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Beyond Tolerance: Child Pornography on the Internet

Beyond Tolerance: Child Pornography on the Internet

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by Philip Jenkins

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Perhaps nothing evokes more universal disgust as child pornography. The world of its makers and users is so abhorrent that it is rarely discussed much less studied. Child pornographers have taken advantage of this and are successfully using the new electronic media to exchange their wares without detection or significant sanction. What are the implications of this


Perhaps nothing evokes more universal disgust as child pornography. The world of its makers and users is so abhorrent that it is rarely discussed much less studied. Child pornographers have taken advantage of this and are successfully using the new electronic media to exchange their wares without detection or significant sanction. What are the implications of this threat for free speech and a free exchange of ideas on the internet? And how can we stop this illegal activity, which is so repugnant that even the most laissez-faire cyberlibertarians want it stamped out, if we know nothing about it?

Philip Jenkins takes a leap onto the lower tiers of electronic media in this first book on the business of child pornography online. He tells the story of how the advent of the internet caused this deviant subculture to become highly organized and go global. We learn how the trade which operates on clandestine websites from Budapest or Singapore to the U.S. is easy to glimpse yet difficult to eradicate. Jenkins details how the most sophisticated transactions are done through a proxy, a “false flag” address, rendering the host computer, and participants, virtually unidentifiable. And these sites exist for only a few minutes or hours allowing on-line child pornographers to stay one step ahead of the law. This is truly a globalized criminal network which knows no names or boundaries, and thus challenges both international and U.S. law.

Beyond Tolerance delves into the myths and realities of child pornography and the complex process to stamp out criminal activity over the web, including the timely debates over trade regulation, users' privacy, and individual rights. This sobering look and a criminal community contains lessons about human behavior and the law that none interested in media and the new technology can afford to ignore.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
“A disturbing, thought-provoking study”
"Magnificently readable social science on a widely misunderstood subject."
A detailed yet engaging account......Engrossing.
Publishers Weekly
Politicians, media and law enforcement have "massively over-responded" to "quite innocuous" adult sexual material on the Internet, argues historian Jenkins, while doing far too little to stamp out pernicious and prevalent child porn, such as pictures of four- and five-year-old girls sexually servicing men. Even anti-porn activists who target specific pedophilic Web sites are wrongheaded; the problem is international, Jenkins charges in this important wake-up call, with pictures posted on short-lived sites known only to a computer-savvy subculture that sidesteps the strictures of countries that condemn the material. Thus, while Jenkins (Synthetic Panics) has spent his career arguing that social menaces (e.g., serial killers) are overblown, here he aims to increase public concern. Given that simply looking at child pornography is illegal, Jenkins was constrained in his research. His ingenious solution was to access the news groups and "pedo boards" where regular users communicated, drawing on their descriptions of the material they consumed, and using a feature on his computer that prevented images from downloading. His reading of the various online discourses suggests that child porn users like some other deviant subgroups share a conventional morality, which suggests that many might be deterred by more effective law enforcement. Currently, policing focuses on child porn users, whom Jenkins likens to drug addicts, without striking against the suppliers at the core of the subculture. Thus, he calls not for increased punishment for users but for a prohibition of newsgroups and bulletin boards. And to increase awareness of the issue, he suggests a journalistic exemption to child porn laws.(Sept.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Jenkins (history and religious studies, Pennsylvania State U.) takes child pornography as a case study for efforts to regulate the Internet, investigates why society in general has such a distorted view of the issue, and raises doubts about most current theories of deviant organization. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
From the Publisher
“A useful introduction to the methods that the kiddie-porn community uses to hide its activities”
-The Washington Monthly(Nov. 2001)

“There is much of value in Jenkins’ work. He manages to discuss CP calmly, while at the same time making clear his personal revulsion, an achievement in itself in an area characterized by so much hysteria.”
-The Journal of Sex Research

“Magnificently readable social science on a widely misunderstood subject.”

Product Details

New York University Press
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Read an Excerpt

Beyond Tolerance

Child Pornography on the Internet
By Philip Jenkins

New York University Press

Copyright © 2003 Philip Jenkins
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0814742637

Chapter One

Out of Control?

