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Internet Child Exploitation

[ Blog, August 21, 2006] 

Buried in the course of Sunday’s New York Times front page story about pedophilia and the internet there was an unexpected kernel of good news. There are “a shrinking number of internet locations for sexual images of minors.” A pedophile who goes by the screen name Heartfallen complained to a discussion list that the sources for graphic child porn are disappearing: “They’ve vanished. There is much less freedom on the internet now.”

The substitute, as Kurt Eichenwald’s excellent story shows, is sites that present photos of *clothed* children — though the clothing may be minimal. The assumption is that this step backward protects users and suppliers from laws against child porn, but a 1994 case, United States v. Knox, established that a scrap of fabric is not enough. Though one clothing-required site proclaims that it is “100% legal,” the Knox decision notes that it’s not up to the purveyor to decide whether or not his product is legal. “If a pedophile’s personal opinion about the legality of sexually explicit videos was transformed into applicable law,” the laws would be meaningless.

The good news is that laws against child porn have some bite. The internet has appeared to be a Wild West where nobody is in charge and no justice is possible, but it seems that in some cases markets do respond to legal pressure.

The bad news, as seen in today’s followup article, is that discussion lists have enabled pedophiles around the world to connect with each other to share seduction tips, tell personal stories (real or imagined), and commiserate. Worse is that this context is encouraging indulgence in that most fundamental of American fantasies: the notion that one is a rebel. Our nation was founded in revolution, and advertising since the early 60’s has brilliantly fostered consumption of mass-produced items as proof of resistance to mass culture. So it’s no wonder that pedophiles fancy themselves brave rebels, fighting for the freedom of children to choose to have sex with adults.

A number of years ago I was asked to write a book chapter on Origen, the early Christian writer (eloquently devout, but with some quirky semi-gnostic ideas; he’s not St. Origen). A brilliant young man, he was assigned leadership of the Christian school of Alexandria while still in his teens. Foreseeing the likelihood that he would be teaching attractive young women, and reading “If your eye offend you, pluck it out” literally, he took drastic action. He regretted it immediately, and in a late commentary of Matthew warned against such foolish actions.

In researching this I ran across some surprising materials — imagine what happens when you type “voluntary castration” into a search engine. One thread that emerged, however, was the numbers of pedophiles who had followed Origen’s example, believing it to be the only way possible to end their compulsive vice. One man wrote that he knew that nothing he did could ever make it up to his victims, but he hoped that by undergoing castration he could at least demonstrate the sincerity of his sorrow. An attitude of horror, despair, and self-hatred was common among these pedophiles. They knew something was seriously wrong.

Individuals who are surrounded by a culture that views a behavior as vile are regularly prodded to find their way to repentance. But individuals who submerge into a network of similarly-minded fellows, and who come to fancy themselves rebels and liberators and victims of oppression, are much harder to rescue. It’s good that there is less explicit child porn on the internet, but it sounds like there is more dangerous self-justification. 

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