In the first part of this essay I meandered my way towards the hypothesis that the “goal of laws relating to sexual images of children [is] the effective eradication of the notion of child sexuality from the popular discourse, culture and the minds of the citizenry”.
In a sense, simply proposing this as an explanation for Society’s draconian response to the sexual imagery of children could be taken as a case for a defense of that very imagery.
There is also a case to be made that pornography (presumably including child pornography) reduces rates of offending through providing a means of relieving sexual frustration in those tempted to offend. But this seems like such a complex issue that I’m going to take the coward’s way and steer clear of it, at least for the time being.
So, if part 1 of this blog-essay amounted to a kind of defense of sexual images of children, this second part will consider some of their more problematic aspects and, as so often in debates about paedophilia and child sexuality, the crux of the matter, I suspect, will boil down to questions of ‘consent’.
It’s not easy writing about child pornography: I feel too much like those reviewers one finds on Amazon and elsewhere, who clearly haven’t read the book in question, and are reacting to its title, its subject matter, its alleged standpoint or its author’s reputation.
My own personal relationship, or rather ‘non-relationship‘, with child porn has been defined by a rather conformist, law-abiding streak in me, my capacity to get off on adult pornography, and a fear that if I saw things that matched those descriptions I’d read, I’d end up well and truly ‘hooked’: it’s not the possibility of my not liking it that has kept me away from it, but rather the probability of my liking it too much.
What is Child Pornography? How can one distinguish it from other related types of imagery? Child Erotica? Nude Photography? Or Art Photographs?
I find a good working definition of ‘pornography’ is a depiction whose main purpose is to elicit sexual arousal through explicit representation of primary erogenous zones and/or sexual activity.
This would distinguish it from, say, ‘nudist photographs’ (which show the human body naked, but neither focus our attention on erogenous zones or on sexual activity) and Art Photographs, such as Sally Mann’s, whose main purpose is not to elicit sexual arousal, though a sensual response, or even sexual one, may be part of the effect that the artist seeks.
With ‘Art’ the sought-after effect is hard to define – each artist, indeed each individual work of art, in a sense, re-invents for itself a new and original purpose. However, so long as the sexual response is a subordinate to that greater purpose, the work should not be considered as ‘pornography’. This was the defense used when the UK publishers of D. H Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ were arraigned for ‘obscenity’ – its publishers were able to escape conviction because they were able to show that the work was of literary merit.
The following reflections on child pornography will be based on an argumentum ab optimo position: I will assume the imagery in question has no element of coercion, deception, manipulation, brutality or cruelty.
A lot depends on Context. We can choose to consider the ethics of child pornography in the current social context, or as it would be in an ideal society. Of course such a statement raises the question ‘whose ideal society?’ The ‘man on the street’ may not share the paedophile’s vision of the ‘ideal society’.
I’ll lay my cards on the table: I believe that a society where child-adult intimacy were licit would be an all-round better society than the one we live in today – not just because children and adults would be able to be intimate with each other, but because such a society would be more beneficial for human relations in general, for quality of life and for the environment (see my essay “the future is green and liberating for children”).
Tempting as it is to focus on the status of child pornography in such ideal circumstances. This is a temptation I will resist, other than to say that with child-adult intimacy less stigmatised, less body shame, and a greater acceptance of child sexuality many of the problems associated with child pornography in our WEIRD societies (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) would disappear, or be reduced to those problems which are associated with all images – those of privacy, permission, copyright and payment.
It seems to me that here are three separate ethical areas that need to be considered:
- the acts depicted
- the act of depiction
- the acts of distribution
the acts depicted
My personal opinion is that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with sensual or sexual intimacy between an adult and a child provided that the relationship is truly consensual and hasn’t come round through manipulation. However this is not enough to justify such relationships in the context of the societies most of us live in.
One can’t ignore the problem that when relationships occur in a context which stigmatises them then it is likely that the child will suffer when the relationship is discovered. And even if it isn’t discovered, when the growing child becomes aware of this stigma and starts to recontextualise what happened, there is a significant risk that they will experience trauma of some kind and/or adopt a damaging victim identity.
