July 6th, 2007
Editor's note: We experienced some hesitation at publishing this piece. We know that people have strong emotions about these topics and, obviously, the sexual abuse of children is no trivial matter.
But given the players, including the New York Times, the Justice Department, the Internet, and Free Speech itself, we feel confident that it will start an important debate on a number of issues that are usually dominated by hysterical, reactionary voices.
But given the players, including the New York Times, the Justice Department, the Internet, and Free Speech itself, we feel confident that it will start an important debate on a number of issues that are usually dominated by hysterical, reactionary voices.
For a free month's subscription to "In Bed With Susie Bright," click here. Links to the full audio versions of this interview can be found here: Part 1, Part 2.
Debbie Nathan is the expert on sex panics and is perhaps best known for her book, Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt, about some of the widely covered sex panic cases that rocked the U.S. in the '80s and '90s, such as the McMartin preschool case in California. Susie and Debbie share a deep distrust about former New York Times journalist Kurt Eichenwald's much talked about articles on Internet child pornography.
SUSIE BRIGHT: First of all, you uncovered the bizarre so-called "satanic abuse scandals" that were happening in Southern California in the 1980s, and I remember thinking, "How could people re-create the Salem witch trials in this day and age?" And the next time you popped up in my life, I was reading these sensational stories in the New York Times about child pornography, which the reporter described in amazing, titillating detail — and of course he was on a campaign to stop it.
Nevertheless, I put down the newspaper I was reading, and I thought, "How does this guy get to look at anything that is remotely like 'child pornography' when the whole genre is utterly and completely illegal in the United States? What is the deal... Did he do a deal with the Justice Department? And what are they showing him?" And, "How come he doesn't talk about any of this?" (Ed: Former New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald has denied ever looking at illegal pornographic images.) The very next day, there's an article in Salon — by you, Debbie Nathan. And it had this provocative title, Why I Need To See Child Porn.
DN: And then the next day, it was gone.
SB: And then the next day, it was gone! Because the reporter who'd written the original piece just blew his stack and threatened Salon with legal action if they didn't take this piece down. Well, I want to get back to your rebuttal — the very first thing you said, which is: If child porn is such an immoral outrage, then why does anyone need to look at it? Why is it anybody's business? Aren't we just supposed to say, "My god, that's aberrant," and turn our heads away?
DN: Well, there are two reasons for that, and I'm not sure which one is more important. But the first one has to do with technology. It has to do with the fact that in this country — not all countries, but in the United States where we respect the First Amendment — the reasoning behind outlawing child pornography is that it is the record of the victimization of a real child.
SB: The photographic record.
DN: The photographic record. Now, we don't outlaw photographic records of other crimes. For example, we didn't outlaw looking at the Abu Ghraib torture pictures...
SB: Boy, I'll say.
DN: ...which were sexual tortures. But we do outlaw looking at photographic records of sexual crimes against children. Now, of course, that brings up a whole other can of worms, which is that a lot of child pornography involves 17-year-olds or 16-year- olds. It used to be that you could make pornography in this country if you were over 16.
SB: How recent was that?
DN: You know, I can't tell you the exact year, but it seems to me that it was changed in the 80s. It might've been the late 70s. But the age of model consent used to be lower than it is now. So then you get into the whole argument and controversy about what is a child? We have statutory definitions, but in the real world, I think we know that there's a huge variation in emotional development.
SB: Let's say it's non-consensual, it's basically rape on camera. You know, there'd be no question that everyone would be horrified.
DN: Let's say an 8-year-old who's being raped. Okay?
SB: Oh, god. Okay... Why does anybody need to scrutinize that, aside from the Department of Justice?
DN: I still haven't even finished my first point. And my first point about the technology is that it might not be a real child. Because we now have morphing. We have ways to take pictures of adults, for example, and fiddle around with pixels in Photoshop. We have ways to make adults look like children. You can actually make a young adult look like an 8-year-old. You can do cartoons.
