Friday, June 3, 2016

Why Words Matter: Child Pornography, Sex Offenders, And Pedophiles

I ran across an article on my news feed today by Abuse Stoppers. I was close to retweeting it, but then with the name Abuse Stoppers and my experiences with them in the past, I thought it would be a great idea to check out what they say about "What Parents Should Know About Child Pornography". I am glad that I did. I have read much of their material before, and I have told them before that some of the language they use is not in line with their goal of stopping or preventing sexual abuse. Here, I would like to make a more detailed argument for why that is by analyzing their most recent article about child pornography (or, as some researchers call it, child sexual exploitation material, or CSEM for short).

Part One: A Definition Of Child Pornography

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The article starts off great, which is why I would want to retweet it and share it. Defining child pornography, or CSEM, is important because not everyone realizes how specific the legal understanding of CSEM is. Of course, not everyone realizes how broad that understanding is either. As they mention later on, a case of a minor sending a nude text (a sext, or sexting) of themselves to another minor can legally be considered possession and distribution of child pornography. There have been cases where such has been charged as well. In short, what child pornography is legally, and what child pornography is to researchers, are often two different things.

I have discussed before how child sexual abuse is such if the child was traumatized or victimized, otherwise known as a therapeutic definition of child sexual abuse. I have also discussed pornography in general, and how even adult pornography can be exploitative because of the circumstances of the actors or the conditions in which the pornography is produced. There, I also discuss the very real and very terrifying impact that CSEM can have on its victims: Once an image is on the internet, there is no erasing it. A victim can live in constant fear of who has seen them naked as a child.

I think a legal definition does not quite do justice the very real harm that child sexual exploitation material has on its victims. The best equivalent analogy I can use for most people is this: Picture your most embarrassing moment, that it was filmed, and then uploaded to Youtube with your real name, address, and phone number. That is a terrifying thought, right? While the trauma that a victim endures can vary greatly from none at all to quite a lot, the damage is often invisible and only made real by the victims talking about it. That is why I link to the story of "Vicky" and of "Amy" and "Nicole": To drive home the point that child pornography, rightly called child sexual exploitation material, has a real and harsh impact on its victims.

Part Two: Producers Of Child Pornography

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Their third question has to do with who produces CSEM. And in the first sentence, they will tell you that "sex offenders" do, when they have found a way to profit from sexually abusing children. What they do not tell you is that the vast majority of sexual abusers of children have never been caught. They are not on a registry or list. They also do not tell you that CSEM production is motivated very differently than abuse or CSEM consumption. They touch a little bit on the reasons that abusers will record the acts, but production and consumption have very different motivations, and most who engage in either are not in fact "sex offenders", but ordinary people who have deluded themselves into thinking that producing or consuming this pornography will help them get their needs met.

Calling them "sex offenders" implies that they have been caught and registered, that they are less human, and that they do nothing but commit sexual offenses. On the contrary, those who work with sex offenders will tell you about how low the recidivism rate for the average sex offender is. They will tell you just how unlikely it is that someone caught for possessing child pornography is even less likely than the average sex offender to commit another sexual offense. Sex offenders are people who made extremely poor choices because they were desperate, deluded, and rationalized sex into being the solution for whatever problem they were facing.

I harp on this for several reasons: First and most importantly, because by using the word "sex offenders", those with such offenses on their record are dehumanized and stigmatized into a boogeyman that simply does not fit the reality of the typical person that actually commits such offenses. In other words, it perpetuates the myth that those who abuse children are the otherwordly "them", the monsters and freaks we cannot relate to. By perpetuating that myth, we are blind to abuse when it occurs and we react with shock. Surely not Jimmy Savile!?! He was such a caring man! Surly not Jerry Sandusky!?! He was such a great coach! Those reactions are the end result of the myths that it is monsters who abuse our children, not human beings making poor choices.

Second, by focusing our attention on sex offenders who, for the most part, do not commit another offense, we ignore the vast majority (over 85%) who actually abuse children. When our attention is not on those who can and do abuse children, but on those who do not, then those who abuse children are enabled into doing it more. Finally, using "sex offenders" as the go-to term for those who abuse children, or produce CSEM, or consume CSEM, or engage in sex trafficking means that all of these offenses are treated the same, when their motivations and impacts (and thus their solutions) are very different.

Part Three: Sexual Material Of Children Reduces Child Rape

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The question they are attempting to answer is a complex one for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it assumes that pedophiles, or those attracted to children, are predisposed to raping children. This is a myth that is not true, and that warrants its own section (which they do not address at all). Secondly, it minimizes the impact that child pornography has on its victims and trivializes its existence by assuming that giving "stacks of it" to pedophiles would somehow not harm its victims (this is another point that is not addressed). Thirdly, the question stems from the idea that as long as no children are harmed, everything is fine... Except that child pornography does harm children. It is child harm caught on film or camera (which is a rather obvious and expected point that, again, is not addressed in their answer to the question). Finally, the question does not really define how the word "pedophiles" is being used (nor does their answer define the word either).