Granted, this suffering is not directly caused by the adult or the relationship. However an analogy would be that of a stand-off between a robber who has taken a child as hostage and an armed policeman. The robber is pointing a gun at the child’s head and warns the policeman that he will pull the trigger if the policeman tries anything clever. The policeman, on impulse, goes for his gun and the robber holds good his threat and shoots the child dead.
Who is responsible for the child’s death?
The robber created the situation and pulled the trigger and so, as the agent of death, must hold primary responsibility. But the policeman knowingly acted in a such a way as to cause the robber to pull the trigger, and so must also have a share in the responsibility for the child’s death.
The ‘policeman’ is the adult lover of a child, the ‘robber’ is Society. A paedophile in an intimate relationship with a child can not use the fact that the intimacy is of itself morally neutral (or indeed ‘positive’), and that it is Society that will administer the harm, to exonerate himself of responsibility for any potential harm the child may go on to suffer. A caring lover would not be so reckless about the future of a child he loves.
But it also seems harsh to condemn such relationships when they are conducted lovingly and with the child’s ongoing consent. A significant number of such relationships don’t result in harm, despite society’s best efforts/ Moreover when you feel an intense love for a child, and that child reciprocates and seeks increased intimacy, I can imagine how hard it must be to stifle that love, how it can feel petty and inappropriate to deny the child the affection, the pleasure, the experience that she craves – and maybe even needs, if she’s been deprived of love by her parents. Sometimes in such circumstances the love, despite Society’s strictures, can feel so right it can’t be wrong.
the act of depiction
By ‘the acts of depiction’ I mean the filming or photographing.
Let us posit an ab optimo scenario: that the child is giving ‘simple consent’ (consent on the level of ‘yes, I like that. Carry on’ or ‘let’s do this’), and also some form of ‘informed consent’, to the sexual interaction being depicted (for a deeper analysis of ‘consent’ see my essay the staircase has not one step but many).
Let us also assume that the child knows she is being filmed or photographed and has given prior agreement to it, or even suggested it (I use ‘prior agreement’ rather than the word ‘consent’ since I don’t want to assume that ‘prior agreement’ necessarily amounts to ‘consent’).
It might seem like a fine distinction, but a lot depends on whether the child is 1/ interacting with the camera and the cameraman, or 2/ with another ‘actor’.
In both scenarios the child could in theory withdraw consent to being photographed, but it is a lot more easily done in the first scenario than in the second: if the child is interacting with the camera and is constantly aware of where it’s pointing and what it’s recording she is better able to monitor what is going on and withdraw consent as to certain photographs being taken – for example she may not be happy about photographs being taken of her genitals or anus.
Concerning the second scenario I have seen much adult pornography where two or more people are interacting with one another but not the camera. Here it is likely that the focus of actors’ attention is primarily is not on the camera but on their interaction with the other actor and, indeed an experienced director will put the actors at ease and an experienced camera man will be able to operate in such a way that the actors no longer notice his presence. In such circumstances the actors’ capacity to give ‘Simple Consent’ is much diminished, a child’s even more so. They are no longer interacting with the recording apparatus and are therefore less able to monitor what is being recorded and to make ongoing consent decisions (and ‘consent’ by its very nature is an ongoing process).
the acts of distribution
By ‘acts of distribution’ I mean the publishing, distribution and dissemination of films and photographs of sexual imagery of children. Can a child give valid consent to this?
It is useful to remind ourselves of the two forms of consent relevant to this question – ‘Simple Consent’ and ‘Informed Consent’.
‘Simple Consent’ is a form of control which operates as an action is happening – the participants are monitoring the activity and its effects and making second-to-second decisions as to whether they want it to stop or continue, or whether they want the interaction to change course.
