Ethics, the internet and sexual imagination

This is interesting.

Here’s something I wrote about the issue a number of years ago.


Operation Ore is big news here in the UK. It is, in the words of the BBC, the largest police hunt of internet paedophiles there has ever been in this country. It started after the United States Postal Inspection Service passed to the UK police a list of more than 7000 people who had allegedly used their credit cards in order to access web sites featuring child pornography. To date, some 1600 people have been arrested in the course of the investigation.

It is, of course, a good thing if this investigation prevents the occurrence of harm to children. Nevertheless, it does bring to light a number of interesting and difficult questions about ethics, the internet and sexual imagination.

Paedophilia is normally taken to mean the sexual attraction of adults to children. The first point to make, therefore, is the obvious one that viewing child pornography is not synonymous with paedophilia. Indeed, it is difficult to see how it is possible to draw any general conclusions about a person from the simple fact that they have looked at pornographic images of children. Consider, for example, that such a person: might be a regular user of child pornography and also might pursue face-to-face sexual encounters with children; might have viewed these images out of curiosity, been shocked to find that they were sexually aroused by them, but have no intention of looking at them again; or might have looked at these images because they were curious about the internet, but have no particular interest in pornography.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that the internet is a new technology. Prior to its advent, possession of child pornography, correctly or incorrectly, was widely perceived to be a good indicator of a propensity to engage in the physical abuse of children. But the internet has removed many of the barriers which in the past might have deterred relatively casual “pornophiles” from amassing collections of photographs. Easier access means that increasing numbers of the simply curious will have viewed this kind of material. In sum, then, the relationship between the use of child pornography, paedophilia and child abuse is complex.

However, it is an important point that the absence of a sexual response when viewing pornographic images of children is not sufficient to guarantee that this activity is morally acceptable. There are apparently strong arguments which suggest that simply viewing child pornography is a moral wrong. For example, one such argument is that the supply of these kinds of images follows the demand for them, and that if people view these images – certainly if they pay for them – they are part of a process which necessarily involves children being harmed.

This is a persuasive argument, but it has its problems. For instance, whilst it is plausibly levelled at the person who regularly downloads child pornography from a commercial web site, it is much less convincing when applied to the person who occasionally downloads a picture from an internet newsgroup.

Also, there is a suspicion that the primary function of these kinds of arguments, regardless of their veracity, is to provide a rational underpinning for prior moral convictions. In other words, even if there was no harm associated with adults finding children sexually arousing, people would still think it wrong; but arguments which show that there is harm associated with these desires perform the useful function of solidifying this baseline moral commitment.

This line of thought raises another thorny issue which is integral to the debate about pornography on the internet. This concerns whether sexual imagination, in and of itself, is the kind of thing about which it is sensible to make moral judgements. For example, if a person fantasises that they are a rapist are they, for those thoughts alone, deserving of our moral condemnation?

Yes, is the answer suggested by the philosopher Gordon Graham, in his book The Internet: a philosophical enquiry. He argues that the causing of an outward harm is not the only mark of a moral wrong. “In an older language,” he writes, “there are gross appetites and interests. People can resist them, fail to do so or wilfully indulge them. Which they do is relevant to moral character, just as whether people’s thoughts about others are charitable or uncharitable, contemptuous or sympathetic, are morally relevant facts even if their outward treatment does not specially reflect these attitudes.”

As ever, though, these arguments are not conclusive. Most significantly, they appear to presuppose what they need to demonstrate; namely, that there are such things as gross appetites and interests where there is no outward harm. Also, it seems possible to come to the opposite conclusion to the one reached by Graham. For example, it doesn’t seem counter-intuitive to argue that the person consumed by uncharitable feelings, who nevertheless behaves charitably, in some sense behaves heroically.

The fact that there are complicated arguments to be had about the internet, pornography and sexual imagination in no way mitigates the harm that some children suffer at the hands of pornographers and predatory child molesters. However, what it does mean is that it isn’t possible to arrive at the truth about the internet, child pornography and its consumers by uncritically taking the tabloid line, and indeed it seems the BBC line, that Operation Ore is about unmasking more than 7000 dangerous perverts.


Leave a comment ?


  1. One important side issue is that many of these supposed downloaders of child pornography are simply victims of identity or credit-card number theft.

