I read a cringe-worthy article today that posits the solution to protecting children from predators is to be more careful about sharing pictures of children on social media, and not educating people on how and why child sexual abuse happens and what we can do to prevent it in the first place. Apparently people think that pedophiles are a monolith and will just take photos of children and photoshop them to be sexual. After all, it’s not like law enforcement hands out abuse images (to catch criminals, they say). And of course it’s really hard to find photos of children without such manipulation (it’s not, I’ve been told).

The real bit that turns your head is that the same task force this Erin Cash was a part of, Argos, has been responsible for distributing child pornography (harmful sexual imagery). But that really isn’t the point here. Let’s talk about some real reasons why you wouldn’t want to put images of children on social media that aren’t based in hypocritical fear-mongering.

Now, before I continue let me briefly explain this whole minor-attracted person thing for those of you who don’t read this blog frequently:

Consent and Ethics

The basic idea of any kind of photography is that you have the consent of the subjects you’re filming especially if you’re not recording in a public place. Do you have that child’s permission to post that picture? Does the child understand, when that picture is taken, how many people will see it and how it can impact them because it’s on the internet? If the answer to those questions is no, then parents, family, caregivers, and friends shouldn’t be posting it. It’s really that simple.

That has nothing to do with trying to scare the public about how all pedophiles are supposedly predators. That has to do with simple fact that once something is on the internet, it’s there. It’s there when that child is in middle school, trying to form their own identity. It’s there in high school, when that child is trying to form a peer group and build a reputation. It’s there when they look for jobs.

The Realities of Child Sexual Abuse

Child sexual abuse is an ugly phenomenon that most of us want to know nothing about. We’re disgusted by the mere mention of it. But the reality is, if a child is going to be sexually harmed, it will be by someone they know and trust (90%), by an older child who is still a juvenile (35-50%), and it will happen in a one-on-one situation in a residence (80%). These are basic facts that many child sexual abuse prevention organizations touch on.

But here’s one that many prevention organizations ignore: Most people who sexually harm children have no attraction to them (70-80%). They’re not pedophiles, they’re situational abusers, who are using children for pleasure the same way others form maladaptive and harmful behaviors to cope with the stresses of life. They’re divorced moms or dads who can’t find a boyfriend or girlfriend. They’re depressed aunts and uncles or friends of the family. We’re talking about people who know that sexually harming children is wrong, but do it anyways for any range of reasons.

There’s another ugly truth that any social worker can tell you: The social systems for intervening when children are harmed took a huge hit during the pandemic. They have more reports than they know what to do with, and they’re forced to triage reports that will absolutely result in a slam-dunk prosecution.

The Realities of the War on Child Pornography

It is incredibly easy to find child pornography. I’ve heard everything from social media hashtags to the dark net, accessible via Tor, to Facebook groups and Discord. It’s out there to find if you know how or where to look. The people generating that content aren’t the people photoshopping innocent images. Photoshopping images as the article suggests would take hours and hours of work for each image to make it look realistic. Ask anyone who’s ever manipulated any kind of image and they will tell you it takes awhile.

The people generating harmful sexual imagery of children are the people sexually abusing children. Sometimes, in poorer countries, they’re paying parents for access to their children. Sometimes they’re a pedophile. But that’s very different from the people who view child pornography in my experience.

I’ve talked with many people over the years who view these harmful sexual images and they usually have a few things in common:

  • They were exposed to it either by accident or through their own trauma as a youth themselves
  • They wish they never had viewed any of this imagery in the first place
  • They’re afraid of facing consequences, whether or not they do stop viewing
  • They’re very different from the people who are distributing this harmful imagery or even producing it

The reality is, many of the people who view harmful sexual imagery are attracted to children. A small-scale study done in 2013 found that figure to be 60%, though more study is needed. But here’s the thing. Rather than trying to give minor-attracted people any kind of ethical outlet, many elements of society are trying to reveal our real identities (think vigilante groups), criminalize ethical outlets that do exist, and make it harder to even do advocacy around treating us like the human beings we are.

There are fictional images of children in sexual situations that do not involve any real child. It would be very simple to take the very hash lists that authorities and nonprofits use to identify harmful sexual imagery, and form a very different list of images that are specifically fictional in nature and therefore not worthy of criminal charges. It would be simple for law enforcement groups to cooperate with artists and digital wizards that can create this imagery to certify such content as having not harmed any child at all.

There is no existing science on these kinds of images. However, many countries such as France, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia have already made not only looking at fictional imagery a crime, they’ve even made books that describe children in sexual situations illegal. That’s right, they’ve made it illegal to read a book or a text.

We have the capability of creating ethical imagery that minor-attracted people can use instead of harmful sexual imagery of real children. We have the tools to make a significant dent in the consumption of this real material. Why won’t we pursue that as a possibility?

If we want to protect children from sexual violence, we need to focus on the facts and we need to think critically – not engage in moral panics that rob us of our ability to think.