A Conscientious Objector in the War on Kiddie Porn

May 28, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Five years, mandatory minimum, even for a first conviction. The crime? Possession of kiddie porn. When we Americans don’t like something, we’re very good at enacting harsher and harsher penalties, often as part of a “war.”

As in the wars on drugs and crime, some federal judges, though, are now trying to skirt or challenge these war-on-kiddie-porn laws. A New York Times article last week focused on one federal judge, Jack Weinstein, who worries that the mandatory sentences “destroy the lives” of men who pose no real threat to society.

Today, the Times printed some reader responses.
Judge Weinstein. . . . does not believe that those who view images of child sexual abuse are a threat to children. But of course they are! If they did not provide a market for such images, then children would not be abused to produce them in the first place.
Kathryn Conroy . . . clinical social worker and executive director of Hedge Funds Care, Preventing and Treating Child Abuse
Ms. Conroy is correct about one thing – if you can kill demand, supply will dry up. But do harsh sentences in fact have an effect on either the demand or the supply? Ms. Conroy merely assumes that they do and provides no evidence. According to the Times, in the last ten years, sentence severity for possession has quadrupled. Has anyone assessed the impact of these laws on the production, distribution, or possession of kiddie porn? Is there evidence that the laws have reduced demand?

A law professor, Audrey Rogers, in her letter, focuses on the issue of harm. And she has evidence
Studies by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children show that more than half of defendants charged with possession of child pornography molested or attempted to molest children.
If you look at the actual study, you see that Rogers is playing fast and loose with the data. This was a study of people arrested for possession. About half of these cases were discovered through investigation of other crimes, usually molestation or attempted molestation. So what Rogers should say is not that those charged with possession are also molesters but that molesters are also charged with possession. Is it really surprising that child molesters also own kiddie porn?

But what about the men whose arrests began as possession cases? Here’s what the report says: “84% of cases involved CP possession but investigators did not detect concurrent child sexual victimization or attempts at child victimization.” The authors of the report see 16% as “a high rate.” But it’s not “more than half.”

Rogers continues,
This correlation belies Judge Jack B. Weinstein’s opinion that those who view child pornography present no threat to children.
The key word here is correlation. Correlation is not causation. Any freshman who has taken a basic sociology or social science course knows that. Did the porn make them more likely to commit actual molestation? And would making kiddie porn inaccessible reduce their crimes?
That was the assumption of the anti-porn slogan from the 1980s, “Pornography is the theory; rape is the practice.” It’s a fairly simple hypothesis: more porn, more rape. Or in the case of children, more kiddie porn, more child sexual abuse.

Again, I don’t know the evidence, but my impression is that technology – first VCRs, then the Internet – has greatly expanded access to porn both adult and child.* Victimization statistics on rape, where most victims are adults, show a more or less steady decrease since the late 1970s, though the UCR (“crimes known to the police”) show a slight increase to about 1990. Since the early 1990s, while the Internet burgeoned, both victimization and police reports show a sharp decrease.

I don’t know if we have any good data on rates of child molestation, and I can think of many reasons why good data would be hard to get. But my impression is that there has not been a burgeoning of these crimes that parallels the expanded availability of child pornography.

But the results aren’t really so important, are they? Once we have identified an evil and launched a war against it, what seems to matter to the warriors is keeping up the good fight. The actual outcome seems to be a secondary consideration. After all, you can’t give up a war against evil, at least not until you have identified some other evil to occupy your attention.

* The stats for this Socioblog still show the occasional visitor who got here by Googling “naughty pictures of 15 year olds,” though apparently Google’s algorithm has a date variable that now puts us far down on the list.

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