Their answer is extremely harmful for a variety of reasons as well: Firstly, they treat rapists, pedophiles, and abusers as all one in the same (I just detailed in part two why this is a bad idea). A pedophile is someone who is attracted to children. A rapist, generally, refers to adult sexual assault, where abuser generally refers to someone who has abused a child. Someone who rapes adults generally does not rape children, someone who abuses a child does not generally abuse adults, and the statistics we have indicate that not only is most child sexual abuse not perpetrated by pedophiles, most pedophiles do not commit acts of child sexual abuse. There is evidence that is more common for pedophiles to consume CSEM. However, I would wager that most pedophiles, like any other thinking human being, recognize the inherent harm in using children for sexual acts and wish to avoid causing that harm. Not to mention the fact that equating child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation material, which is a choice, with an attraction to children, which is not a choice, minimizes the abusive and exploitative acts,  So using the word "pedophile", as I have argued before, must be avoided in such a manner.

Secondly, they give "facts" about pedophiles that I know to not be true. They say, for example, that pedophiles value the relationship with their prey. Most people I know who are attracted to children view them as children, not prey. They also say that a pedophile's sexual attraction to children intensifies over time unless it is treated. That is like saying that depression gets worse unless it is treated, or that ADHD gets worse until it is treated, or that autism gets worse unless it is treated. None of that is necessarily true: If one ignores the very real needs that any of those conditions bring to the table, they certainly get "worse". However, some people learn to manage having a sexual attraction to children on their own without therapy. The DSM-V recognizes this, as I touched on in my post about pedophilia. The exact quote is, "Pedophilia per se appears to be a lifelong condition. Pedophilic disorder, however, necessarily includes other elements that may change over time with or without treatment: subjective distress (e.g., guilt, shame, intense sexual frustration, or feelings of isolation) or psychosocial impairment, or the propensity to act out sexually with children, or both.
Therefore, the course of pedophilic disorder may fluctuate, increase, or decrease with age."

Thirdly, they claim that the presence of child pornography hastens the development of sexual predators. I have touched before on how sexual predators are rare and ill-defined. Throwing around different terms as if they all mean the same thing is a subtle way of making all of them sound the same, when in truth they are not. Finally, they claim that using child pornography makes a sexual attraction to children more intense and leads to the belief that sexually abusing children is okay. This ignores the addictive element to pornography, that as more is used, more is needed to get the same psychological reaction, which is the byproduct of an addictive behavior, not an attraction to children. It also ignores the obvious fact that child pornography, like adult pornography, uses people who act certain ways. Children are often forced to appear as if they enjoy what is happening, and as such child pornography does not always look like abuse. So it is very possible for child pornography to lead to the belief, not that it is okay to sexually abuse children, but that sexual acts with a child are not abusive.

Their answer to the question raises far more questions than it answers. I could answer their question quite simply:

"No, giving child pornography to pedophiles will not prevent child sexual abuse from occurring. Using child sexual abuse imagery to gratiate people who are attracted to children can be seen as harmful even to the pedophiles themselves. There are some exclusive pedophiles who may benefit from drawn images depicting children in sexual situations as a relief from their attractions, but for most pedophiles such imagery, whether real or drawn, will reinforce their attraction to children and cause them to think about it more, not less."

Part Four: Pool Pictures And Children On Social Media

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Again, most of what they say is great here, but there is that one word or phase that changes the meaning of what they are saying. They talk about how clothed pictures of children, such as at a pool or beach, are sexually gratifying to pedophiles. Technically this is true, and as they say this is not child pornography. But the question indicates someone who is at a pool or beach taking pictures of children there, which raises all sorts of other concerns. Are the children consenting to have their picture taken, or are the parents aware? Is this man a photographer trying to capture a certain scene, or are we to just assume he is a pedophile because he is a man and he is taking pictures of children? What do you really know about their reasons for taking pictures, and how do you know, apart from seeing them take the pictures, that they collect these pictures? Are you going on their computer without their knowledge? Both the question and the answer are completely non-specific and assume the worst.

They also say that someone having a collection of pictures with clothed children is "dangerous". I would use the word "concerning", because as I have discussed before, you are going to get nowhere fast if your first conversation with someone you care about goes something like, "Hey, you have a lot of pictures of little kids. That's dangerous, you must be a pedophile. Want to talk about it?" Pedophiles are people, and they are not going to want any sort of help or discussion if the first thing they hear is fear and stigma. Imagine approaching a depressed person and saying, "You seem a little blue. Do you have depression? Do you want to talk about it?" That is exactly what pedophiles face from an ignorant person.

Then there is the second question, and their acknowledgment that people do not get obsessed with kidnapping a kid by seeing them on social media is just fantastic. Again, I would not call such a person a sex offender, but a sexual abuser or potential sexual abuser. I have no idea where their research numbers are coming from, however. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, .27% of the United States are registered sex offenders. Of those, 66% are sex offenders whose crimes involved a minor (Darkness To Light's Stewards of Children). In other words, .178% of the population of the United States are "child sex offenders". They say that 85% of child sex abusers will not get caught. Math experts can critique this, but that tells me that 1.19% of the population should be child sex offenders, not 3-9% of men and 1-3% of women that they claim. I have discussed before the estimated number of pedophiles (2% of adolescent and adult men) and how few pedophiles of those (7.98%) would be expected to molest children, given the information we have. They also continue using the word "sex offenders" to mean people who have sexually abused or exploited children, when most of them (as they just pointed out are not actually caught and registered as sex offenders, which means they already acknowledge that they are not sex offenders...).

