monthly column from author/activist
David Steinberg

Comes Naturally #132

A Good Man in a Bad Time and Place

"It's a miserable business and I wish he hadn't done it.... But this is a good man in a bad time and place, not a bad man."
-- Gwynne Dyer, journalist and fan, January 20, 2003

On Monday, January 13, Pete Townshend, 57-year-old veteran rock guitarist and co-founder of The Who, was arrested in London, under Britain's 1978 Protection of Children Act, on suspicion of "possessing, making, and inciting to distribute indecent images of children." He is one of over 1300 suspects arrested so far as part of Operation Ore, the largest anti-pedophile police action in the history of Great Britain.

Pete Townshend, however, is not your run-of-the-mill celebrity pedophile who happens to have run afoul of the law. Indeed, it seems clear that he's not a pedophile at all. He has, on the contrary, been a vocal campaigner, public speaker, and political advocate on the issue of Internet child pornography, warning of what he sees as the dangers of sexual images of children available online, and counseling parents on how to prevent their children from being exposed to such images.

In a document posted on his website from January to August 2002, Townshend warns that Internet child pornography "provides a very short route to some of the most evil and shocking images of rape and abuse. The subconscious mind is deeply damaged and indelibly scarred by the sight of such images. I can assure everyone reading this that if they go off in pursuit of images of paedophilic rape they will find them. I urge them not to try. I pray too that they don't happen upon such images as I did, by accident. If they do they may like me become so enraged and disturbed that their dreams are forever haunted."

None of this mattered to the police who arrested Townshend. Neither did it matter to them that Townshend had apparently telephoned police on his own initiative to alert them to the Internet material he had found, or that he immediately offered "to have the hard drive of my computer analyzed by police [so they can] convince themselves that, if I did anything illegal, I did it purely for research." (In addition to research for his one-man anti-child pornography campaign, Townshend is writing an autobiography that deals, in part, with his belief that he was molested by his mentally ill grandmother
when he lived with her at the age of 6.)

What does matter to police is that Townshend used his credit card (Townshend says he used it only once) to purchase membership in a Fort Worth, Texas, child porn Internet portal, Landslide Productions. Landslide, operated by Thomas and Janice Reedy from September 1977 until they were arrested by the FBI, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and Dallas police in September 1999, provided subscribers with passwords to some 5,700 affiliated child pornography sites, based primarily in Russia and Indonesia -- sites that apparently included some truly horrible material showing child rape and other abuse of captive children.

Thomas and Janice Reedy were convicted of 87 counts of child exploitation in December 2000. Thomas Reedy was sentenced to 1,335 years in prison. Janice Reedy's sentence was 14 years.

In their raid of Landslide, police seized Landslide's massive database of names and credit cards for 390,000 subscribers. After decoding scrambled credit card information, police were able to identify the owners of the cards. In addition to investigating the 35,000 Landslide subscribers who were in the U.S., the U.S. Postal Inspection Service sent lists of subscribers to enforcement agencies in 60 other countries. Great Britain received its list of 7,200 names in September 2001. In May 2002 they launched their Operation Ore at a projected cost of 2,000,000 British pounds ($3,250,000). Among the people arrested so far in Operation Ore -- aside from Townshend -- are two Members of Parliament, 90 police officers, judges, doctors, care workers, soldiers, and at least one headmaster of a private school.

In Britain, as in the U.S. and many other countries, possession of images of children engaged in sexual activity is illegal. Viewing such images online, without actually possessing them, is also illegal, even if they are viewed accidentally. It would theoretically be possible to anonymously email someone child porn images and then have that person arrested for possession, even if that person immediately deleted the images upon seeing them. Not intending to see the images would not be a viable defense.

As former U.S. Attorney Terri Moore, who prosecuted the Landslide case, says (speaking of Townshend), "it doesn't matter what his motive was. It is a crime to possess child pornography, good motive or bad. You're guilty if you have it." She dismisses claims of possessing child pornography for research as nothing more than a scam frequently used by people who have been caught with child porn online. "It's, 'Hey, I was doing research. I'm crusading against this stuff. I was hunting this stuff down so I could turn it over to law enforcement.' Uh hmm, sure you were," she scoffed to the Dallas Morning News.

Mark Stephens, vice-chairman of Britain's Internet Watch Foundation, agrees equally simply that "it is wrong-headed, misguided and illegal to look at or download or even to pay to download pedophiliac material and if you do so, you are likely to go to prison."

But if it's illegal to so much as view a child porn image online, how is it possible for anyone to seriously investigate online child pornography, as a thoughtful journalist, for example, might want to do? Or to conduct a responsible campaign aimed at combating or offering the public reliable information about child porn? Is it really possible that no anti-child porn advocate has ever actually seen the images they so vociferously protest? To do so they would have to have broken the law themselves.

In 1999, National Public Radio journalist Larry Matthews, a reporter with some 30 years of experience, was convicted of possession of child pornography and sentenced to 18 months in prison. The child pornography in his possession was material he had downloaded in conjunction with a story he was writing on the role of law-enforcement agents in online pornography. The story was a follow-up to an earlier exposé about child pornography that Matthews had produced for Washington's NPR radio station, WTOP. Matthews believed he had a right to view the pictures as research for his story, but U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams Jr. ruled that, even though Matthews was an established journalist, he did not have the right to break the law that prohibits possession of child porn. Matthews appealed to the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, but his appeal was rejected in April 2000. The Appellate Court ruled that any public interest served by Matthews's journalism was "greatly outweighed by the harm done by [his] transportation and dissemination of the images."

