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.