Start Omhoog      [Articles & Essays - G]

'I cannot admit what I am to myself'

Thursday January 23, 2003; The Guardian

The news that 7,000 men in this country had used a US child porn website shocked Britain. Were there really so many paedophiles among us? How could so many trusted professionals such as police officers, judges and doctors be implicated?

But despite the acres of newsprint, we have learned little about the kind of images involved and what drives the people who look at them. Jim Bell knows about both: he was sentenced to two years in jail for secretly filming young girls and downloading indecent images of children from the net. Here he offers a rare insight into why most users of child porn refuse to accept they are paedophiles


For three years, as an internet consultant, I collected child pornography off the web and saved it to disk. I used my knowledge of the internet to find it, from the mildest to the most extreme. Four thousand of these images and video clips were deemed indecent and I served a jail sentence

[for downloading and storing these images, and also for secretly making indecent videos of young girls near his home].

I was locked up for a year with various other sex offenders: rapists, child molesters, those who used child pornography, those who tried to groom children in internet chat rooms. I can at least use this shameful expertise to explain why so many people have been caught subscribing to child pornography sites, and what may be happening in our society.

The internet is at the heart of this: an information resource without frontiers, that cannot be policed, and whose content is determined by individuals as much as organisations. It is a freedom that governments are quite keen to limit and was part of the objective, I suspect, of Operation Ore, which has identified 7,000 British users of an American child pornography site.

The worst child pornography is free, posted on news servers by individuals who want to share their interests with others. By this I mean pictures of small children forced to engage in sexual activity with adults. I remember a picture of a sad little Asian child prostitute in a leather harness, seated on her client's knee. Such extremes of child pornography are free, fairly easily accessed by journalists and researchers, and tend to set the standard of discussion about this problem.

There are a few hundred such pictures that circulate on the internet. Few new ones ever surface: they are part of a grubby tradition of internet extremism. There may, of course, be more that are distributed within "paedophile rings", but I have no experience of that. I rather doubt that these rings are as common as the paedophile hunters claim. In prison, I never met anyone who claimed to have been a member of one, and paedophiles, frankly, are not clubbable people. Those who have pictures to share put them on news servers so that everyone in the world can see them.

Or they charge for them, and this brings us to the credit card subscriptions of Operation Ore. The commercial exploitation of the net is down to the global purchasing power of credit cards. You can buy services in Azerbaijan as easily as the UK. Up until now the credit card companies have distanced themselves from the content or nature of these services. The first time I saw line entries on my statement, such as "Pretty Preteens, Colorado - $40", I worried, but it clearly didn't worry the credit card company.

Nor, although I was an internet professional, did I have to search very hard for these sites. They are commercial sites; they do not hide themselves. We are not talking of secret addresses known only to the members of paedophile rings, but sites which publish their existence via the search engines. They have had - up to now - a spurious respectability. Tacitly accepted by the service providers that host them, the credit card companies that take subscriptions, and the search engines that publicise them, it is hardly surprising that men who enjoy such pictures have used them, and that, worldwide, these sites have become a very lucrative business.

My own experience suggests that many of these men did not believe, or did not allow themselves to believe, that they were guilty of using child pornography. As commercial site users, they were not downloading the extremes of child pornography that I described above. In three years, I never came across a website that took credit card subscriptions for its own photography that showed explicit sexual activity involving children.

We have to be clear as to what we are talking about here. By "explicit", I mean children engaged in intercourse, fellatio, sodomy, masturbation or any other sexual activity that adults perform with each other, or alone. But I also mean any of the forms of soft core sexual titillation that you will see on the legal television porn channels.

All the subscription sites I ever came across advertised little girls (I never looked at the ones with boys) looking "pretty". Or "pretty and sexy". The ages would range from adolescent down to perhaps nine or 10. There was a very clear distinction between American and European artistic sensibilities. American sites would feature the girl next door, in a bikini or a sexy little outfit, looking like a fashion model or a pop star. European sites would favour nude little girls indoors or outdoors, singly or in groups, with a high standard of photography. A harder quality of porn than this is certainly available, but not from sites that are so easily accessible.

The website to which the men on the Operation Ore list subscribed was Candyman, one of a large number of American sites working to the standard girl-next-door formula. I vaguely remember seeing its banner, having a quick look and deciding not to subscribe because it looked as if it would duplicate the material offered on other sites. Perhaps I missed the only commercial hardcore child-porn site in America, but I doubt it.

You may wonder what the definition of an indecent picture of a child is. In a book of case law, I read of a picture of a girl of 13, dressed, wearing a loose top, and leaning forward to draw attention to her breasts. That is indecent. What counts is the intention of sexual display. So, let us be clear that all of these sites are illegal. The intention is always pornographic; that is to say, calculated to arouse sexual excitement.

The advertising often claims that parental consent is obtained, and the content is, as I have said, somewhere between decorous and artistically or playfully nude. But the intention is to provide men with masturbation fantasies of young girls: in the case of Candyman, reportedly 250,000 men worldwide. If that number startles you, remember that anything up to 35% of internet traffic deals in pornography. The world's appetite for sexual titillation is inexhaustible.

The paedophile hunters do not correct the popular idea that child porn is about child prostitution and the miserable abuse of children, but it is actually about something far more insidious and pervasive. It is about innocence: the sexual innocence of the child offered for the pleasure of adults who have no innocence left. That is why these websites do not need to offer pictures of explicit sex acts. Hardcore is not the name of this game.

