What’s wrong with “child pornography”? The impact of terminology
As researchers, we make choices daily about what terminology to use in our reports. We take our writing seriously and try to write as intelligibly as possible, but we often don’t think twice about the specific terms we use. We may not consciously choose a particular term, it’s just something we have become familiar with and use it so often that we don’t always consider its impact.
For example, do we say “schizophrenic person” or “person with schizophrenia”? Is a person a “sex offender” or a “person who committed a sex offence”? By using the former terminology it somewhat implies that this defines who they are, they are no longer a person, but a “schizophrenic” or “offender”. By using the terms “person with schizophrenia” or “person who committed a sex offence” it reminds us that this is just one aspect of their life, it does not define who they are.
I raise this issue because it is something that I have been faced with recently. In relation to my own research, there are numerous terms for what is colloquially referred to as “child pornography”. One of the first times I really became aware of the issue was when I was questioned over my use of terminology after presenting at a national conference. When I first began research in this area this wasn’t something that I put too much thought into, however since then, I have been questioned both over my use of the term “child pornography” and “child sexual exploitation material” – facing criticism for using both.
As a researcher it can be easy to become desensitised, or detached, from the subject matter of what we are researching. People easily become “participants” as the distance between research and real life increases. In particular, when we focus on our research on people who have committed an offence, there may be a tendency to forget the people who have experienced victimisation (or “victims” – again, opting to choose terminology that defines peoples’ experiences, rather than defining them as a person) – at least consciously, or in any real depth. Caoilte Ó Ciardha somewhat discusses these issues in this previous blog post.
This is particularly relevant in relation to “child pornography” terminology. To the victims, it is essential that the terminology reflects the seriousness of the offence that has taken place, and using terms such as “child pornography” can somewhat trivialise the abusive nature of it. Using alternative terminology can help to remind us that the image is a permanent record of the abuse that took place, and that the subsequent distribution of an image has the potential to victimise the child concerned each and every time the image is viewed for a sexual purpose (this New York Times article also discusses this issue). I think it is important to consider the impact of the terminology that we use, and to not neglect the feelings of the very people that we are striving to do this work for the benefit of.
Potentially, it is also worth noting that the terminology you use might be dependent on the context, for example whether you are writing an article for publication in a journal or for a blog post, or perhaps whether you are addressing academics, practitioners, “offenders” or “victims”. As such, I suggest it is also important to clearly define the terminology that you use. For example, what age are you referring to when you say “child”, and what do you consider to be “pornography”? Some factors to take into consideration are the legal definitions of both child and pornography as these differ considerably amongst jurisdictions. When someone refers to a “child”, depending on the context, this could be a person under the age of 18, 16, or perhaps a prepubescent person (as it is often defined within research). Similarly, when we discuss “pornography” are we including non-visual material (such as stories, cartoons or audio) and non-explicit material that may be used for sexual exploitation? It is important to make these definitions clear from the onset.
What do others have to say about “child pornography”?
A sexual image of a child is “abuse” or “exploitation” and should never be described as “pornography”. Pornography is a term used for adults engaging in consensual sexual acts distributed (mostly) legally to the general public for their sexual pleasure. Child abuse images are not. They involve children who cannot and would not consent and who are victims of a crime. The child abuse images are documented evidence of a crime in progress – a child being sexually abused.
“The IWF uses the term child sexual abuse content to accurately reflect the gravity of the images we deal with. Please note that child pornography, child porn and kiddie porn are not acceptable terms. The use of such language acts to legitimise images which are not pornography, rather, they are permanent records of children being sexually exploited and as such should be referred to as child sexual abuse images.”
– Internet Watch Foundation
In the U.K., legally the term “indecent images of children” is used, and there have recently been calls for new law to “call child pornography what it is – child abuse”.
“In certain jurisdictions IIOC is referred to as child pornography. CEOP does not endorse the use of this term as it is seen to benefit child sex abusers. It implies legitimacy and compliance on the part of the victim and therefore legality on the part of the abuser and conjures up images of children posing in ‘provocative’ positions, rather than suffering horrific abuse. Every photograph captures an actual situation where a child has been abused. CEOP’s preferred terms are either Child Abuse Images (CAI) or Indecent Images of Children (IIOC).”
– U.K. Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP)
In my own research, I have opted to use the term “child sexual exploitation material (CSEM)”. Elliott and Babchishin opted to use “SEM-c”, a similar term that combines ‘sexually explicit media‘ and ‘sexually explicit material’, adding the suffix ‘-c’ to denote the specific depiction of children. Their rationale highlighted the issues surrounding the differing terminology, explaining that whilst “child pornography” is often perceived as being too trivial, with the use of the word pornography implying legitimacy, others note the international legal scope that this term has. On the other hand, using terms such as “abusive images of children” account for depictions of rape but they fail to encompass images involving children that do not depict sexually abusive actives, however may still be used for sexual gratification by internet offenders. As such, the reason I choose the term CSEM is not only because of the fact it doesn’t trivialise the material, it expresses the abusive aspect of it, but it also enables the capture of the non-visual material and non-explicit material that may be used for sexual exploitation.
So, I guess my reasons for raising these points are to remind people, perhaps this is mostly relevant to those that are starting off on their research career (such as myself), to consider the terminology that you use. Furthermore, I wanted to open the question to others reading this post.
Or is terminology unimportant? I would really welcome any comments, thoughts and opinions. On a final note, if you are using potentially controversial terms in your research, it may be worth considering the reasons behind your choices, and I would encourage you to be confident in the justifications you have for choosing them!
Kettleborough, D. (2015, April 4). What’s wrong with “child pornography”? The impact of terminology [Weblog post]. Retrieved from http://wp.me/p2RS15-9f
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