  2. Sean Anderson

    Interesting post – I was just reading yesterday about “rape” in Second Life (and subsequently, through the maze of links that is the web, Operation Ore) and asking myself the same questions you posed. I think there are some arguments for the immorality of child pornography itself, but i can’t see any particularly strong ones; it could be said child pornography fosters an interest and makes the person more likely to act out what they see in film, or it could be said that it helps paedophiles prevent themselves from harming children.

    The idea of child pornography being legal is uncomfortable, but so is the idea of people being punished for it by the state and (worse, I believe) suffering persecution for the rest of their lives. To even be accused of having child pornography in today’s society is socially disastrous.

    Another thing to consider is the legality of digitally created child pornography, that is, imagery created solely by a computer, where no child has been harmed in the process. It’s interesting to note that many countries (such as Germany) don’t even distinguish between digitally created child pornography and photography of real abuse, and it’s illegal in the UK. Digital imagery is just a thought, an idea, no-one has been harmed by the making of the image and I think the morality of it raises fewer questions and may help us consider the morality of ‘real’ child pornography. Can thoughts be illegal?

  3. Hi,

    in my opinion, two questions have to be answered before any moral considerations are disputable. The first question is: What is pornography? When is the depiction of a human body – whatver the age of the depicted person – pornographic? Without a definition the use of the term “pornography” is problematic.

    The other question is: What is meant by “sexual arousal”. This of course is closely related to the definition of pornography.

    The standart definition of porn is: texts, pictures or films that are meant to stimulate the viewer sexually. Well, if I remember my Freud correctly, a lot of stuff I see every day in ads matches that definition.

    By placing “child” in front of “pornography” these questions are muffled. What must be wrong can’t be right.

    Sean Anderson asked: “Can thoughts be illegal?” This is not the question. Can thoughts be immoral is the more important question. My answer is: Yes they can, but that is no ones business except that of the bearer of those thoughts. It is definitely no business of the law which should concentrate on actions.

    A final remark: Any sexual act between consenting persons of reasonable age and its depiction is morally and legally right. Anything that does not fit this description is wrong.

  4. Sean Anderson

    Are you sure a thought can be immoral? I think that’s the most interesting question at play here, and it’s pretty uncertain in my mind…

    Not that the American constitution is a particularly good source when you’re looking for truth in the world – but if i remember a Bill Hicks comedy routine I watched a few months ago they define it as any act which could arouse sexual tension and does not have any artistic merit.

    He then goes on to question the legality of the number of adverts with vivid descriptions of how overtly sexual they are – and they definitely aren’t artistic. He also points out it’s sometimes very easy for a man to become aroused and uses the gentle swaying of a train, your inside leg against… you know what i mean – should trains be illegal? 😉

  5. Hi,

    I am convinced that a thought can be immoral. Morality is a set of propositions to guide actions. Do this because of that. In this sense a thought can be immoral. As long as it is not transferred into action, it has no further consequences apart from troubling its bearer.

    Should trains be illegal? Well, since they might have the aforementioned effect on our innocent youth, this is a question that demands serious consideration. Public transport can hardly be abolished so the cheapest way to avoid the temptation might be cold showers. Reduces the dangers of fire in the train as a further convinience 😉

  6. Consider this: if a mother says about her infuriating little offspring “i could kill the little so & so!” we appreciate that she has an aggressive emotion that she is unlikely in most cases to act on, and that perhaps her public expression of this emotion actually assists her in controlling it.

    If a pedophile gazes with lust and longing at a child , or a photograph of a child & thinks “mmmm, i could lick her all over!”, or if he masturbates in private, thinking about her, maybe he is expressing thoughts he may then be less likely to compulsively act out .

    While most people are not pedophiles, it is common for adults to experience sexual arousal to children. However, in the current zeitgeist, paranoiacally sensitized as it is against the slightest hint of pedophilic desire, it is not easy or advisable to admit to these feelings, or even to attempt to understand them in oneself or others.

    Thus, thru a cultural process of surveillance and repression, expressions of pedophilic interest (although simultaneously provoked in popular media and salacious tabloid reporting) have been pushed into the bounds of the ‘unthinkable’, in the chomskian sense.