SB: This is reminding me of when I was a good Catholic, and we discussed venal sin. There, somebody might say, "Okay. So you didn't really do this. But you thought it."
DN: You thought about it! That's right.
SB: "And we should lock you up forever and chop your balls off for even thinking about this!"
DN: Yeah, — well, that's where we're at. Now we've got the technology to produce sexualized representations of children where there's no children. So it's not a record of the exploitation of anyone. It's just a piece of art. You might consider it tasteless and repulsive, but it's just a representation and it's not a representation of reality. Now in this country, that is not illegal. In other countries it is, but not in the United States. So how do we know what's on the internet? This is question #1. The government goes around saying there's a tremendous amount of child pornography on the internet. No one really knows how much of it is photographic records of real crimes against real children and how much of it is morphing imagery. So that's question #1. How much illegal stuff is on the web? We don't know. People need to know. And somebody needs to be able to look at that stuff who's not in the Department of Justice, because they've got their own agenda.
SB: At this point, the Department of Justice's reputation is so bad, I wouldn't give them authority to walk across the street.
DN: The thing is, this is the last frontier of authority for the Justice Department. And that's the second point — not only do we not know how prevalent child pornography really is, the government is claiming that it's a multi-billion dollar industry and it's huge. And they're now using that claim to justify the Patriot Act.
And we all know Gonzales is in big shit right now because of a bunch of things including illegal use of the Patriot Act and the firing of all of these attorneys. So he's trying to divert attention by saying, "Well, I'm not so concerned about all that because I'm still following my agenda, which is to attack this terrible problem of child pornography on the internet."
And when the DOJ puts this stuff out, nobody makes a peep. Because this country, this culture, is so ready to believe anything that the government says about child pornography. And that's why you need people outside of the government to be able to look around on the internet. No one has any idea what's really on the internet except maybe — you know, the FBI. Although I'm not sure what they know either. But they're very quick to make claims. And that's dangerous!
SB: Well, when it comes to how to get at the perpetrators of child abuse, why isn't the law completely focused on the criminal act, as it happened, as opposed to whatever record there is of it?
DN: Well, the DOJ will tell you that it's very hard to go backwards and find the child. I mean, there are a lot of people in the world who like to look at representations of children having sex. And most of them, it turns out, never touch kids. It's just like most of the sort of more far-out pornography — people don't do the stuff that they look at. You know? And that's true, apparently, with people who like looking at child pornography. They never touch kids. So there is a lot of stuff out there that's consumed by people who don't touch kids, and the government claims that they can't go back and they can't find the kids.
But the government also makes this argument, which is completely specious in terms of any research, that child pornography causes or incites people to molest children. There's no evidence for that whatsoever.
SB: Maybe I should get to the big picture question behind a lot of this — the notion of sexually taking advantage of an innocent. Child porn boils down to the ultimate taboo. The ultimate "big picking on little" — sometimes the incestuous thing is brought into it — the notion of somebody who has all the power taking advantage of someone who has nothing. It is a classic, epic taboo. Yet, if it's so taboo, then why do we hear about it all the time as if it was a tuna fish sandwich? I mean, how do those two things reconcile? Something that cannot be spoken — unspeakable, makes people's stomachs turn. And yet, oh — child porn here, child porn there, kiddie porn, massive billions. You know, where is the truth in those two completely opposite pictures?
DN: I think they go together. Censorship goes together with the proliferation of porn and this incredible fascination with porn. But it's even moreso with child porn. And, you know what's interesting, Susie — if you look cross-culturally, and you go way back in history, you'll see that whenever a culture is worried about something, or feeling guilty, it puts kids up as a symbol of the ultimate innocence of the culture. And it also posits kids as the symbol of its future. So if it's worried about the future, and it feels culpable — then people just really zero in on the endangered child. And then you combine that with Western, and particularly modern Western fears, since the last couple hundred years of sexuality — and you get this incredibly potent, overloaded symbol in the sexually abused child. And also, over the last couple of generations, there's the increasing use of sexuality as a consumer god.
