(Don’t) Think Different

Thought Crime

(Don’t) think different

Thought crime. It’s usually a topic of dystopian science fiction novels like 1984 or movies like Minority Report, or something you would expect from totalitarian dictatorial regimes like Kim Jong-un’s North Korea or Pinochet’s Chile. However, if the information presented by Stop it Now!’s UK campaign to provide support for people who are struggling with and would like to quit viewing ‘illegal images of children’ is legally accurate, we are actually seeing it in allegedly civilized societies like David Cameron’s UK.

Let me start by saying that I fully oppose the existence of actual child pornography, defined as pictures or videos of actual real children engaged in sexually explicit acts or poses, either with adults, with other children or on their own. People who create or produce child pornography are actively abusing children or coercing them — not necessarily by force — into performing sexual acts among themselves in front of a recording device, and that undoubtedly causes significant harm to them. Thus, such people should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and law enforcement should put as many resources as possible into identifying those that do so.

For those who seek and consume child pornography, and while I fully support child porn being illegal, they — and society — would be better served by receiving help and therapy instead of the incredibly harsh sentences they receive today in some countries like the UK and US. In fact, we’ve gotten to an extreme with sentencing for crimes of possession of child porn that pedophiles risks less years of their lives in jail if they sexually abuse a child than if they watch a handful of pictures on their computer. In what world that makes sense is something that completely escapes me.

A program like Stop It Now!’s is an indication of the realization that we can’t just arrest our way out of the problem of online child pornography, and it’s good news for pedophiles who may be wishing to stop but are afraid to seek help to do so — providing access to fully confidential resources could make a huge difference. However, we have a really important issue in our hands regarding how we define child pornography and what is and isn’t illegal to access, view and/or download on the internet.

Let’s take a look at what Stop it Now!’s website describes as ‘illegal to access’, in the not-so-aptly named ‘No Grey Area’ section:

«Non-sexual images of children: Access to any images of children is illegal if they are being accessed to satisfy sexual needs. This includes nude, semi-nude and clothed images of children, even if they aren’t depicting a sexual situation. The police will investigate the possession of multiple images of clothed children.»

This brings about an alarming amount of issues that I will try to address here. Let’s start by the conditional used to qualify whether an image is illegal to access or not: “…if they are being accessed to satisfy sexual needs.”

The fact that there even is a conditional is already worrying. An image of a child should be legal or illegal to access/possess based on what it depicts, or the conditions under which the image was taken — whether a child has been abused, exploited or otherwise harmed in the production of said image. Saying that the exact same image can be legal in some cases and illegal in others — or legal for some people but illegal for others — doesn’t really make a lot of sense. But anyway, let’s keep analyzing the particular conditional that is being presented here.

What does ‘satisfy sexual needs’ exactly mean? This should be more clearly defined if it’s going to be a criterion based on which someone may be sent to jail for a prolonged period of time. Does finding the individuals depicted in the image beautiful or attractive qualify as satisfying sexual needs? Does finding them ‘hot’? Does one need to have an erection while looking at the picture to qualify? Does one have to touch oneself? What happens if the viewer is a woman, how do we measure sexual arousal then? Is masturbating while looking at the picture a necessary condition to meet this criterion? If so, how does anyone know what anyone else is doing while looking at a picture online? Does orgasm need to be achieved? There are enough uncertainties here to ascertain that — if true — this is an unfortunate and worrying issue, and we’re far from there being no ‘grey area’, like the site suggests. What this is ultimately saying is that an image of children is illegal to watch if the person watching it is a pedophile, and only in that case. What this is, is an attempt to police the thoughts of the population.

Let’s look at the next segment of that paragraph:

«This includes nude, semi-nude and clothed images of children, even if they aren’t depicting a sexual situation.»

