Child pornography refers to visual representations of children that are considered obscene. It is both a cultural issue and a legal definition. Child pornography is a problem about which North Americans, and to some extent Europeans, have been acutely concerned since about 1980, but overtly sexual images and texts involving children have always been made. Cupid, for instance, a mythological figure who incites lust, has always been represented as a child or adolescent. Prior to about the eighteenth century, childhood SEXUALITY was considered normal–one among many natural traits education was supposed to discipline in order for a child to attain adult social status–and therefore pictures of sex involving children were considered to be only one among many types of pornography. With the advent of a modern ideal of absolute childhood sexual innocence in the eighteenth century, however, explicitly sexual representations of children became socially unacceptable.
Many respectable Victorian images of and stories about children contain sexual overtones or betray unconscious sexual desires. These implications, however, were not apparent to anyone who was utterly convinced of childhood innocence at any time between the early nineteenth century and the late twentieth century. Charles Dodgson (better known by his pen name of LEWIS CARROLL), for instance, made photographs of semi-dressed or nude children, and would have been sincerely shocked by the innumerable late-twentieth-century allegations of child pornography that now plague his reputation. By the 1960s and 1970s, however, novels such as LOLITA, as well as other aspects of popular culture, had begun to stir a public sense of apprehension about the literary or visual abuse of children for sexual purposes. Shortly thereafter, the growing focus on CHILD ABUSE,child ABDUCTION, and other concerns about child safety turned public attention to the potential problems of pornography.
Legally, child pornography was first distinguished from adult pornography in the United States in 1982, with the case of New York v. Ferber. Over the course of the next fourteen years, a succession of legal decisions or government reports broadened the definition of child pornography until it meant any photographic image, of real children or not, that in any one person's opinion might seem "lewd." Key cases, government reports, and legislation include the 1986 Attorney General's Commission on Pornography (the Meese Report), Massachusetts v. Oakes (1989), Knox v. the United States (1991–1994), and the 1996 Child Pornography Prevention
Act. The production, distribution, or consumption of child pornography became punishable under federal law by prison terms of up to twenty years. In addition, most states passed laws requiring all photographic film processors to report any pictures they found suspicious to the police.
Only photographic images, analog or digital, were implicated, for only photographic images seemed sufficiently real and documentary to warrant prosecution. The link that child pornography was thought to forge between artificial images and the realities of sexual child abuse informed the logic behind child pornography law. Lawmakers and the American public feared not only the abuse of children during the making of child pornography, but also its effects on later viewers. Child pornography was believed to lower the sexual inhibitions of both child victims and adult perpetrators, as well as haunting children throughout their lives. In 2002, the legal trend of child pornography law was altered by Ashcroft v. the Free Speech Coalition. Rejecting the claim that child pornography should include all images of children, regardless of whether any real children had been involved in its making, the Supreme Court ruled that digitally artificial images were exempt, because they did not document any actual child abuse.
Child pornography law developed in a climate of high anxiety about the sexualization of children throughout Western culture. This anxiety, and reactions to it, can be charted by three successive scandals about advertising campaigns by the Calvin Klein company, a successful clothing manufacturer. In 1980, Calvin Klein launched a series of magazine and television advertisements for jeans showing child star Brooke Shields, in the guise of a sexually attractive woman, uttering the slogan, "What comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing." The campaign made the phenomenon of the child-woman a public issue, but incurred no reprisals. Sales of the jeans soared. In 1995, Calvin Klein again produced an ad campaign for jeans that shocked many consumers and generated widespread comment. The ads featured several models in suggestive poses, some with their underwear exposed, who appeared to be close to the legal AGE OF CONSENT (eighteen). This time, a legal investigation was initiated. Although the models proved to be adults, the ad campaign did not last long. By 1999, tolerance for any hint of child pornography had vanished. That year, yet another troubling Calvin Klein ad campaign, featuring children gamboling in underwear, elicited outrage so vociferous it forced the withdrawal of the campaign within a day.
The growing accessibility of the Internet has raised new concerns about child pornography. Pictures of children involved in sex acts can now be circulated much more rapidly and widely than ever before. Because children use the Internet, the risk of their exposure to child pornography is correspondingly increased. The crime of child molestation can be strongly correlated to the consumption of child pornography, although no cause and effect relationship had ever been conclusively proved. It is much more likely that consumption of child pornography and violence against children are both effects of far more complex causes.
Anxiety over criminal child pornography both expresses and conceals a much deeper and more pervasive anxiety over ordinary images of ordinary children. As fears escalate about children becoming too sexual too young, attention focuses on pictures. Children posed or attired according to the codes of adult sexuality appear constantly in every mass medium, in advertisements for products completely unconnected to childhood, among young entertainers, in beauty pageants, and in many sports. The sexualization of childhood is a mainstream phenomenon, not a marginal one. It affects the image of girls much more than the image of boys, possibly because the image of adult femininity tends to be more sexualized than the image of adult masculinity.
Images of children made within families receive as much new scrutiny as images of children in the public domain. Legislation requiring photo processors to report suspected child pornography to the police was intended to catch parents or parental figures as much as, or even more than, it was designed to stifle a commercial child pornography market. Many cases of parents apprehended by police when they came to pick up processed film, and of artist parents whose work about their children was seized by police during exhibitions, have received wide press attention. These cases serve as a warning about the perils of engaging in one of the most common representational practices of modern culture: taking photographs of one's children. Whether the warning is perceived to be against indiscriminate photographing that observes no limits, or against the excesses of judicial vigilance, the result is the same. Intimate photographs of children are dangerous to make, no matter how close to the child the photographer might be. Any legal allegation of child pornography can be extremely psychologically and financially damaging, even if an investigation leads nowhere, because child pornography is now considered a heinous moral offense.
In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, a growing and increasingly successful number of professional artists have nonetheless tackled the subject of the child body, and especially the awakening, troubled, and sometimes violent physicality of ADOLESCENCE. In the wake of the pioneering work of SALLY MANN in the 1980s and early 1990s, artists such as Anna Gaskell, Marcel Dzama, Dana Hoey, Malerie Marder, Amy Cutler, Anthony Goicolea, Justine Kurland, and Katy Grannan made images of children that challenged ideas of absolute childhood innocence not only by asserting children's sexuality, but by associating sexuality with a range of other attributes both positive and negative, such as confidence, strength, imagination, and beauty as well as anger, escapism, doubt, and malice. The intention of these artists is hardly to objectify children, but rather to endow them with a rich and varied subjectivity. It remains to be seen whether or not this work can be understood according to its intentions, for the essential problem of child pornography is perceptual. Sexuality, and especially the representation of sexuality, is in the eye of the beholder.
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