Virtual Child Pornography for Virtuous Pedophiles

by Sherry F. Colb

In my Verdict column for this week, I discuss the phenomenon of "Virtuous Pedophiles," a group of individuals who experience attraction to children but claim not to act on that attraction.  Their goal, in forming their web site and belonging to it, is to support each other in their efforts to remain pedophiles in desire only.  In my column, I discuss some of the issues raised by the formation of a community like this, issues that derive primarily from a skepticism one might have about the members' ability to refrain from ever acting on their desires.  By contrast to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), virtuous pedophiles would have to be completely unwilling to tolerate relapse and recidivism. A congratulatory chip that says a man has been "30 days sober" from having last raped a child would be completely unacceptable.

The question that arises, then, is--beyond the support of having a likeminded community committed to refraining from hurting children despite their desires--how a person who is attracted to children might go about resisting temptation.  This is particularly an issue to the extent that folks within the "virtuous pedophile" community remain anonymous and are therefore free to live and work near and around the young people whom they desire.  One answer might be thought to be pornography.

Pornography, on one account, stimulates and encourages the desire that a person has for the sorts of individuals pictured in the pornography.  If this account is accurate, then it would be a "no-brainer" that people attracted to children would want to stay away from child pornography.  Also, of course, child pornography is criminal to possess, and that is true for a reason:  to create child pornography, a photographer (pornographer) must generally place children in harm's way.  It ordinarily takes sexual abuse to create child pornography, so encouraging pedophiles to use child pornography would be the wrong approach to take, even if it actually succeeded in quelling the viewer's desire for real children (a controversial proposition, in any event).

But let's assume for the moment that the pedophile who uses child pornography is less likely to inflict direct harm on a living child than the similarly situated pedophile who does not use child pornography.  What then?  It would still be wrong to encourage the pedophile to use child pornography, because children are abused in the making of child pornography, but it might be quite different to encourage pedophiles to use virtual child pornography, that is, materials that look in all respects as though they are pictures of children being sexually used but are in fact nothing of the sort. Imagine that the makers of virtual child pornography use the same sort of computer-generated imaging that allows humane film-makers (like the maker of the movie Noah, for example), to create images of animals in film without actually using and capturing living animals. Would CGI child pornography be a "virtuous" product for the virtuous pedophile community?

I think that the answer ought to turn entirely on the empirical question:  Does such material satisfy or ignite the pedophile's desire for sexual interactions with children?  It might be worth doing a study of acknowledged pedophiles (if we can find any willing to participate in such a study) and following their behavior after being exposed to virtual child pornography.  The U.S. Supreme Court has, in New York v. Ferber, permitted the banning of child pornography, consistent with the First Amendment, but that may be true only of real child pornography and not of the virtual variety.

One analogy that occurs to me in thinking about virtuous pedophiles is the person who has decided to stop consuming animal products because he does not want to contribute directly to the suffering and slaughter of sentient, living beings on this planet.  Some people in this category--vegans--lose their taste for meat and other animal products, and this change in taste is fine, of course. But what about those who continue to crave the flavor and texture of meat and/or cheese?  What is the best thing for them to do?

A friend of mine in a friendly argument with me claimed that such people should stay away from vegan meats and cheeses because such people are simply indulging their desire for violent foods with a virtual violent food.  But my feeling was quite different.  I thought that if people feel a desire for foods that taste or smell like animal foods, then there is nothing wrong with their indulging that desire with foods that in fact have nothing to do with violence.

One difference, though, between a vegan cheese, on the one hand, and virtual child pornography, on the other, is that the person who loves cheese and therefore loves now to indulge in vegan cheese, was (probably) never attracted to the violence involved in producing dairy products.  (Indeed, many consumers who "love cheese" are quite ignorant about the special cruelty involved in dairy, which involves taking infant calves away from their mothers and then killing the calves so that humans can take what should have been the calves' breast milk for themselves).  Meat-lovers and cheese-lovers, in other words, tend to like to disavow the violence in which they are participating, even (and maybe especially) if they are not vegan.  Vegans, then, are not feeling "nostalgic" for cruelty but for the flavors and textures and smells that they did not in the past know to associate with violence.

By contrast, the person who wants to indulge in virtual child pornography truly wants to have the experience of sexual interaction with a child, but he knows that he is not allowed to do so and that it would be wrong for him to do so.  The virtual child pornography, then, allows him to pretend that he is actually harming a real child.  Virtual child pornography, then, does not represent a disavowal of the violence of child sexual abuse; it is a "safe space" in which people can act out their pedophile fantasies without an actual child being harmed.

I would accordingly conclude as follows.  If people who look at virtual child pornography are less likely to act against living children (and to use real child pornography) than people who do not look at virtual child pornography, then I think the virtuous pedophile community should probably be providing such virtual pornography for their members, as a means of keeping the community safe from predation.  At the same time, there is a residual "evil" in virtual child pornography that I think is difficult to shed entirely, a residual "evil" that I think is no part of vegan meats and cheeses, by contrast.  Perhaps I am being unfair to a community that I find inherently untrustworthy (people who are drawn to having sex with children), but I am willing to keep an open mind, especially if virtual child pornography truly reduces (or eliminates) the abuse of actual children in both the creation of child pornography and in the private lives of the virtuous pedophiles.  Whatever residual "evil" there is in people pretending through virtual pornography and fantasy to be harming children is, I think, worth sparing real live victims the horrors of being victimized by a sexual predator.