Here we fall into another trap. Nudity is not by definition sexual, let alone pornographic. Of course sex and pornography require the condition of nudity, though not always. But the opposite is simply not true. There is plenty of non-sexual, non-pornographic nudity in art (paintings, photography, movies…) and out in the real world, from nudist beaches and resorts to simple topless women and naked toddlers in many beaches, pools and parks with water features around the world. Saying that an image is illegal to access or view simply because it depicts a naked child but only on the condition that you are somehow deriving sexual pleasure — whatever that means — from it is quite alarming. That would mean that if I look at the works of art of renowned photographers like Sally Mann or Jock Sturges together with my wife, I could be guilty of looking at an illegal image while my wife, at the exact same time and looking at the exact same images, wouldn’t. If you don’t find this problematic I don’t know what you would.

This image is illegal — if you are a pedophile

Now let’s consider ‘semi-nude’ images of children. This would essentially make the image that accompanies this text illegal, as long as it can be proven that I find the boys depicted in it attractive, or that somehow I am deriving sexual gratification from it. I challenge anyone to tell me in what way the boys featured in this picture have been harmed in its production or would be harmed if a pedophile finds it online — even if he ‘satisfies his sexual needs’ with it — that warrants sending someone who views this image to jail. What ‘satisfying sexual needs’ means, once again, is uncertain and vague, and it is left uncertain and vague on purpose with the intent to be able to prosecute anyone who is believed to have any sexual interest in children, under the assumption that they are — by definition — a threat to society. Once again, if accessing these types of images is illegal it would mean that perusing my large collection of family vacation photos where my own children appear with their friends playing ‘semi-nude’ (a.k.a. in swimsuit, like every other kid) at the beach or pool together with my wife could land me — but not her — in jail.

Finally, even fully clothed non-sexual pictures of children are purportedly illegal to access if the aforementioned condition is met, according to Stop it Now! That means that a pedophile would not be able to look at any image of a child online — or otherwise — lest he or she be sexually attracted to the child in that image and be incurring in a (thought) crime of accessing an illegal image. No TV shows featuring young and — potentially — attractive children, no movies with a cute child protagonist (not even containing no nudity whatsoever), no online clothing catalogs with child models, no YouTube clips of ‘The Voice Kids’ or children in sports competitions, nothing…

The next point in the ‘No Grey Area’ section of the site says:

Nude images of children on naturist websites: Whilst it is legal to access naturist images of adults, it is illegal to access naturist images of children. Even if the site appears legitimate and the material is paid for, it is still illegal material.

Once more, the assumption that anything involving nudity equates to sexual exploitation is perplexing. At least in this case there is no conditional, which means that accessing such images should be illegal for both pedophiles and teleiophiles. While that is an improvement, why would accessing images of naked children where there is clearly no exploitation, let alone sexual abuse, of those children be illegal, when clearly no one has been harmed in the process of producing those images? While I agree that some such websites seem a little sketchy in the way they offer their collections of pictures and videos from nudist camps for sale, many sites are legitimate nudist resort sites that offer photo galleries so that interested parties can see what it’s all about — all very natural and healthy, for those interested in a nudist lifestyle.

It seems logical to think that in those camps and resorts you can see naturist families — both adults and children together — living a nudist lifestyle. Since they have freely chosen a nudist lifestyle, it stands to reason that they really don’t care much who sees them naked. Why would it be OK to access the images of the adults, but not those of the children? If the reason is that the children themselves did not consent to having those pictures posted online (same argument would apply to parents posting pictures of their kids on Facebook, Instagram or any other social network, whether the picture features nudity or not), isn’t the whole idea that sex with children is wrong based on the fact that children cannot consent? How would we require them to consent to having their pictures posted online when we deem them unable to provide consent to sexual acts?

While it’s true that those websites should have the consent of all the parties depicted in the materials they display — parents typically consent in the name of their children, much like I have to provide my consent to my kids’ school to post images of my children on their website — if they don’t, then it’s the website that is incurring in an irregularity, never the viewer. Just like a legal adult porn producer can get in trouble with the law if they employ someone that isn’t quite 18 years old yet, but not the consumer. It is not the viewer’s responsibility to ensure that the producer of the posted content has followed the law, except where it is evident that they haven’t — such as in cases of actual child pornography.

