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Arrests shine light into murky world of child pornography

Online child pornography links to offline child abuse. Adam Peck/PA Wire

The arrest of 348 suspected members of a child pornography network has garnered headlines around the world, especially in countries where mass arrests have been made. In Australia, the Federal Police have described the three-year international police investigation, codenamed Operation Spade, as one of the largest of its kind ever conducted.

The swoop netted 108 people in Canada, 76 in the United States and 164 in other countries from Spain to Australia, where 65 people were arrested. In the UK, newspapers reported that “hundreds” of men suspected of accessing child pornography had been missed despite Canadian police having reported them to the British authorities two years ago.

The abuse network was based in Canada where film company and website advertised supposedly “naturalist” or “artistic” videos and photos of boys. The company sold material that involved the sexual exploitation of boys, primarily from Romania and Ukraine. Canadian police have stated that the site made more than A$4 million and received more than three million hits before it was shut down in 2011.

Those arrested in Australia include teachers, serving and former priests, and a former police officer. They have been charged with 399 offences including accessing, possessing, producing and distributing online child abuse material. In the course of the investigation, authorities uncovered other abuse material that was manufactured by men in Australia.

It has been reported that six Australian children were abused in the production of the material and they have now been removed from harm, along with 380 other children around the world.

The international distribution of child abuse material has been a topic of public concern since at least the 1970s. Russia and ex-Soviet states have commonly been identified as the source of abuse images of caucasian-looking children. The absence of legal protections and enforcement against child sexual exploitation is a serious issue in a number of countries.

However there has been a lack of recognition of the link between child abuse and images of child abuse in Western countries. The stereotype of the “child pornography collector” was very influential in the 1980s and 1990s and led many to assume that men viewing such material were driven by an obssessive desire to “collect” and “possess” it.

These “collectors” were placed in a category distinct from men who commit “contact” (that is, physical) sexual offences against children. Hence the possibility that men viewing child abuse material might also be manufacturing it has at times gone unexamined by investigators.

More than 30 years ago, police records noted the reports of some abused children that photos and videos were made of their abuse. This material was not necessarily produced to be circulated but instead for other purposes, such as blackmailing and controlling the child.

However, since the abuse material of the time involved physical copies of photos or video, production was harder to track and the material was easier to hide. A man first charged with sexual offences was in effect forewarned and could dispose of abuse material prior to any subsequent police search.

As a result, reports of victimisation through child abuse material were often difficult to substantiate but easy to disbelieve. In the 1980s and 1990s, sociologist Philip Jenkins was one of a number of academic commentators claiming that concern about “child pornography” was an overblown moral panic, and that demand for child abuse material was a minor social issue.

However, when Jenkins began a research project in the late 1990s to debunk public concern about child abuse material on the internet, he was forced to reverse his position when confronted with the widespread availability and severity of online abuse material.

The internet makes child abuse material more accessible but also more visible. It also opens up new opportunities to investigate the crime. As we search the internet we leave trails of data behind that can be logged and tracked. Those with the technical knowledge can of course mask their online activities but very few internet users have those skills. The internet has come to serve as a record of individual and collective sexual interests, legal and illegal.

But as some forms of sexual abuse become more visible, others remain in the shadows. I’ve interviewed adult Australians who report that their abuse as a child was recorded through video or photos, often by an abusive parent or relative. Some told me that these images were still being used to keep them silent.

Such material is unlikely to make its way onto the internet, but instead has been manufactured with the apparent intention of ensuring the lifelong compliance of the victim. The survivors who spoke to me were at times intensely worried about the safety of children in their extended families but faced ongoing challenges in bringing these concerns to the attention of the authorities.

The intersection of child abuse and child abuse material is now much better acknowledged, and forms of abuse once considered rare or unlikely are firmly on the law enforcement agenda. This stronger consensus in turn has enabled increased law enforcement co-operation of the kind seen in Operation Spade. However, for two decades prior to the rise of the internet, victim reports of child abuse material were easily marginalised and even dismissed.

This raises questions about those forms of abuse that haven’t made it to public awareness yet and how receptive we are as a community to those survivors.

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