Net is not the main villain

Why is it so much easier for politicians and newspapers to get
tough over internet porn than over the much wider problem of sexual
abuse within the family, asks Matthew Taylor.

Cynics might argue that paedophile internet pornography is an
opportunity for lots of people. For tabloid editors it is a great
story that can be illustrated with blurred copies of the “shocking
and depraved” images on the net. For government politicians it is a
chance to talk and act tough, for the opposition a chance to bemoan
the collapse in moral standards. For the police it helps to make
the case for more resources and powers to fight a hideous crime.
And for everyone in the social policy industry it is a new subject
on which to focus.

In contrast, child abuse in the family is too dark and
depressing for newspaper editors. The “domestic” nature of the
crime makes it difficult for politicians to address and for police
officers to detect. Much of the pornography on the net does itself
portray abuse within families. It is a commonplace, but one that
should be repeated constantly, that the number of children abused
to generate pornography or who are the victim of stranger abuse is
dwarfed by those who are abused by family members or friends.

While the concern about internet porn must not obscure the scale
and impact of abuse in the home, we do need to think through our
response. Child pornography is so appalling to us that it seems
cold and even suspect to analyse why society rules it repugnant and
government makes it illegal. But unless we think through our
reasoning and strategy we could end up pursuing impossible
objectives or fighting child porn only at the expense of our

The most obvious argument against child pornography is that its
very production requires the abuse of children. Indeed in
pre-internet days the link between possession of porn and actual
abuse was very strong. A Chicago police study in the mid-1980s
found that in almost all cases of child pornography the cache of
photographs seized included images of the person arrested abusing
children, while US customs concluded that 80 per cent of those who
use child pornography are abusers.

But the rise of the internet changes things. First, because it
is so much easier to access than hard copy porn it is likely that
there will be many more users who are not actually abusers
themselves. The latest US figures suggest that around one third of
internet porn users are abusers. Second, the scope to use computer
graphics and “morphing” to create images of child sexual abuse
means that it is possible to have porn without abuse having taken

Reflecting public abhorrence, legislation passed in the UK in
the mid-1990s banned not just real images but also computer
generated images and even images involving older people having sex
dressed up to look like children. It is important to recognise the
symbolic nature of much of this legislation.

The police faced with the huge amount of paedophile material on
the web focus on those rings of users, like the “Wonderland” group,
implicated in actual abuse. Although it would be illegal for
someone to computer generate paedophile images for their own use it
is unlikely that many prosecutions will be sought on these

Recently, in Canada, someone convicted in this way won their
appeal in the supreme court. Under the Human Rights Act 1998 it
must be possible that a similar judgement would be reached on the
grounds that the infringement of privacy involved in the
prosecution outweighed the evidence of harm. However much we might
be disgusted by people being aroused by child abuse, such a
prosecution might be seen to come perilously close to being a
“thought crime”.

One hope had been that internet service providers would be able
to shut down paedophile sites. But just last week the company that
owns Demon Internet, admitted it had failed in its self-proclaimed
moral crusade against online child pornography. The company has now
announced that it is simply impossible for them to deliver on their
pledge to shut down sites and chat rooms.

None of this means we are wrong to have the legislation or to
pursue offenders. Indeed there is a case for taking proactive
action such as the police infiltrating chat rooms – as long as this
falls short of incitement to commit a crime.

But there is much more we can do to try to reduce other forms of
child sexual abuse. This is, of course, about the detection,
punishment and treatment of offenders. But it is also about
educating children to understand the difference between appropriate
and inappropriate behaviour from adults. To be effective this
education would have to start early and children would need to know
that these boundaries apply not just to strangers but to their own
family and family friends. But this takes us into very
uncomfortable territory for a political and media establishment
that continues to sanction the right of parents to hit their
children. The point is not that those who smack children are more
likely to be abusers but that it is hard to educate children to
draw a line between assault and the so-called “loving smack”.

We are right to be appalled by internet child porn and demand
that we do what we can to punish those who produce it. But we
should question why it is so much easier to promote largely
symbolic policies in this area than to take the action that could
make a difference to the hundreds of children who will be abused in
their homes tonight.

Matthew Taylor is director of the Institute for Public
Policy Research.

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