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The nature and dimensions of child pornography on the Internet

Max. Taylor, Professor of Applied Psychology University College, Cork, Ireland  

Source unknown, Undated - received 1st June 2002

In this paper I want to focus on some of the factors that can be identified which might help us to understand the problem of Child Pornography and the Internet. 

We can approach the problem from three broad interrelated perspectives 

the first is 'The nature of child pornography', 

the second relates to 'Features of the Internet' , and 

the third relates to 'Child Pornography and sexual interest in children '. 


Only by understanding how these relate together will we understand the nature of child pornography in general, and its relationship with the Internet in particular. 

In a short paper like this, it is not possible to discuss in detail all the relevant issues, but I want to use this opportunity to highlight what to me seem to be points that might help us to better understand the problem.

As a starting point, I would like to consider what child pornography is, and how we might recognise it.

We can probably all agree that child pornographic photographs are sexualised or sexual pictures involving children. However, what these terms mean is not always quite so clear. 

The nature of sexual and sexualised images on the Internet can be seen from two rather different perspectives: 

a legal perspective, and 

that of the adult with a sexual interest in children. 


Legal definitions tend to emphasis either obscene or sexual as defining qualities. A complicating issue with legal approaches is that different jurisdictions define and interpret obscene, sexual and sexualised in different way, which of course is one of the problems we face in trying to deal with the global presence of child pornography.

But whilst legal definitions are obviously important from legislative and judicial perspectives, approaching child pornography as a legal problem does not necessarily help our understanding of why child pornography is produced or collected -- legal definitions do not tell us about its nature. An over emphasis on legal approach will not therefore always assist in the development of preventative and control strategies, because the issue of producing and collecting child pornography is essentially a psychological, rather than legal problem.

It is a psychological issue because the sexual qualities of photographs that make them attractive to adults with sexual interest in children lie essentially in the individual's head. What makes a picture attractive to such an individual is in part its content, but also the extent to that picture can be sexualised and fantasised. 

To understand the nature of child pornography, therefore, we need to understand it from the collectors perspective. It is the qualities of sexualisation and fantasy, expressed in terms of sexual arousal and perhaps masturbation, that makes images of children of value to the paedophile. It is important to stress this point, a wide variety of different kinds of pictures can be sexualised and are attractive to collectors of pictures on the Internet, as I will discuss later. 

To understand the role of these pictures in the practical management of adult sexual interest in children, we have to broaden our sights beyond legislative and legal constraints. In taking this view, therefore, my sense of what constitutes sexual and sexualised images will be wide, and goes beyond most legal definitions. Legal definitions, it seems to me, draw the boundaries but don't delineate the problem.

I would now like to briefly turn to the kinds of pictures that adults with sexual interest in children collect on the Internet. This is important because it may tell us something about the sexual and fantasy base to collecting, which in its turn will contribute to our development of effective preventative strategies. 

When we do look at the material that appears on the Internet, we see that it is not particularly homogeneous. From this material, we can identify a number of different kinds of picture types which are attractive to paedophiles, not all of which, however as noted earlier, readily fall into legal categories of child pornography. Pictures that adults with sexual interest in children collect can be categorised as falling somewhere on a continuum, from less explicitly sexual, through nudity to explicitly sexual.

The first category we can refer to as Erotica. 
These pictures in the main do not involve either nudity or depiction of sexual behaviour. They may be simply pictures of children, or they may have more obvious sexual connotations such as children in swimsuits or underwear . Advertisements for children's clothes are good examples. Inappropriate possession of these kinds of photographs is probably indicative of adult sexual interest in children, but in all probability, neither their production nor possession will be illegal.

The second broad category that can be identified involves Nudity in some form. 

Pictures from nudist publications, for example, fall into this category. Nudism is a legitimate activity of course, and within that context, it could be argued that such pictures might be appropriate. Their presence outside of that context, however, is again indicative of adult sexual interest in children, although possession may not necessarily be illegal. 

A category of picture called covert photographs may also fall within this category if they involve nudity. There are many thousands of pictures of very young toddlers and children accessible on the Internet, often from Japanese sources, playing naked or partially clothed at paddling pools, swimming pools or on the beach, for example.

The photographer may be located fifty to one hundred meters away, surreptitiously taking photographs using a camera with a high powered lens, and of course both parent and child are not aware of being photographed. These pictures have a particularly corrosive quality, because they are often taken in what should be 'safe' areas, and they sexualise innocent and appropriate play. They may not, however fall within some legal definitions of child pornography.

