Child Pornography: The Lasting Impact of Images


Children-Playing-No Copyright

All too often headlines announcing an arrest for possession of child pornography show up in the news. Shock, horror, outrage, and disgust are common reactions as people process the injustice and exploitation. When the accused doesn’t fit the stereotype of the creepy social outcast, which most possessors don’t, a certain cognitive dissonance may arise, as well.

Photos or videos of child sexual abuse may be recent or from many years ago, but they are copied repeatedly and shared around the world with just a few keystrokes. The children involved are sometimes related to the person who took the images, or the children may have been left in someone’s care.

In many more cases, the child’s identity is, at least initially, unknown. It can take hours of investigative detective work by law enforcement officers, including people in our tech-savvy Internet Crimes Against Children unit and those at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to find out. Alas, there are times when the child is never identified. That means there’s no way to determine if she or he is still being abused.

Having images of one’s sexual abuse shared over and over again can take its own psychological toll, compounding the trauma of the original abuse. Survivors live with the knowledge that, on any given day, someone somewhere may be joyfully witnessing their abuse after the fact.

Survivors may also struggle with the knowledge that those who disseminate the images make fantasy-based comments, for example saying the victim is “ready to play” or that “she wants it.” As one child victim, now an adult, explained in a 2013 New York Times article, “You know it’s not true, but all those other people will believe that it’s you — that this is who you really are.” It’s no surprise that knowing the images are “out there” can have life-long negative effects on a survivor’s sense of self and relationships.

Some maintain that the possession of child pornography is, by itself, a victimless crime because the abuse already happened. But after understanding the psychological and social ramifications on victims, it’s easy to see that further victimization occurs every time an image is copied, stored, or viewed.

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Kelly Ace, PhD, JD
Kelly Ace, PhD, JD
Kelly Ace is the Program Director at Family Support Line. Meet the Team at Family Support Line