Think for a moment about a person who compulsively views graphic pictures of children engaged in sexual acts. What should be done with him? “Lock him up!” is probably the first thought that comes to mind—but the answer is not always that simple.

Beliefs and practices about the sexual abuse of children have undergone a dramatic evolution over the years, and some of those changes are affecting policies regarding child pornography. In the 1890s, when Sigmund Freud’s woman patients began telling stories of childhood sexual victimization, he believed what he was hearing. Soon, however, Freud became a doubter, dismissing the accounts as fantasies. Sexual abuse of children remained in the shadows until the 1970s, when it became a high-profile crime.

As society became more aware of sexual attacks on children, pornography became a major concern. In 1978 Congress made child pornography illegal, and in1982 the Supreme Court ruled that child pornography was not entitled to First Amendment protection. Law enforcement began a vigorous campaign against adult stores and mail-order firms that trafficked in sexual depictions of children. “The commercial distributors started to go out of business,” recalls retired FBI agent Kenneth Lanning.

But then the Internet came along, making child pornography easier to produce, sell, and purchase than ever before. Because users could view pornography in their own homes, investigations and prosecutions became more difficult. The private nature of the crime also gave rise to questions from taxpayers and civil libertarians: Who, they asked, is being harmed? Should society be investing increasingly scarce criminal justice resources in an apparently victimless crime?

More complications arose in 2002, when the US Supreme Court decided that child pornography is protected free speech when the images don’t depict actual children. If pictures are taken of consenting adults pretending to be children, no crime has been committed. Similarly it is not a crime to use computer technology to paste a child’s face onto the body of an adult depicted in a sexual situation.

With that decision, society dramatically altered its definition of what constitutes a sexual crime against children. No matter how repelled we feel by child pornography, we cannot say that viewing such pictures is, in itself, a criminal act, or that child pornography is illegal because it might provoke a pedophile to commit a crime. A sharp line had been drawn between fantasy sex, which was now permissible, and the real thing, which was still outlawed.

But then a new question arose: If the intent of the person using child pornography doesn’t matter, is viewing it a victimless crime? Any sensible person would agree that it’s wrong to force children to pose for a sexually graphic picture or film. But once the camera shutter is clicked and the money has changed hands, the victimization is over.

Or is it? Two recent magazine articles are raising provocative questions about child pornography. In “The Science of Sex Abuse” in the January 14, 2013 New Yorker, Rachel Aviv tells the story of a 31-year-old soldier who admits he is addicted to child pornography. “I really don’t have enough control over it,” he said. “I would like to figure out how to make it stop, I really would. I just don’t know how to do it yet.”

After serving a prison sentence and undergoing a psychiatric evaluation, “John” (his real name was not given) was judged “sexually dangerous.” Although he has never been charged with touching a child inappropriately, he has been placed indefinitely in a treatment program, at taxpayer expense, because he is judged likely to sexually abuse a child if he is released into society.

Some experts on sex abuse argue that John’s civil liberties have been violated and he should be released: His private sexual fantasies pose no danger to society, and a study conducted by the Bureau of Justice shows that the re-arrest rate for sex offenders is extremely low.

But a recent New York Times Magazine article about child pornography takes a different stand. In “Money Is No Cure” (January 27, 2013), Emily Bazelton says that the crime of “digitized rape” occurs every time child pornography is viewed online. Its victims, she says, are the children—many of them now grown—who were forced to pose for the pictures and films. Bazelton’s article focuses on two young women—“Amy” and “Nicole” (not their real names) who were diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder after they learned that sexualized images of themselves from years ago are still circulating online.

Much of the trauma, ironically, was triggered by a legal remedy for victims of child pornography: “Amy” and “Nicole” must receive a legal notice every time a user is arrested for downloading one of their childhood images. Over the years those notices began to pile up, and eventually those once-little girls grew old enough to realize that humiliating pictures of themselves are circulating on some of the millions of pornography websites in cyberspace.

The Supreme Court agrees that child pornography has long-term, damaging effects on children who were forced to participate. In its 1982 decision, Supreme Court Justice Byron White quoted from a book about abused children, “Because the child’s actions are reduced to a recording, the pornography may haunt him in future years, long after the original misdeed took place.”

But no remedy existed until Attorney John Marsh, who founded the Children’s Law Center in Washington, discovered an unexpected resource for those children. A 1994 provision in the Violence Against Women Act mandates restitution or compensation for victims of sex crimes, including psychiatric care, lost income, and legal costs. Both “Amy” and “Nicole” have received money for therapy, tuition and other expenses from convicted pornography users.

Some judges have ruled against restitution in child pornography cases, but at least one judge, Emilio Garza, strongly agrees that child pornography is a crime with real victims—and that they continue to suffer long after the cameras are put away. “It seems to me that we’re in this brave new world, where not only was there an actual rape, but I’m going to suggest to you there is a continuing digitized rape,” he said. “Possession of the digitized recording of the rape contributes to the system, contributes to the economic benefit of those who produced this thing.” “Amy” may have spoken for many child pornography victims when she said,  “To hear that from a judge—I couldn’t believe it….It was like he really got it. He understood.”

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Jean Reynolds, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of English at Polk State College, where she taught report writing and communication skills in the criminal justice program. She is the author of seven books, including Police Talk (Pearson), co-written with the late Mary Mariani. Visit her website at for free report writing resources. Go to for a free preview of her book The Criminal Justice Report Writing Guide for Officers. Dr. Reynolds is the police report writing expert for Law Enforcement Today.