest? Has the evidence been produced? Has it been examined? Can evidence be distinguished from propaganda and from pressure? If I may so, hysteria is no condition in which to legislate.


So was there any evidence outside the fabricated figures of Densen-Gerber? Well, no. As Ost explains:

…the Minister of State reiterated the Home Office’s conclusion that there was no evidence of a child pornography problem in Britain and stated that neither Customs and Excise nor the Metropolitan Police were of the impression that the amount of child pornography had increased recently.

So how is that the British parliament passes legislation on the basis of fabricated evidence? This is the power of moral panic. Even if they believed there was no evidence, members of parliament voted because they feared loosing the votes of the public.

But surely things have changed now that we have the internet? Well, actually, no. Yes, children are abused and yes, images are made and distributed on the net, but it remains a relatively minor problem. This does not mean that the police should do nothing. They should proceed in exactly the way they are now.

The problem is that the actual extent of child abuse material is not well studied. The reason is painfully obvious. To study it one must systematically sort through thousands of images of child abuse. This can be both harrowing and illegal (most people are repulsed by such material). Anyone studying this area must do so with the full cooperation of the authorities and with specific coping mechanisms put in place. As a result very few people actually know the extent of the problem, which does not stop the usual subjects from guessing and providing inflated figures. One person who does know is Professor Phillip Jenkins, the author of Beyond Tolerance: Child Pornography on the Internet. He controversially claims that the “actual number of traffickers is not vast”. In other words, in terms of the total number of sexually explicit images available on the net, images of children represent a tiny fraction. In fact, research into child pornography, before and after the internet, has always indicated that it is a relatively minor problem. The numbers of children abused to produce such images were never in the hundreds of thousands, but actually more likely to be in the hundreds. When examining the issue child pornography raised by the allegations of Lloyd and Densen-Gebser, the Roth Commission suggested that child abuse images represented ‘at most’ 0.33% of the total trade in pornographic images.

Phillip Jenkins

Another important to consider is how much of this material is new and how much of it is recycled. This means that the actual number of new images of abuse is again smaller than the 0.33% suggested by the Roth Commission.

It is here that we come to the most shocking finding. It is part of the moral conservative narrative that there is a global porn industry behind the production of child porn. This turns out to be not exactly true. It seems that the majority of new child abuse material is manufactured by ‘normal’ people who have organised themselves into groups, not to sell images for profit, but to exchange them for other material. In The Porn Report the authors quote a very authoritative voice, Inspector John Rouse, head of Queensland’s Taskforce Argos.

The father shared the 5-year-old girl and took the pictures… there’s numerous stories like that I could tell you… a lot of it is going to be intra-familial offences of photographing their own children. (pg 152).

So why are the moral crusaders exaggerating the problem and why are they directing their focus from the real source of abuse, normal people?

The answer is rather simple. It suits their agenda to do so. And that agenda is the same old agenda it has always been. To control people’s sexuality by expanding the number of laws prohibiting behaviour their moral ideology deems problematic. The issue of child pornography is highly emotive and repellent to most people. It is the perfect Trojan horse by which to censor material they find objectionable. Thus they use the term child porn to describe any material they do not approve of, even material that has long been legal and socially acceptable. This is where the danger lies, in extending the definition of child porn to include non-abusive and even non-sexual material.

This will be the subject of future posts.