SB: My own political roots are as a feminist. And part of the way feminists changed public conversation was to say, "You know what? Next time people start blithering about the plight of women and children..." — and of course, they're always put together. They're infantilized together — "...we're going to take a different tack. We're going to talk about this differently. Not just for women's sake, but also for children's sake." And I was wondering — you're a feminist. What do you think would be a healthy way for anyone to discuss young people's sexuality — whether they are children or teenagers?
DN: I highly recommend a book by one of my good friends, Judith Levine, which is called Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex. It's a wonderful book about the fact that children really do have sexuality. Children are not "innocent" in the way that term is used in our culture. And how do you deal with children's emerging sexuality? Well, I think the first thing you have to do is acknowledge it. The second thing you have to do is teach kids how to own their own sexuality, and I think you start that immediately. Children are conscious human beings from the time that they're born. But of course in this country, we have this complete crisis — this total attack on sex education. So the first thing you have to do is have a national conversation about the fact that children are sexual beings.
That's a Freudian idea that's completely out of style now. And I'm not saying Freud should come back, but the actual baby got thrown out with the bath water when people started critiquing Freud.
SB: That's ironic, isn't it? In some ways, I was part of the rejection of Freud that went on during early feminism. But we had our own version of claiming one's sexuality, as the rhetoric put it, which had a lot to do with masturbation, and the idea that this is your body, it's yours to decide — your virginity does not belong to somebody, it can't be sold to the highest bidder. You know, it's not something that your father is protecting, to hand to another man in marriage. All those kind of ideas were getting the big heave-ho with the notion that you have your own sex stuff. It belongs to you. And I don't see that kind of consciousness being very popular today. It's more like, oh, you're growing up? You're starting to come into your own? Well, how can you look sexual? And then, how can you pitch that look to your advantage? That is what I notice in popular culture now.
DN: That was certainly true when I was a teenager. I think it's gotten exacerbated because every year consumerism becomes more powerful. People express themselves more and more through consumption, through commodity consumption. And sex has been colonized by —
SB: The aliens?
DN: ...by the aliens who make all these commodities! Whether it's clothes or makeup. 15-year-olds who are virgins are now getting Brazillian waxed. It's like, every single part of the body and every form of expression is being colonized by the idea that you've got to buy something. And sex is the way that you convince people to buy things. Because, you know, you terrorize people by thinking that if you don't buy this product, you're not going to be sexy!
SB: When the words "child porn" or "kiddie porn" are referred to as a business or some sort of industry that's in progress — I feel a little suspicious. Because there are millions of kids around the world who are being used as slaves, basically — they're forced to work in a factory, or in someone's home. Or just sweat labor. And they have no out. They have no passport. They have no wages. Nothing. This is monumental. And certainly, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised, considering they have so little power, they might be sexually exploited at many ends of their situation. But it is not a child porn business, per se. It is an "exploiting children" business — it's got a lot tentacles, it goes in every direction. It's not like it's a cut-out. Do you know what I mean?
DN: Absolutely. Anyone who has spent any time in a poor country knows that there's a continuum of exploitation. Everyone is exploited, and kids go to work early. Kids go to work in a country like Mexico, working class kids, when they're 8 or 10 or 12 years old. And they can be working in a factory for $4 a day. They can be out on the street selling pumpkin seeds for $5 a day, or they can be in a red light district for $50 a day. So, for women in the third world, it's more lucrative to do sex work. And I've talked to poor women and to poor children. They don't even consider themselves children any more! You know? They're out working by the time they're ten years old. So in their minds, they're not children. They're contributing to the livelihood of their families. They have "agency" — that's that word that sociologists use. They will sit and talk to you — they're very rationale, in their own 10-year-old, or 12-year-old, or 15-year-old way. They've figured out how to support their families the same way that older women try to figure out how to support their families. And, you know, it's a political/economic problem. It's not, to my mind, a moral problem. Unfortunately, the sad thing is no one cares about girls who work in factories. And no one cares about girls who sell pumpkin seeds. And no one cares about women who work in factories.
