The pornographers are winning the war against the children of the world. More than 4 million Internet Web sites depict in graphic and sickening detail the sexual exploitation of children, and more such Web sites come online every day. Twenty percent of the $14 billion earned annually by the “adult entertainment industry” is revenue from the Internet.
An investigation by the United Nations Human Rights Council, just concluded, finds that the number of Internet images of brutal rape, bondage and other depraved abuses of children have quadrupled since 2007.
The courts are making it difficult for the good guys. The U.S. Supreme Court decided earlier this year, on free speech grounds, to effectively kill a 1998 federal law protecting children from commercial Internet pornography. The court said parental filters on computers are weapons enough. But this, it seems to me, is out of touch with current digital technology trends and dangers. The effects of Internet pornography reach far beyond the computer screen.
I learned this firsthand as a lawyer at the International Criminal Court in The Hague last year, working on appeals involving child soldiers and the sexual enslavement of women and children in Congo, Uganda and Darfur. Dealing with war crimes cases at the office and throngs of prostitutes, many foreign, on the streets gave me a grim education in the proliferation of sexual trafficking of women and children across the globe.
Globalization, which enables the free flow of goods, services and ideas across national borders, has contributed to reducing women and children to mere commodities, to be purchased, used and sold through international flesh peddlers.
The World Congress Against the Sexual Exploitation of Children and Adolescents, which met in Brazil last year, singled out Internet traffic as key to the sexual exploitation of children. Internet servers in the United States host 62 percent of the child pornography distributed online worldwide.
The trend is toward depicting ever younger children. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that the Internet is a common vehicle for pimping children, and Americans who think the sexual exploitation of children only happens in other countries should pay closer attention. Congressional committees estimate that at any given time as many as 300,000 American children are at risk for commercial sexual exploitation, including trafficking facilitated by the Internet.
Without effective “porn-proofing,” a child today will encounter graphic, X-rated Internet pornography. Nine out of 10 children between ages 8 and 16 have been exposed to free pornographic pictures online, according to a survey by the London School of Economics.
Dr. Patrick Carnes, a psychologist who has extensively studied sexual addiction, estimates that two-thirds of American teenagers watch pornography online while doing their homework. “Parents are pretty oblivious about what they are doing. Kids are remarkably unsupervised.”
There is wide agreement that Dr. Carnes is on to something. A new Harris Interactive-McAfee Poll substantiates that parents are often unaware of the risk to their children. More than 60 percent of teenagers polled say they know how to hide their online watching - and their responses - from their parents. “Kids are being traumatized by all this sexual stimulation, which the brain encodes 20 percent faster than any other stimulation,” according to Dr. Carnes. “Patients say the traumatic images they see on the Internet are getting wired in their brains and they can’t shake them, like the intrusive thoughts of post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Predators patiently prowl the Internet and skillfully “groom” children online to win their unwitting co-operation for sexual exploitation. The increasing availability of interactive Web sites and the anonymity of the Internet entices children who are naturally curious to do things they might otherwise never do.
“Kids and other basically decent people who normally wouldn’t get into this sleazy material do so because of the computer,” says Kristina Bullock, mother of a teenage daughter and former lawyer for the National Law Center for Families and Children.
The latest challenge to parents is the swelling tide of “pocket porn,” graphic images of penetration, group sex, bestiality and incest transmitted via mobile phones, video games, digital music players and hand-held computers. Global revenues from such “mobile porn” reached $1.7 billion in 2007.
Digital and electronic devices have effectively become pornography portals. Parents can filter and monitor children’s Internet activity at home and establish porn-proofing rules for when children are elsewhere, but “it is like playing that old ‘whack-a-mole’ game to keep up with pornographers’ advances on cell phones, PDAs and online games,” says Donna Rice Hughes, a national leader on protecting children in cyberspace.
Peer-to-peer networks, which bypass most filters and, according to a 2007 Pediatrics journal study, pose the highest risk for children’s unsolicited exposure to pornography, present additional challenges for parents.
The lucrative, multibillion-dollar pornography industry knows no bounds. Parents need more tools to beat the odds that their children will be sexually exploited, traumatized, or even trafficked as the global culture becomes increasingly coarsened, more violent and instantaneously accessible.
Kathleen Maloney-Dunn is a mother and international human rights lawyer in Portland, Ore.