Tom Flanagan, child porn and defence of the indefensible

Some people have come to Tom Flanagan’s defence today, over his remarks about child pornography. They are misguided in supporting him, even when they attempt to contort this into a debate about free speech or academic freedom. Our history in this country, when it comes to the sexual abuse of children, is so horrendous, so appalling, that there can be no debate about whether child pornography, regardless of how or when it is consumed, is terribly damaging and worthy of jail sentences. It is one component in a continuum of exploitation and degradation. Consumers of child porn are complicit in a life-destroying criminal enterprise that has been concealed, rationalized and underreported for decades, perhaps centuries. The consumption of child pornography cannot be extracted and isolated from this continuum, to somehow insulate the consumers from the horrors done to the children captured in the images.

Here is a transcript of Flanagan’s comments, made Wednesday evening at the University of Lethbridge, as recorded by an audience member (video at bottom of this post):
“On the child pornography issue, since that was brought up, you know, a lot of people on my side of the spectrum, on the conservative side of the spectrum, are on a jihad against ah, pornography and child pornography in particular and I certainly have no sympathy for child molesters but I do have some grave doubts about putting people in jail because of their taste in pictures. I don’t look at these pictures but … the closest I ever came to it was at one point in my career, it’s a long story, I got put on the mailing list of the National Man Boy Love Association and I started getting their mailings for a couple of years so that’s about the closest I ever came to child pornography, so, you know, it is a real issue of personal liberty to what extent we put people in jail for doing something in which they do not harm another person…”
At that point, Flanagan was briefly drowned out by catcalls from the audience.
Most significant among his comments, I believe, is the line: “…to what extent we put people in jail for doing something in which they DO NOT HARM ANOTHER PERSON…” (emphasis added).
How could Flanagan or his defenders ever hope to substantiate the proposition that the consumption of child pornography does not harm another person? If a producer of child pornography is emboldened to produced more porn because more consumers ask for or seek out his product (or purchase it), he will perpetrate more abuses against children to produce that product. Child pornography is a byproduct. It is the record of the exploitation, torture and abuse of children.
Many child pornographers – those who produce it – use their product to barter with others for more product. In this case, the consumer of the video/pictures/etc also is an abuser. Is there an argument here that the sexual abuse of children is so insignificant that there should be room for debate about the criminality of consuming this byproduct?
Consider the findings of the landmark 1984 Badgley Report, the first major effort in Canada to study the scope of the problem, which found that it is a hidden epidemic. The authors found that roughly half of all females in Canada and one in three males are the victims of unwanted sexual acts before they reach adulthood. The report concluded that:
Child sexual abuse is a largely hidden yet pervasive tragedy that has damaged the lives of tens of thousands of Canadian children and youths. For most of them, their needs remain unexpressed and unmet.
That finding was widely publicized nearly 30 years ago. Three decades later, privileged, middle-aged men are suggesting that there is still cause to debate whether the consumption of child pornography is damaging (and should be criminal), despite thousands of cases that demonstrate its place in a destructive culture that has permitted the widespread and ongoing sexual abuse of children. The proposition – inferred in Flanagan’s comments – that we still need to debate the criminalization of consuming child pornography, seems fuelled only by the relative mystery of this scourge. Victims aren’t front and centre in the debate. Many rightfully remain shielded behind non-publication orders of the courts, in cases where charges are brought. Many never come forward, out of fear that they won’t be believed, or that they’ll be re-victimized. Some have been beaten or coerced into silence, often because the abusers are trusted figures – family members, teachers, coaches, priests. Only a small number of childhood sexual abuse victims are ever publicly and widely identified in media reports. This relative anonymity of victims means it may not appear to be a big problem, at least in the eyes of average citizens, who never see the faces of the victims. Even in those rare instances when victims are publicly identified, there are no visible scars. The soul-piercing wounds are invisible. Unless you’re a counsellor, police investigator or journalist, you might never have spoken openly, face to face with someone about their experience as a victim of childhood sexual abuse. I have met and talked to dozens of victims, who, despite gender, social status, ethnicity and education, all share a common trait: They are irreparably damaged and terribly transformed by the experience. I have never forgotten the bewildered look on the face of a middle aged woman I interviewed about her experience at the hands of a beloved high school teacher who coerced her into performing sex acts. Decades later, she was still traumatized and still could not fathom why and how it happened. She was a “good girl,” she recalled, one of many abused by the teacher. “It shouldn’t have happened to us,” she said.

There are other reasons to conclude rightly that viewing child pornography is damaging and criminal. There are many cases like the one involving Mark Bedford, a baby-faced predator who has admitted, since his incarceration, that his deviance began when he started looking at child pornography. He graduated to producing child pornography himself, including videos, by extorting young girls online with images and video he had captured of them.  In one case, Bedford (inset left) coerced a 12-year-old girl into simulating sex with her family dog, while he captured it on a webcam and masturbated. The FBI says such cases, called ‘sextortion,’ are part of an alarming trend in the U.S. too, as abusers and pornographers exploit technology to prey on victims.

Research suggests not all consumers of child-pornography will become abusers, producers or predators. Bedford had a predilection that was activated or advanced by his consumption of images. But the images were a risk factor, a stressor or part of his behavioural pattern. In sex offender treatment, efforts are made to steer abusers to new patterns of behaviour that avoid risk factors and stressors, part of an effort to reduce repeat offending. It seems only reasonable then that we would outlaw the consumption of child pornography, knowing that it is a risk factor for some abusers and a motivator for a legion of new abusers.

» My storify that outlines the first 24 hours of the Flanagan story

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