I wrote a piece in The Nation a couple years ago suggesting that there was far more slavery in this country involving non-sex work. (Actually, two years or three years after I wrote that piece, the Government Accounting Office has just released a study suggesting that's probably right.) It was a very controversial piece. And the biggest attacks I got were from self-described feminists who want all prostitution to be defined as slavery, even when it's voluntary. So it's very hard to get people excited about people being forced to pick broccoli in a field, but they will get really excited about the idea of sex slaves. It sounds prurient. It gets people excited. It's another one of those S&M fantasies.
SB: You have a new book out called Pornography , and it's part of a learning series for young adults to grapple with issues of the day, but it's a good primer for anyone who might want to look at some of the basic arguments about porn. And what amazes me is, when it comes to the huge majority of porn that is produced and consumed, it is the same banal sucking and fucking over and over and over again that dominates the market.
DN: I think the stories that you hear in the media, the gloom-and-doom, scary stories about the bukkake and the donkeys — that's all coming from the so-called clinical samples. That's coming from the people that are in therapy because they consider themselves to be porn addicts, and they've spent all their time finding the weirder and weirder stuff. That's the story, right? "I lost control of it. I wanted to see weirder and weirder and weirder stuff." And that's the porn consumer in the popular imagination now.
SB: I totally reject the notion that that's the cycle. Most people don't sit around with their porn having to have more and more and more extreme...
DN: No, but that's the clinical tale. That's the tale that the media likes, because it's the scary tale.
SB: Well, it's funny you should call it "clinical." Because it's not even accepted by most of the psychiatric profession. There is no such thing as porn addiction in the DSM manual.
DN: I know. And if you look in my book, you'll see that I debunk that. But that's the story the mass media likes to tell. That's what they hang the problem on — the weirdo stuff.
SB: Explain that, because people hear this all the time. "Are you a porn addict? Are you going to become addicted to porn?" Why is that an inappropriate word to use?
DN: Addiction is a physical thing, like nicotine is an addiction, and alcohol is an addiction, and heroin is an addiction. These are things that your body becomes physically dependent on. And people reject the use of the word "addiction" for things like brushing your teeth, or as Leonore Tiefer puts it, "spending too much time reading the New York Times."
DN: Or spending too much time at work, which is a huge problem. Or spending too much time, in your own estimate, watching sports on TV. Or spending too much time in the garage, playing with your drills and making boats in bottles. And now we have spending too much time watching porn. These are just — as Leonore calls them — "bad habits."
SB: What's the difference between a bad habit, or maybe feeling like, "Gosh, I really wasted too much time doing that," and what would be diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive disorder?
DN: I think that's pretty subjective. I mean, if you look in the DSM, it says most disorders have to do with whether the person feels troubled by the behavior. Even if you look at pedophilia, the definition of pedophilia is that you have an attraction to pre-pubertal kids and it bothers you. If it doesn't bother you, then it's not a disorder.
SB: What if it it bothers everyone else?
DN: Well, they wouldn't know if you didn't go out and act on it. If you go out and act on it, then you're a child molester. But not all child molesters are pedophiles, and not all pedophiles are child molesters. The same thing with porn. Certainly, if you're the president of Vivid, and you have to look at 14 hours of porn a day to make your $300,000 a year, I don't think anyone would call you a porn addict. That would be a useful thing to be doing!
SB: What do you say to people who say, "Debbie, look! I personally feel like I look at porn too much, and it's upsetting to me, and it's upsetting my life."
DN: I'm not a therapist, but the therapist that I talked to for the book said that...
SB: Don't they ask you anyways? They don't care whether you're a therapist or not!
DN: They only call me the evil journalist who doesn't care about kids.
SB: But when you're not an evil journalist, I bet you get treated like a shrink sometimes.
