On a Saturday night in the summer of 1998, an undercover officer logged in to a child-pornography chat room using the screen name Indy-Girl.
In the anonymous chat rooms, he felt free to adopt a persona repugnant to society. They arrived early, spread a blanket on the grass, and waved at John, who was sitting at a picnic table, writing in his journal.
He told Indy-Girl that he was a “real-life pedophile,” adding, “At least here I can come out and admit it.” “What’s the kinkiest you’ve done? John said he’d had sex with a ten-year-old while her parents were skiing, and with a fourteen-year-old at a night club in Germany. blaaaahhh.” She apologized for getting “a bit too gabby” and for “being so weird” and “reading into things.” John said it wasn’t her—he worked long hours and was tired. An athletic man with light-brown hair and green eyes, John slowly walked over to the girls, who were playing with a beach ball.
Indy-Girl recognized that she was too old for him, which was “depressing,” but she offered that her little sister liked older men. “We could meet somewhere discreet.” John had been in the Army for eight years, serving in Desert Storm and Bosnia, and had graduated from Penn State with a degree in history. He also admitted that he wanted a relationship more than he wanted sex. He offered them sodas, and they chatted about what they liked to drink—Indy-Girl said she preferred beer—and about how long the drive had taken.
He was thinking of leaving the service, in part because he felt picked on by other soldiers. He hoped to find someone who “could accept me the way I am.” “Give it a chance,” Indy-Girl encouraged. It was a “normal conversation,” one of the cops later wrote, until John “saw the agents approaching him, and he began backing away.” A plainclothes officer whom John had seen standing by the lake, holding a fishing pole and a tackle box, shouted at him to put his hands behind his back.
He said that the most sought-after images were new and made in America, and showed interracial couplings. Members reinforced one another’s desires, engaging in communal rationalization. “If the First Amendment means anything,” the Supreme Court wrote in 1969, “it means that a State has no business telling a man, sitting alone in his own house, what books he may read or what films he may watch.” But, by 1982, the public seemed to have discovered child sex abuse, both its trauma and its prevalence. and increasing the likelihood that they will actually molest children.” Child-pornography sentencing laws have been passed rapidly, with little debate; it’s nearly impossible, politically, to object to harsh punishments for perverts.
“We’d pull at evidence from the dawn of photography to prove that child sexuality was once acceptable,” John said. The Supreme Court made child pornography an exception to the First Amendment, since “a child has been physically or psychologically harmed in the production of the work.” Early efforts to suppress the American child-porn trade—a small network of adult bookstores and mail-order services—were so successful that within a decade the market was all but nonexistent. Controlling the flow of images is nearly impossible, because pornography is posted online from other nations, which have different definitions of who is a child and what is obscene. I.’s Crimes Against Children Unit told the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security that the online pornography trade had created a “vast network of like-minded people, who believe it is acceptable to engage in sexual fantasies about children, thus lowering their inhibitions . Melissa Hamilton, a law professor at the University of Houston Law Center, told me that lawmakers have treated pornography possession as if it were an “inchoate crime.” She said, “It has become a kind of proxy—a way to incapacitate men who we fear have already molested someone, or will in the future.” In prison, the only friends John made were other child-pornography convicts.
In arguing for harsher penalties for viewing child pornography, lawmakers have tended to conflate the desire to view photographs (a crime that can be detected by tracing a computer’s I. address) with actual sex abuse, which is notoriously difficult to prosecute, since young victims are easily silenced. “We picked each other out like black beans in a pile of rice,” he told me.
He adjusted poorly, feeling overwhelmed by a sense of failure.
He had been commended for having a memory for technical details, but he was also nervous, nerdy, and eager to please. John waived his right to a lawyer, hoping to end the humiliation quickly. report summarizing the interview, “Everything that he said on the Internet was a lie.” John pleaded guilty to possessing child pornography and to using the Internet to persuade a minor to have sex, and was sentenced to fifty-three months in federal prison—a relatively light sentence by today’s standards.