What’s wrong with “child pornography”? The impact of terminology

Danielle Kettleborough

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!

Suggested citation:
Kettleborough, D. (2015, April 4). What’s wrong with “child pornography”? The impact of terminology [Weblog post]. Retrieved from

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5 thoughts on “What’s wrong with “child pornography”? The impact of terminology”

  1. ps If you really need a globally-applicable term, then, that term is a ‘Potentially-Illegal Image’ and, consequently, an ‘Illegal Image’.

    The OSC

  2. As someone who has worked with Internet Offenders for the last ten years I/We have found it essential to remove the term ‘Child pornography’ and for many years we have used the term ‘Child Abuse Images’. Interestingly the men in the group who have been fully engaged with the work were wholeheartedly in favour of this shift because they were aware the term ‘pornography’ had been part of their own legitimisation of viewing. I am in agreement with your reasons for preferring ‘Child Sexual Exploitation Material’ in that it covers more thoroughly material on the first category on the Copine Scale, however I have some reservations about the unwieldiness of it in daily verbal usage. I have however taken on the point of this change and will continue to explore with these men the importance of realising that any image, directly involving an abusive act, or merely an image for masturbatory purposes involves an abusive mindset. Thanks you for your thoughtful article.

  3. If you must avoid the term “child pornography”, then stick to the legal description Indecent Images of Children. Despite the propaganda from people like the IWF, it is a fact that not all Indecent Images of Children consists of pictures of children being abused. The phrase “child abuse” also includes the far more common non-sexual abuse, which seems to have been forgotten about (and the photographing of which is not illegal).

    “Child pornography” is descriptive and fairly easy to understand (though in some places need contain neither a child nor pornography). “Child Abuse Images” is ambiguous, refers to material that may be quite legal (to do or photograph), and in some cases may simply be incorrect.

    If you mean pornographic (or indecent) material containing children, say so. If you mean some kid being beaten up, say so. Introducing politically-correct euphimisms serves no-one, and certainly not any victims – is the experience of the person whipped to within an inch of their life really on a par with a boy who masturbates in front of a camera? Especially when the latter is described as a “image of child abuse” and the former most probably isn’t.

  4. In response to your post Laurence293 I would say that both the boys mentioned in your last line are the subject of abuse, it is surely unnecessary to compare which is ‘on a par’ with the other as the effect of the abuse is dependent on many factors (such as the relationship between victim and perpetrator amongst many others) but yes it is still abuse which has catastrophic effects on the subject.

    I agree with you that striving for ‘Politically Correct’ terminology can have a sanitising effect but it is still, at root, part of a necessary process as the above article implies. Perhaps most significantly for myself after more than 10 years working with hundreds of individuals, both victims and perpetrators, for the cause of child protection, I am constantly seeking the most effective terminology to initiate and reinforce change. The terms I currently use may also change but in the meantime I am actively engaging with the process with the aim of reducing the number of childhood lives being scarred by abuse.

  5. Jonathan, thank you for your comments. It’s interesting to hear from a practitioner, and to hear that the group have been on board with the changes in terminology. I do somewhat agree that the term “CSEM” can be a bit cumbersome in daily use.

    Laurence – whilst “child pornography” is descriptive and easy to understand, I do believe there needs to be a shift away from this terminology. As we see from Jonathan’s comment, the use of the word “pornography” could be part of a perpetrators legitimisation of viewing – as such, this highlights the benefit of introducing new terminology (such as “CSEM”), from the point of bringing about change in the perpetrators understanding.

    Thank you both for your input.


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