A further very large group of photographs that fall within this category are what might be termed posed pictures involving nudity -- the child pornography equivalent of adult soft porn. 

Such photographs are generally well produced and of high quality, suggesting the involvement of a professional photographer. They are often taken out of doors, sometimes in what appear to be hotel rooms, and sometimes in expensive looking opulent settings. These latter again suggest a professional involvement. 

These kinds of photographs are generally implicitly sexual, and make great use of stylised provocative posing, rather than showing explicit sexual behaviour. The children involved are generally very pretty, and appear well fed and clean. Not all of these pictures would necessarily be classed as illegal, and in some cases have been justified in terms of their artistic merit. 

However, they are undoubtedly highly attractive to adults with sexual interests in children. There is some evidence that photography of this kind may sometimes be associated with the grooming processes associated with sexual abuse of children, although evidence on this is difficult to acquire. 
Many of these photographs are originally published in well produced Japanese magazines that are then scanned for distribution on the Internet. The location of the photography often seems to be Western Europe.  


The final category of photographs we can identify are those that are explicitly sexual. 

These might range from pictures focusing on genital or anal areas, through a child or children posing in a sexually explicit way, to pictures of real or simulated sexual assaults conducted either by other children or adults. Some photographs of bestiality exist, and there are also some involving sadistic imagery, such as bondage or whipping. This category of picture is in the main very clearly sexual in character and both production and possession are illegal in all European jurisdictions.

Not all child pornography is what it seems. Constructed, or what are sometimes referred to as pseudo images, occur. These are photographs made up of components from a series of photographs. 

Three types of pseudo photograph can be identified:

digitally altered and appropriately sexualised images of bodies such as a child in a swimming costume (where the costume is removed), or an adult may have inserted on it the head of a child or other body parts

separate images may be combined in one photograph, as in for example a picture of a baby whose hand is superimposed onto an adult penis

a montage of various pictures, some of which are sexual in character.


Recent experience suggests that there is a very large demand for images of children that are either explicitly sexual, or enable sexual fantasy. The Internet is undoubtedly the principal contemporary medium for the distribution of these images. There are a number of reasons for this. 

Perhaps first and foremost, the Internet can confer a degree of anonymity. It allows self- determined involvement without necessary compromise of identity. Newsgroup material can be both posted and downloaded without revealing identity; web sites can similarly be accessed, and services such as Hushmail and other email facilities enable secure and perhaps encrypted transmission of messages without revealing originating addresses. The individual has a sense of control over the medium, and involvement can be passive or active with relatively secure access from the privacy of the home.

The anonymous qualities of the Internet also enable the construction of false or fantasy identities. The 50 year old can present himself as a teenager, for example, the weak as strong, the policeman as a child in a 'sting' operation.

A further related feature that makes the Internet so attractive to adults with sexual interest in children is its multi-layered qualities. An individual may passively, and with relative security, download images from newsgroups and web sites, or they may engage more actively in the exchange of pictures through IRC and ICQ, and video conferencing protocols such as CU- Seeme. These same protocols allow both real-time interactive engagement, and secure storage of information.

The anonymity of the Internet is not by any means absolute, however. Activity on IRC channels reveals addresses, many newsgroup postings reveal their origins. Service Providers can, if they wish, provide information on material downloaded from newsgroups. Even the proxy servers used by anonimyzer services must identify the user's IP address. The Internet is anonymous only because we allow it to be.

A further very important reason for the significance of the Internet in maintaining paedophile activity is the sense of virtual community that can emerge for participants. That is to say, by prolonged interaction with both people and processes on the Internet, a sense of involvement, intimacy and belonging can emerge that mirrors more normal face to face social interaction.

Friendships and a sense of constructed personality of the person you are interacting with can emerge. It is of course different from normal social interaction in that the individual never knows in any normal sense who he or she is interacting with, or how accurate the construction is. 

However, anonymity and constructed identity notwithstanding, there is a clear sense of a virtual paedophile community on the Internet, which is structured and organised. It extends across national boundaries, and enables the relatively isolated paedophile to engage with others who share sexual interests in children in a non-threatening and secure way. 

This virtual community is an important source of support, justification, information, and self-help, as well as facilitating the exchange and distribution of sexually attractive images, and sometimes of course children. Through bulletin boards and newsgroup postings, this virtual community has developed an effective almost self-sustaining collective structure, with individuals occupying different functional roles. This is of course supplemented by the private communication potential of the Internet.

One consequence of this can be seen in, for example, the way that posting practices to newsgroups are structured and organised. The paedophile community is not unique in developing this structure -- we know that it exists for other interest groups on the Internet. However, its significance should not be under estimated.