DN: Okay, so here's what the therapists say. They take that very seriously. And what they say is, "We need to look at what the problems are in your life that are causing you to sooth yourself?" They see looking at a lot of porn as a self-soothing activity, in the way that many activities are self-soothing when you're anxious, or you're suffering from anxiety, or from depression. And so they try to get the person to look at the behavior in terms of — "Why did I decide to look at porn on the net instead of read the New York Times all day?" Or "Why did I decide to look at porn on the net instead of watching too much basketball?" And if you really look at the meaning of your habits — because everyone's a complicated individual, with a complicated, intra-psychic past — you can come up with some pretty good stories about yourself, and what your attraction is to this particular self-soothing activity.
The therapists that I've talked to have said, "If the person's depressed, you treat the person for depression. If the person's anxious, you treat 'em for anxiety." And you also work on trying to understand what the behavior is, and what the fantasies are that lead to the behavior. And again, I mean, it's a wonderful thing to explore your fantasies. And not all fantasies have to do with pornography. Some of them do, some of them don't, right? We need to understand all of our fantasies.
SB: I often say "sexual expression" rather than using words like "pornography" or "eroticism." Because I'm so tired of all the baggage those words carry.
DN: Well, Leonore Tiefer has a lot of patients who come in complaining that they're addicted to pornography. And she says, maybe the person started looking at pornography on the web because he came from a very restrictive, strict background, and it's a way of rebelling against an overly-strict authoritarian father. So then the fantasy is not so much sexual as it is rebelling against that father. Now, of course, you get a whole sexual overlay, because the bad habit happens to be porn-viewing. But the real profound thing might be what happened in childhood with the father that has nothing ostensibly to do with sex. People are just very complicated.
SB: Also, porn is typically discussed in terms of whether it's harmful, or it's benign.
DN: Yeah, it's so utterly overloaded with moral stuff. And that makes it even more troubling to people.
SB: I come from a place of saying, "Well, I'm an artist. And I'm interested in including the sexual part of creativity in the work that I publish or produce." And so it's not a matter of me deciding whether something is harmful or benign. But rather, in an artistic work, a creative work — sexuality is going to make all the difference in understanding it — its pathos, or its comedy, or its tragedy. It's hard to imagine a lot of the greatest artistic works that people revere if you took the sexual element out of them. That doesn't seem to get discussed in political debates.
DN: It's really weird that you just made that statement, and juxtaposed it with this sort of really sad conversation we're having about people in deep distress. You know? Because your statement is a very joyful, aesthetic statement, and what we just talked about is people coming in hating themselves, feeling that they're evil and out of control. It's very sad. And porn is just so completely overloaded with moralism that the therapist that I spoke with said, "It's really hard to get people to even think deeply about what their relationship is with it, when they're in therapy and they come in with these complaints. Because they're so ashamed!"
SB: Well, as a fellow professional journalist and a researcher into this sort of thing, you have this tendency — like I do, to just throw yourself into the most volatile situations! And then you say, "What's a nice girl like me doing in this anyway?"
DN: Yeah. It's really true. You've heard me kvetching, haven't you? (Laughs)
SB: Yeah, I have. But I understand it, because I often tell my friends, "I'm so scared." You know, I took on this monster. I've put myself right in the middle of it. And I can't handle it. I can't handle it! And they're like — are you kidding?
DN: You know what it was with me, Susie? The first time I got involved with this — what I call sex politics and sex panics around children — was with the Satanic daycare panic.
SB: And did you know what you were getting into?
DN: No. I had a two-year-old when I first heard about the Satanic daycare centers. I remember hearing about the McMartin case. I was sitting in a rocking chair, giving my kid something or other — like maybe a bottle or a book. And on the radio, they were talking about the little old lady at the McMartin pre-school — the 80-year-old who killed rabbits while she brutalized children sexually. And I believed this! I can remember sitting there saying, "Oh my god! Oh no! I can't send my kid to daycare..."
