Editor's Note

The Pornography of Pornography

Ralph Underwager

... We like to continue to believe what we have been accustomed to accept as true, and the resentment aroused when doubt is cast upon any of our assumptions leads us to seek every manner of excuse for clinging to them.  The result is that most of our so-called reasoning consists in finding arguments for going on believing as we already do ... (Robinson, 1921, p. 28)

In many instances allegations of sexual abuse of children include claims that pornography was involved.  Either pornography was produced and the children exploited and assaulted sexually, pornography was used to entice children into sexual contact, or the person accused is described as a user of pornography and therefore a "dirty old man" who is a child molester.  These charges are introduced into cases by law enforcement personnel, child protection workers, and sometimes by a parent who says the other parent is guilty.  Search warrants empowering law enforcement authorities to discover and seize alleged pornography produce the kind of nude pictures of babies that are in almost every family album in the country, photographs of children fully clothed but someone judges them provocative, a few copies of Playboy or Penthouse, and occasionally X rated adult videotapes.  No case we have been involved in has produced any actual child pornography.  We have read of a single case in Florida in which lewd photographs of children were found in the home of a man with a prior conviction for child molestation.

Nevertheless, there are many people who continue to believe that thousands of missing children are used to produce child pornography, that child pornography is a billion dollar business, and that all child molesters are inveterate consumers of pornography.  It is not likely that the study by Schuijer and Rossen reported in this volume will change the attitudes of those who need to believe the myths about child pornography.  Nevertheless, we regard it as an important and useful piece of basic research that can, for those open to receive data, dispel many of the myths that surround the issue of child pornography.  It may also be able to assist in a more realistic and credible approach to any instance in which claims are made about child pornography.  We agree with the authors' stand that child pornography is exploitive and demeaning to children.  Although we question whether or not child sexual involvement with an adult can ever be positive, the empirical data Schuijer and Rossen present that bears on this question is important and should be evaluated for what it is, preliminary information that may inform the participants in the discussion of the meaning and the nature of human sexuality.

We suggest also that contemporary advocates of social change who choose to use the approach Gilbert (1991) labels "advocacy numbers," that is exaggerated claims about the frequency of a phenomenon in order to raise social consciousness and bring about the desired change, have fallen into the trap of making a pornography of pornography.  The structure of pornography may be forced upon areas of human behavior other than sex.  Pornography may be seen as the description of tabooed activities with the purpose of inciting delusions, fantasies, or erroneous beliefs for private, personal benefit (Rubinoff, 1967).  Sexual assault upon children is a tabooed subject but adults whose fantasies may induce guilt or guilty pleasure may have legitimized access to those fantasies through exaggerated, distorted, ugly, and sadistic representations.  Such grotesque fantasies are unrealistic, ignoring social, legal, or factual limitations, while making virtuous behaviors out of punitive, aggressive, and even illegal acts.  Thus power is experienced and the seductiveness of power that corrupts is effective but hidden.  This is the pornography of pornography.

This study provides the first empirical data on the nature and content of actual child pornography.  It is our hope that publishing it will enable those who wish to fight against child pornography to resist making a pornography out of pornography.


Gilbert, N. (1991). The phantom epidemic of sexual assault. The Pubic Interest, 103, 54-65.

Robinson, J. H. (1921). The mind in the making. London: C. A. Watts.

Rubinoff, L. (1967). The pornography of power. New York: Ballantine Books.

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