“Virtual” Child Porn Proposal Draws Criticism From Experts

Some psychologists are pushing to legalize computer-generated child pornography, but critics say this could lead to more abuse of children, not less.

Psychologists and policymakers have been floating a variety of strategies lately for keeping pedophiles from harming children, but the latest is an unusual one: Legalize child pornography, as long as the “children” are actually computer-generated images. Last month, Dutch sexologist Erik Van Beek told the AFP that such “virtual” child porn — currently illegal in the Netherlands and the U.S. — might help pedophiles get sexual release, thus keeping them from harming actual children: “I think that repressing your fantasies can lead to frustration and … to a greater likelihood of doing something wrong.” But critics say even fake child pornography might make pedophiles more likely to offend.

“If we do produce these kind of images, and we use them as treatment, what we risk is actually to promote sexual abuse,” says Elena Martellozzo, a health and social science lecturer at Middlesex University who studies the prevention of child sexual abuse. She says the majority of people who sexually abuse children also have child porn on their computers: “We could argue that the next step from indecent images is hands-on abuse of a child.” Of virtual child porn, she says, “We can’t say it would definitely cause more abuse, but it won’t help.”

She also argues that producing virtual images may itself be immoral: “Whether the child is real or not is irrelevant to me. We need to focus on the act, and that act is an act of rape. If we allow these pictures to be created, we are promoting the act.”

Elizabeth LeTourneau, an expert in child sexual abuse prevention at Johns Hopkins, is also skeptical. She notes that synthetic versions of drugs are sometimes used to treat drug addiction; however, pedophilia and addiction aren’t the same. She’s concerned “that continued viewing of nude children — whether real or virtual — would simply serve to maintain or even strengthen that sexual interest and present risks for subsequent real sexual harm.”

Ultimately, though, experts have little real data on what effect virtual child pornography would have. Studies of people arrested for possession of child porn have found that anywhere between 31 and 85% of them have also molested children, but those statistics don’t measure the activities of people who are never arrested — and about whom experts thus know little. Fred Berlin, founder of the Sexual Disorders Clinic at Johns Hopkins, says he’s reluctant to dismiss the idea of virtual child pornography out of hand: “I do think it’s worth having the dialogue and trying to gather as much objective information as possible.”

He argues that policymakers have paid far too little attention to the science of pedophilia and to avenues for treatment: “Our society has gotten the idea that we can somehow punish away or legislate away this problem. But if someone is attracted to children, there’s nothing about being in prison that changes them.”

Instead, he says, “We have to have a balanced approach like we do with drug addiction, where we support criminal justice but also support research and treatment.”

While the proposal of virtual child porn has sparked intense controversy, there does seem to be a growing consensus among professionals that pedophiles need to have access to effective treatment so that they can learn to control their urges before they harm a child. Berlin asks, “When do we ever hear of an outreach encouraging a troubled 17-year-old who’s attracted to 8-year-old kids to come in and get help before he acts? We do virtually nothing.” And though she opposes virtual child pornography, Martellozzo too says she’s in favor of encouraging pedophiles to seek treatment: “If you have an attraction to children, don’t hide, don’t abuse in silence. Just come forward and get help.”

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