An internationally famous pop star stares blankly from the newspaper, his picture snapped as he’s taken into custody. The police have found thousands of pictures of children forced into having sex with adults on his laptop. An 8-year-old girl is raped and murdered in a shopping centre toilet while her older brother waits outside. A mother is arrested for making pornographic videos of herself, her children and her husband and distributing them on the internet.
What the hell is wrong with people? What kind of world do we live in when children are being sexualised and physically harmed by adults? How did we come to this?
Making or using child pornography is rightly considered one of the worst crimes. Child pornography shows children — legally defined in most Western countries as people under the age of 16 — in sexual poses and sexual activity. There is, however, a lot of material traded as child pornography that also shows children engaged in everyday activities such as swimming, bathing or dressing, and which has been put to use in a sinister context.
While we are constantly bombarded with distressing media stories suggesting that paedophile rings are growing, we are rarely given any hard facts. One of the biggest problems in gauging the size of the trade in child pornography is that the laws proscribing any contact with such material are so broad that it’s barely possible to do any research in the area without winding up in prison.
For legal and ethical reasons, the authors of The Porn Report agreed to make no attempt to access any sites that claimed to feature people who looked to be or were under the age of 18. However, we did interview somebody who knows a lot about the subject and we looked at the best available research into the subject.
Taskforce Argos is a Queensland State police body chartered to investigate sexual crimes against children. Part of that charter involves investigating child pornography on the internet. In 2005 we spoke to Inspector John Rouse, then head of Taskforce Argos, and asked him about the availability of child pornography on the internet.
The first point he made was that police don’t like to use the term "child pornography" — they prefer the term "child abuse material". He went on to say that child abuse material is not part of commercial pornography distribution on the internet.
"My impression from the web-based distributors of pornography," he told us, "is that they’re not real keen on child abuse pornography at all. They’re probably like you and me — they find it appalling." He said that the chances of stumbling across this material on the internet are minimal as it isn’t really distributed on web pages. Paedophiles use the internet as a form of communication, posting images to each other electronically through "peer-to-peer communication software". So you can’t normally find child abuse images just by surfing the web. When child porn is posted openly on the
net the risk of detection is very high.
Inspector Rouse told us that child abuse material is largely produced commercially in poor or developing countries, including former Soviet bloc nations. In Australia, however, "there is no evidence of commercial production to date". What child abuse material is produced in Australia is made "not for a commercial purpose, more for self-gratification, or distribution among … paedophile networks".
Rouse told us about one case where: "We are alleging that the photographer [of a shot of a man having sex with a five-year-old girl]is the father of the five-year-old girl … the father shared the five-year-old girl and took the pictures … there’s numerous stories like that that I could tell you … a lot of it is going to be intra-familial offences of photographing their own children … About 35 to 40 per cent of the male offenders that were arrested out of Operation Auxin [which targeted child abuse material]were parents, in family situations … a lot of married men with children."
Rouse’s comments about the situation in Australia fit in with international research on the same issue. One of the few credible scholars who has done recent and detailed work on the content and consumption of child pornography is Philip Jenkins, a distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University.
Jenkins decided to take on this harrowing task because he was concerned that the barriers to researching child abuse material meant that the public was not getting good information about how much of it there was online and how many people used it. He worked methodically for three years to locate well-hidden bulletin boards and other sites where people swapped and discussed child abuse materials. To avoid viewing the images, he disabled the "autoload image" function of his web browser. When he visited bulletin boards and other sites where child abuse images were exchanged, he only saw written text and generic icons indicating that photographic material was available.
Despite not having actually viewed images of child abuse material, Jenkins was still able to gather a lot of very detailed and disturbing information about the underworld that uses this material. Enthusiasts of child abuse materials talked in great detail about the content of videos and photographs on the bulletin boards he visited, regularly reviewing material for each other. According to the discussions, the material included images of preschoolers being molested and older children being raped.
Jenkins estimates that people involved in the hardcore child porn subculture number in the tens of thousands globally — certainly a disturbing number but one that represents only a tiny fraction of online material. He also notes, reassuringly, that the bulletin boards and newsgroups he used for his research are "exceedingly difficult to find" and cannot be located by using an ordinary search engine. Easily accessed websites that claimed to show young teens, he found, almost always showed adult women and men claiming to be younger than they were. Genuine child pornography, Jenkins concludes, is made, shared and consumed by a very small underground circle of people who are almost all male.
To give another example of the scale of the problem, in 2004 the biggest police operation ever mounted in Australia to target consumers of child pornography netted 194 men out of a population of 20 million. The chief of operations in the State of NSW, Detective Superintendent Kim McKay, made similar comments to Rouse when he told the media that Australia did not have large rings of child pornographers, that the internet had made distributors and consumers easier to catch, and that the real problem lay with the failure of some governments in developing and poorer countries to protect children from abuse.