The process of involvement with the Internet itself creates circumstances that enhance and sustain increased involvement. There seem to be compulsive qualities to the Internet that for some individuals leads to them spending more and more time on it, involved in chat rooms, etc. Where the Internet provides the only outlet for intense and suppressed sexual feelings, this can further increased engagement.

Where sexual fantasy focuses on illegal pornographic pictures of children, all of these factors can come together and we see the emergence of the collector syndrome -- the compulsive acquisition of pictures for there own sake, rather than a discriminating selection. I believe some of the recent seizures of child pornography collections involving many thousands of pictures illustrate this.

In our experience, the trade in child pornography on the Internet is not characterised by financial gain -- it is mainly a process of exchange either directly through protocols like irc or icq, or indirectly through newsgroup postings and web sites. 

The notion of mutual exchange of photographs is particularly important in the distribution of privately produced photographs, in our view the most worrying aspect of the trade in child pornography. Exchange acts as an entry barrier, and also gives the process a sense of security; a relationship of Mutually Assured Destruction develops where the partners in the exchange are each dependant on the other for security. 

However, this process of exchange also offers law enforcement a window of opportunity when the exchange cycle is broken and surveillance or interception becomes possible. Commercial involvement in child pornography does still exist on the Internet mainly through web sites, but it is in my experience of limited scale and scope. Anyway, there is really very little market potential for commercial initiatives, because so much material is available free of charge through the newsgroups.

The central and important quality of child pornography that must be emphasised is that at its worst it is a picture of the commission of a sexual assault on a child. That is to say, it is a picture of the scene of a crime. From a law enforcement perspective, when such pictures emerge, the first step must be to establish if a picture is recent, because where pictures are recent, then the most important issue relates to identification of location of filming and the identity of the child. Child protection priorities, and harm reduction must come first. 

In this same context it is also important to establish where photographs come from, to access the distribution networks and identify sources. Only when the child protection issue is satisfied should other investigative priorities emerge such as establishing evidence of possession, etc. 

Identifying a 'new' picture from 'old' requires knowledge rarely found in law enforcement agencies. It also requires a pro-active approach; the longer a new picture is left unrecognised and uninvestigated, the longer a child may be subjected to abuse. Cost and time saving initiatives such as computerised scanning of hard drives to establish the presence of child pornography is unlikely with the present state of knowledge to address this primary child protection issue.

Intra-agency divisions of responsibility between specialised units such as vice, obscene publications and child protection units can also hinder effective management of these cases. 

In my view, to effectively address the child protection priority, there needs to be a pro-active centralised facility to monitor pictures both from police seizures and the Internet, to establish new from old and to collect and collate intelligence. I believe a substantive research presence also needs to be associated with this facility, because knowledge of the issues involved is very limited; and it is from knowledge that progress in managing this problem will come. The global spread of the Internet means that such a facility must be if not international in character, then at least regional. When investigations are undertaken at local level, there also needs to be a clear and explicit commitment to and implementation of interagency co-operation to effect child protection priorities.

I want to emphasise that the pictures themselves may have important evidential qualities. They may be deeply offensive and troubling to look at, but they must be looked at with care and attention. They should not be seen simply as evidence of possession, or a source of moral outrage; both picture content and the sources from which pictures come can have important evidential value.

The reason why adults with a sexual interest in children collect child pornography is to facilitate fantasy generation and sexual arousal. However, the capacity of a picture or series of pictures to induce sexual arousal diminishes with continued exposure. We can refer to this as habituation: I believe this is an important factor in driving the quest for newness that characterises confirmed child pornography collectors. 

The ready availability of pictures at the moment on the Internet interacts with such habituation, and in my view exaggerates this quest for newness. The emergence of the 'collector syndrome' I mentioned earlier also drives this demand; and it is the demand so created that fuels and sustains the continued production of material. A recent quotation from a posting to a paedophile Bulletin Board illustrates this process from the user's perspective: 

"... With this hobby we get bored after a while with the usual and we risk a bit to get new stuff or actual experience. It's a natural progression. Like stealing. You start small. Get bored. Go for bigger stuff ."

Where does the child pornography and erotica on the Internet come from? 

In the past, the production of child pornography had a commercial as well as private base, and very many still pictures for magazines and cine films were produced for sale. Magazines with titles such as Lolita, Lollipops, David, etc. were produced and sold, either in sex shops or by mail-order . These magazines still circulate in the paedophile community, and early pictures from these magazines and digitised clips from cine film and videos constitute the core of the sexually explicit child pornography currently available on the Internet. Much of it is 30 or 40 years old, and even older. 