It means that it was fatally easy for 7,000 men to convince themselves that looking at pictures of heartbreakingly pretty little girls was not wrong. It is why I do not find it surprising that men who enjoyed teaching children, or keeping them safe in society, should have enjoyed such pictures. We obey laws most easily when they fit our own instincts of right and wrong. When they do not, we tend to finesse and rationalise our actions.

We have an infinite capacity for that. In prison I met perhaps 100 men who had been convicted of offences against children. None of them admitted that they were paedophiles - none. The social stigma is too appalling. I cannot admit what I am to myself.

One young guy I knew, a journalist and photographer, claimed to have been convicted for downloading two dozen pictures by the noted photographer David Hamilton, who specialises in art pictures of young girls. You can buy the pictures in a book, but on the net they might be considered child pornography.

"They are beautiful pictures," he would say. "Beautifully made pictures of beautiful girls."

Another man, also in his 20s, had been caught because he carried a picture of a nude little girl in his wallet. Foolishly, he left the wallet on a train and, even more foolishly, went to collect it from lost property. I asked him why he carried the photo.

"Because she was the prettiest girl I had ever seen..."

And he had been caught as I had, and as these other men have been, because we do not think we are doing anything wrong - not really wrong - and therefore do not take sufficient care to avoid detection.

There is a wider perspective to be taken on this. The internet wonderfully reflects western society. It is not a separate world: it mirrors the attitudes and values of ordinary life. The sexualisation of children through television, pop music and fashion is acceptable, it is done for fun: the world of internet child pornography merely completes that process.

Please don't think that the two are unrelated. Many of the American credit card sites I visited purported to offer girls a first step to a modelling career. Of course they did. What better way to get a young girl to pose sexily, and her parents to agree to it?

The parents who encourage their girl-children to model themselves on pubescent pop idols, fashion models or footballers wives see themselves as part of a modern world of leisure, with a healthy attitude to personal relationships and sex. The men who look with sexual appreciation at pictures of those girl-children on the net are seen as perverts who may prey on children in parks or at swimming pools. I don't know whether the way our society sexualises children is healthy or not - you who are normal must consult your consciences on that. But it is a fact that internet child porn makes massive use of the combination of sexual innocence and allure that results.

But that doesn't really matter. What parents fear, and the law seeks to prevent, is harm to children resulting from either active or passive paedophilia. If Operation Ore had not been conducted, would these 7,000 men (not to mention the thousands who had used other sites) have eventually sought out children to achieve sexual contact? What people are most worried about is not parents allowing their 13- or 14-year-old daughters to pose on the net, but that some madman will abduct, rape or murder them. Do these men pose that sort of danger?

The effect of pornography upon the propensity to offend has been debated for decades. You can believe that it is a harmless substitute, or that it promotes offending behaviour. Pornography is, of course, commonly used by men who would like to do the things they watch, but never will. The step from a child pornography site to sexual contact with children is a big one - but, of course, the desire for such contact is implicit in the use of pornography.

You would expect me to say that there is no danger of these men graduating to serious crimes against children. That may be so, but there are things about this activity and the way our society handles paedophilia which you are entitled to worry about. My experience suggests that men become dangerous when they become obsessional: when they live alone, and their minds are filled with little else but thoughts of what they want but cannot have.

No, I do not believe that these 7,000 men are like that now. I do not even believe that the teachers and policemen among them pose any risk to the children with whom they deal every day. It is the lack of a normal, healthy relationship with children that makes men dangerous.

They are not dangerous now, but they may be in the future. I wonder what will happen to these men who will go to prison for looking at pictures of children on the internet. I know that none of them thought of themselves as paedophiles. None of us use that word or even admit to ourselves the thought.

But they are now perverts, "beasts", "animals". Their prisons will have to protect them from other prisoners who will try to assault them. Their social workers and psychologists will explain to them just how sick their minds are. They will be put on the sex offender register for 10 years. They are likely to lose their jobs, their marriages, their homes. Society does not distinguish between one paedophile and another.

Their professional lives will be over, and they will spend the rest of their days afraid that someone will find out what they are. But they will be given minimal, or no treatment, for what is wrong with them. Only serious sex offenders are offered a course of treatment, and only a small number of them actually take the course.

The justice system normally tries to dissuade first-time offenders; to give support, a stern warning and a second chance. But for the crime of "internet paedophilia", moral repugnance - uninformed at that - means these men can expect at least a one-year sentence in prison, and a life sentence in society.

So, yes, I fear that some of these men may ultimately pose a risk to society. Not now, but once they have been through the justice system, been labelled as perverts and deviants, and introduced to much more dangerous men in specialist sex-offender units; then, some of them may become obsessional paedophiles, justifying the label that society has already given them.

Operation Ore will succeed in frightening people away from the credit card sites which offered the milder forms of child pornography. It will not affect the undercurrent of hardcore child porn, nor child prostitution, nor the appalling, frightening ways in which adults hurt children. It will replace informed understanding with mass hysteria, will claim some victims, and do little good. That is always the way with witch hunts.

Jim Bell was sentenced to two years in prison in March 2002 for downloading and storing child pornography, and using a video camera to film two small girls. He has just been released on license. The fee for this article is being paid to the Prison Reform Trust.

Start Omhoog      [Articles & Essays - G]