    The effect of this is to disable the role of empathy in normalizing social discourse. The pedophile (or decent, red blooded child porn user –i find this distinction onerous) is in a very real sense “on his own”.

    Responding to inevitable emotional and appetitive impulses with a dynamic that thrusts them beyond the reach of social integration and assimilation is guaranteed to result in compulsive, socially unsanctioned expression of those emotions. Children often fall victim to sexual violence. It may be because of ‘evil pedophiles’, or it may simply be because we refuse, or are not allowed to understand just how sexy children can be.

  7. I am a person whose sexual preference is exclusively directed to pre-pubescent children. I have no sexual attraction to adults of either sex, nor have I ever, although I have engaged in sexual relationships with adults as an expression of intimacy (i.e. I am not inhibited to that behavior).

    There doesn’t seem to be any “reason” why my preference lies where it does. It appears to me that I experience it in much the same way that heterosexual and homosexuals experience theirs, based on my limited ability to understand those orientations through friends I have had.

    In U.S. law, child pornography is now defined as a crime against a minor under the theory that possession is linked causally to the production of the material, and thus the abuse of a child. Because due process provides the right to confront one’s accusers at trial, it is difficult to see how in many cases a valid conviction could be obtained, should a defendant plead not guilty.

    Previously child pornography was an obscenity crime. The power of the state to prosecute such violations was rooted in the police power to “protect the health, welfare, morals, or safety of the community”. It was a violation of the standards of decency of the community. What always struck me about the obscenity basis for child pornography laws is the mens rea, or intent, requirement. Material was obscene when it was intended to appeal to a “pedophile’s” prurient interest. There were a series of cases that attempted to delineate what, exactly, fulfilled mens rea for the crime.

    Under the obscenity theory, images of minors in snowsuits could constitute child pornography if they were “lewd” or “lascivious”. On the other hand, nude images of minors — such as Sally Mann or David Hamilton’s work — did not. Under the revised theory of the crime (“against a minor…”), it is the prurient interest of the viewer that becomes important, rather than the producer.

    The prurient nature of my thoughts, or of any “pedophiles”, is not dependent on the context of any particular visual stimulus. Is it reasonable to think that a “deviant fantasy” is somehow predicated on consumption of what has been traditionally understoodd to be child pornography? Is it reasonable to think that those thoughts are somehow different between fantasy from material of the traditional definition and fantasy from watching a child actor in a movie?

    We are moving towards a definition of the “pedophile” being “obscene by definition”, and a prima facie violation of the community’s standards of decency. It is reasonable (based on sparse research results) to think that perhaps three percent or more of the population – of both sexes – experienced sustained and exclusive sexual interest in prepubescent children. Are they all to be “outlaws”?

    Some people contend that “pedophilia” is a disorder. Defining it as such is both culturally and environmentally relative. Some mutations in the genome appear disruptive to the organism regardless of their environment, such as the trisomies (Down’s Syndrome, etc.). Some are beneficial or disruptive depending on their environment, such as sickle-cell.

    I contend that it is probable that “pedophilia” was beneficial in the environment in which it became fixated in the population, particularly paleolithic hunter-gatherer tribes. It is easy to imagine various scenarios in which the reproductive benefit of the trait would outweigh a negative impact of the behavior, if any. At one time we apparently survived in small bands of thirty to fifty members. Perhaps the motivation of one of those tribesmen or women to attach to an alien and lost child in the wild, and thus expanding the genetic diversity of the group, enhanced the reproductive success of all.

    However, in our current cultural environment, both the state-of-being and the behavior seem incompatible with society at-large. Is it fair that those of us who are burdened with a trait that might be responsible for our very existence are now banished and persecuted? Is it fair that democratic institutions, rightfully belonging to us all, refuse to prosecute crimes committed in invidious animus against us? Is it fair that we are vulnerable on all fronts to the arbitrary and capricious hatred of our neighbors and relations, to be deprived of our property with no due process, to be denied participation in the body politic, or to be denied standing in courts of law?

