Trigger warning: This post includes a rather blunt discussion of child sexual abuse.
In a recent interview with the Guardian, the entirety of which can be found here, John Grisham said this:
"We have prisons now filled with guys my age. Sixty-year-old white men in prison who've never harmed anybody, would never touch a child," he said in an exclusive interview to promote his latest novel Gray Mountain which is published next week.
"But they got online one night and started surfing around, probably had too much to drink or whatever, and pushed the wrong buttons, went too far and got into child porn."
I stumbled onto this controversy when I saw this post by The Wicked Witch of East Anglia. Without even reading the article, I knew precisely what had happened to rock John Grisham's world: some friend of his had been prosecuted for possession of child pornography.
I've mentioned this before, but for my new followers and people who have forgotten, I have been a child abuse prosecutor since 1996. In the last eighteen years, I've prosecuted hundreds of men who were hands-on offenders, who sexually abused infants, toddlers, preschoolers, elementary school children and beyond. I've also prosecuted more than my fair share of men who were in possession of child pornography. I know a lot about this subject.
A great deal more than John Grisham, as it happens.
There is a lot to unpack in Grisham's statement, but let me begin with the obvious problem: he is not objective. He is drawing all of his conclusions about fairness/unfairness based upon his personal opinion of what happened to his friend, and his personal discomfort with the fact that it is men who are just like him - "sixty year old white men" - who are in prison for possession of child pornography. This, my friends, is what we call entitlement.
It's a variant of the "No True Scotsman" fallacy. In other words: this man is like me, I am not a criminal, ergo this man is no true criminal. Corollaries of this fallacy include the "why don't you go after real criminals" fallacy (i.e., my friend/family member is a good guy. Good guys are not criminals, therefore why don't you go after real criminals - no matter what the crime might have been that he committed), and the "he just needs help" fallacy (i.e., my friend/family member is a decent man. Decent men don't do things like this unless they are having a mental breakdown. Ergo, he just needs help. Again, no matter what crime he has committed).
I will wager, right here, right now, a stack of John Grisham books that John Grisham has no freaking idea what kind of pornography his friend was actually downloading. Because here is the other thing that I know from years of prosecution - he got all his information from his friend. He has not actually seen the images/videos that were located on his friend's computer. How do I know this? Well, duh. The police don't - can't in fact - show anyone the content of the images seized. Because to do so is a crime in and of itself. Only members of law enforcement, the prosecution team, or the defense team are permitted to view the images. He is relying on his friend's statement about what he did to inform his judgment on how fair it is.
Let me let you all in on a secret. Sometimes criminals lie about what they did. They minimize. They are desperate, and being honest about the gravity and the heinousness of their crimes is not in their best interest. If I had a nickle for every guy who went to prison for raping an eight year old who told his friends that "she was sixteen, and she came on to me," I'd be a wealthy woman indeed.
I've been doing this a long time. I can count on zero hands the number of prosecuted offenders who just a few images of individuals in their late teens on their computers. Zero hands, as in zeee-fucking-ro. This is for a couple of reasons: 1) establishing that the offender "knew" that victim was under 18 is an element of the offense; and 2) establishing that the victim actually was under 18 is an element of the offense. So, if you believe that you are viewing pornography of a 16 year old, but it turns out she is actually 24, that's not a crime. And if you believe that you are viewing pornography of a 24 year old, but she is actually 16, that's not actually a crime either. It is only when the offender is "aware" that he is viewing pornography of someone who is underage AND she is actually underage that it is a crime.
Is it possible that there are a few cases in which this occurred. Sure. But it is far more likely that his friend had ten thousand images of child pornography on his computer, including torture porn, bondage porn, and, even, animal porn, with children who are elementary school age or younger. Because, for the most part, prosecutions occur when men download images/videos of very, very, very young children who cannot be mistaken for adult females. Or it means that the image is of an identified victim - one whose name we know and the date on the image is verifiably her before she turned 18.
This whole idea that we are imprisoning unsophisticated old white guys who just stumble upon a website where there is a seventeen year old girl nekkid girl, consensually cavorting about with men her own age, yeah, that's some bull shit right there.
I have had the misfortune, because of my job, to view a damned lot of child pornography. It is terrible stuff, especially the videos. Sometimes they have audio, and one is confronted with the visceral reality that these children are crying, and begging not to have to do it. It will burn into your brain and it will not let go. Sometimes they are drugged, and are barely conscious. Sometimes they are hit and beaten. Often the children in them have the empty eyes of the emotionally broken and dead, and the bruised, skinny bodies of the neglected and hungry. The normal human response to those videos is horror, and pain, and a deep sadness and empathy for the children in them.
Calling it "child pornography," actually, diminishes its awfulness and gives it legitimacy because, when they think of it at all, people who are unfamiliar with the reality mentally picture it as looking just like adult pornography, but involving smaller participants. Calling it kiddie porn, as we so often do, trivializes it, especially since we have culturally decided to expand the meaning of the word "porn" to include things like food porn (images of extremely delicious looking food) and fashion porn (images of beautiful women wearing gorgeous clothes) and book porn (images of mouth-wateringly beautiful libraries) Porn - that word - it has a modern meaning, and that meaning is all positive. Porn = desirable.
Child pornography looks nothing like adult pornography. It looks like exploitation. It looks like violence.
These videos glorify the rape of children. They are images of terrible, horrifying crimes. They document the murder of the soul of a child. The idea that men get off on this stuff is vile and nauseating. In addition, no one is "entrapping" these guys into going out onto the internet and playing hide and seek with law enforcement. They know that what they are doing is wrong. They know that what they are doing is disgusting, and is likely to end with them in prison.
Anyone who thinks that viewing child pornography is a victimless crime needs to read this: In Court, A Victim Gives Voice To Sex Abuse. John Grisham needs to read it. The young woman about whom the article was written was sexually abused by her father. He was sentenced to 30 years for sexually abusing her. He filmed his crimes, which have been uploaded to the internet, and which are referred to by child protection experts as the "Vicky" series. Vicky is not her real name, but the videos of the Vicky series are everywhere. They cannot be controlled. They will never be wiped from this earth. This is what she says about knowing this:
“I wonder if the people I know have seen these images,” the woman wrote, according to the statement, which was read by a senior assistant district attorney, Kateri A. Gasper. “I wonder if the men I pass in the grocery store have seen them. Because the most intimate parts of me are being viewed by thousands of strangers, and traded around, I feel out of control. They are trading my trauma around like treats at a party, but it is far from innocent. It feels like I am being raped by each and every one of them.”
John Grisham's friend got three lousy years for his behavior. She, and the other children whose images he, and people like him, watched, and masturbated to, and I'm sorry for being blunt, but we all know that is exactly what was going on while he watched those images, those victims got a life sentence of horror from the abuse itself and a life sentence of knowing that, even when they are all grown up and can't be hurt anymore, all over the world, legions of men that they have never met will ejaculate while watching them plead with their rapists to please not make them do it.
So, yeah, three years in prison sounds like a pretty small price to pay for that shit.