Reviews > Culture

Images have consequences

Culture | "Virtual" porn still harms children

Issue: "The trouble with Tommy," May 4, 2002

The Supreme Court, for all practical purposes, has legalized child pornography.

In its ruling Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, the court struck down provisions of the Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996 that outlawed what has been termed "virtual" child pornography (see "Run against the court," May/June, 2002). That is, computer-generated images depicting children as sex objects that pornographers manufacture without using real children. The CPPA had also banned the lower-tech device of using legal-age actors who look like children.

Before, the laws against kiddy porn evaded the protections of the First Amendment because photographs of adults having sex with little children are records of a crime. Sex with a minor, consensual or not, is statutory rape. The issue was not free speech but child abuse.

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But image-manipulation technology has revolutionized the porn industry. Now it is possible to show adults having sex with children without actually having to violate real little kids, although the final product looks just the same.

Since it is often almost impossible to tell the difference between actual and virtual visualizations of child abuse, porn fans and pedophiles can now cultivate their passions under the guise of "just pretending." And those who are still abusing real children can say that their photographs are "virtual," a claim difficult to disprove, making them nearly immune from prosecution.

But child pornography is harmful not just to the children it depicts but to its user, inflaming him to pedophilial lusts, and to the culture as a whole, which must protect its children and prevent them from being seen as legitimate sex objects. Legitimizing sexual fantasies about children can do nothing less than enable pedophiles, many of whom will act out their desires as real-life child molesters. The issue is not just the method by which child pornography is produced, but its content, its purpose, and its effects-all of which the court ignored.

In striking down the statute, whose language banned material that "appeared to be" that of a minor in a sexually explicit situation, Justice Anthony Kennedy fretted that the provision would outlaw great works of literature. "Teenage sexual activity and the sexual abuse of children have inspired countless literary works," he said, such as Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

But Juliet would not even leave the balcony with Romeo until they were married, a requirement that Romeo, since he truly loved Juliet, was eager to meet. As for their wedding night, Shakespeare certainly did not "depict" them having sex!

The learned judge had in mind contemporary movie versions of Romeo and Juliet, some of which show the actors in bed. He also cited the Academy Award-winning American Beauty, about a man in a mid-life crisis who lusts after the high-school cheerleader who is his daughter's best friend, a vastly overrated film with some pseudo-teenage nudity.

Mr. Kennedy is clearly following the legal theory that law and the interpretation of the Constitution should follow cultural trends, rather than regulate them. And, indeed, the sexualization of children is a growing trend in the culture as a whole.

The entertainment industry sells sexually charged music, TV shows, and movies even to very young children. The fashion industry has little girls in grade school wearing bikinis. The homosexual establishment is trying to legitimize man-boy sex by changing the way it is portrayed in academia and in the psychological professions. And a church body with arguably the most conservative teachings about sexual morality tolerates within its midst a subculture of child molesters.

What can parents do to protect their children in this cultural climate? Urge their legislators to pass new legislation against child pornography, crafted so as to pass constitutional muster. Rise up in anger against lawmakers who refuse to confirm conservative judges, including candidates for the Supreme Court.

Forbid their little girls to dress like prostitutes. (Yes, she will howl. Yes, she will whine. But this is a time to be a parent.) Forbid their little boys to go on one-on-one sleepovers and other unsupervised activities with adult males. This includes youth ministers, pastors, teachers, Scoutmasters. (Yes, this penalizes and casts a shroud of distrust on good, upright youth leaders. But such professions attract child abusers, as well as child helpers, and neither legitimate youth leaders nor parents can afford to be naïve.)

Children must be protected both from sexual predators and from a culture that wants to turn them into voluntary sexual objects. The entertainment industry, from CDs to video games, has ratings for parental guidance, though hardly anyone pays attention to them. Television sets have built-in V-chips that can prevent adult-rated shows from coming on, but parents almost never use this technology.

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