The production of hard core material in the 1990's, however is largely a private 'home' based activity. Child pornography is now almost exclusively distributed either hand to hand by private individuals, or through the Internet. Commercial involvement in distribution is quite rare, although is does still occur. 

The production of recent still pictures increasingly involves the use of digital cameras but some are still scanned from Polaroid films or similar. We have noticed computers are increasingly evident in picture backgrounds, suggesting the use of fixed digital cameras to produce photographs. 

Moving pictures of children involved in sexual behaviour are undoubtedly highly attractive to adults with sexual interests in children, but computers are not yet good at managing or producing long video sequences. Most moving pictures therefore still originate in video format, with high quality movie clips or still video captures appearing on the Internet. 

This is an important point to make, because it emphasises the fact that child pornography is not just a problem of the Internet. Adult sexual interest in children greatly predates the Internet, and earlier forms of production still remain important. In the Internet material that we have access to, we estimate that some 85 -90% is older than 10-15 years, with a large amount of that dating from the 1960's and 70's.  

Current hard core child pornography produced in the US, Australia and Western Europe is mainly domestic in both origin and character. Opportunity is a central factor in these crimes, as in others, and someone who has legitimate access to the child  -- a parent or stepparent  --  usually produces the pornography in either the child's or the photographer's home. 

Indeed, perhaps the most disturbing quality of recent pictures is their domestic quality, but which of course reflects what we know about the sexual abuse of children. Typically, the sexual assaults photographed take place in bedrooms, living rooms, and kitchens -- the normal living places in our homes. Sex tourism may also be a source of material, although the extent of this is difficult to judge. Both still and moving sexual cartoons involving child-like images are also widely available, as is text material -- erotic and obscene stories for example.

The material I have referred to earlier as erotica may also come from domestic sources, but I feel there is more commercial involvement here. As noted earlier, the material we see on the Internet is mainly scanned from well produced glossy magazines, suggesting a commercial involvement.

I am sometimes asked questions about the amount of child pornography available on the Internet.

I don't think this is a sensible question, partly because this is a secret trade and new material is constantly emerging, and partly because different scans of the same photograph are frequently made and probably given different names. Also there is an arbitrary relationship between pornographic videos films and the number of video captures; for example, a single video of 30 minutes might yield 3 or 300 video captures, depending on the energy and particular interests of the person scanning. All of this distorts the meaningfulness of any numerical answer .

A more sensible and more frightening question to ask, however, is how many children are involved. 

A part of the work I have been involved with is the construction of a database of child pornography photographs based on Internet sources. One of the main functions of this database is to aid the identification of new images from old. In the sample we have of over 50,000 pictures from the Internet, which we have downloaded over the past 2 years, we roughly estimate over 2,000 boys and girls are shown in explicitly sexual pictures, and a similar number in pictures involving erotic naked posing. 

We estimate that about 85% of the sexually explicit photographs we have and about 20% of the nude erotic posing photographs are over 10-15 years old. This therefore means that in our sample there are some 300 to 350 children who have been photographed within the past 10-15 years whilst subjected to a serious sexual assault, the pictures of which have been made publicly available. In that same time frame, pictures have been distributed of some 1,600 -1,800 children who have been photographed whilst posing naked, often in suggestive and provocative fashion. These are rough estimates based on the sample of material we have, but I believe these figures underestimate the numbers of children involved, especially those photographed whilst being sexually assaulted

In our experience, pornographic pictures of new children emerge on Internet newsgroups at the rate of about l or 2 children every month; there appearance, however, is irregular. It is sometimes difficult to know with certainty what countries these children come from. Europe, South America, Australia and the US are the most likely sources, but Japanese, Thai and Filipino locations also occur.

The children portrayed in child pornography are typically white, often with Nordic features, although Asiatic children also frequently occur; black children however are rare. Posed naked photographs tend to be either American or West European in origin, but with many Japanese and oriental children also evident. We are currently downloading between 2-4,000 child pornographic pictures/week from newsgroups.

Over the past year, it is our impression that the age of children appearing in new child pornography is reducing. At the moment, there are a number of extremely disturbing new pictures emerging involving children ( especially girls) who appear to be under 5 or 6.

These pictures are disturbing because of the age of the children involved, and because some have very worrying sadistic qualities to them, and we must fear for the well-being of the children portrayed. Excepting these pictures, the typical age range of all photographs tends to be in the 7-8 to 10-11 range.