It is ‘yes, I like that carry on‘, ‘no, I don’t like that stop‘ or ‘let’s try this‘. It is a form of consent that we are born with – a baby’s crying or gurgling with happiness are both forms of simple consent in operation. It is also a form of consent that intelligent animals other than humans are capable of expressing and understanding.
‘Informed Consent’ is generally required in the following situations:
- where the person whose consent is being solicited wouldn’t be expected to have the information necessary to make a decision and has to be given this information prior to them making a consent decision,
- when the acts being consented to have significant repercussions beyond the actual span of the activity itself (e.g. when giving someone power of attorney over your affairs),
- where the participant is deprived of the capacity to give, withhold or withdraw ‘simple consent’ (i.e. they are unable to say ‘stop’ or ‘carry on’) by the very actions for which consent is being sought (e.g. when about to undergo surgery under anaesthetic).
Can the child then give Simple Consent to the images or films being distributed?
It seems that ‘Simple Consent’ doesn’t really apply to the question of distribution: whilst a child may give agreement to her adult partner clicking the ‘upload’ button on his computer, and thus publishing a load of pornographic photos of her – the child is not able to monitor the consequences of that action or control them in real time. She can not withdraw her consent to those images continuing to be disseminated around the Internet.
Can the child then give Informed Consent to the images or films being distributed?
In theory – yes. Informed Consent is sought from children who will feature in adverts, films and tv series. This consent is sought because the acts being consented to have significant repercussions beyond the actual span of the activity itself. Generally children (or their parents) will give this consent because the child likes the process of acting, and because the outcome of giving consent is likely to have favourable consequences for the child’s future (though, of course, sometimes that isn’t the case).
However, whilst the child may enjoy the intimacy that is depicted in the photographs or films it would be a hard argument to make that publishing and disseminating pornographic images of a child is likely to have positive consequence for the child’s future, certainly not in a social context that stigmatises child-adult intimacy as virulently as does ours. This makes it hard (for me anyway) to imagine how an adult, who genuinely cares about a child, could publish or distribute such material – it seems more an act of boasting than an act of love and care.
This is a parallel objection to the one which militates against children being able to give full informed consent to intimacy with an adult. To quote my essay “The staircase has not one step but many”
‘Even if a child does adequately fulfill the normal criteria for being “informed” there is one criterion that will ensure that the child cannot ever be fully informed: the knowledge of the nature and extent of social stigma associated with child/adult sexual/sensual relationships. If the child is ignorant of this, she clearly is not “informed”; if she is aware of the stigma, faced with such a horrific prospect, she is unlikely to wish to engage in the sexual activities.
In a society where such relationships were not so heavily stigmatised, in which children were given the conceptual tools by which to be aware of their bodily integrity and autonomy, they would be able to give “informed consent”.’
The sexual imagery of children in our society create a ‘layer cake’ of the ethical problems and pitfalls associated with each stage of the production of such images. To the complexities and risks of child-adult intimacy are added the question of how effectively a child can monitor and control her interaction with the recording medium. Then there’s the most ethically culpable stage of all – the distribution of the images.
Whilst distribution of images of a child is not in itself ethically wrong (loving parents routinely send photos and film of their children to relatives and friends) the highly stigmatised nature of sexual images of children makes it hard to see how the distribution of such images, especially to strangers, could be in the child’s interest, not is it likely to have neutral consequences.
However I can imagine a scenario where an adult and his little lover record their consensual intimacy either to watch later or as a souvenir. They keep these recordings of their love secret, and share it only with themselves or with people whom they trust. This scenario seems ethically defensible.
I can also imagine a social context where child-adult intimacy is more accepted and such recordings would not carry the burden of stigma they do in our current society, and therefore not be harmful for the child as she grows up.
However it is useful to remember that in a society where adult-adult sex is not in itself stigmatised, participation in recordings of sexual activity still do attract a significant level of stigma. Think of the phenomenon of slut-shaming, and how the profession of porn is still one that is considered somewhat shameful. There seems to be certain values (privacy, monogamy, love, financial disinterest…) associated with an ideal of sex which if violated nevertheless result in the participants being stigmatised.