In fact, extremely few persons actually get arrested and sent to jail, that is a myth really. There are thousands of vhs's out there, many from 1999, thousands of people present at this bbs [bulletin board] and millions of loli-lovers in various countries, yet you only sec a couple of persons getting arrested, and the media writes about it like they have been busting Al Capone.
--Godfather Corleone, Maestro board,
January 24, 2000

Over the last decade, politicians have often been agitated by the issue of Internet regulation, and they have usually couched their concerns in terms of protecting children. How can the young be kept clear of the "back alleys of the Internet," where they might encounter disturbing adult imagery? Might children be lured online by cults or hate groups? On the other side of the debate, opponents of regulation counter that repressing overt sexual or extremist material threatens to damage access to genuinely important information or literary work. Yet throughout these charged discussions runs a consensus that regulation could work in practice; that a lawpassed against, say, pornography or hate propaganda might actually sweep those materials from the World Wide Web or at least keep people away from them; that, given the chance, censorship might work. But is this idea plausible? That it is not--that regulation can, in fact, achieve remarkably little--may be suggested by the easy availability on the Internet of what is probably the most reprehensible material of all, the most stigmatized, and the most rigidly prohibited: namely, child pornography.

When hearing debates about Net regulation, we might usefully remember the case of "Helena," probably a British girl, who, tragically, may be one of the best-known sex stars on the Web. In the late 1980s, as a little girl of seven or eight, Helena became the subject of a photo series that depicted her not only in all the familiar nude poses of hardcore pornography but also showed her in numerous sex acts with Gavin, a boy of about the same age. Both are shown having sex with an adult man, presumably Helena's father. The images are collectively known by various names but the commonest is "hel-lo," that is, "Helena/lolita." Since their first appearance they have had an astonishing afterlife; probably not a day has passed without the hel-lo images appearing anew on some electronic server somewhere in the world, and they are cherished by thousands of collectors worldwide. They seem to be the standard starter kit for child porn novices. In addition, Helena's pictures form part of a much larger series, known under titles such as hel-anal, hel-cum, and hel-louise. Hel-lo itself was recently described by a child porn enthusiast as "the greatest HC [hard-core] series ever made! She was 'acting' since she was a toddler until she was twelve years old, which means there are thousands of pics of her in action out there somewhere! No other series compares!!!"

Or we might consider the more recent KG and KX series, the "kindergarten" photos, which together represent perhaps the most prized collections currently available on the Net. KG is a series of hundreds (maybe thousands) of nude images of several very young girls, mainly between the ages of three and six years old, with each item including the girl's name--Helga, Inga, and so on. The photographs date from the mid-1990s, and they likely derive from either Germany or Scandinavia. In the words of one fan of the series, "Once upon a time. There was a chemist that had earned his Ph.D. Well, he got married and along with his wife opened up a day care center. Well, as the story goes, he managed to take pictures of lots and lots of things. Eventually he got busted." The KG collection exists alongside a still more sought-after version, KX, which depicts the same children in hard-core sexual situations with one or more men. Put simply, most are pictures of four- and five-year-old girls performing oral sex and masturbation on adult men. The immense popularity of the KG images ensured an enthusiastic market for KX, which entered general circulation in early 2000.

The popularity of hel-lo and KX has been achieved despite the utterly illegal nature of such collections. Surely there is not a country in the world where it is legal to carry out the acts portrayed, to record them on film, to post the images on a server, or to possess them in any form whatever, hard copy or electronic. In most countries, the penalties for any of these behaviors are extremely severe: governments in most advanced countries have passed draconian prohibitory laws that often provide harsh prison terms for mere possession of child porn, let alone its distribution or manufacture. Sanctions against such hard-core pictures are especially tough in Japan and the Scandinavian nations, which have traditionally been quite easygoing about softer materials. And yet, not all the world's censorship laws, backed by the direst threats of prison and social ruin, have prevented these series from being readily available for anyone who wants them.

