Child pornography, which is illegal in the United States, refers to images, literature, or other materials that depict a child (any individual under the age of 18) engaging in sexual activity or that portray the child in a sexually explicit manner. Child pornography may involve either the creation of materials depicting minors engaged in sexual activities or the production and distribution of materials harmful to minors. Many individuals, groups, and agencies—inside and outside the criminal justice system—make both proactive and reactive attempts to reduce and/or eliminate this crime. As with many crimes, child pornography has existed for centuries, and until relatively recently, it was not a major societal concern. Today, most attempts to reduce child pornography focus on those children as victims of sexual abuse.
Cases involving the production and distribution of child pornography are increasing, as are specialized law enforcement units focused on combating these crimes. With the introduction of technology and the Internet, the cases of child pornography have multiplied, because it is no longer unusual or difficult to access different forms of child pornography. Officials have documented that some sex offenders use the privacy of the Internet to identify vulnerable children who are utilizing the Internet unsupervised and are therefore easier prey. Also, despite U.S. federal and state laws prohibiting the transmission of child pornography over the Internet, the locations of many of these sites are in other countries, thereby complicating the lines of authority, enforcement, and police jurisdiction. Finally, records show that many of the perpetrators of child pornography are relatives of the child victim. Child pornography is thus a phenomenon involving different dynamics and variables that are unique to criminal activity.
Specifically unique to child pornography is that, in most instances, physical contact between the children and the pornography viewer never occurs. Nevertheless, the children initially victimized during the production of the pornography become repeatedly victimized as the pornography is distributed to the thousands of viewers in the market for child pornography.
At one time, when someone described people who distributed child pornography, the characteristics were of middle-aged, uneducated, white males. Today, law enforcement is discovering ever-increasing numbers of teens and individuals in their 20s involved in producing and distributing child pornography. With men and women of all ages involved in the production and distribution of child pornography, no simple demographic description or profile of a perpetrator of child pornography is valid.
Finally, another type of child abuse often involving child pornography is the use of child sex rings. The term sex ring refers to any situation in which one or more offenders are simultaneously involved in the sexual abuse of several children. Operation of a sex ring thus brings a different set of organizational characteristics to child sexual abuse. A sex ring is a business—the business of child prostitution. Just as an adult may pay to have consensual sex with an adult partner, adults pay or trade children to satisfy their desire to have sex with a child. Often, adults interested in participating in a child sex ring identify desired child victims through pornographic pictures of them. In fact, there are often lines of communications among the offenders in regard to the desired demographic characteristics of the child and the sex ringleader’s ability to locate the sought-after child.
Several U.S. laws address the issue of pornography and computer technology. The 1977 Sexual Exploitation of Children Act prohibited the transportation of child pornography by mail or computer. In 1984, the Child Protection Act defined anyone younger than 18 as a child. In 1988, the Child Protection Enforcement Act made it unlawful to use a computer to transport child pornography, and, in 1996, the Child Pornography Act amended the definition of a child to include computer-generated children. However, in 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that computer-generated children were not children.
Today, the U.S. government and the criminal justice system attempt to reduce the production and distribution of child pornography through action programs and funding efforts. Specifically, the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) organization sponsors a program to provide citizens with an avenue for reporting the use of the Internet by child molesters to solicit children, and local law enforcement agencies, such as the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office in Virginia, have established specific units (Bedford County’s is called Blue Thunder) within their agency to focus exclusively on the detection of cases and apprehension of perpetrators involved in child pornography. In addition, law enforcement not only proactively promotes hot lines that individuals can call to report suspected cases of child pornography, but it also welcomes opportunities to talk to children and the general public on the warning signs for child abuse through pornography.
This growing social problem remains a concern locally, nationally, and internationally. However, through cooperative efforts by law enforcement, social services, the media, and the public, the United States is beginning to address the problem in the hopes of reducing the prevalence of this crime.
- Lanning, Kenneth. 1992. Child Sex Rings: A Behavioral Analysis for Criminal Justice Professionals Handling Cases of Child Sexual Exploitation. 3rd ed. Quantico, VA: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Behavioral Science Unit.
- McCabe, Kimberly A. 2000. “Child Pornography and the Internet.” Social Science Computer Review 18(1):73-76.
- McCabe, Kimberly A. 2003. Child Abuse and the Criminal Justice System. New York: Peter Lang.
- Medaris, Michael and Cathy Girouard. 2002. Protecting Children in Cyberspace: The ICAC Task Force Program. NCJ 191213. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.
- Office for Victims of Crime [OVC]. 2001. Internet Crimes against Children. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.
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