Payback for child porn

Victims are seeking restitution from those caught with images of their abuse

Published February 8, 2010 8:20PM (EST)

Amy is an unwitting porn star. She is among the most-downloaded in the reviled genre of child smut. Photos of her sexual abuse at the age of 8 and 9 by her uncle have proliferated to the point that every day, sometimes several times a day, someone is caught with the more than decade-old images. Every time this happens, she's notified by police and reminded that uncountable strangers have gotten off on the trauma she suffered -- and, once again, she feels victimized. Her uncle is in jail, but what of these vicarious abusers? She's hoping to make them pay, too.

The 20-year-old is seeking restitution -- to the tune of $3.4 million -- from those caught in possession of these images. Last February, in a landmark case, a man was ordered to pay $200,000 to Amy. She's currently pursuing 350 such cases, and other victims have followed her lead, filing requests of their own. Now, the Washington Post reports, judges across the country are being asked to traverse this rugged legal terrain. 

The philosophical questions that arise could make even Sartre's brain explode: Is Amy revictimized every time these images are viewed? How do you quantify the harm caused? Would it be abuse if she didn't know the images were out there? (If a tree falls in the woods ... ?) Does it make a difference if the viewer's motivation is nonsexual? Judges' answers to these questions have been all over the place; there is no clear consensus. 

One thing is certain: The large-scale spread of Amy's photos wouldn't be possible without this here Interweb. This is just the latest example of how our view of child pornography is being challenged. Consider the debate over "virtual" kiddie porn, in which, say, a real child's face is Photoshopped on the body of an adult woman. Similar mind-benders arise: What does it mean to be a "virtual" victim? Is any harm caused if the material is strictly kept private? When does sexual fantasy cross over into reality? Or, take the rash of "sexting" cases where teens were charged as sex offenders for swapping nudie pics of themselves -- can a teenager sexually abuse herself? As technology is making it easier to produce and distribute child porn, it's also making it harder to define.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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Broadsheet Children Pornography Sexual Abuse