When I first read that the B.C. Court of Appeal had upheld the ruling that it is legal to possess child pornography, I felt sick.
This, I believe, is a normal reaction. Even though I do not have or want children, I do have nieces and nephews, as well as many friends with children whom I love. The idea of anyone harming these or any other children is the most distressing thought I can imagine. I also believe most people share this point of view. Our instinct is to protect children from harm. If they are our own, we should be willing to die for them. If we are not, there is something inherently wrong with us.
That said, I broached the subject with a friend who wishes to remain nameless the other evening. I pointed out that someone I know has spent time in jail for unpaid parking tickets, while those who feed the child-pornography market walk free as birds.
To my surprise, he replied, "You raise an interesting question."
"Do I believe it should be illegal to own child pornography?" he mused. Finally he answered, "I don't know."
I was stunned.
But he proceeded to raise points about privacy rights, cultural issues, and the futility of wasting time running after the consumer rather than the producer. And as I listened, I had to admit that not only were his arguments valid but that they, and others, had come up in my own mind.
The first question: what exactly is a child? Most of the people I know lost their virginity when they were legally still considered "children", between the ages of 13 and 17. Is a child 3 years old or is a child 15 years old? Is everyone a child until the age of 18?
No matter. Let us just suppose that we know a child when we see one. Some cultures treat children differently from others. My friend told me he has heard that much of the child pornography on the Internet is from countries where it is not taboo to regard children as sexual objects.
We had to rely on hearsay on this, as looking at kiddie-porn on the Net is a research task neither of us is willing to undertake. Madame Justice Mary Southin of the B.C. Court of Appeal did ask, in the courtroom, "What right do we have pontificating about what street kids do in Brazil?" I agree that we must recall that we are commenting from a privileged standpoint, and that it is always easy to jeer from our seats.
I know people who have been to Thailand, where sleeping with under-age prostitutes is considered an acceptable practice. Some of you also know people who have done this, whether you know it or not. Here in Canada, the same people would never do such a thing.
So is it a question of leaving the product at the door when you enter our country? Well, that opens up another can of slimy worms. But let us just suppose again that it is. This is Canada and here we do not allow child pornography of any kind, foreign or local.
How effective is it to go after the consumer? Those who consume create the market but my friend observes that it's a waste of time and money to prosecute the consumer when we should be targeting the producer.
"We aren't going to have any fewer sickos out there by targeting possession", he said.
I'm not a psychologist. I do concede, however, that prosecuting the consumer wastes cash that could surely be better spent on catching the perpetrators. I also have a feeling that an overcrowded prison is not the best environment for the rehabilitation of those who get off on the idea of raping kids. Arresting the consumer might make it look and feel as if the law is doing something but it isn't really going to accomplish anything.
The consumer might lead us to the source if arrested but, if possession laws are relaxed, the producers might be less wary and thus easier to find and apprehend.
Last, there are issues of privacy. Regardless of how we feel about it, this is printed material, like other books and magazines. Should people own it? No. Do I hope that anyone who does dies a thousand horrible deaths? Yes. But should they have the right to own a piece of paper with a picture and/or story on it? My gut says no. But regulating private ownership of printed material leads into all kinds of gray areas.
Nothing is as simple as we would like it to be. It is easy to jeer at the ruling of the B.C. Court of Appeal. It is easy to react with our guts but much more difficult to govern with them.