Just how easy it is to find these materials needs to be emphasized. Both the price and the quality of illegal commodities are greatly affected by the relative success of law enforcement intervention. When, for instance, police and customs are waging a particularly successful war against the cocaine trade, making major seizures, the price of cocaine on American streets rises steeply, while the quality of the substance being retailed falls dramatically. Conversely, weaker police responses are reflected in bargain-basement prices and higher purity at street level. Applying this analogy to child pornography produces disturbing results. In the mid-1970s, a child porn magazine containing thirty or so pictures might cost ten dollars in an American city. Today, the entire contents of that same magazine are available through the Internet for free, as are tens of thousands of other, more recent counterparts. A month or so of free Web surfing could easily accumulate a child porn library of several thousand images. The only payments or charges involved would be the standard fees for computer connect time and the cost of materials, such as Zip disks. Prices in the child porn world have not just fallen, they have all but been eliminated. "Quality" has also improved immeasurably, in terms of the range of materials on offer. Arguably, the images now coming online are ever more explicit and hard core. Applying the drug analogy suggests that the role of law enforcement in regulating supply is approximately zero. I want to keep this problem in perspective, since the actual numbers of traffickers are not vast--we are probably talking about a subculture numbering in the tens of thousands worldwide, together with a significant number of casual browsers--but even so, the scale of the enterprise they support is depressing, as is the constant infusion of new materials.

For many reasons, this is one area where enforcement should, in theory, have been quite successful. Since child pornography first entered the public consciousness in the mid-1970s, any involvement with such materials has commonly been regarded as an extreme and unforgivable form of deviance. Many other forms of deviant behavior have their reputable defenders or at least libertarians who assert that these activities should not be severely penalized: drug use has its defenders, as do exhibitionism, public sex, and even bestiality. For child pornography, however, there is no such tolerance, no minoritarian school that upholds the rights of individuals to pursue their private pleasures.

The reasons for this stigmatization are not hard to understand. By definition, the subjects of child pornography cannot give any form of informed or legal consent to their involvement in this trade, and it is a reasonable suspicion that, even when children are just depicted nude, they are subject to actual molestation. A broad public consensus accepts the assertion that possession or use of this kind of material is the direct cause of actual criminal behavior, a contention that commands nothing like the same respect when purely adult material is under debate. Feminist activists have long argued, "Pornography is the theory; rape is the practice"; a corollary declares that "child pornography is the theory, molestation is the practice." Helena and Gavin were certainly molested, as were the KX kindergartners: we have the pictures to prove it. Conceivably, too, some viewers of these images might be induced to carry their own fantasies into reality. In the 1982 case of New York v. Ferber, the U.S. Supreme Court stated, "The distribution of photographs and films depicting sexual activity by juveniles is intrinsically related to the sexual abuse of children ... the materials produced are a permanent record of the children's participation and the harm to the child is exacerbated by their circulation." Some critics go further and see a direct stimulus to child abduction or murder. Yet even the hardest child pornography materials continue to be easily accessible for anyone with appropriate technical expertise.

For debates over Internet regulation, the implications are alarming. If we cannot suppress items such as hel-lo and KX, what can we hope to achieve by regulating any lesser atrocities on the Net? The case of child pornography also throws into relief the other concerns that are so often expressed about the Internet. Why is so much attention focused on quite innocuous forms of adult material, while something as pernicious as child pornography circulates with such relative ease? Consistently, politicians, media, and law enforcement agencies have massively over-responded to relatively mild forms of online obscenity while failing to grasp the realities or scale of the more serious electronic market. Their only excuse is that the electronic child porn world remains so very poorly known, so obscure even to law enforcement professionals.


I have three goals in writing this book.

First, I suggest that child pornography offers a critical case study for efforts to regulate the Internet, to enforce the law in cyberspace. The paramount question is, what law? The subculture operates beyond the boundaries of any particular state or legal jurisdiction and represents a new pattern of globalized crime and deviance. Just where is the Internet? The foolishness of the question is self-evident: the Net is neither a place nor a thing but a construct of millions of individual servers, which we happen to describe through the visual metaphor of a net or a web. If our cultural traditions were different, we might equally well imagine it as a symphony or a concatenation of smells or tastes. It is an assemblage, a congeries, and it has no tangible reality located in any single nation-state. When you get there, there is no there there. So how can a state regulate it? Child pornography raises to an acute degree the fundamental issues about international law and jurisdiction posed by the Internet and electronic commerce. This emerging global market in illicit commodities poses challenges that law enforcement agencies worldwide have only begun to contemplate. Based on this example, we can see that enforcement clearly is not working at present; but might any future policies might be more successful? Is the Net truly beyond control? I argue that while the total elimination of electronic child porn is impossible, nevertheless a massive reduction could be achieved, but it would require a transformation of present law enforcement tactics and priorities.

