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Child pornography is before the Supreme Court again. This term the justices are grappling with Congress’ recent attempt to reduce the pandemic proportions of child pornography over the Internet. If only they were armed with the right linguistic tools. In United States v. Williams, argued in late October, the Court is considering the constitutionality of a provision of the Protect Act of 2003 criminalizing the “promotion” of child pornography. The merits of the statute aside, the way in which the Williams case has been discussed provides some real insight into how American popular culture, press, and the courts themselves fail to understand and, in fact, trivialize this very serious problem. I speak here of language and labels. I speak here of a tendency to minimize or sanitize the disturbing nature of these pictures of children by describing them in neutral and even anodyne terms. To face what is really going on in these images, we must start by labeling them accurately: What the Court is looking at in Williams is the sexual abuse of children. LANGUAGE MATTERS Words and labels have a significant impact on how people and issues are understood. We are rightly repelled by labels that suggest racial insensitivity. We rise up to criticize when women are referred to as “girls.” We are concerned when youth adopt language that minimizes their value or the value of others. Yet from the media to the highest court in the land, the devastating reality of child pornography is constantly minimized through language. Take the term “kiddie porn.” In the past year, such mainstream news outlets as National Public Radio on Oct. 30, Washingtonpost.com on Oct. 12, and Legal Times on Feb. 12 have all used the phrase. Now think about how flippantly the term “kiddie porn” downplays the crime committed. We don’t refer to the murder of children as “kiddie death.” We don’t call euthanasia “granny demise.” We don’t do so because terms such as “kiddie” suggest a cute, playful, Disney-like attitude unbefitting such a serious topic. Williams is not a debate over some amusement appropriate for toddlers. It’s a case about a nefarious threat to all children. Another, more common slang term should also make us cringe: “child porn.” No fewer than three Supreme Court justices said it no fewer than seven times in total during oral argument of Williams. Notably, neither advocate used the phrase. Some might point out that “child porn” is an improvement over “kiddie porn.” It certainly is. However, “porn” is also slang, and slang, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, is a “flippant, irreverent, indecorous” form of language. In other words, we use slang when we feel it’s appropriate to be flippant and irreverent about the subject at hand. When the Supreme Court, faced with an issue that victimizes millions of children every year, adopts such a lighthearted tone, we should all be concerned. Even the term “child pornography” raises concerns among those who study child sexual exploitation. Most people have at least a passing familiarity with adult pornography. We’ve all been forced to stand near a rack of so-called “adult entertainment” magazines as we wait in line to buy our quart of milk at 7-Eleven. Therefore, when “pornography” is used to describe both pictures of adults posing sexually and pictures of children being sexually abused, the latter is made to seem more like the former, and therefore less horrific. NOT JUST PICTURES Why does this word choice matter? In a general sense, it matters because words and labels convey the seriousness, or lack thereof, with which we view the topic at hand. In particular, it matters because language that sanitizes the reality of child pornography undermines the fight to stop it. Because images of sexually abused children are illegal to possess (so presumably most people do not possess or view them), much of the public is misinformed about what these images actually show. This misinformation leads to jurors and judges who do not appreciate the gravity of child pornography offenses: They tell themselves that these are “just pictures,” a juvenile version of adult pornography. Well, they are not. These are photographs and videos of adults sexually abusing children. Sometimes the sexual assault occurs live over the Internet for a paying audience. To produce these pictures, a child is raped. She is stripped of her safety, trust, and innocence. The legal definition of this material demonstrates the extremely graphic nature of these images. Contrary to what our slang labels suggest, these are not “glamour shots” of young-looking teens engaged in mildly provocative posing. Rather, 18 U.S.C. �2256(2)(A) defines the illegal content as depictions of children engaged in “actual or simulated (i) sexual intercourse, including genital-genital, oral-genital, anal-genital, or oral-anal, whether between persons of the same or opposite sex; (ii) bestiality; (iii) masturbation; (iv) sadistic or masochistic abuse; or (v) lascivious exhibition of the genitals or pubic area of any person.” Researchers have found that the images being produced are increasingly violent. Studies indicate that the demand for more sadistic pictures of younger and younger children is soaring. The Crimes Against Children Research Center, based at the University of New Hampshire, reports that 40 percent of child pornography offenders possessed pictures of children under the age of five, and 21 percent had images depicting violence, including bondage and torture. The most significant area of growth involves pre-verbal children. It is not just the quality but the quantity of these images, too, that is an indicator of the harm. Child sexual abuse is a multibillion-dollar industry, which, according to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, adds another 20,000 images to the Internet every week. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement estimates that there are more than 100,000 Web sites focusing on child pornography. Moreover, it is not just the children in the pictures who are harmed. Other children are inevitably assaulted, as well, because pedophiles use these images to whet their appetites, groom other victims, and validate their activities. The very existence of these pictures harms all children and society by furthering the sexual objectification and eroticization of children. CALL IT ABUSE It is for this reason that even the term “child pornography” is now considered inadequate among those who study the crime. In the words of Ethel Quayle, a leading researcher affiliated with University College Cork in Ireland, it “allows us to distance ourselves from the true nature of the materials.” It undermines the reality that a child has been subjected to unspeakable horrors. When the media and the courts trivialize these materials, even unintentionally, with their choice of language, they strengthen the misperception of child pornography as something less than true sexual abuse and thus as something deserving of less punishment than true abuse. These two institutions need to give jurors, judges, and policy-makers the full story — that child pornography is nothing less than a series of crime scene photos. The Supreme Court has already labeled the material so lacking in social value and so horrible that, unlike obscene speech, it is illegal even to possess. Now it’s time for the media and the courts to adopt language that communicates to the public the full horror of what we are seeing: pictures of children being raped, molested, and scarred for life.
Mary G. Leary is a visiting assistant professor at Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law.

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