Could child porn prevent abuse?

A researcher suggests that we might reduce sex abuse with digitally simulated kiddie smut

Published December 1, 2010 9:29PM (EST)

A controversial study published today in the Archives of Sexual Behavior suggests that the availability of child pornography can prevent child sex abuse. Fighting child abuse with child abuse? It sounds like an oxymoron, but University of Hawaii professor Milton Diamond reviewed a study finding that the rate of child sex abuse fell dramatically in the Czech Republic when pornography was legalized in 1990. Researchers observed a similar phenomenon with the decriminalization of child porn in Denmark and Japan. Diamond is so convinced by the evidence that he recommends that it could be beneficial to society to make digitally manipulated kiddie smut more widely available. "They can do it artificially and if that reduces child sex crimes, I think that is a plus," he said.

The study certainly raises interesting philosophical questions about promoting objectionable material to prevent real-world crimes -- but it's also majorly flawed. A couple of big-time caveats: Diamond's research finds a correlation between child pornography and sex abuse, which is not the same as causation; and in the Czech case, pornography in general (including kiddie porn) was legalized, not just kiddie porn. It's also worth noting that the observed drop is in reported child sex abuse. Beyond even those concerns, there is the fact that his research doesn't explicitly study the impact of faux child porn. I find it hard to believe that those who seek out child pornography -- and who are at risk for abusing actual children -- will be satisfied by "pretend" pictures. Imitation child porn that convincingly passes for the real thing might do the trick, but then how would we tell the difference between real abuse and simulated abuse?

The courts have already wrestled with that complicated legal issue, and the solution has been to treat even digitally manipulated images of minors as the real thing. As Jeffrey Douglas, a Los Angeles criminal defense attorney specializing in child porn cases, told me in the wake of the Perez Hilton-Miley Cyrus upskirt scandal, "if you were to take the face of an 8-year-old and put that picture on the nude body of even an identifiable, fully developed adult porn star, it is child-porn punishable identical to if you took a photo of the actual child." Now, if we were able to practically legalize simulated kiddie smut without promoting actual child pornography as a consequence, and if fake child porn really did directly lead to a drastic drop in actual child abuse, it would certainly be a preventive measure worth considering. But that's a lot of what-if's.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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