But even though the trade in child abuse materials comprises a tiny part of the traffic on the internet, Jenkins observes that the "scale of the enterprise they support is depressing, as is the constant infusion of new materials".
So who are these men? And what drives them?
The common picture of a paedophile is of an anti-social and pathologically inadequate drifter who lives on the very fringes of society. In fact, based on his years of visiting bulletin boards, Jenkins concludes that a significant proportion of these men are tertiary educated professionals. Certainly they are people who need to have a very sophisticated grasp of the computer technology they use to access and share material.
The bulletin board conversations Jenkins recorded certainly show that many enthusiasts of child pornography are capable of trying to rationalise their abhorrent behaviour. A good example of this is provided by a British collector, Adrian Thompson, who was convicted in 2000. He adopted as a motto the acronym VEDNE, which stands for "View Evil, Do No Evil".
Jenkins comments, "The phrase neatly encapsulates the attitudes of many board participants, or at least their public personas … Throughout the correspondence on the boards, numerous contributors emphasise the innocence of their interest, their hobby. They are ‘just looking’; they would not enact their fantasies in a real-world context; and they express vigorous hostility towards anyone who genuinely has sex with a child — though Thompson’s motto concedes that the material he was collecting was ‘evil’."
This justification is nonsense, of course. Child porn enthusiasts are just as implicated in the abuse of the children as the real-life abusers. By creating a demand for these images they are potentially encouraging the abuse of children and, by taking pleasure from them, they are compounding the damage done to the victims. While it may well be true that many who view child abuse materials draw the line at offending against a child in real life, it’s no comfort to the children whose abuse they take pleasure in.
The users of this material, then, are not likely to be living in your street, only because they form such a minority of the population. But by the same token, he or even she may be someone who seems entirely above board. Most worryingly, he or she is probably a family member or somebody already known to the child. Sadly, the great majority of sexual abuse of children is perpetrated by a family member or by someone known to the family.
Even if the child abuser is not somebody in the family of the victim, they will probably be someone who is seen to be trustworthy. They may be a politician, a journalist, a religious leader, a judge or a teacher. Paedophiles, whether active or merely voyeuristic, do not appear in the monster costume you’d expect, given their media image. All of the evidence suggests that they are often very good at gaining the trust of parents and children and that they may gravitate to positions of authority where they have access to children.
So what should we do to protect our children?
It’s clear that we need to teach our children that you can’t judge an adult by his or her job, by their kind smile or even by their connection to a family. The single most important thing children need to know is that they have a right to say "no" if an adult tries to touch them inappropriately or does something that makes them feel uncomfortable, and that they should tell an adult they trust about what happened right away. Sexual abusers of children rely on the fact that most children have been taught to obey adults and that some will do so unquestioningly.
Children need boundaries, of course, but they also need to be told when it’s okay to disobey a grown-up and why. One of the strongest arguments for age-appropriate sex education in our schools is that it lifts the taboo on discussing bodies and sexual feelings, makes children more comfortable about disclosing any abuse to parents or others, and gives children a healthy sense that they have a say in who touches them and who doesn’t.
When it comes to the much bigger question of how we eradicate the trade in child abuse materials, the picture is much bleaker, according to Professor Jenkins and other experts. The main way in which its consumers and producers are caught are entrapment in chat rooms by police officers posing as children or young teenagers, discovery of child abuse materials when they put their computers in to be repaired, or — very rarely — discovery by internet service providers who alert law enforcement agencies. As Jenkins found, however, the great majority of hardcore enthusiasts of child pornography are experts at evading detection.
They never visit chat rooms, they use bogus email addresses and identities, they upload material and distribute a password decoding the downloaded images days later on a separate bulletin board, and they are very careful about where they store their collections. For all of these reasons, it’s far more likely that newcomers to the subculture, not the hardcore members of it, will be caught.
That said, we should resource and support all possible initiatives to target the trade in child abuse materials and to encourage child protection laws in countries where the sex trafficking of children and young teenagers is endemic. Jenkins also strongly believes that there needs to be a concerted international effort to suppress the newsgroups and bulletin boards that provide a forum for fans of child abuse materials.
There is, unfortunately, no magic bullet that will rid us of child pornography or child sexual abuse. But if we want to confront the problem, we need to do it rationally and resource solutions which are evidence-based. We also need to give the children in our own communities the confidence to talk to trusted adults about anything bad that happens to them.
This is an edited extract of The Porn Report, Melbourne University Press, $34.95.