    Some will say the condition is not genetic; NARTH is a proponent of this view, though they direct their contentions primarily against homosexuals. I think not. The expression of the trait does not follow Mendellian patterns of inheritance and is therefore not a simple genetic mutation. The mechanisms controlling its expression are complex, as are the mechanisms responsible for it neurologically. It is highly unlikely that it is a “choice” anyone would make. Extensive experience in associating with other “pedophiles” has shown me no consistent correlate between them that would account for it. Those sexually attracted to prepubescent children share life experiences mirroring those of the larger population, no more and no less.

    I fear someday, perhaps soon, my neck will swing from a rope to assuage the ignorance of the majority in this tyranny of numbers. Perhaps you, reading this, are eager to slap the horse out from under my feet and draw that noose tight.

    There is nothing novel, nor courageous, in that. It is routine in the history of man.


    Kevin Brown
    Indianapolis, Indiana

  8. Look you can dress the thoughts up of paedophiles and the justification for their acts any way you want. However the fact remains those who abuse children – physically – harm them as do those who view pictures and perpetuate the abuse of children. Those who try to put forward the argument that people who only look at pictures do not necessarily have a sexual interest in children are at the least extremely stupid or at worst paedophiles propagating a myth.

    Child abusers bring pain and misery and as such should be killed.

  9. Child abusers bring pain and misery and as such should be killed.

    I think you need a therapist.

  10. thanks Jeremy.

    i like the cut of your jib & i’m going to read your book, ‘Why Truth Matters’! also thankyou for founding TPM.


  11. No Jeremy I don’t need a therapist. I’m just pointing out something that has gone on for age’s i.e. Those with a sexual interest in children seek to confuse and cloud the issue the issue for their own purpose.

    “There are apparently strong arguments which suggest that simply viewing child pornography is a moral wrong.”

    Yes there are strong and valid arguments that viewing child exploitation is morally wrong – the term child pornography only seeks to place it on a par with adult pornography that is in most instances consensual but due to their age this cannot be applied to children. Those who choose to abuse children or persist in looking at and collecting images of children on the internet in the main do not do it on a whim. They have many cognitive processes to overcome, e.g. objectivity the child, rationalising their thoughts etc. before they abuse a child or download imagines of children being abused. People can seek to offer varied reasons why they choose to look at pictures of children being abused but the fact is they do it because they have a sexual interest in children.

    The internet has given a community to those who wish to look at pictures of children being abused. The widespread availability of the internet cannot be blamed for this as these people will have always had these tendencies. The internet just gave them an outlet. It’s no different to the excuse that people are only violent due to the alcohol they have drunk – in reality the fact is they always had those tendencies and the alcohol just brought them to the fore

    As for Operation Ore the sad fact is the police didn’t have enough resources to investigate it fully so I should imagine some people were never dealt with due to lack of resources and got away with viewing imagines of children and continued their activities unchecked It now appears that a number of people had their credit card details stolen and their details were used on the site – I’m sure in some instances that did happen and those accused and their the families had a very difficult time. But the facts remain that the majority of people who were charged pleaded guilty and were dealt with in the courts whereby they had course to legal recourse.

    In general I’m not in favour of the death penalty but for those who persist to sexually offend against children there is no choice. There is no effective treatment or cure only a hope that therapy will help identify their triggers and stop them acting on them.

  12. hi KTB. i hope you don’t mind if i butt in. Jeremy’s a busy philosopher, with a lot of hard core thinking to get thru, while i’m just a lowly fallen angel, clearly beneath your contempt and with nothing to offer but the light of reason.

    when you say: ===Those with a sexual interest in children seek to confuse and cloud the issue the issue for their own purpose.=== do you mean in contrast to yourself?

    you obviously imagine you are making your assertions from a strong moral position, but in fact it doesn’t take much courage to stand up in defence of chilhood innocence against the cruel predations of evil scum. in actual fact you are merely bleating in unison with a flock of moral sheep. you are demonstrably incapable of making moral decisions for yourself and pathetically ready to be led by the nose into whatever moral conclusion appeals to your sentiments, which fact puts you among the most dangerous of humankind’s moral weaklings.

    your smug certainty reflects a habit of mind that condemns humanity to hatred and intolerance. in rejecting the validity of speech that contradicts your own beliefs you are allying yourself with the pernicious tradition of authoritarianism. you are encouraging a culture that perpetuates many kinds of misery, including the particular misery of those very children you pretent to care for.

    i like the way you return to this statement: ===“There are apparently strong arguments which suggest that simply viewing child pornography is a moral wrong.”=== …ha! thats good. what does it mean?

    anyway moving right along.

