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Viewers of Child Pornography: Are They a Menace?

Some viewers of child pornography are likely to harm children. Others aren't.

Key points

  • The legal system hasn't kept up with crimes against children in the digital age.
  • The children in child pornography are real and their pain, suffering, degradation, and even possible death are real.
  • Some of the viewers of child pornography may go on to become full-blown child molesters—but others will not.
  • Stigmatizing those who will not harm children is counterproductive. They may become a danger to society if they can't get work or housing.

Crimes against children have changed in the digital age. Doctors Richard B. Krueger and Meg Kaplan, Columbia University psychiatrists specializing in sexual behavior, believe that the legal system hasn’t kept up.

In the past, a victimizer engaging in predatory sexual abuse had physical contact with the young person. Today, people who will never touch a particular child are nevertheless part of a system that can result in that child’s pain, degradation, and even death.

What People Agree on—and What They Don’t

Everyone can agree that child pornography is not a victimless crime. The child who’s being videoed having sex or masturbating or being tortured is real.

The individuals responsible for causing this kind of suffering are unambiguously criminal and need to be put away. There’s no controversy about this.

Where it gets complex is, what about the viewers?

  • Should they be locked up because they’re enabling an industry that causes almost unthinkable pain and degradation?
  • • Is it justifiable to lock the viewers up, both as a deterrent to others and as a means of chipping away at the demand for child pornography?
  • • Even if an individual viewer hasn’t touched a child, is he on the path to developing into a full-blown child molester?

Different countries and different researchers have different answers. In some countries, viewing pornography is a death-penalty offense. In others, such as Great Britain, viewers get a warning.

Kaplan says that during a visit to colleagues in Scandinavia, “When they learned that we incarcerate people for five or ten years even when they’ve never touched a child, the Scandinavians look on us as if we’re from outer space.”

An Evidence-Based Response

“Our number one goal,” emphasizes Kaplan, “is protecting children. However, the evidence shows that some of our approaches are making things worse.”

Krueger adds, “We have 30 years of actuarial instruments with a high degree of predictability for understanding which individual is likely to abuse a child in the future.”

Here are two sample cases of individuals with vastly different likelihoods of harming a child in the future: outcomes:

  • •An individual caught viewing child pornography is 65 years old and never had any prior offenses. He is at very low risk for child molestation.
  • An individual caught viewing child pornography is 25 years old and has been convicted of several prior sex offenses as well as non-sexual violence. That person is vastly more likely to harm a child.

Krueger and Kaplan use the Child Pornography Offender Risk Tool (CPORT) fo make this distinction. It was developed to assess the risk of sexual re-offense of individuals convicted of charges involving child pornography:

Both Krueger and Kaplan wish that legislators would distinguish between those who are unlikely to harm a child in the future and those who are. Society now has the proven tools to do it.

Why Not Put Both People in Jail?

Putting that low-risk person in jail means that when he gets out, the stigma will make it difficult for him to get a job or find a place to live. On top of this, the notification laws that tell people that he’s a sexual predator are going to make it hard for him to function in society.

Adobe Stock Image
Source: Adobe Stock Image

The person who can’t find work or a place to live may become a danger to society. For a low-risk individual to be put in this situation is both unnecessary and counterproductive.

A Final Thought

Krueger and Kaplan know that some consumers of pornography pose an imminent risk to children. Others pose very little risk. Tools exist to distinguish between them, and society needs to treat them differently.

Conflating the two groups can mean making the dangers worse by driving people who are not a danger to society into becoming a danger.


Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, a national organization for those who treat individuals who commit sexual crimes and conduct research in this area:

The International Association for the treatment of Sex Offenders (IATSO) for assessing an individual’s future risk of physically molesting a child.

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