Everything depends on the way in which we conceive of the child porn problem, which presently is scarcely even recognized as a distinct problem. This brings me to my second goal, understanding why society in general has such a distorted view of the child porn issue. Many scholars work on how social problems are constructed, why we see issues as gravely threatening at one time rather than another, but it is rarer to pay attention to what might be called unconstructed problems. Some phenomena that prima facie seem harmful or destructive can continue for years without people paying much attention to them or without them entering public discourse. Through the 1980s, for instance, there were several hundred violent attacks on abortion-related facilities in the United States, in what some observers viewed as an extremely serious wave of terrorism. In the media and in political discourse, however, the word terrorism was virtually never used in this context until a change of national administration in 1993. Hitherto, the incidents were generally viewed as discrete events, not part of a single problem or crisis, so that they lacked a label such as "abortion-related terrorism."

The fact that this problem remained unconstructed says much about how the mass media report social issues. All too often, news seems to be defined as reporting what bureaucracies say and do, and in matters of crime and justice, the media at their worst define issues in terms of the latest press releases from federal agencies. If the Drug Enforcement Agency declares that drug X is about to become an epidemic, this fact is duly reported with minimal comment or criticism. If, by contrast, agencies refuse to define an issue as grave or threatening, then the media follow suit. The FBI denied for years that abortion-related violence was terrorism, and so it was not classified thus, whether in newspapers, television reports, or the works of academic experts. In the case of sexual threats to children on the Internet, federal agencies speak mainly in terms of online seduction, or pedophiles stalking victims via computers, an area in which police can hope to achieve results. In consequence, the larger problem is popularly defined in terms of cyberstalking. Serious child pornography trafficking is thus ignored, or at least left unconstructed. What is not recognized as a problem is not studied, and the less we know about the phenomenon, the less incentive there is for research or intervention. If we don't see a menace, we are not even trying to fight it.

Third, I believe that the child porn phenomenon raises doubts about most present theories of deviant organization. There exists a remarkably cosmopolitan "bandit culture" of suppliers and consumers of child pornography, which sustains a worldwide criminal market of unprecedented geographical scope. This underworld represents a new type of social organization, made possible by novel forms of technology and characterized by types of interaction that would have been inconceivable only a few years ago; the attendant subculture cries out to be explored.

Discovering Child Pornography

To explain this study, I have to devote some time to describing my methodology and the still more basic question of how I became involved with this research.

My scholarly work over the last few years has involved deconstructing public perceptions of social problems. I have tried to debunk myths surrounding such issues as serial murder, clergy child abuse, and synthetic drugs. In 1998, I published the book Moral Panic, which was a history of ideas of child abuse and molestation over the past century or so, and as part of this, I described the then-recent controversy over the various dangers that children encountered on the Internet. Calls for government action against online obscenity and "cyberporn" resulted in the controversial Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1995, a sweeping censorship measure that was eventually struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. As a follow-up to my study, I became interested in the whole area of Internet pornography, which was surrounded by so many myths and misstatements, and this led me to imagine a book on Internet-related moral panics. Initially, I had no intention of dealing with the child pornography issue, but quite early on I was startled to find materials of this sort, as well as indications that a substantial traffic existed.

The reason I was so surprised is that hitherto I had thought that allegations concerning child pornography on the Web were largely bogus. My attitude was conditioned by my knowledge of general anti-porn rhetoric, which tries to stigmatize "normal" consensual adult materials by contextualizing them together with the most unacceptable content--namely, child pornography, extreme sadomasochistic portrayals, and even so-called snuff films. To win the widest possible support for repressive measures, activists assert that obscenity is not merely a consensual crime but involves harm to those unable to give consent; any suggestion that this is "victimless" activity must be countered by examples of actual and severe harm. On both counts, child pornography is an excellent rhetorical weapon; hence the far-reaching claims since the 1970s about the supposed scale of this activity.

It is useful to define terms here, to achieve a precision that was so conspicuously lacking in the CDA debate. Since so much has been written about the dangers that electronic technologies pose to children, it is helpful to differentiate between three related but separate areas. These areas involve cyberstalkers, or predatory individuals who seek to contact and seduce children online; cyberporn, or children gaining electronic access to adult pornographic materials; and child pornography, the distribution of obscene or indecent images of underaged subjects. Although the three are radically different in their nature and in the response demanded, they are confounded partly through a genuine failure to understand the Internet and partly as a deliberate tactic by politicians seeking to expand censorship of adult materials. In the CDA campaign, politicians capitalized on public outrage against cyberstalkers and child pornography to stir anger at the circulation of any sexually oriented material on the Net, and thus to support legislation against cyberporn, which was the movement's real target.

