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Our Essay Competition Winner...
A series of provocative arguments for protecting children...
We’ve published two honorable mentions and 2nd place. Now it’s time to publish the winning essay from the first ISF Essay Competition asking people to argue for and against their most controversial opinion.
Publishing ≠ endorsement. What’s more, the opinion of the writer isn’t necessarily their own. In several cases, they explicitly told us that they didn’t actually hold the controversial opinion but thought a good argument could be made.
Fake Child Porn Might Be A Net Positive
Written by Tobias Christensen.
This essay will argue that simulated child porn (hereafter: SCP) is likely to be a net positive for future societies. This analysis excludes unrealistic futures, such as the mass imprisonment of most pedophiles. Likewise, it seems unlikely that a pharmaceutical cure will be available before SCP saturates the internet. The reader should also note that throughout the essay I only refer to SCP which is visually indistinguishable from standard CP, rather than something like manga. I argue SCP has the potential to do three things:
Deter pedophiles from committing child sexual abuse (hereafter: CSA)
Catch more pedophiles
Reduce the demand for real CP.
I attempt to offer the best criticism against each proposition.
1. Deterring Pedophiles
Three possible outcomes arise from pedophiles watching CP, whether real or simulated:
It increases the risk of committing CSA.
It decreases the risk.
There is no meaningful effect.
Regarding (1), the three main causal pathways are:
(A) Pedophiles become more likely to commit CSA because CP excites them to an uncontrollable degree. It is like an inhibition-lowering drug increasing the likelihood of dangerous behavior.
(B) CP might eventually cease to satisfy needs. A similar pharmaceutical analogy works: child porn could be a “gateway drug” leading pedophiles to search for a bigger “hit”.
(C) Finally, there is the chance that culturally normalizing SCP signals to pedophiles that their desires are morally permissible, causing them to advance to CSA.
The academic literature for all three claims is statistically messy. Some obvious problems are:
Studies reporting a strong link between CP possession and CSA often use convicted pedophiles as samples.
The best-educated guess is that 1% of men are pedophiles. Hence, either the overwhelming majority of pedophiles never become abusers or we do not catch them (the former being much more likely given the vast disparity between reports of CSA and the estimated number of pedophiles).
Most acts of CSA are not even performed by pedophiles but by situational offenders, those who use children for gratification without attraction.
Finally, pedophiles are not, by any means, a psychologically homogeneous group — it is entirely possible that CP has diametrically opposite effects depending on the pedophile.
In this regard, psychologist Dennis Howitt’s 1995 summary statement endorses outcome 3: ‘The most reasonable assessment based on the available research literature is that the relationship between pornography, fantasy and offending is unclear.’ However, Howitt wrote those words before researchers had analyzed national case studies of governments changing policy. Sometimes, this was a dramatic shift from extremely punitive to legally permissible. History thus granted a series of natural experiments, the results of which support outcome 2.
In 1990, after the Velvet Revolution, the (now) Czech Republic decriminalized the possession of child pornography. A 2010 landmark study by Milton Diamond et al. compared the 15–17-year interval during which any pornography was illegal with the 18-year span in which it was widely available (1989-2007). Hence, the data include easily attainable internet porn. Of course, one criticism here is that CSA was already declining due to unknown causes.
Yet what’s remarkable is that robbery, impersonal murder, and other serious crimes did spike after communism. Yet, as the authors note, ‘the number of sexually motivated murders or killings somehow associated with sex did not increase’.
The researchers note that Denmark and Japan also experienced prolonged intervals during which the possession of child pornography was not illegal, with both countries showing a significant decrease in the incidence of CSA. Of course, this should not be surprising because the same trend holds for regular pornography in every country that has been investigated. That is, pornography appears to substitute for sexual aggression.
Other studies are more dubious in their methodology, but should at least be noted. For example, Endrass et al. (2009) used a clever comparative design to check recidivism rates among offenders and concluded CP-viewing alone does not seem to be a risk factor for future sex offenses. Another well-documented finding is that rapists and child sex offenders tend to view less pornography.
2. Catching Pedophiles
A well-known and effective—but time-consuming—tactic for catching pedophiles is for authorities and vigilantes to pose as children. Given high-fidelity SCP will soon proliferate, one suggestion is for law enforcement to distribute digitally watermarked SCP. This may actually be more ethical than the vigilante version of the “honey trap” tactic because public shaming can result in pedophile suicide, making it difficult for authorities to uncover further victims and often leaving the state to support the dead pedophile’s family.
A criticism of this proposal is what I call the Pedo-Laffer curve. Namely, if all CP were SCP, and all SCP were digitally watermarked, we may catch a larger proportion of the people downloading and distributing, but if the deterrence argument is correct, CSA would presumably rise because it becomes too risky for the pedophile to watch SCP, the thing which has a moderate to large effect for CSA prevention.
3. Reducing demand
Finally, if pedophiles can eventually (and easily) generate any type of porn they want, real CP might become utterly deficient in comparison, especially if SCP is augmented by hardware that further enhances realism. Demand for CP could therefore plummet.
However, this is a more speculative argument. One could object to it with what I call the Fake Mona Lisa Effect. Philosopher Jesse Prinz found that 80% of a focus group would prefer to look at the ashes of the original Mona Lisa than a perfect duplicate. If true, this is more likely to be a culturally contingent effect than a deeply biological one. But regardless of its etiology, the urge for authenticity may contribute to maintaining CP demand. One could imagine a future subculture of CP distributors who “deal in the real thing” because some sadistic pedophiles gain more pleasure from knowing the children suffered.
For those interested in reading more, here are two links to non-academic articles:
Psychology Today: Evidence Mounts: More Porn, Less Sexual Assault
Scientific American: The Sunny Side of Smut