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It is NOT child pornography. It is a crime scene photo

Pornography was once banned, part of a subterranean culture where photographs, 8 mm films, and books were sold and shared illicitly. Over the past few decades, however, pornography and erotica have become…

Describing child exploitation material as child pornography risks legitimising a serious criminal offence. Child crying image from

Pornography was once banned, part of a subterranean culture where photographs, 8 mm films, and books were sold and shared illicitly.

Over the past few decades, however, pornography and erotica have become more accepted in mainstream Australia.

Furthermore, where the making of pornography was once a commercial concern, now there is a “normalisation” of amateur porn on the world wide web.

Into this mix comes a form of sexual imagery which focuses on children - child exploitation material (CEM). Colloquially, it is known as child pornography, or worse still “kiddie porn” - visual images of children being forced to engage in sex acts, including images of children as young as babies being brutally assaulted.

Name the crime for what it is

More and more those involved in investigating and prosecuting the child abuse offences are strongly arguing against the use of the word “pornography” in this context.

The experts prefer using the term CEM because that is what it is: images of the sexual abuse and exploitation of children. Investigators and researchers worry that labelling the trade as pornography legitimises something that brings untold harm to the children involved.

The Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) this month held a Child Exploitation Material forum to examine issues surrounding this crime, especially the collection, and sharing of the images, and the law enforcement issues that follow detection and arrest. The session was led by Dr Jeremy Pritchard and Professor Kate Warner of the University of Tasmania, AIC Senior Research Analyst Sarah Macgregor and ex-prosecutor Dr David Plater, and involved police from state and federal sex crime squads, Crimtrac and prosecutors.

The forum discussed many related issues such as offender patterns and interventions, jury attitudes to people charged and sentenced with collecting and distributing CEM. However one strong theme that arose several times was about the use of terminology and the disconnect between the growing cultural acceptance of mainstream pornography and how this is applied to images of child abuse.

We must not legitimise this crime

There was a great deal of frustration from all participants regarding the way the media and therefore the public, and even on occasion the courts, didn’t actually connect the distribution and collection of such images as a crime that harms and can destroy the lives of children.

Professor Warner related one juror account of a CEM trial where the jury was directed by the judge to watch a video of a very young child being sexually assaulted, a video that the defendant had acquired, and one juror was so shocked he was physically sick in the jury room.

At another point during the forum, a police officer helpfully suggested to his peers that when viewing the material multiple times for investigation leads, they need only hear the sound track once, and then turn it off, to make more bearable any repeated viewings to check for evidence.

The general view was the “pornography” terminology around the crime should be dropped and changed - by legislators, policy makers and the media – to make clear what these images are – abuse.

Sharing is also a crime

Of course, it is a crime to make CEM. It is also a crime to copy images of abused young victims into a computer. But because these are images that the collector gets prosecuted for, it is often regarded as “victimless”. The internet, with many peer to peer platforms, facilitates the exchange of images and videos.

CEM that appears on mainstream peer to peer sharing sites such as isoHunt reinforces the sense that such a foul trade is condoned by society. Listings under 8yo, barely legal or PTHC (pre-teen hard-core) are a signal to CEM offenders and collectors, “normalising” the process in among the games, music and movies. The popular Flickr site also has a serious photo sharing problem.

Millions of these images are shared, with a growing quantum of videos as well.

Evidence of a hideous crime

One senior investigator told the forum: most murders result in one person killed and murderers generally only murder once, and there are enormous resources pushed into solving these crimes.

With child exploitation material, these children can be serially raped, abused and traumatised, and remain at risk out in society even after the images are distributed. His point was the problem was massive - the global nature of the internet and lack of resources makes the victims very difficult to trace.

There are massive efforts by law enforcement to track those children down and protect them from the perpetrators, who are often their parents or other relatives, but it is a time consuming business of victim identification and electronic tracing usually across national boundaries. So far, most images that are shared on the internet are produced in North America, though Australia has its own perpetrators.

This investigator was blunt: while people refer to these images as “child pornography”, to him each and every image was a crime scene photograph.

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27 Comments sorted by

  1. Yoron Hamber


    It stinks.
    And kids that go through it.

    Go to a grown up that doesn't behave that way.
    And tell.

  2. Joan Bennett

    logged in via email

    Thankfully, most of the population do not see pornography as normal or legitimate. Depicting anyone in a sexual way is damaging to that demographic (eg men who watch porn with adult women end up with a much poorer attitude towards women) and the same thing happens when children are involved. People need to be re-trained in their thinking so they don't use any type of porn. Then when the market for it disappears, the porn will disappear.

    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Joan Bennett

      Hi Joan

      Firstly let me say that I unequivocally agree that child pornography or CEM is reprehensible in any form.