The pictures that appear on the Internet always have names, and they almost invariably occur in numbered series. This facilitates both identification and collection, aiding the collector in identifying missing elements. Newsgroups, for example, commonly carry messages requesting 'fills' for particular series. 

Surprisingly, in recent photographs, the names used are quite often the real name of the child photographed; presumably this reflects their private origins, produced for distribution to a limited and selected trusted group. 

Picture series may have narrative quality (i.e. undressing) or they may be simply a series of poses or both. Older pictures scanned from magazines generally have less clear narrative qualities than more recent pictures. The narrative qualities in the main relate to the potential fantasy content of the pictures. 

This is an important point to note, because imagery plays important role in legitimising, normalising and sanitising what are at worst pictures of serious sexual assault. Typically pictures show smiling, compliant, even participating children, who appear to be willing and enjoying the experience. The reality is often very different, and sometimes a child's very evident distress can be seen. These fantasy qualities are important for collectors, and may relate to future activity of collector and his or her dangerousness, an issue we are currently seeking to explore further.

As noted earlier, older pictures are readily available on the Internet through the child sex newsgroups. More recent (and more valuable to the collector) pictures initially tend to circulate privately, perhaps using IRC or ICQ protocols or email, but eventually they too leak out and begin to appear in the newsgroups. These 'leaked' pictures are what we see as recent pictures. 

Leakage may be very rapid or take anything up to 4 or 5 years, and presumably some never emerge. Typically, single examples of new pictures appear, followed by increasingly large numbers. Sometimes the eventual emergence of all of a series of pictures may take several years. 

New pictures from a recent obscene picture series continued to appear after the producer had been convicted and sentenced, and these pictures continue now to circulate. New people are constantly, therefore seeing this child in the most intimate way possible. Even after the case was closed and finished, therefore, this poor child cannot escape the humiliation of providing a source of sexual fantasy for an ever widening circle of people. This emphasises a simple but important point -- once a picture is in the public domain, it remains in circulation regardless of the fate of the producer.

The relationship between adult sexual interest in children and child pornography is complex and poorly understood. Not all convicted child-sex offenders express an interest in child pornography; on the other hand, very many people who have no criminal record, and who seemingly have no known sexual interest in children, demonstrate an interest in child pornography by accessing and downloading images. We cannot know at the moment the number of people who access child pornographic images from the Internet, but it must run to many many thousands. With appropriate co-operation from Internet Service Providers, however, we could know this, and could effect some control over it.

The relationship between collecting child pornography and sexual assaults on children is also not clear. The producer of child pornography is of course filming a sexual assault, but a passive collector may not necessarily be involved in assaults. 

Six kinds of involvement with collecting child pornography on the Internet can be identified:

Confirmed 'collector' 
-- expressed in terms of large collection, often meticulously indexed.

Confirmed producer 
-- engaged in assaults, pictures of which traded or exchanged with others. Also has collection of other pictures

Sexually omnivorous 
-- may not have the specific interest of i., and collection may contain wide range of odd sexual activities

Sexually curious 
-- may download small amounts to see what it is. This may be step on way to growing involvement

The libertarian 
-- either through principle, or as a rationalisation, downloads pictures to assert a right to freedom of access

vi. The Entrepreneur 
-- develops web sites, or sells CD-ROMs of pictures. There is some evidence that such persons may be marginally involved in the broader sex industry .


We know that there is clear evidence that confirmed collectors have preferences and make choices in their collecting behaviour. Those choices may be highly specific, focused on a particular age group, or a particular fantasy. The choices made are behaviours and this helps us to make more objective the fantasy basis of collecting. These choices may offer some insights into nature of individual with adult sexual interest in children, especially their dangerousness and liability to further offend. This again emphasises the significance of picture content. I can't stress too strongly that the pictures need to be taken seriously.

In this paper I have tried to review some of the issues that seem to me to be significant in understanding the nature and dimensions of child pornography on the Internet. It is distressing that such a vibrant and exciting new technology with such great potential should have become so associated with the sad process of sexual abuse of children. The issues we are concerned with are serious, and I believe their management must ultimately lead to greater legislative control over content on the Internet.

I don't think it can be said often enough that the trade in child pornography on the Internet only exists because we allow it. The challenge will be to ensure that the potential for good of the Internet remains whilst limiting (if not wholly eliminating) this evil trade. It is important that we get the balance right between freedom, liberty and control, but I have no doubt at all that we must now exercise control over at least this aspect of the medium.  

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