David Hilton thinks of himself as a private anti-pornography crusader. After coming across a U.S. Customs website that offered monetary rewards to people who provided information about child pornography, Hilton spent hours downloading child porn from the Internet which he then turned over to federal officials. The feds promptly arrested him. "I showed them what I had," he explained to the Portland (Maine) Press Herald, "who I had gathered it from, and then they arrested me." Federal police say they did not believe Hilton was sincere about his intent to expose online child porn. They note, once again, that possession of child porn is illegal, regardless of the motive of the person who obtains or sees it.

Cyberangels, a group associated with the Guardian Angels, New York's famous and generally well-respected civilian policing organization, monitors Internet newsgroups, chat rooms, and websites, looking for illegal activity, including child porn. They claim to have trained their 150 volunteers in how to find and document illegal Internet activity without breaking the law themselves. They don't say how this is done. They say they have forwarded 5,000 pieces of evidence to the U.S. Customs Service over the past year without ever possessing anything illegal themselves. How they can know which websites are posting illegal images of children without looking at the images themselves is unclear.

Presentations on child pornography at conferences of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS), the largest professional organization of sexologists in the U.S., cannot include slides of the images in question. Owning and showing such slides would subject the researcher, all members of the audience, SSSS itself, and the hotel hosting the conference, to possible arrest and prosecution.

In a thoughtful article in The (London) Guardian, Rod Liddle asks what it is about child pornography that people really find so upsetting. People who advocate against child porn say their concern is for the children who are abused in the process of producing it. But to Liddle, that "one laudable and necessary aim [of anti-child pornography laws] -- to protect children from abuse -- has become warped by our consuming, obsessive hatred for those who find children sexually attractive," by what he calls "our collective neurosis and confusion about paedophilia generally."

Indeed, it does seem that we are upset at the idea of pedophiles getting turned on to images of young girls and boys, regardless of whether this has anything to do with real children being harmed. The overwhelming majority of pedophiles, after all, never harm or embarrass real children. There is no evidence to suggest that there is any connection between viewing child pornography and molesting children. Indeed, some people argue that child pornography actually protects children from abuse by giving pedophiles a safe, victimless outlet for their sexual desires. None of this matters. The idea of some guy jacking off to a picture of a little girl or a little boy makes us angry, extremely angry. We want to see this man punished whether he is a menace to society or not.

We pass Megan's Laws -- laws requiring convicted sex offenders to register with police, and for police to maintain publicly accessible data bases on the whereabouts of these people -- because we believe that molesters are irreclaimable maniacs, a threat to society, a threat to the sexual innocence of children, and to innocence in general. It doesn't matter, as Judith Levine reports in her calmly researched book, Harmful to Minors, that convicted child molesters have one of the lowest rates of repeat offense of any criminals -- 13% (7% after psychological treatment) compared to 74% for criminals overall. Do we want to know if there are convicted car thieves living in our neighborhoods, because we may be their next victims? No. Convicted batterers? No. People convicted of armed robbery? No. But put a convicted sex offender in a neighborhood and we are ready for everyone's property values to take a serious hit. (The proximity of a registered sex offender, if known, must be disclosed to prospective home buyers. Real estate agents debate whether they need to search local Megan's Law databases, as a service to home buyers, or studiously avoid the databases, as a service to sellers.)

Liddle likens the social hysteria swirling around the issue of child porn to that of the Salem witch trials. "The law should be above the blind, howling, rage of Rebekah Wade's moronic vigilantes," he reminds us. But, pedophiles (a group of people now so confused with child molesters that the two groups are taken to be one and the same) have become more than a significant social issue. Pedophiles have become our contemporary "designated perverts" -- the people we fear far beyond any real danger they pose because they represent all of our own presumably dangerous sexual desires, the ones that fall outside the narrow band of sexual activity our culture considers acceptable.

We have, in fact, always designated one class of sexual outsiders as primary perverts and used an exaggerated view of who these people are to frighten everyone into keeping forbidden sexual desires under strict control. A couple of decades ago, before everyone knew someone who was gay, before gays and lesbians were begrudgingly acknowledged to be genuine human beings, homosexuals performed the social role of designated perverts. In the late 19th century, before women began to insist on the right to being sexual beings in their own right rather than mere receptacles for male sexual desire, the very notion that women would affirm any sexual desire of their own was so offensive to the general population that the stigma reserved for such "Satanic Free Loveists" effectively warned anyone tempted to deviate from sexual "normalcy" about what would happen to them if they did.

Pete Townshend may not be prosecuted in the end. A lot seems to hinge on whether he can demonstrate that he did not enjoy looking at the pictures in his computer. But if Larry Matthews ever does another article investigating child pornography, you can be sure he won't have first-hand knowledge of what he's writing about. When someone wants to know just what kind of sexual images of children are being distributed online, how that system works, or how to best protect themselves and their children from damage, only the pedophiles will know for sure.

This article first appeared in Spectator magazine. If you'd like to receive Comes Naturally and other writing by David Steinberg regularly via email (free and confidential), send your name and email address to David at Past columns are available at the Society for Human Sexuality's "David Steinberg Archives." Two books edited by David -- Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies, and The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self -- are available from him by mail order.