      However, when used to describe sexually explicit adult material (SEAM),I think the word pornography is a perjorative term that is not in tune with modern society.

      SEAM, whether you like it or not is a billion dollar industry that caters to the needs of men and women around the world. Attitudes to SEX are fraught with inconsistencies and hypocrisy, and this applies to SEAM as…

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    2. Miles Ruhl


      In reply to Joan Bennett

      Actually Joan I think you'll find most of the populatioin finds SEAM porn quite normal and legitimate. It is a normal and accepted part of life, with both pros and cons, and has been here for centuries, in one form or another.

      Hoping/believing the market for it will disappear is deluded. It is a regular part of life that people are interested in sex and nudity and will seek out to see this when they can. The attitude that we need to focus on changing is that which demeans women and makes them…

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    3. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Miles Ruhl

      Hi Miles

      agree agree.......

      But let it be also noted that some SEAM contains bondage, S & M, power issues etc as a "turn on" for the viewer. Many women are also into these delights as a sexual fillip. The role of the dominatrix is a powerful image in SEAM.

    4. Miles Ruhl


      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Definitely, and that was what I mentioned as the more 'hardcore' forms of it, which is for the most part harmless fun and I imagine quite enjoyable for those into it, but at the same time as you say designed as a turn on for the viewer. There is nothing wrong with this as most quite tame and average, but some of the more full-on, and this may sound quite sexist, particularly that perpetrated AGAINST women by men like the rape fantasies etc I believe could be quite harmful in the sense of 'putting…

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  3. Robert Corr

    logged in via Twitter

    While I agree with the thrust of the article, it's worth noting that "child pornography" in Australia has a broader definition than photos of child sexual abuse. It includes drawings and written descriptions of fictional abuse, as well as photos of adults pretending to be children. These are banned because, as Sarah Macgregor notes, the normalisation of child sexual abuse as a "fetish" is dangerous and creates a market for actual abuse.

  4. Anthony Nolan

    logged in via email

    First you imagine doing it, then you do it. Images of people 'doing it' with or to children eases the way to such profound breaching of adult responsibility towards children. The increase in child pornography or, as the author prefers, of CEM, all function as aides to imagining child violation. This is why I am still delighted that Henson was prosecuted for having the gall to use children in his art in such a way that they were presented as objects seen through a predator's eyes.

    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Anthony Nolan

      Hi Anthony

      agree - I'm all for freedom of speech and expression, but sometimes a line is crossed.

      Don't care what anybody says, Henson crossed that line.

      Take all the nude shots of adults you like, but leave children alone.

    2. Anthony Nolan

      logged in via email

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Yes Stephen - CEM is a moral Rubicon - no going back once crossed.

    3. Kim Darcy


      In reply to Anthony Nolan

      Anthony, after your recent postings about your former work, I imagine you must have seen a lot of horror on these issues. I finding watching Law & Order: SVO unsettling enough, let alone having to deal with it in real time.

    4. Kim Darcy


      In reply to Anthony Nolan

      One of the things I found worrying about the Henson Affair was the number of Henson supporters (though, of course, not all) who painted opponents as, for example, no more than Victorian prudes who wished Lady Chatterly's Lover was still banned. Now that you've used the "Rubicon" metaphor, the pro-Henson movement probably had a lot of folks who might not have realised that they had already crossed the Rubicon.

    5. Anthony Nolan

      logged in via email

      In reply to Kim Darcy

      Thanks for the recognition Kim. It's work that takes strong commitment to decency and doing the right thing by the most vulnerable. However, I'm also of the view that most child protection staff suffer from secondary trauma (ie, as traumatised witnesses) and that time limited employment in the field would be a good idea; I witnessed traumatised staff preferencing their own trauma over rational decision making. Children have been removed, in my experience, on spurious grounds, on racist grounds (where being Aboriginal is regarded as the risk of harm), as a consequence of a display of arbitrary power by some manager or other ... in general, on unlawful grounds. And still, as the recent exposure of the death of a child in the Wollongong area shows, children who are genuinely and blatantly at risk are allowed to die because child protection 'experts' made the wrong decision even with the advantage of 'structured decision making' tools. It's a mess.

    6. Kim Darcy


      In reply to John Phillip

      John, I ultimately sided with dropping any further state pursuance of Henson. I am no prude, and am an avid porn spruiker, advocate for drug liberalisation, and so on. But even my initial response to the Henson photos, was "whoa, dude, are you really so unaware of what is going on around you these days with children, adult child abusers and torturers, and the vile trade of images of these crimes against children right around the globe"? It took me a couple of weeks to drop my opposition to Henson's exhibition, largely because the implication would be that I support the State - the police, the courts moving in to destroy his work, and put him in jail. That didn't seem proportionate to me. Ultimately I settled on seeing the Henson episode as pushing pretty close to the limits. What I still can't understand is how so many Henson supporters reflexively saw the issue purely in culture war terms. They did not even pause for a moment's reflection.