Part Five: Online Risk Of "Sexual Predators"

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Okay, do I really need to go into detail again about how less than 5% of the aforementioned .27% (.0135% of Americans, in other words) are actual sexual predators? Yet they keep using the term as if it means that every child sexual abuser and exploiter are sexual predators (when reality and statistics indicate that this assumption is very, very wrong). While I certainly believe the statistic - that one in five children are approached by "online predators" - those who approach minors for sexual reasons... Well, the reasons are almost always entirely non-sexual. Yes, sex might be the topic. But the issues that are driving them to seek out these sexual conversations or encounters are typically unrelated to sex. I am attracted to young children. I also molested a young child. The reasons were largely unresolved needs, emotional and otherwise. I have discussed this before. Every single person in my treatment group had committed their sexual offenses for similar reasons: Unmet needs.

I think if you survey researchers, they would likely support my statements. I know these things because I have been there. While they do not acknowledge those facts, they do very correctly point out that the likelihood of a child being victimized by someone online (again, they continue to use "sex offenders" and "predators"...) is slim to none. They also hint at the grooming process (which is a topic for another time, though I have discussed how grooming is often unintentional), but do not go into detail or link a helpful resource. Again, great information, except for the stigmatizing and misleading language they use to describe people who abuse children or approach them for sex.

Part Six: Sexting And Online Safety

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The first question they tackle here is what sexting is, and how the images can be used to blackmail, bully, and exploit children - by other children. You read that right. They rightly point out that this is legally child pornography. And yes, children have faced legal trouble for sexting other children. Sexting is a serious issue, not because children do it, but because they do it without guidance or supervision of any kind. They have no rules to follow, and there is no one to make sure it will not be exploitative (and we would obviously take issue with an adult monitoring who has which sexual image of which child). The laws have also not caught up to the widespread phenomenon of sexting, which makes the issue even harder. None of those issues are really discussed. The bottom line is that children need to be able to set boundaries and rules, and have the guts to talk to a trusted adult when those boundaries and rules are being broken (without being seen as a tattle-tale).

This flows naturally into their next point that online safety is a must, and that it must be consistent and without qualifiers. I would take an even more drastic stance of saying that children should be taught online safety even before they start using technology, so that they are accustomed to using it safely before they begin to use it at all (you would not start teaching bandsaw safety after the switch has already been turned on, correct?). The linked site, NetSmartz, is a program run by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and is absolutely fantastic as a resource. I am rather surprised that they did not link to that, or a similar resource for online safety.

Part Seven: Children And Pornography; Statute Of Limitations

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Their final question attempts to tackle the messy, sticky issue of what a parent should do if they find their child looking at pornography and how to handle that situation. What they give attempts a factual, calming answer that looking at pornography is generally harmful for children, that some viewing is normal and inevitable, and that if a prepubescent child is viewing it, it can indicate abuse. One extremely helpful resource you could use in talking to your children about sex and pornography is Alice Dreger's book, which is extremely cheap on Amazon. Another extremely helpful resource in determining which behaviors are age-appropriate for children is Stop It Now's list and resources.

The banner advertisement at the bottom will link you to information about a bill currently pending in New York to eliminate the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse, and other related crimes. While I do not typically wade into the thorny mess of legal issues, I will point out that this legislation, like so much legislation before it, is focused primarily on a victim. It is focused not on verifiable fact that will protect children, but on emotive stories. The statute of limitations exists to shield people from claims that can neither be proven or disproven, and shield the justice system from getting bogged down by old or irrelevant cases that would have no good legal conclusion. I am sure that a lawyer will correct me on the nuances of why the statute of limitations exists.

Child sexual abuse certainly has an impact on children, particularly a financial cost. The state of Minnesota has eliminated the statute of limitations for civil suits related to child sexual abuse, but not for criminal wrongdoing. I believe that is the best balanced approach, as there are some people, rare though it may be, that would exploit a system in order to get revenge on someone and falsely accuse them because of something completely unrelated. I do not believe that eliminating the criminal statute of limitations for child sexual abuse and related crimes would be helpful in the long run, as the greatest need a victim can have besides closure (legal cases are often long and drawn-out if they go to trial) is the money to attend therapy and heal from their abuse. Taking the approach that Minnesota has taken of eliminating the civil limitation, but not the criminal justice limitation, balances the need for resources to heal and the civil rights of the accused. Our justice system is based on the idea of "innocent until proven guilty", not the other way around.

Conclusion

Abuse Stoppers has some great articles and great information. However, they must clean up the language that they use so that it is accurate to the issues involved in preventing child sexual abuse, and so that people are focused on the right population of people. I love adding additional resources to my blog, and retweeting great posts that help people understand how child sexual abuse can be prevented. But I will never plain retweet an article or post that conveys wrong attitudes or information. These things must be corrected in order for me to retweet their information.

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