Those nudist websites are not hosted in sketchy hidden parts of the dark web, they are fully available in the clearnet for anyone to see, including law enforcement and child protection agencies. If it’s really illegal to access those images, why isn’t it illegal to produce them or to post them on the internet to begin with? If those sites are not being prosecuted and shut down, why should the viewers of the images?

Finally, what is the difference between an image of a naked child from a naturist website and that from a renowned artistic photographer’s portfolio? Why would the former be illegal for anyone to access but the latter only if it is used to ‘satisfy sexual needs’? Are such artistic photographs really illegal to access in the UK — for every single citizen? It seems to me that instead of protecting children the real goal here is to persecute and chastise those who have a sexual attraction to children, regardless of whether they have ever harmed a child.

This all sounds quite 1984-esque, and I’d be inclined to think that Stop it Now!’s website is not legally accurate and is instead trying to deter pedophiles from seeking any images of children to either ensure they don’t fall into some kind of slippery slope and start seeking actually illegal images — which would be a noble goal — or out of a sense of moral superiority — which would really be a shame. Look, I get it, the general public believes that even seeing children in a sexual way is sick, perverted, depraved… but pedophiles are — by definition — sexually attracted to children, so that’s going to happen regardless of whether they look at completely innocent pictures of children online or not. You may be revolted and disgusted at the idea of a pedophile looking at an innocent picture of a kid playing naked or in a tight swimsuit at the beach, your stomach may turn at the idea of him or her masturbating while entertaining sexual thoughts of children or looking at such innocent pictures, but from there to advocating that anyone who has ever done that deserves to be sent to jail or — even worse — killed, there’s a big, big stretch. If this was being done to any other social collective in our modern times no one would hesitate to call this a witch hunt. However, pedophiles seem to be fair game…

But all of this is actually happening. Recently in Amsterdam, a hockey coach was arrested for surreptitiously taking videos of underage girls in the changing rooms (source in Dutch). That is already a crime — and rightfully so — but in addition he was charged with production of child pornography because it was determined that he obtained sexual pleasure from those images. Two crimes for the price of one, and one of them based solely on the feelings he obtained or the thoughts he had while looking at the images he illegally took. Think about that. There was no sexual exploitation, not even sexually suggestive posing. Does that mean what he did should have been tolerated? Absolutely not! But that’s why secretly installing cameras to take nude images of anyone (not just children) without their consent is already typified as a crime in and of itself. But, did he produce child pornography? No, he did not. And that should be an unquestionable fact.

I’d like to end with a few thoughts about the program launched by Stop it Now! UK to help pedophiles quit using actual child pornography, which I think is a really good goal. Like I said, this program represents a good step in the right direction in allowing pedophiles to come forward and admit they have a problem with child porn use, and be able to seek help to quit without fear of being prosecuted and sent to jail. However, admitting online to having performed an illegal activity — and one that is so universally abhorred by the general population — can be a huge risk. Most internet forums where pedophiles congregate to obtain peer support and feel less isolated — including the Virtuous Pedophiles forum — have strict rules forbidding members from admitting to any illegal activity. We know law enforcement officials and anti-pedophile vigilantes often roam these forums looking for people to entrap or ‘out’, respectively. While Stop it Now! claims to guarantee the anonymity of those who access the online resources provided, I would recommend anyone seriously looking at using these resources to be extremely careful, especially if requested to provide any identifiable information throughout any step of the process. Ethan Edwards, co-founder of Virtuous Pedophiles, has blogged about his concerns with this program, which I share in full. I recommend anyone to read his posts ‘Critique of StopItNow’s Anti-CP campaign and ‘Can you trust StopItNow’s Anti-CP campaign?They are both very informative and enlightened.

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