A bout a decade ago a colleague was arrested for having pornographic images of children on his computer. He was labeled a “child pornographer.” I later did some work in a couple of public defender offices that represented others who had been arrested for obscene and disturbing pictures of children on their computers. They, too, were “child pornographers.” I wondered that since we called those who looked at the images child pornographers, what we should call those who create the images and those who sell them after they are created. However, when I saw arrests for such conduct, these people also were called child pornographers. One term was used to describe what to me were related but quite different behaviors. The same term for all the conduct tended to make all the offenders seem to be equally heinous.

With drugs our societal labels make a distinction among smugglers and manufacturers, wholesalers, retail sellers, and users, but seemingly not with child pornography. The person who forces children into poses or photographs them while they are being raped should be labeled differently because their behavior is different from a person who has downloaded images. Language can help create useful distinctions, but when the language is overbroad, it can blur needed distinctions. The term “child pornographer” indiscriminately used for different behaviors is a language failure.

Perhaps for child pornography, we might just use the terms that are used for drug offenders and say that there are manufacturers, sellers, and possessors of child pornography. The child pornography industry, however, differs from the drug trade in important ways, and the same labels used for both sets of offenders might blur those distinctions. Thus, the grower, smuggler, or the manufacturer of drugs does not intrinsically harm someone in their activities, but surely the maker of the child pornography always creates victims who may suffer for the rest of their lives. The creators of child pornography aren’t simply akin to Walter White when he cooks meth.

The possessors of child pornography also differ from the drug user. The drug user pays to get the drugs. This is the reason we have drug growers, smugglers, and sellers. The drug user, because he buys drugs, is at least partially responsible for the drug cartels and the gangs that smuggle, distribute, and sell drugs with all their attendant harms, including much violence.

Only some collectors of child pornography have bought the images. These paying customers are like the drug user in that they are part of a child pornography chain, from the rapes, kidnapping, and beatings of children to the retailing and selling of the images. Perhaps some sick people would still create child pornography if there were no market for it, but surely there would be less of it.

Some child pornography possessors, however, have not bought the images. They are like my colleague. In yet another wonder of the Internet, they have found ways to collect images online without paying. My colleague wanted to believe that, therefore, he was not doing any harm to anyone else, and tried to convince himself that what he had done should not have been considered criminal. While he did not do the harm of adding money to the pornography commerce, I became convinced that his conduct was still harmful. After my colleague went to jail, I read an article by a woman who was a victim of child pornography. She said that every time she learned of a person possessing an image of her, she felt a new violation. That makes sense to me, and while I might like to legalize the possession of drugs because the user of drugs may primarily hurt himself, legalization should never happen for the possession of child pornography.

While the use of the one term “child pornographer” for all those involved in the making, selling, and possession of the images blurs distinctions and helps to equate the harm of the child rapist with the lonely man peering at a computer, the drug trade terms don’t work for child pornography either. Our language is just deficient.

These thoughts about the term “child pornographer” have come back because of the recent avalanche of headlines about sexual harassment.  My first thoughts about this cavalcade of news have been mostly shocked wonder at our society. I, of course, knew sexual harassment existed, but not how pervasive it is. All this news had led me to think that a good starting assumption is that all men are pigs. And many are worse. I hope that we will learn that behavior that too many of us men think is cute or funny or seductive is rightfully seen by women as degrading and threatening and just an exercise of power.

Even so and even though our society would be better if all such behavior were eliminated, should we lump all of it under the one label of “sexual harassment”? I have seen that term used for drugging women in order to have sex with them; grabbing a breast in a private place; suggesting that a blow job will enhance job prospects; placing the hand on a buttock in a public place; exposing a penis to a woman alone in the office; molesting a fourteen-year-old girl; making lewd comments in a workplace; making lewd comments on the street; and so on. At least to me, this behavior includes the bad, the awful, and the despicable. Lumping it all under the same term, however, makes the despicable seem not quite as bad and makes the bad seem worse.

But for headlines and stories that must be succinct, we don’t have the ready language to make the distinctions. Once again, our language is deficient.

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