Debbie Nathan raises a taboo but important point yesterday morning: We must be allowed to see the child pornography that exists. Why? Because we can’t accurately report on that which we can’t see. It’s a simple and obvious observation, really, and profound in its implications. She is writing specifically about her investigation of the Kurt Eichenwald/Justin Berry story (PDF from Counterpunch), but the point applies broadly and it deserves to be amplified.
When we fight against sweatshops and child labor we demand to be allowed access to the factories where the abuses are occurring. We photograph and document what we see. Accurately documenting the problem, we provide evidence and ammunition to those who are fighting it. With the problem of child pornography, we are not allowed to do that. Even when the pornography in question has been entered into evidence in a trial, meaning that it has become part of the public record, the Federal government has ruled that the public can be prevented from seeing it.
In fact, when defending against charges of child pornography, defendants and their lawyers have been refused adequate access to evidence. For example, in David Westerfield’s 2002 murder trial in California the state argued that it was was prohibited from providing Westerfield’s defense team copies of child porn images taken from his computer because the law allowed for duplication of child pornography only for prosecutorial purposes. An appeals court upheld that interpretation but was ordered by the state’s supreme court to vacate its ruling and ultimately the state had to provide copies of the material (PDF).
Who gains by preventing reporters and researchers (along with everybody else) from witnessing the fact of child pornography? Those who benefit from our “culture of fear.” It is much easier to keep people outraged and afraid if you can make assertions without providing evidence. There is no limit then to how awful you can make something seem. And the thing that is too terrible to be seen is terrifying indeed. And how easily we can be convinced that it is every bit as terrible as “they say it is.” After all, what basis do we have to question the claim? And there may be reasons why law enforcement especially doesn’t want their claims questioned.
Recall Judith Levine‘s Harmful to Minors (one of the most important books for those who really care about the health and well-being of kids and teenagers). It is a brilliant and courageous piece of investigative journalism and in the chapter on child pornography and pedophilia panic she highlights another reason why, perhaps, law enforcement does not want journalists to see their evidence:
“Aficionados and vice cops concede that practically all the sexually explicit images of children circulating cybernetically are the same stack of yellowing pages found at the back of those X-rated shops, only digitized. These pictures tend to be twenty to fifty years old, made overseas, badly re-reproduced, and for the most part pretty chaste.” (p. 36)
She continues, asking who is putting these old pictures online in the first place, and finds evidence, including a statement by an LAPD officer, that most of the actual transactions where child porn is bought and sold online are managed by law enforcement:
“Virtually all advertising, distribution, and sales to people considered potential lawbreakers were done by the federal government, in sting operations against people who have demonstrated (through, for instance, membership in NAMBLA) what agents regard as a predisposition to commit a crime.” (p. 37)
Journalists need access to what is being called child pornography so that we, the public in whose names anti child porn laws are being enforced, can know exactly what that means. Because I certainly have been of the impression that there are tons of new images of kids being abused or exploited sexually uploaded every day. It seems this is probably not the case, and yet I have no independent way to confirm or reject that assertion without breaking the law.
Defining the scope of child pornography is is especially important given that what constitutes child pornography is not as clear as we might be led to think. For example, just a few weeks ago a photograph by Nan Goldin was seized from the English art gallery where it was to be displayed because there were questions about whether or not it constituted child pornography. Patrick Califia, Judith Levine and Debbie Nathan have all documented cases where parents and artists have seen their lives turned upside down because photos of their own naked children have been misconstrued as pornography. With child pornography we can’t even apply Potter Stewart’s famous “I know it when I see it” criterion because we aren’t allowed to see it in the first place. We’re left with, “You’ll know it because I’ll tell you so, and I’ll just assure you that it’s every bit as horrible as you can possibly imagine.”
The opposite is also possible of course. That is, it is easier to render a problem invisible when that becomes useful to do, because troubling images aren’t burned into people’s minds. Photographs and visual representations are powerful. Think about how people responded to the photos from the Abu Ghraib prison. Stories about those abuses had been reported months earlier, but there was not a general sense of outrage until the photographs were released in the press. Because we don’t have such images burned into our minds, when we want to shift people’s attention from child porn as a threat all we need to do is stop talking about it for a while.
Children do not gain when journalists who are reporting on child porn are prohibited from seeing the evidence of the problem on which they are reporting. In fact, they are worse off. Children who have been made subjects of child pornography need to have their identities protected, certainly, so that they are not harmed in the reporting process. But that does not require complete denial of access to the images. But children on the whole are worse off when we are unable to understand the threats they face. If child pornography is a significant problem, we need to research it, document it, and work to stop it. But we can’t do that in the face of fear-mongering and the panic that ensues. We cannot do that if we can’t talk calmly and rationally about evidence. Ultimately, if we are going to protect children from being victimized by child porn, we need to see what it is, know the scope of the problem, and then address it strategically.
I am not arguing that child pornography should be legal. Nor am I arguing that pornographic images of children should be treated cavalierly. Quite the contrary: I think that they need to be treated very seriously, which may include viewing them in order to accurately report on the problem.
Because to be honest, when my government says “trust us, we’ll tell you what major threats you face” I can’t say that its track record gives me any confidence that they’ll be right.
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