Individualizing Victims of Delegated Abuse

Posted by Sherry Colb

In my column for this week, I discuss a woman (who goes by the pseudonym of "Amy") who was, as a child, a victim of child molestation.  The perpetrator, her uncle, filmed his abuse of her, and the results have been circulating among pedophiles for over a decade.  With an attorney's help, Amy has been seeking restitution from the people whom police have found  in possession of child pornography in which she appears.  Some courts have been quite receptive to her pleas, while others have not.  My column focuses on whether it is just to require people in possession of child pornography to pay compensation to the children or former-children who appear in that pornography.

In this post, I want to explore the relation between consumers of the products of abuse and the abuse itself.  I suspect that many pedophiles who purchase and watch child pornography do not consider themselves remotely as culpable as the people who abuse the children in the pornography (assuming they give much thought to culpability at all).  Several law professors, when asked about Amy's case, have concurred in this judgment and have suggested that it takes things a bit far to hold consumers personally responsible for victimizing the children molested to create the pornography.

As I discuss in greater depth in my column, it is somewhat odd to encounter this position (that consumers of child pornography are either innocent or unrelated to the sexual abuse of the children involved), given that possession of child pornography is a crime (and given the reasons that possession is a crime).  Nonetheless, the view that people are less culpable (or not culpable) when they delegate misconduct to someone else (through purchase and consumption) is quite common.

Most people, for example, view the infliction of unnecessary injury and death on animals to be unjust and culpable.  When they hear about what happens to animals on a farm or in a slaughterhouse (no matter how allegedly "humane" the farm or slaughterhouse), many people are outraged and horrified.  They find it disgusting that anyone could inflict such suffering on innocent creatures.  Yet they fail to see how their consumption of animal flesh and/or animal products is equally culpable.  They feel that someone else -- a slaughterhouse worker or a dairy farmer -- is the one who causes the screaming and bellowing, who cuts throats and ends the lives of babies, adolescent, and adult animals.  Once the consumers come into the picture, people imagine, the suffering and death of the creatures whose bodies and bodily secretions they eat and wear have already happened.

Consumers of child pornography (and their defenders) apparently believe the same thing.  Whoever sexually abused the child has perhaps done something wrong, but once the material exists,watching it is "after the fact" and cannot possibly be comparable to the production of the material.

People who wear the skin of killed animals and drink or eat the dairy and egg products that come from the slaughter of baby animals are often gentle and kind when they encounter a specific animal (even a calf or a chick).  If they see someone being cruel to an animal, moreover, some of these same people might well intervene and try to stop it.  This happens, in part, because people do not viscerally experience the very real connection between buying a dozen eggs and killing one-day-old baby chicks.  The individual animals who suffered and died have become invisible, in a way that they would not be if people could see them, alive, one-at-a-time.

The consumption of child pornography might seem distinct in that viewers actually do see the children being abused; that, in fact, is the entire point of the endeavor.  Yet, in an important sense, the children are also invisible to the perpetrator who watches child pornography.  They are sources of prurient pleasure, not living, breathing, and suffering innocents with likes, dislikes, joys, and fears.  They are simply instruments through which the viewer of child pornography becomes aroused rather than individuals with their own inherent value.

And the converse is true of animal consumption as well.  The animals whose flesh and bodily products people consume are not truly invisible either.  Milk containers typically have (highly deceptive) drawings of cows and calves grazing in the field, so people know that cows are forced to provide milk (and perhaps even know the horrors of how this is accomplished in the real world).  The meat section of a grocery store has corpses in it.  Dissociating the corpses from the live animals who they once were is no less an act of denial than it is in the case of a viewer of child pornography.  And as in the case of child pornography, the victim who is "consumed" has already been violated, but the consumption represents a clear expression of demand for more violation.

Most of us, of course, do not consume child pornography, while most of us do consume animal products.  What this means, for practical purposes, is that if you believe it is wrong to inflict unnecessary pain and death on animals (i.e., when the goal is to satisfy appetites than can be easily and more nutritiously satisfied without using animals), you are morally obligated not to consume animal products, just as you are morally obligated not to consume child pornography, if you believe that violating children is wrong.

Going vegan is not supererogatory (in the way that campaigning for tougher laws on child molestation might be).  It is simply refraining from harm, not participating in gratuitous violence against sentient beings, much like refraining from the purchase of child pornography.