Let's Fight This Terrible Crime Against Our Children

by Andrew Vachss
Originally published in Parade, February 19, 2006

PARADE Contributing Editor Andrew Vachss has made the protection of our most vulnerable citizens his life's work. He is an attorney whose practice, for nearly four decades, has been devoted exclusively to the representation of children, many of them victims of sexual abuse. This experience has made him an outspoken advocate for the dignity and rights of children, a theme he also has pursued through his best-selling novels. This week, we ask readers to join Vachss' call-to-arms against a despicable crime that is growing at an alarming pace.

Statistics show that child pornography is the fastest-growing of all Internet businesses, estimated to bring in several billion dollars a year. But while such information may enrage or frighten us, it changes nothing. Our knowledge of cold statistics will not alter the conduct of those who take pleasure or profit in the exploitation of children. Instead, if we are to wage war, we must know our enemy. We need to know more about those who create this unspeakable "product," why they do it and the various ways it is used.

The term "pornography" may give rise to discussions about what constitutes art. It may invoke issues of free speech or censorship. But no matter how you feel about pornography in general, child pornography does not belong in that debate. No child is capable, emotionally or legally, of consenting to being photographed for sexual purposes. Thus, every image of a sexually displayed child—be it a photograph, a tape or a DVD—records both the rape of the child and an act against humanity.

Child pornography has become a business so profitable that it is no longer limited to pedophiles. Demand exceeds supply and always will. (Some pedophiles, if they had the resources, would acquire a copy of every single piece of child pornography ever produced.) The risk/gain ratio is extremely favorable. And the return on investment is extraordinary. What crime syndicate would pass up such an opportunity?

Compare production of child pornography with another syndicate crime: trafficking in cocaine. Effective production of cocaine requires control of the cultivation fields, maintenance of private armies, complex laboratory skills and equipment, smuggling expertise and many levels of bribery. Because of harsh international drug laws, moving large quantities means risking a life sentence or, in some countries, a death sentence. As a result, those in the production chain have a great incentive to inform upward if captured.

And, even when the syndicate succeeds, it must then begin all over again. Once cocaine is sold, it is gone.

In contrast, production of child pornography requires only equipment that anyone can buy at a local mall. Because much of the original product is "home-grown"—produced by the parents or caretakers of the victims and then offered for distribution to a syndicate—the risk of capture is low. And the penalties are much lower than they should be, considering both the damage done and the profit realized. Once the images are created, they can be copied forever. Even seizure of the original pictures means nothing: Images on the Internet can never be destroyed. The only things "used up" in the child pornography business are its victims.

We justify draconian sentences for drug trafficking because it "hurts our children." And it does. But no mere words could ever truly describe the daily torture of victims who were forced to participate in child pornography years ago and now, as adults, see images of themselves "performing" on the Internet. Do I believe that those who "merely collect the images" would stop if they heard that same pain? No. All pedophiles—even the ones who describe their predatory conduct as "love"—lack empathy. The pain of others is immaterial to the pursuit of their own pleasures. And for the overt sadists, such pain would only increase the value of their "collections."

That is why we must begin to treat so-called "simple possession" of child pornography as the heinous crime it is. Every purchase of child pornography encourages further growth of this evil business: from "custom" child pornography—the sale of images of child rape created to order for the consumer—to "real-time" child pornography, where subscribers pay to watch the streamed online rape of children as it occurs. Still another market exists in recorded images of children being physically abused, even tortured. Some of these are marketed outright for the sexual gratification of the viewers, while others are camouflaged as "instructional materials for disciplinarians."

I understand there are those who innocently (if unwisely) click a hyperlink received in an e-mail and find themselves looking at child pornography. That does happen. But it doesn't happen to the same individual dozens of times. Ask any investigator how many images are found on the average hard drive of a computer seized pursuant to a warrant, and "thousands" is the number you will hear most often.

Personal arousal or stimulation is certainly one reason for collecting child pornography. But there are more sinister uses. One is to desensitize potential victims. Today's children are creatures of the media. What they see in the movies must be "what other kids do," and the predatory pedophile skillfully introduces child pornography among other child-enticing "games" offered during the "grooming phase." This allows him to gradually lower the child's resistance. This is yet another reason to radically increase the penalties for simple possession of child pornography. It is not just some degenerate form of entertainment; it is a deadly weapon that creates new victims.

Beyond that, child pornography also is used by pedophiles as personal validation. Each image tells the collector that he (or she) is not a pervert but a victim, one whose sexual interests—although unaccepted by a "repressive society"—are shared by many. Treatment specialists are always telling us that pedophiles suffer from low self-esteem. The truth is that nothing raises the self-esteem of such individuals more than the certain proof that they are not alone. And such validation is never more than a mouse-click away.

Now that we know what child pornography really is, we can understand the monstrous danger it poses to children throughout the world. The question then becomes: What can we do?

First, we must raise the stakes. With significantly higher penalties—for everything from simple possession to production with intent to distribute—we will immediately accomplish two things: 1) Some purchasers and producers will be deterred, because the risk/reward paradigm will have suddenly shifted. 2) As for those who refuse to be deterred, we will be able to incapacitate them for very long periods via extensive prison sentences.

Second, we must abolish the statute of limitations, both civil and criminal, on acts involving the production of child pornography. This will preserve each victim's opportunity to sue even if his or her individual identity is not discovered until many years have passed. It will also foreclose the "Internet defense," meaning that there will be no need to prove the date on which the original sexual victimization was recorded.

Third, to further deter criminal syndicates, we must enact federal laws to allow the United States to sue on behalf of any as-yet-unidentified children depicted in seized child pornography. This will allow predators to be immediately stripped of their property and profits, which can be held in escrow until their victims are identified.

Fourth, we must recognize that child pornography is an international crime. Many of the servers that contain and distribute it are safe-housed in foreign countries. Typically, a "gateway" operation is set up to protect credit card users from discovery when they purchase child pornography from overseas merchants. But when such a Web site's defenses are broken, too often only the American participants ever see the inside of a prison or face forfeiture of their filthy profits. Since we bring economic sanctions against countries that commit human-rights violations, why should we do less when child-pornography syndicates operate with the clear complicity of their governments overseas?

We should negotiate full-cooperation treaties with all the governments with whom we do business, so that child-pornography syndicates have no protection, no matter where they are housed. We should not be misled by noble-sounding rhetoric: When foreign governments claim that this is a privacy issue, they are in fact simply protecting organized crime—and are being well paid to do so. When a U.S. investigation reveals an overseas component to a child-pornography ring, our government must demand full access to all available evidence and insist that the host country will prosecute all offenders and enforce appropriate penalties.

Finally, we must acknowledge that a war cannot be fought without resources, and then demand that our legislators commit those resources. For this war, we need more trained investigators, more computer experts, the most advanced equipment—and the federal muscle to force cooperation from other governments (while, of course, offering them the same).

Child pornography is a multi-victim crime and a multibillion-dollar business. We already know what children are "worth" to predatory pedophiles and criminal syndicates. Now is the time to show the world what they are worth to us.

© 2006 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.