    ===Yes there are strong and valid arguments that viewing child exploitation is morally wrong===

    … have i heard that before some where? …. oh yes! that unambigiously objective term ‘exploitation’ stands for images depicting children in sexual situations, being sexual, being naked, or oftentimes simply being children. viewing such images is morally wrong, yes?

    but why? my impression? i think its because those images contradict a lot of assumptions you make about children. information that is contained in child pornography threatens assumptions that your ideology relies on to survive in the marketplace of ideas. it is essential to restrict sexual images of children because they might undermine your ideology that children are not erotically interesting or interested.

    its not about the actual misery of children who are exploited to produce hard core commercial child pornography at all. we know this because of the peripheral targets of your moral crusade. lolicon manga, naturist magazines, sex education material, all regularly attacked as somehow exploiting children. what if, as a tewelve year old, i photographed myself masturbating? (& i did too) what if i still have those photographs? what a scandal.

    oh no! shade of gray! the slippery slope! moral relativism! ….god, you’re stupid.

    you think that by pointing out that children should not be exploited and abused that you are justifying your puritanical moral crusading. that is truly pathetic. who is going to argue against you on that? me? ………….oh yeah. no, i think children should be raped and killed on a regular basis. no really. its good for them.

    you know what revolts me most about your attitude. its people like you, with your black and white categories and your smug moral certainties, that abused me when i was a child. and i’m not saying ‘made me unhappy’, i’m saying *abused*. ruined my childhood and cast a shadow over my life.

    yes thanks. so wake up.

  13. “or are not allowed to understand just how sexy children can be.”

    Like I said Lucifer there is nothing wrong with my morals. As for yours shown by your comment above you deserve no place in society. Its okay for you to act tough with the anonymity the internet offers I would expect nothing less from your kind. If you are so passionate about your beliefs why don’t you have the courage of your convictions and post your name and address with your comments so the world knows all about the real you.

  14. KTB: ===there is nothing wrong with my morals.===

    no, obviously. how could there be.

    so why on earth would i advertise my identity to a wild eyed extremist? what i ‘deserve’ is not your concern.

  15. This site is mostly a stroll-via for all the info you wanted about this and didn’t know who to ask. Glimpse right here, and you’ll undoubtedly uncover it.
    Submit URL

  16. I am usually to blogging and i actually respect your content. The article has actually peaks my interest. I’m going to bookmark your web site and maintain checking for brand spanking new information.

  17. A formidable share, I simply given this onto a colleague who was doing a bit analysis on this. And he in actual fact purchased me breakfast because I discovered it for him.. smile. So let me reword that: Thnx for the treat! However yeah Thnkx for spending the time to discuss this, I feel strongly about it and love reading more on this topic. If doable, as you change into expertise, would you mind updating your blog with more details? It is highly helpful for me. Large thumb up for this blog publish!

  18. An fascinating discussion is price comment. I think that you must write more on this matter, it may not be a taboo subject however generally individuals are not enough to talk on such topics. To the next. Cheers
    sathish arumugam traffic crow

  19. The following time I read a blog, I hope that it doesnt disappoint me as much as this one. I imply, I do know it was my choice to learn, however I truly thought youd have something interesting to say. All I hear is a bunch of whining about one thing that you would repair for those who werent too busy in search of attention.
    Hacks Generators

  20. I found your blog site on google and examine a few of your early posts. Continue to maintain up the very good operate. I simply extra up your RSS feed to my MSN News Reader. Searching for ahead to studying more from you later on!…
    Industrial air cooler

  21. I used to be very happy to find this net-site.I wanted to thanks to your time for this wonderful learn!! I positively having fun with every little bit of it and I’ve you bookmarked to take a look at new stuff you weblog post.

  22. Your home is valueble for me. Thanks!…

  23. This website online can be a stroll-via for all of the information you wanted about this and didn’t know who to ask. Glimpse right here, and also you’ll definitely discover it.

  24. Your home is valueble for me. Thanks!…

Leave a Comment

NOTE - You can use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>