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by Philip Jenkins
New York University Press, 2001
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Mar 10th 2002

Beyond Tolerance

In Beyond Tolerance, Philip Jenkins explains how the Internet has meant that child pornography has become freely available to an unprecedented number of people. While the legal penalties for even viewing such pornography are severe, it seems that these penalties are not strong deterrents. There is good evidence that the number of people regularly viewing these images is large, certainly in the thousands, and the number of people who are actually prosecuted for such crimes remains small. Jenkins explains that it is difficult for law enforcement authorities to track down who is creating web sites with illegal material and posting pictures and movies to news groups, let alone who is viewing such material.

Jenkins, while a strong defender of personal freedoms, explains that he was surprised just how easy it is to find child pornography on the Internet. He is normally suspicious of attempts to restrict access to images and generally argues that those who want to decrease freedom of access to the new media often exaggerate the danger of child pornography. He writes forcefully about the "powerful democratizing effect" of the new technology (p. 222). But he is clear that he is no defender of kiddie porn, and is explicit that we have to find ways to cripple or kill the subculture that fosters the collection of these images.

But Jenkins also argues that child pornography laws need to be more rational. We need to distinguish between pictures of a topless 17-year old and a naked 5 year old, and Jenkins worries that new laws fail to adequately make such distinctions. Similarly, we need to distinguish between nudist pictures of children and movie of a child forced to engage in sexual activity, and between looking at pictures and forcing children to pose for such pictures. This is not to say that we should excuse either form of activity or neglect the connection between the two. Jenkins quotes a powerful statement of the US Supreme Court in a 1982 decision:

The distribution of photographs and films depicting sexual activity by juveniles is intrinsically related to the sexual abuse of children ... the materials produced are a permanent record of the children?s participation and the hard to the child is exacerbated by the circulation. (5)

This helps to remind us, should we need reminding, that ultimately what is at issue is the well being of children, and inappropriate sexual interaction between children and adults can be extremely harmful to the children.

One of the great strengths of this book is its investigation of the subculture of child pornography, and how this parallels the culture on the rest of the Internet. Jenkins explains how certain message boards have a social structure, with newbies at the bottom and wise ones at the top. It may take a year or more of participation on a board before someone acquires the status of a wise one. Within the circles of users of child pornography, there are differences of opinion about what kinds of image are beyond the pale, and there is frequently debate about what far is too far. Furthermore, Jenkins does a good job at highlighting the compulsive quality in the collection of images: people try to have whole collections and will devote considerable energy to complete their collections through trading or requesting the posting of particular images in news groups.

There are some issues Jenkins does not address. He says nothing about what drives people to risk jail and the loss of friends and family through the collection of child pornography. While the phrase ?Internet addiction? may arose suspicion in many, it's nevertheless clear that there are many people who devote considerable numbers of hours to finding, downloading and viewing pornography on the Internet, causing their other relationships to suffer, and reducing the quality of their lives. Many people know that they should decrease their use of the Internet for such purposes, and yet fail to do so. Even if we don't like the label of addiction being used in such circumstances, it remains clear that in some sense, the Internet can have a powerful hold on people, and this is presumably also true in the case of users of child pornography.

Another issue that Jenkins neglects is the mixed signals given by the mainstream media concerning the sexuality of children (I've also written about this in my reviews of other books; see the links below). It's hardly an exaggeration to say that TV, movies, magazines and billboards bombard us with images of teens, mainly girls, using sexuality to sell products or to represent ideals of attractiveness. Popular culture is certainly not above portraying children in sexualized ways, and the porn industry is constantly trying to push the boundary between legal and illegal, with its language of "young teens," "schoolgirl sluts," and "lolitas" -- I am sure I can't be the only person to get regular junk e-mail for sites promising such pictures! None of this provides an excuse for the use of child pornography, it nevertheless suggests that society has a double standard when it comes to the sexuality of young people, and that we need to more seriously inspect when and how the depiction of the sexuality of youth is unacceptable.

Even though Jenkins would have done a more complete job if he had discussed these issues, I still recommend Beyond Tolerance to anyone concerned about pornography on the Internet and censorship. The book is written in a very accessible style and provides a thoughtful analysis of most of the important topics.




·          Review of Jock Sturges: New Work 1996-2000

·          Review of Anjos Proibidos, by Fabio Cabral

© 2002 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the general public.


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