I can remember this so well. I thought, you know what? People will do anything. They're capable of anything. Well, then Ellen Willis, god bless her, who just died last year, started getting suspicious about this stuff. And she asked me if I looked into McMartin. It's a long story, but there was a case in my own community in El Paso, Texas. The first two women to ever be convicted were in my little city. And I was supposed to spend six weeks — but I spent eight months looking at this case. And I had no idea what it was when I first started. But I was just knowing that there's certain ways that kids act, and that you probably wouldn't be able to put a 14-inch knife up a 2-year- old's rectum...
SB: Oh, god!
DN: ...and then have the kid come back from daycare smiling and telling you that he couldn't wait to get back the next day. You know?
SB: And yet those were the stories.
DN: Now do you need to have a two-year-old child to know that? I don't know. But the thing is, I was a mom, and — you know what? I didn't feel guilty about critiquing the believability of these cases. A lot of the reporters back then were men, or they didn't have kids. And if they would have asked any questions about those cases, people would have said, "You don't care about kids."
SB: Or you're a pervert yourself.
DN: "You're a guy." You know? "You're a man, you're a pervert, you're supporting the molesters..." Fortunately I was a woman and a mom. When I read the interviews of the kids, I could see the way the cases went forward forensically. The adult interviewers, whether they were detectives or social workers or psychologists, brainwashed the kids. They interjected their own fantasies into those kids by asking them leading questions over and over and over and over. I heard some of the tapes of kids who would walk into the room loving their teachers. And they would walk out utter basket cases, thinking that they'd been brutalized by Miss Mickey or somebody that they loved before. And I would cry. I would say — these kids have been brutalized by the investigation and by this whole panic. So were the women that were working in public daycare. That pained me to no end, the fact that public child care was under such assault. And it pained me to see women so guilty about going to work. But the thing that really got to me was the fact that relationships that were really beautiful were destroyed. You could hear it on the tapes. It was horrible to hear those interviews. And then you're like, "Oh my god. I have to tell the world about this."
SB: Well now that you've seen and researched a number of these stories, do you have any conclusions about what the seeds are for a sex panic? Like, can you recognize certain things that are in play before it blows up? Or is it still kind of unexpected when it happpens?
Some people said, after these daycare scandals were exposed, "This is to try to get women to be afraid of using daycare." You know — an anti-child care plot. I thought, well that's interesting, but how would anybody have known that to begin with? What is it about a community where the beginning of a Salem witch trial is just bobbing underneath the surface?
DN: I cannot predict it. In fact, what's happening right now is a panic about kids and the internet. And there is a panic about teenagers having sex with each other. Those two things are working off each other. Did I predict those? No! I didn't predict them. And it seems to be happening since 9/11, actually. I think that the most proximate thing is fear of the internet. There's always a panic over a new technology. There are moral panics all the time. I mean, there was a moral panic over the telephone when it was first introduced.
SB: That's right! Because strangers would call you...
DN: Yeah. Male voices would call up young women in their homes.
SB: And god knows what would happen from there.
DN: There was a panic about comic books. There's always a panic about new technology. We're looking at it in hindsight. We're looking at a panic, and we're looking back and saying, "Oh, the internet."
SB: Oh yeah. Remember when that was such a big fright? And now it seems like nothing. That's what always happens as soon as the technology ages.
DN: But it's not nothing for a lot of people with kids today, you know?
SB: Well, I had another interview on our show with a social scientist named Mike Males. And he has these great papers that say, "Look, your kid statistically is in greater risk being in church or at the shopping mall than they are on their MySpace page." The notion of the actual risk that young people are facing on the internet is completely blown out of proportion.
DN: Right. And are people going to listen to that? I mean, that's not what a panic is about.
SB: They're going to, because I'm going to say it until I'm blue in the face!
DN: That's right. Say it! Yes.
