Here’s an uncontroversial statement: different people find different things sexy, just as different people find different things repulsive, outrageous, risque or tawdry. This is why so much of the porn industry nowadays is devoted to kink and specialisation. People are weird, and so, quite often, are our fantasies. It’s a thing.
When I walk into a newsagency and glance at the lads’ magazine section – Zoo and Maxim and so on – I’m usually blinded by a sea of very large bosoms in very small bikinis, hoisted proudly on the torsos of half a dozen tanned and pouting women. These mags are sold over the counter, but while I’m not grossly offended by the sight of mostly bare women, I tend to think the content is more pornographic than not. That’s less a moral judgement than it is a statement of fact: no matter how much skin they may or may not be showing compared to their hardcore counterparts, the models are there to be looked at in a lustful context.
When trying to determine whether something is pornographic, it’s certainly logical to consider why it was created in the first place, and for what audience. In many respects, I’d argue, this is actually more important than what is (or isn’t) on display, but there’s always going to be dissonance between the reaction an image is intended to provoke and the reactions is actually provokes. Because people, as has been mentioned, are weird. We get turned on by weird and unexpected and – sometimes – terrible things. And that’s what throws a spanner in the works when it comes to the current debate on child pornography.
Paedophilia is an awful thing, one that leads to awful crimes and ruined lives. It is a violation of trust and a sexual circumstance in which it is actually impossible for one of the parties to consent, meaning that it should never be condoned or legitimised. We have a social responsibility to protect children from sexual predators. And yet, in trying to do this, we have managed to paint ourselves into a legislative corner, one in which any image of a child becomes pornographic, regardless of the context in which it was taken.
Because children – and children’s bodies – aren’t the problem. Taking a photo of a child is no more synonomous with making child pornography than being a child is synonomous with being a sexual creature. This is an instance where only two things are capable of making an image pornographic: the perspective of the viewer, which is entirely removed from the original context of the photo, and those disgusting occasions on which an abuser has recorded images of their crime. The latter instance is both vile and undeniably sexualised. But the former is where we hit a snag: because it forces people to be concerned, not with the content of a given picture, but the likelihood that someone will view it in a sexual context.
At the moment, in our zeal to protect children, we are dangerously close to smothering them. It is no longer acceptable to show up to your child’s school sports day and take photos: parents are concerned with how the images might be viewed later. But do we stop the sports day entirely for fear of what perverts on the sidelines might take away in their memories? No: and yet, this is exactly the same logic used to justify the current stance on photographing children. The more we behave as though the general populace cannot be trusted to be in the same room with our children on the offchance of what they might be thinking, the more we buy into the mindset that children need to be locked up, protected, sheltered, kept from the public eye.
On the surface, that might not sound so bad. But take that last sentence and replace the word ‘children’ with the ‘women’, and you have a viable description of the logic behind societies whose female populations are required to stay covered up at all times. Men cannot be trusted in the presence of women, this argument goes: it is futile to pretend otherwise, and much easier to make the women invisible than it is to change the attitudes of the men. This is a mentality which ultimately punnishes those whom it claims to protect, by restricting their actions and, by default, assuming that they exist in a constant sexual context. For many reasons, this is not a perfect analogy, but given our current social struggle to decide how much freedom children should have online, outside the home and in their decision-making, it strikes me that our debate over the definition of child pornography stands as a parallel issue.
Ultimately, we live in a changing world. We worry about online predators grooming or luring children away; we worry about the digial distribution of photos of children, and how our knowledge of their possible misuse might taint our perception of their contents; we worry about stranger danger, and whether it’s better to let our kids walk home by themselves and gain a bit of independence, or whether we should constantly be holding their hand. We are making decisions with the best of intentions, but I also worry that we are approaching things the wrong way. Life will always hold dangers, no matter how effectively we seek to curb them: nothing will ever be entirely safe. With new technology opening up the world in an unprecedented way, our instinct has been to clutch tightly at what we hold most dear, trying to protect it from these new, expanded threats. But the more we grip and shelter, the harder it eventually becomes to let go, and the more difficult it is for children to grow up into confident, capable adults. There is both nobility and necessity in our desire to preserve the sanctity of childhood, but in so doing, we should never forget that childhood is something to eventually be outgrown. The real world never goes away, and the more fearful we are of its dangers, the closer we come to never understanding it at all.