Despite activists' claims to the contrary, child porn is extremely difficult to obtain through non-electronic means and has been so for twenty years, so I initially believed it was equally rare on the Web. I was wrong. It is a substantial presence, and much of the material out there is worse than most of us can imagine, in terms of the types of activity depicted and the ages of the children portrayed. This is not just a case of soft-core pictures of precociously seductive fifteen-year-olds. Having spent a decade arguing that various social menaces were vastly overblown--that serial killers and molesters did not lurk behind every tree, nor pedophile priests in every rectory--I now found myself in the disconcerting position of seeking to raise public concern about a quite authentic problem that has been neglected.

This is a curious position for someone who defines himself as a libertarian, who fits poorly into most existing schemes of political affiliations. As a general principle, I believe that criminal law should be kept as far removed as possible from issues of personal morality. I am in no sense an anti-smut activist, and I reject efforts to restrict sexually explicit adult material, whether these attempts derive from religious or moralistic believers on the right or from feminists on the left. I know of no convincing evidence that pornography causes harm or incites illegal behavior where both subjects and consumers are consenting adults, and I believe there are convincing arguments that adult porn can be actively beneficial and liberating for both sexes.

Having said this, I now find myself involved in a project that could well arouse anger about sexual materials online and could conceivably be used as ammunition in political campaigns to regulate the Internet and to repress obscenity and/or indecency. The difference, of course, lies in the area of consent, where a clear distinction exists between sexual material depicting adults and that focusing on children. There is no reason to challenge the basic assumption that a child pornography industry does indeed inflict severe harm upon those who cannot give consent, and that is grounds for suppression, if indeed it is possible. I would like to see pictures such as KX suppressed permanently, and if that cannot be achieved, then at a minimum the flow of new images might be contained. At the same time, I want to differentiate sharply between such productions and the world of adult materials, where the issues involved are utterly different.

What We Do Not Know

Having discovered the child porn culture on the Internet, the next question from an academic standpoint was what to do with it, and peculiar problems face any investigator. This is apparent from the stunning lack of available information on the current realities of child porn. Most academic or journalistic American accounts of child pornography were researched and written during the intense panic over this phenomenon in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the books most cited generally have publication dates in the mid- to late 1980s. Little has appeared since then because, at least in the United States, the ferocious legal prohibitions on viewing child porn images have had the effect of virtually banning research. The existing literature thus describes a world of magazines and videos that has now been obsolete for over a decade and ignores the computer revolution that transformed this particular deviant subculture in the mid-1980s, a decade before the mainstream discovered the Internet. (There are some distinguished European studies, but not all are available in English).


Excerpted from Beyond Tolerance by Philip Jenkins Copyright © 2003 by Philip Jenkins. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“A useful introduction to the methods that the kiddie-porn community uses to hide its activities”
-The Washington Monthly(Nov. 2001)


“This is a troubling book that exposes how child pornography has found a safe haven on the Internet. Philip Jenkins’s innovative research methods let him explore and map the secret electronic networks that link individuals whose deviance seems not just outrageous, but incomprehensible. Jenkins shows how culture and social structure emerge in a virtual—and decidedly not virtuous—world. This book raises profound questions about the nature of deviance in an electronic future.”
-Joel Best,University of Delaware

“A detailed yet engaging account. . . . Engrossing”
-Liberty(Jan. 2002)


“There is much of value in Jenkins’ work. He manages to discuss CP calmly, while at the same time making clear his personal revulsion, an achievement in itself in an area characterized by so much hysteria.”
-The Journal of Sex Research


“Magnificently readable social science on a widely misunderstood subject.”

Meet the Author

Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of numerous books including Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in America and Synthetic Panics: The Symbolic Politics of Designer Drugs, available from NYU Press.

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Beyond Tolerance: Child Pornography on the Internet 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Is not a review* It was, at best, an opinion* Your keen observation of the obvious does little to illuminate a rationale for purchasing this missive* If you merely wish to propagate your viewpoint, try blogging* Ta!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Terrible people do this to kids