There’s been drama in the blogosphere over a recent decision ruling that a sexual Simpsons cartoon is child pornography and therefore illegal. It’s even spread into areas of the blog-world not normally known to discuss CBLDF issues.
I know Jeff plans to do a breakdown of the legal issues on this case, and so I’m not going to mess with that. My thought process is a little different, here. I know this will be a thorny issue, and I hope that if there’s discussion it can remain civil. There are very good arguments on all sides.
Ready? Then read on.
Pornography is a contentious issue. Many of the arguments against it center around the harm it does to the people who perform to create it. The normal argument is that it’s exploitative, that it’s harmful to people to have sex for a living, that it’s coercive, etc. That’s an argument that I just don’t want to have here. Suffice it to say that laws against child pornography tend to be based on this type of thought process–it’s harmful to children to perform sex acts and have them videotaped. I’m fairly sure no one’s going to argue that point.
The common anti-porn feminist argument is that pornography hurts all women because of the way it depicts them. That it shapes the way men think about women, and causes them to treat women the way they see women treated in pornography. Laws preventing children from buying porn come from this half of the thought process–that they can be harmed by seeing things. It’s also the rationale that leads to movie rating systems and the like.
The argument against cartoon child porn comes from this as well. No actual children are being harmed, and in this particular case it’s not about children seeing the pornographic cartoons. It’s a case in which someone admittedly quite tasteless drew sexual cartoons of The Simpsons, and an adult was in possession of them.
Neil Gaiman wrote:
The idea that you could be arrested in the Western World for having that image in your computer is mind-boggling, let alone for owning Lost Girls, or for doodling members of the Peanuts gang doing things they tended not to do in the Schulz comics, or for reading Harry Potter slash, or owning the Brass Eye Paedophilia special. And, I should warn members of the Australian judiciary, fictional characters don’t just have sex. Sometimes they murder each other, and take fictional drugs, and are cruel to fictional animals, and throw fictional babies off roofs. Crimes, crime everywhere.
It is interesting, isn’t it, that there are no laws that criminalize fictional portrayals of violence. You can draw a picture of Maggie Simpson being beheaded and her corpse thrown to the dogs (sorry for that visual) and not have to fear that someone will show up on your doorstep and arrest you.
Not only that, but you can defend someone’s right to draw that picture, or to own it, without being accused of secretly being a fan of beheading babies. But if you have pictures of cartoon child porn hanging around, you’re accused of secretly being a fan of sex with children.
We did see outcry after the Columbine shootings, where people wanted to blame violent video games or Marilyn Manson. But not on the sustained, steady basis that outcries against pornography come.
Some communications scholars look at three parts of a communication: the sender, the message, and the receiver. When I was an English major, we tended to study the text and ignore the motivations of the author. But our readings were always dependent on who we were.
Another blogger wrote:
I don’t think that this is about free speech. I don’t think that this is about what’s being depicted. I think that this is about losing sight of what crime actually is…
The problem with applying performativity as predictive — one of the most common applications being the common anti-porn argument that what is seen in fantasy will be done in reality — is that stories become the basis for the ways in which we evaluate other people. Explanations, whether accurate or not, become the basis for our judgments. And ultimately, explanations become applied on the basis of similarity. Performativity become prediction, and prediction becomes prevention. And the more that we invest in prevention, the less similarity we require.
All people who watch adult porn don’t commit the things they see in porn, just like all people who watch violent movies and play violent video games and listen to violent music don’t commit violent crimes. Media just does not have that direct an effect on people. (If it did, there’d be a whole lot more people running around in spandex costumes fighting crime.) So logically, perhaps, all people who watch virtual child porn will not molest children, just as all people who read Lolita do not molest children. But should we put them away on the basis of what they might do because of the drawings they have lying around?
The PROTECT Act (which is the U.S. version of the law that bans ‘virtual’ child porn) covers the possibility of adult actors photoshopped to look younger. This tends to make at least a bit more sense than worry over a filthy Simpsons cartoon–photoshopped adults could actually be mistaken for younger people, and could potentially be much more disturbing.
I believe that speech and depictions do have power. I do point out the flaws with portrayals of women in film and in comics. And I’d probably be really freaked out if a guy I was dating had pictures of Maggie Simpson having sex on his computer. I tend not to want to solve those problems with censorship–I would rather see more women writers and artists in comics than see the men who create problematic portrayals fired. I see the cure for bad speech as more speech, not as stopping speech.
The argument can be made that actual porn is not just speech. But in the case of a drawing–even a really, really disgusting one–that’s all that’s at stake.
I draw the line at making it a crime to own a drawing. And I don’t want to see this slippery slope started.