  5. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington


    Prostitution and its myriad variations has been with us since recorded history. So, too, have rules and laws attempting to govern its conduct. Overall, though lacking a controlled experiment, I suspect that the enormous cumulative effort, expenditure diversion and lack of quantitative records had led to nil measurable benefit.
    It would help if articles like this were supported by an hypothesis; a plan to investigate the hypothesis; measures of experimental success and failure as the work progresses…

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    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Hi Geoffrey I think prostitution and "pornography" are two separate issues.

      But both create very subjective and disparate views within the community.

      Western history is replete with examples of children being betrothed to each other, or to older men.

      This is not to suggest that actual sex was involved (but also not to say it wasn't), but it does influence the idea that girls/women were (or even boys/men) were used as a tool of political manipulation.

      Sex and it's EVILS have been promulgated by religious institutions for eons.

    2. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington


      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      It is abundantly clear that prostitution was used as an example, an analogue, to support a contention that this work might have a similar low expectation of progress.

      I repeat my last question. "Does this work have that capacity?"

      If there is little capacity for this work to bring improvements, why is it funded?

  6. Brian Keyte


    Thanks ( I think ) for that Sarah. I do appreciate those who work in this area. I would, I suspect, put my non violent streak to the test.
    In general society terms like "Kiddie porn" or "Kiddie fiddler" flow easily into conversation but, as you say, they don't really call it for what it is. Some even have a convivial almost jokey feel about them. "Child Exploitation Material" just ain't going to cut it in after dinner chat though.
    Historically, people have come up with perjorative terms to describe their enemies, "Gook", "Raghead" etc. Perhaps we need a catchy word to describe these crimes and their perpetrators that conveys our revulsion and disgust at the total betrayal involved. Regretably, my mind goes sort of blank when trying to come up with that term. Perhaps some out can.

  7. John Phillip
    John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Grumpy Old Man

    Thanks for the article, Sarah. I fell into the habit of referring to child sexual abuse as 'child pornography' - no more. My wife was a victim of this crime (the criminal is now long dead) and, based on her experience, hope that we, as a society, never normalise this behaviour.

  8. Peter Hindrup


    How did this discussion on young children morph into a 'get Henson' tirade?

    While art galleries and such have always been a part of my life, but not a compulsion, I had never bothered to see an Henson exhibition. The uproar had me go to a David Marr lecture on the issue, I read his book and decided I ought see for myself.

    Anybody who sees Henson’s work as problematic, definitely has a problem. Certainly they ought not go near a beach! Perhaps they ought not walk around Bondi Junction…

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    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Peter Hindrup

      Hi peter

      i think you exaggerate the "tirade" against Henson......his case was certainly a cause celebre at the time. Several of us believe that his work crossed the line into at best bad taste, at worst exploitation of inappropriate images

      From memory, the images were totally nude, not something we'd see at Bondi. And if that were the case, it still doesn't make them ok.

    2. Peter Hindrup


      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Tirade? You are probably right.

      Photos, nude, yes, though some may not, or need not have been.
      I am trying to get across is if these youngsters had been in a bikini more of them would have been visible than was the case in the photos.

      Titillating, sexual? Not by any standard that I know of. Brilliantly lit, but to me, too dark, not something I would want to take home. But the there is not a lot that I would want to take home!

      The question is, what is not right about them?

      As I understand it, the kids parents were there throughout the shoots. the kids and the parents were okay with the proceedings.

      There is nothing in the photographs that might make the kids exploited, or ashamed in later life.

      If anyone is interested in the sexually explicit, or the sexual exploitation of kids, do not go to a Henson exhibition. You will be wasting your money.

  9. miriam dixson


    I've thought for decades that (like me) most people accepted that damage to children was especially cruel because early experiences lodge deeply in our neuronal scripts. In most cases such experiences are extraordinarily hard (some say impossible) to undo. Am I wrong? Is what everyday people accept as a truism, no longer in fashion among experts?Not cool perhaps?
    For years now I've barely seen a word to this broad effect (the earlier the experience, the deeper) in discussions of crimes against babies, children, teens.

  10. John Thompson

    logged in via Facebook

    OMFG! What a FCKing hero!

    It's a crime scene photo: Please bow your head and cry, cry, cry. Our hero is just that. An internet sensation. A veritable hero.

    He cries and cries and cries for the lost innocence of youth.

    Do any of you really believe this? An internet crime scene? Since when has anyone cared about this?

    Hmmm. So when are we going to prosecute Nancy Grace?

    True story: A close friend of mine recently lost his sister. This story became international news when her…

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