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Volume 11, No. 7—October 2001  
Table of contents for this issue  

See No Evil

PHILIP JENKINS IS A DOGGED debunker of media-fueled frenzies. Americans should not lose sleep, he has argued, over pedophiles in the clergy, kids on ecstasy, or serial killers. Sex fiends don't lurk in every day-care center, he insisted in Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America (Yale, 1998). But today Jenkins, a professor of history and religious studies at Penn State University, finds himself in an awkward position: He wants to alert the public to a peril he considers authentic.

It all started when he was researching on-line amateur smut for a follow-up book to Moral Panic. Every so often he would stumble onto a sexually explicit image of a child. Shocked, he deleted a couple of these images and reported them to Interpol and the FBI. "But this was happening so frequently that it just struck me that there was something there," he says. Upon further investigation, he discovered an entire hidden world on line—one that led him to rethink a few passages of Moral Panic, including his assumption, shared by most academics, that "child porn was never circulated domestically on any large scale after the 1970s."

In his new book, Beyond Tolerance: Child Pornography on the Internet (NYU), Jenkins describes how a furtive group of computer users around the world anonymously trade child pornography. These users disguise their identities and locations with "false flag" e-mail addresses, so that even if the records of a porn site's server are subpoenaed, the police will find only bogus IDs. Partly because credit-card transactions can also be traced, most users exchange child porn for free. Often, they create personal pages on services like Yahoo Groups, upload their collection, then announce the page's location on "pedo" (pedophile) bulletin boards. Yahoo Groups generally removes these sites in a matter of hours, but not before hundreds, perhaps thousands, have downloaded the material.

Finding the pedo boards wasn't easy, but Jenkins refuses to say where they are or how he located them. "If I say how I got from where I was to the boards," he explains, "then anyone else could do it. And I really don't want that." (He says, however, that he will provide the URLs to law-enforcement agencies that request them.) It's also illegal to possess child-porn images, and claiming "I was doing research" isn't an acceptable excuse. To stay within the law, Jenkins disabled his browser's "autoload images" feature. He couldn't see what was being traded, but the images were "described, analyzed, and criticized in considerable detail" on the pedo boards.

Not surprisingly, anonymity was the byword of Jenkins's project. The users of the boards didn't know Jenkins was observing them for an aca-demic study, and Jenkins didn't know whom he was observing. "Not only do I not know the name of anyone out there," he says, "but I think I'm right in saying that there's no way I could possibly find out." And because any invitation to meet or correspond would be derided as an obvious setup ("thanks ocifer, I'd love to go to the pedo picnic. FBI welcome!!" read one response to such a request), Jenkins worked only with material already posted on the boards.

Jenkins may be among the first outsiders to have witnessed on-line interaction among self-described pedophiles. In some ways, theirs was like any Internet community, with its newbies, revered regulars, and arcane tech discussions. As much as users exulted in finding directions to caches of child porn, they rejoiced in finding others like themselves. Questions like "When did you first realize you were a pedophile?" provoked endless responses, Jenkins reports.

On the bulletin boards, users candidly discussed adult-child sex, though their attitudes toward the subject varied considerably. If someone claimed that molestation was harmless or asked for advice on how to abuse a child, he might be met with "GET REAL! they're children" or "You are not a true loli [Lolita] lover but a violent sexual deviant who should not have the privilege of being with the good people of this board, or even on this earth around the beautiful loli." Many believed that the consumption of child porn actually prevented abuse by allowing people to "look but not touch." Others pointed out that this point could be refuted easily by outsiders: "For us to look, someone not only touched but took pix of it."

What his portrait of this community should suggest to legislators, says Jenkins, "is that a one-size-fits-all policy is not going to work, because you have such a huge diversity of people participating out there.... I think the worst policy response is to focus entirely on the demand side and to try to deter people, [saying] 'you looked at a child-porn picture, you get five years in prison.' That will be about as successful as the drug war."

Still, Jenkins believes that with time and international coordination, child porn can and should be largely suppressed. But it won't be simple: There is no standard definition of child porn, so more permissive countries balk at the demands of a restrictive country like the United States, where pictures of a fully clothed fifteen-year-old posing seductively, a portrait of a nude ten-year-old, and a photo of a toddler performing oral sex on an adult can all occupy the same illegal category. And today's policing strategies fall far short of the mark, says Jenkins: "You have all these local police agencies putting officers on line, sending out messages saying, 'Hi, I'm a thirteen-year-old girl, let me meet you at a motel across state lines.' Sure, that'll pick up some people, but it won't touch the problem I'm dealing with."

Jenkins would like to see the pedo boards shut down. But as a professed libertarian, he would not like to see increased surveillance of Internet users. Most pedophile communities are sophisticated enough to evade detection, he points out, so it's likely that the government would end up mainly cracking down on the wrong people: "I would hate to see a censored, cleaned-up Internet that was like that just because of a misguided attempt to destroy child porn."

Allison Xantha Miller

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