John Grisham thinks we're too hard on guys who look at underage porn

The author is concerned that 60 year-old white men are going to prison

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published October 16, 2014 3:17PM (EDT)

John Grisham     (AP/Andy Kropa)
John Grisham (AP/Andy Kropa)

Of course there are degrees of severity for sexual offenses. Of course not all crimes are the same. But if you're talking on the subject of say, child pornography, a good rule of thumb is to not make comments that appear to defend the guys who look at it. I'm talking to you, John Grisham.

In a Wednesday interview with the British newspaper the Telegraph, the bestselling author insists he has "no sympathy for real pedophiles – God, please lock those people up" – but also says that "we've gone nuts with this incarceration" of men who look at underage porn.

Displaying a remarkable lack of understanding of the American penal system  – especially for a guy who writes a whole lot about it -- Grisham says that "We've got prisons now filled with guys my age, 60-year-old white men, in prison, who have never harmed anyone. Who would never touch a child, but they got online one night, started surfing around, probably had too much to drink, whatever, and pushed the wrong buttons, and went to far and went into child porn or whatever." Ah yes, because as we all know, the prisons of America are just teeming with 60 year-old white guys. Oh wait, no. The truth is that people of color are incarcerated overwhelmingly more often, and receive harsher, longer sentences, a fact that Grisham even says he's exploring in his next book.

But back to this poor, unfairly punished guy that John Grisham, one of Forbes' richest celebrities, knows. "It happened to a lawyer friend of mine, a good buddy from law school," he says. "They haven't hurt anybody. They deserve some type of punishment, whatever, but ten years in prison?" He goes on to say, "His drinking was out of control, and he went to a website. It was labeled 'sixteen year old wannabe hookers' or something like that. And it said '16-year-old girls.' So he went there. Downloaded some stuff -- it was 16 year old girls who looked 30. He shouldn't have done it. It was stupid, but it wasn't 10-year-old boys. He didn't touch anything. And God, a week later there was a knock on the door: 'FBI!' It was sting set up by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to catch people -- sex offenders -- and he went to prison for three years. There's so many of them now. There's so many 'sex offenders' -- that's what they're called -- that they put them in the same prison. Like they're a bunch of perverts, or something; thousands of them."

I get that we live in a culture that actively sexualizes teenage girls. I get that our music and advertising fetishizes high schoolers. I also get that looking an image of a person is not the same as raping her. But permit me to break down why Grisham's comments are so smug and offensive and gross.

Let's start with his opening shot – his clear sense of outrage that incarceration can happen to guys like himself, "60-year-old white men." Oh God, no, not 60 year-old white men! Is no one safe? Why mention age or race unless you feel somehow personally entitled to a different justice system than the one everybody else gets, unless it's shocking to you that Caucasian baby boomers go to jail too -- for crimes, by the way, even John Grisham admits they actually committed? Now let's move on to his explanation that "It wasn't 10 year-old boys." I accept that there's a difference between a 10 year-old and a 16 year-old, and that there is a difference between looking and touching. But I do not accept the implication here that hey, it wasn't boys, so no harm, no foul -- as if sexual abuse toward boys is inherently worse than sexual abuse toward girls. If your defense of a person's downloading of child pornography is that at least it wasn't boy child pornography, I've got to tell you, that one's really not going to stick.

Finally, this is what disgusts me the most about Grisham's comments. It isn't that he questions whether a three-year sentence is excessive for his friend's act, or that he refuses to consider that his friend's actions might in fact put the man in the zone of "real pedophiles" and "perverts." (Interesting fact: Many people, even when drunk, do not go trawling for underage porn.) It's his total and utter lack of acknowledgment that the real 16 year-olds out there making "wannabe hooker" porn actually are victims of sexual abuse. That these things do not happen in vacuums. That there are real and damaging consequences for participating in an industry that exploits and abuses underage boys and girls. No, Grisham's sympathy is not at all for the kids who find themselves coerced and forced into sex work. It's for the for 60 year-old white man who wants to masturbate to them.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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John Grisham Pornography Sex Abuse