SB: The thing that gave you a little bit of liberty to speak out was the fact that you were a woman and a mom, and people couldn't easily toss you aside and think you had bad motives. But have you ever felt the sting from a different direction — people saying you're unfit to be a mother? How dare you speak about this? You know, "You're crazy, you need to be discredited." How do you cope with attacks from people trying to undermine you?
DN: When I was doing the daycare work, I actually had the cops at my door.
SB: That must've been terrifying.
DN: It was pretty scary. Yeah. Back then I had little kids. Now my kids are big, so nobody can use my kids against me, because they're adults.
SB: Did you ever feel like "Gosh, I'm going to have to join the Daughters of the American Revolution" or the PTA?
DN: I was already in the PTA! I was living in El Paso, Texas. I was a Brownie Scout leader. Come on! I had street cred down there.
SB: This reporter who you called into question at the Times, Mr. Eichenwald. He got your story thrown out of Salon [with] a phone call to the editor.
DN: It wasn't one phone call, believe me.
SB: Well, okay, continuous screaming phone calls and emails. Suddenly, you're put into the limelight as...
DN: The flake?
SB: Well, you were not just described as a flake, but it was — "she's obsessed with looking at pornography. And here this reporter (Eichenwald) is just trying to save the children. Why doesn't she care about saving the children?" What do you do when people get that picture of you as cold and unfeeling and just ready to trample over all these poor sex slaves with your calculated attempts to defend the first amendment. I'm trying to conjure up some of the stuff you might have heard.
DN: You know, I don't mind criticism, when it's honest criticism conducted in a normal, democratic forum — i.e., letters to the editor. Things like that. I mean, somebody threatening to sue you is really beyond the pale. But when people criticize me, there's always a whole bunch of other people — there are never as many as the people who criticize me, but the people who defend my point of view are often quite eloquent. In the Salon piece, for example, there was a very active discussion going on before that piece was pulled. There was dozens of letters that came in, just in the first few hours. I was very gratified by them. And my biggest regret about that piece being pulled, and that there were legal threats made — was that the discussion got shut down. And I'm really looking forward to starting that discussion again.
I think it's a really important discussion. I think child pornography needs to be de-mystified, and all the politics need to be broken down. And all of the First Amendment issues need to be laid out on the table. And the criticism — I don't know. I'm just getting too old to worry about it.
SB: Are you a First Amendment absolutist? Or do you feel like there is a certain place where you want to kick in a certain exception for those under 18?
DN: I don't know. I mean, honestly? This is where people who I have great respect for have taken issue with me, because in the Salon piece I said that there should be a vetting system put in place by the government so that legitimate researchers and journalists should be able to review what's on the web. There were critics who were very sympathetic to my opinion that child porn really needs to be looked at by civil society, who nevertheless said, "That's a terrible idea. To call for the government to put in place a system that decides that some people deserve to do that and other people don't. That's a lousy idea!" But I've also said before that I just don't know. I haven't come to a position about whether everyone should be able to look at child porn — that we should all just be able to look at records of assaults against children.
SB: Well there's a lot of scrutiny going on right now about who are the bodies of people who make decisions about what can be seen, or can't be seen — like the motion picture ratings association. It's always been shrouded in secrecy. Who are these people that decide that something's an "R," and something's an "X"? As it begins to get peeled away, and you look at the actual fallible human beings who are selected to these bodies, you say, "What the hell do they know? And this has nothing to do with democracy.
DN: Yeah. And, you know, really, when you look at the content of child porn, to the limited extent that people in civil society have been able to study child porn, a lot of it is older minors. A lot of it is a 14-year-old standing in a lake with her breasts exposed. Some juries and some judges will say that's not pornography, that's just simple nudity. Other judges and juries will say it's obscene and exploitative. So the definitions are very hard to parse out. But this is my irrational spot. I haven't got this all figured out yet. Because there is really awful stuff, too, of little kids, and there was no consent whatsoever. It's very horrible stuff. Some people talk about civil suits. There should be a way to bring civil suits against people who make this stuff and publicize it, because it's embarrassing, potentially. I just haven't figured it out yet.
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