I was watching a movie last night and there was not one, but two, dire warnings about the seriousness of piracy and the severe legal penalties you can face if you do engage in it.
Now, I realize that doesn’t stop people from pirating things. But, at least they try. I can’t help but compare the difference between how many warnings we give people about the seriousness of piracy–especially compared to how few people are actually prosecuted for it–versus the near-ignorance most people are in regarding the seriousness of internet-bases sex offenses–and how many people are prosecuted for them each year.
My husband was aware, of course, that if he actually had sex with a 15-year-old girl, as a 25-year-old man, he’d be breaking the law. He also figured that talking about setting up such a meeting would probably be breaking a law, although a minor one. He figured it was a slap-on-the-wrist offense, like possessing a fake ID or drinking while underage. And, he wasn’t exactly wrong for thinking that, given that in many states, if these sting operations are done at all, they don’t result in arrest or prosecution. (That’s one of the strangest things about the whole To Catch a Predator show–in some states, the men arrested would be threatened with long prison terms, in other states no arrest was made at all.)
He was absolutely shocked when he learned that if he went to trial and was found guilty, he could face 20 years in prison. To put this in perspective, if he had actually had sex with a willing 15-year-old girl in real life, the maximum penalty would have been significantly less severe.
He had no idea. He knew he was doing something he shouldn’t be doing; to some extent, I’m sure the “taboo-ness” of it made it more fun, the way that people seem to find binge-drinking much more exciting at 19 than 29. He liked the idea of the danger of it, of knowing that he might indeed be corresponding with a cop. It seemed like a game, a mystery. And, he figured that, at worst, he’d get arrested and get a slap in the wrist, a small misdemeanor. He had no idea.
Many men, I think, have no idea. Why would they? Who could possibly imagine that flirting and talking about sex with an eager post-pubescent teenager in an adult chat room would not only carry penalties far greater than the penalties for actually having sex with a willing teenager, but would also land you, at least in Michigan, on a sex offender registry for 25 years? If my husband had known that, he wouldn’t have been willing to take that chance in the name of some stupid “fun.” I’m sure many men wouldn’t. If the penalty for speeding were being thrown in jail for five years and having your licensed suspended for a decade, and we all knew it, none of us would speed; if the penalty for drinking underage was advertised widely as being a felony carrying a fifteen-year maximum and two-and-a-half decades on a public list of dangerous drunkards, very few teens would drink. We skirt the edges of laws we think aren’t very serious. If we’re honest, we enjoy skirting the edges of laws we think aren’t very serious.
Same with possession of child pornography. Again, we have totally out-of-proportion penalties: the guy who downloads a free torrent containing child porn faces penalties exponentially more severe than what people who actually molest small children face. And, we have a lack of awareness of those penalties. Sure, people know child pornography is illegal. I’m sure that’s part of the attraction for many people, especially those with compulsive pornography issues. Given that, in the U.S., the most vile, degrading, violent types of pornography are totally legal, of course the taboo of child pornography is going to be something that some men–even those who have no sexual interest in children–will take pleasure in breaking. Because, when it comes to sex, breaking taboos often does bring pleasure. (I can’t imagine that anybody actually enjoys, in an objective sense, somebody urinating or defecating on them. Both sound completely disgusting. But, there are people who apparently enjoy both, and that would only be because of the pleasures of taboo-breaking.)
What these men don’t understand is how serious the penalties for what they are doing are. They don’t realize they could be facing a lifetime in prison for having a few images on their computer.
It just seems unjust and wrong to have these kinds of incredibly harsh penalties for internet-based sex offenses without a corresponding public awareness campaign. We have signs on the highway warning people of the penalties they will face if they don’t buckle up; we have warnings on DVDs enumerating the penalties they will face if they pirate; we have PSAs on TV letting people know the legal penalties they may face if they are caught driving drunk. We have no corresponding public education about the penalties that internet-based sex offenses carry, despite the fact that they carry penalties far more severe than any of those crimes.
If we are going to be locking people up for decades for possessing child pornography, or putting them on sex offender registries for a quarter century for setting up a meeting with an undercover officer pretending to be an eager, willing, sexually-experienced 15 year old in an adult chat room, then we have a duty, I’d say, to inform them of that.
Certainly if we were interested in actually deterring these crimes–if we believed that these were serious criminal problems and we needed people to stop engaging in them–that’s what we’d do. We’d have commercials running during sporting events warning men of the penalties they can face for engaging in these kinds of online behaviors; we’d have health classes in school cover the legal dangers of online sexual activity; we’d put warnings up before people entered certain websites, reminding them of the penalties in their state of engaging in certain activities.
But, we aren’t doing that. Why? Because these are crimes the police are interested in creating, not deterring. If we actually believed that scores of guys in their 20s and 30s and 40s were meeting horny teen girls in adult chat rooms and meeting up with them for sex, you can be sure that we’d have campaigns designed to deter such behavior. But, it’s not happening (probably mainly because actual 15yo girls who really want sex with older guys don’t need to resort to skeezy chat rooms to find it, and aren’t doing so). There is nothing to deter. There is, however, money to be gained from creating the crime and arresting people for it.
Same with child pornography. If we honestly believed that was a thriving child pornography industry bringing in billions of dollars a year at the expense of the lives and psyches of young children, we’d be attempting to deter it through educational campaigns. But, that’s not happening. There is no child pornography industry; the men downloading free child pornography off of torrent sites are not enriching anybody but the U.S. government. We have no interest in deterring the child pornography industry because there is no child pornography industry; it’s another crime that is being created by the government rather than deterred.
We need to stop letting the government have it both ways. If these are serious crimes that are harming children, then they need to work on deterring them, which would involve public awareness and education campaigns. What they can’t keep doing is running sting operations that involve outrageous penalties that almost nobody in the public is aware of, not for public safety, but to 1) justify domestic surveillance of the internet, 2) seem “tough” on a crime they are woefully inadequate at addressing (actual child sexual abuse), and 3) enrich the prison-industrial-therapeutic complex by pouring even more people into the system.