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Child pornography has NOT been linked to molestation

Despite the New York Times' leading headline "Debate on Child Pornography's Link to Molesting," the article goes on to detail a study that did NOT prove a link. It didn't disprove the link, but it has not proven it. The distinction I'm trying to make is really important, because it's headlines like this which engrave ideas in people's minds that seem to never fade.

The study inciting the Times story is methodologically questionable and has not yet been peer-reviewed or published. Additionally, "the prison bureau in April ordered the paper withdrawn from a peer-reviewed academic journal where it had been accepted for publication, apparently concerned that the results might be misinterpreted."

The study was conducted by the Federal Bureau of Prisons among convicted Internet offenders. Of this sample, 85 percent had committed acts of sexual abuse against minors, including inappropriate touching and rape. This is a huge increase over previous studies, which have found that 30 to 40 percent of those convicted for child porn have molested children.

In terms of methodology, there are a number of questions about the sample. The list of abuse victims only came to light after treatment, during which convicts were encouraged to disclose all their victims as part of the theraputic treatment. At the time of sentencing for these people, it was believed only 26% of them had been "hands on" offenders. Additionally, another complication is that the study was conducted on a volunteer basis.

So the question here becomes, can we extrapolate findings based on a sample of people who: (1) have been caught and convicted, (2) are in treatment, and (3) volunteered to participate in the study.

It's an important question because the findings have huge ramifications--those who are arrested on charges of possession or distribution of child pornography generally receive lighter sentences and shorter parole periods than sexual abusers.

This study also has huge implications in our understanding of the power of porn to incite action. If this study could find a link between viewing child porn and acting out molestation, then, people might argue, why could not all porn have a similar effect?

This relationship between simply viewing images and being impelled to act has been debated and misunderstood for decades ("Porn is the theory, rape is the practice," and so on). Many people still believe in a link between porn and rape, which usually stems from a couple of 1970/80s studies which found a tenuous link. All the studies which found this link, however, used VIOLENT porn. Nonviolent porn was not implicated, but this was lost in the translation between the study's findings and public opinion. (Interestingly, nonsexual violent images also were found to produce a negative reaction. Yet somehow we're not crusading against violence in the media....)

Because the public is so eager to condemn porn, it is important that (1) the child porn study be methodologically sound, peer-reviewed, etc and also that (2) people understand the difference between child porn and consensual porn. The nuance between the child porn offender study and my porn at-large argument is contained in the fact that simply viewing child porn is in itself unethical and illegal (due to the fact that minors cannot give legal consent). So the link between one unethical/illegal act (viewing child porn) and another unethical/illegal act (molestation) is not such a huge leap. Whereas consensual porn is neither unethical nor illegal, so the link between this sort of porn and an illegal/unethical act such as rape is a very big leap. Thus, any finding that viewing child porn is linked to molestation cannot and should not be extrapolated to legal, consensual porn.

This is an important issue from a public safety standpoint, and as such should be rigorously reviewed by the scientific community. At the same time, responsible coverage in the media is vital. Sensationalism around this story could lead to a hysteria which would set us back 30 years. Would be quite a shame...

Desiree Alliance

I presented my research on pornography at the Desiree Alliance Conference on Friday--the conference was held in conjunction with the 2007 West Coast Convergence on sex work. What a great experience!

If any readers attended the conference/my talk, many thanks for your kind words and insightful questions. It was a pleasure to have the opportunity to connect with you, even for as brief a time as I was able. I was hoping to stick around afterwards to meet and mingle, but unfortunately was called away early.

For readers who did not attend, I recommend checking out Desiree Alliance--make a donation or attend next year's conference. They work hard to put together worthwhile events offering a forum for people who don't always have an opportunity to speak out.