Are child porn viewers less dangerous than we thought?

This recent commentary, by columnist and journalist writer Emily Bazelon (who earlier this year wrote a New York Times Magazine cover story on the Marsh Law Firm’s groundbreaking work on restitution for child pornography victims), is a reaction to the United States Sentencing Commission’s recent report to Congress on federal child pornography offenses.

Making child pornography is abuse. What about possessing it? As a group, these offenders—the ones who look but don’t abuse children to create new images—are serving increasingly long prison sentences. In 2004, the average sentence for possessing child pornography was about 4 ½ years. In 2010, it was almost eight years. Child sex offenders may also be kept in prison beyond their release dates through “civil commitment” if the state deems that they’ll have “serious difficulty in refraining from sexually violent conduct or child molestation if released.”

It’s hard to feel concern for people (mostly men) who prowl the Internet for sexually abusive images of children, some of whom are very young. Their crimes aren’t “victimless,” as defense lawyers sometimes argue. These men create the market for new images. They are the demand behind the supply. I’ve written about how hard it is for women who were abused and photographed as girls to know that men are still viewing, and taking pleasure in, the record of their suffering—and about the victims’ efforts to win restitution from these men.

But the main reason Congress has upped the penalties for men who possess child pornography is the deep-seated belief that many of them physically abuse children and that they are highly likely to keep doing so because they can’t stop themselves. Is that true? I’ve heard it so many times it’s hard to think otherwise. Yet that premise is contested in a new 468-page report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission (the body Congress established to advise it about federal sentencing law). The commission did its own research. It says the federal sentencing scheme for child pornography offenses is out of date and argues that this leads to penalties that “are too severe for some offenders and too lenient for other offenders.”

For the rest of Emily’s piece, visit The comments are especially instructive.

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