The online abuse of children is a growing problem, and Australia in particular has an important role to play, given we’re one of the bigger markets. Matthew C. Clarke explains.
In a well-reported case during 2017, an Australian and a Filipino were arrested for the repeated sexual abuse of a girl from the age of 10 to 15. The Filipino was the girl’s mother. The Australian never touched the girl, but watched over the internet from home, and paid the mother to instruct the girl how he wanted her to act.
This case exemplifies a growing international market in online child abuse.
The horror goes by various names. “Cybersex trafficking” to some. “Live online child sexual abuse” is favoured by the Interagency Working Group in their Luxembourg Guidelines. “Live distant child abuse” is preferred by the recent Australian report Behind the Screen. I will use the phrase “online child sexual exploitation” (OSEC), which is becoming more commonly used, especially in the Philippines.
All of those phrases refer to a marketplace in which observers pay for young children – typically under 12 – to be filmed performing sexual acts. The children are coerced to perform under the immediate supervision of someone with a web cam and at the behest of a paying customer who directs the degradation under the safe anonymity of the internet.
It is hard to write dispassionately about such crimes.
When I visited the Philippines recently, OSEC was front-and-centre in the minds of child care agencies and in the attention of the public. I spoke with the directors of child care agencies among the poorer communities of Cebu and Manila, and all were concerned about the growing market in this type of abuse.
We are not just talking about naked photos snapped while a child takes a bath – though even that can entail exploitation, coercion and lasting trauma – but a continuum of deliberate and repeated physical abuse that includes babies under one-year-old. In at least one case reported in the Philippines, the abuse ended in death.
The structure of abuse
According to some, the root cause of exploitation is our global political economy, which actively creates a class of people ripe for manipulation, and which enables others to gain by their mistreatment.
In cases of OSEC, I think this is clearly an inadequate explanation because it ignores the agency of individuals who are directly involved. Yes, there are structural issues that generate a climate of vulnerability, but to say they cause the abuse is an insult to the millions of people who, though just as much a part of those structures as the OSEC perpetrators, choose NOT to engage in such abuse.
OSEC perpetrators fall into three categories, each with their own motives and rewards. The first category are the hands-on abusers, who misuse their positions of trust to gain money by sexualising children as young as three months old, and selling what they film.
According to Philippines police, many of those abusers are the child’s relatives, even their mothers.
The second category are market facilitators, the middlemen who link the “supply” to the “demand”. They find people with access to children and negotiate rates. Such middlemen are not always necessary, but they can amass unimaginable video collections and profit from their resale through web sites and pedophile clubs.
The third group of perpetrators are the “customers” whose money and instructions direct the hands-on abusers.
In each case, these perpetrators make choices, and take away choices from the children they abuse.
One major challenge for the groups working to eradicate online sexual abuse of children is that we do not know the extent of this “market”. That’s partly because it is a new form of abuse, without an established history of measurement approaches or agreed metrics.
Looking at reported cases and prosecutions, however, suggests that the number of incidents is rapidly increasing.
Measuring the extent of OSEC is also made difficult by the technology that enables it. There is no easy way to monitor the whole internet, even though a substantial portion of the communications for OSEC happen on the open web. Even if that were feasible, the effect would merely be to drive more of the communications to encrypted channels and to the so-called “dark web”.
The use of the internet means that the abuse is without geographic boundary. As a consequence, established approaches to the measurement of more tangible forms of slavery and exploitation – such as undertaking detailed studies in carefully segmented geographical areas and then extrapolating the findings to larger areas – cannot be applied to OSEC.
These factors, along with the paucity of investigative techniques, limited resources for police and prosecution, and outdated laws, all conspire to make the prevalence of OSEC unmeasurable. We should also note, however, that the impact is immeasurable.
Unmeasurable/immeasurable – maybe that’s a pedantic linguistic distinction, but what I mean is that our inability to measure the one does not minimise the gravity of the other. On the one hand, a quantitative measure of the extent of OSEC is not currently possible. But on the other hand, we know with absolute clarity that the impact on each one of those young victims is immeasurable: beyond measure. The destructive impact is not something that could be measured nor needs to be measured, but stands out starkly as incomprehensibly horrid and indefensible.
How could anyone do this?
All of this raises the question of motive. The crime seems so horrendous that we have to ask how anyone could bring themselves to do it. For answers, we have to turn to speculation at this point, because evidence and research are largely absent.
All three types of perpetrator share a common blind spot – the harm to their victims. There may be some perpetrators motivated by perverse pleasure in the suffering they cause. But my guess is that those people are in the minority. The majority are either oblivious to that suffering or deceive themselves into thinking that the children do not actually suffer.
Perhaps we are most shocked when the hands-on abuser is the child’s parents. If we get past that shock, what can we suppose might be motivating them?
Some middlemen are possibly just commercially motivated, but we don’t really know.
One “customer” said in his defence that “the children appeared happy”. That kind of rationalisation is clearly denied by the evidence of children who carry extreme physical and emotional scars for the rest of their lives.
That customer, along with many others, was an Australian man. In fact Australia is one of the most lucrative marketplaces for the abuse of Filipino children. Why is that? Could it be in part because we all turn a blind eye to it? Could it be that our legal system considers the “customer” less culpable than the hands-on abuser? Could it be that the risk to the “customer” is so slim?
More work is needed to prevent, expose and prosecute cases of OSEC. Australia is moving in that direction, with organisations such as International Justice Mission motivating the federal government to include cybersex trafficking in legislative changes currently before the Senate.
More work is needed to protect, rescue and restore victims.
Along with those changes, we also need to do more to understand the choices perpetrators make. If we cannot understand and undermine those motives, then all the other work to stop OSEC will simply cause perpetrators to find other victims and other ways to continue the abuse.
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