Wednesday, February 08, 2006

There Ought To Be A Law

Back in 1962, in the September 16 issue of the Nation, writer Marilyn Bender Altschul expressed concern about the potential for abuses in the child modeling industry in an article titled Exploiting The Model Child. As with many issues, modern technologies have added an entirely new dimension to such concerns. However, while modern technologies have indeed supplied the means to bring such exploitation to new heights, there seems to be a much more insidious set of social factors at play.

On January 13, 2006, USA Today published a column by Andrew Kantor in which the writer made mention of the growth of a disturbing industry, a certain type of Internet child modeling site. These sites have not garnered much media time since they came to the attention of Representative Mark Foley, who introduced legislation in 2002 in an attempt to combat them. The child modeling sites rightly targeted by Representative Foley seem geared to adults with sexual interests in children. They feature girls that look as young as 7 or 8 years of age, according to the practiced eye of this parent of two little girls, as well as girls into their teens. These girls are often in poses that mimic those seen in the “adult” sex industry.

Some of the child modeling sites were driven out of business or pushed underground by the media attention that came as a result of Representative Foley’s unsuccessful Child Modeling Exploitation Prevention Act of 2002. However, as media attention and public outrage faded, this troubling child modeling genre was able to flourish again, unhampered by law. According to Julie Posey of Pedowatch.com, an informational site about child sexual abuse, some adult pornography sites advertise (i.e., provide links to) the child model sites, using such promotional phrases as “Can Jail Bait Be This Hot?” and “Sexy Pre-Teen Will Pose However You Like.”

These types of child modeling sites, as pointed out in the USA Today article, “have some sort of disclaimer: "I have my parents' permission" and so on, and most profess rather loudly "You won't find any nudity here!" and charge a fee to move beyond the initial pages, offering monthly subscription rates. The ‘free samples’ are themselves disturbing, described by Kantor as “pushing the envelope a bit with see-through clothes and carefully placed hands or props (technically remaining non-nude).”

Having looked at the free samples on a couple of the more popular sites, I shudder to think what it is that paying customers receive. It was both sickening and shocking to see barely dressed little girls in poses traditionally associated with the pornographic - on hands and knees in the mouth open bottom up porno classic pose, barely dressed in leather, mimicking bondage scenes by appearing to be topless while wrapped in yellow crime-scene type plastic tape, crotch shots, touching themselves in a manner that seems staged to be provocative. However, knowing that these sites operate in a legal gray area so as to remain undisturbed by law enforcement is far beyond shocking, well past sickening. It is completely disgraceful.

The rather weak explanation for these particular sites is that they exist to promote aspiring models. However, according to comments from model agencies quoted in a September 23, 2002, article by Doug Thompson, it is highly unlikely that these girls will ever obtain mainstream modeling work by utilizing such sites, despite the devoted fan clubs, chat rooms and collector-trader groups that spring up around individual models.

"Talent agencies don't look at these sites," a spokesman for Next Models, of New York, said, as quoted by Thompson. "They look at portfolios produced by professional photographers and submitted by the models or their agents." According to Thompson, “another modeling agency representative says that once a young model shows up on a child model site she can kiss any serious modeling career goodbye. "We stay away from these girls," she said. "There's too much potential for trouble."”

Sad, but true, according to child psychologist Dorothy Grange, as quoted in Thompson’s article. These are frequently very troubled young ladies. Grange has treated children exploited in this manner, and cited studies specifically about child models that indicated “more than half lose their virginity by age 14.” She spoke of her own child model clients, girls who’d been molested, who’d began having sex at 12, and another who was pregnant by 12.

"Those who are still virgins admit to mutual masturbation and/or oral sex with older men," said Dr. Oswald Ruttan (another psychologist that treats child models who is cited in the article) of his clients. "It is much more common than the child modeling industry is willing to admit,” Dr. Ruttan said, referring to child sexual abuse in the industry. He said further that “pedophiles often made good child photographers” and that “parents who exploit their children’s sexuality can, and do, carry it to the next level” (i.e., moving beyond sexually exploitive photographs to actual physical sexual abuse).

The publication that Thompson writes for, according to his article, “conducted a random check of the 100 photographers who run the highest-traffic child model sites and found that 37 had been convicted of sex crimes involving minors and another 22 had been charged but not convicted.”

In addition to contributing to the sorrows of individual children featured on them, these sites seem to be a public menace as well, according to Thompson, who wrote: “Statistics compiled by the FBI and state and local police departments show more than 75 percent of those arrested on pedophilia or child sexual abuse charges in the last five years have visited Internet sites which features teen and pre-teen models.”

"They [these types of child modeling sites] skirt the law by avoiding explicit pornography,” said Dr. Grange, as quoted by Thompson. “But they are selling a sexual fantasy that appeals to pedophiles. Every time I see another child go missing, I wonder if whoever grabbed her was visiting some of these web sites.” She went on to add that she’s “interviewed a number of sexual offenders who admit visiting the sites.”

How these sites manage to “skirt the law” is difficult for me to understand. Our nation’s founding fathers certainly did not intend the First Amendment’s freedom of speech and press clause to protect such pictures, which, according to the writer of the USA Today article, “no magazine, porn or otherwise, would publish,” as well as the videos hawked on these teen model sites. Not too many years ago, even the Supreme Court would have dismissed out of hand any claim that the First Amendment protects such material. Today, however, the judicial guardians of our nation’s new “living, evolving” Constitution have held that even sexually explicit and highly injurious “pseudo child porn” enjoys First Amendment protection. Unlike “pseudo child porn,” however, which does not depict actual children, with “child modeling” websites children are being sexually exploited.

I cannot imagine why, in light of the case studies and statistics that clearly demonstrate the potential for serious harm, as well as the nature of the pictures themselves, child protective services are not poring over those photos and tracking down each and every one of the parents who have agreed to allow sexually exploitive, staged to be provocative, photos of their children to be taken and sold.

Why would any parent allow this? Certainly, it could be related to a sexualized media that has eroded standards of common decency, making such displays of flesh commonplace. One has only to pick of a copy of almost any teen magazine to see the degree to which this has infiltrated youth culture as well. Add to that the never-ending sexualization of young girls in TV, film, music and RAP. In our popular culture today, the sight of barely dressed, sexualized girls has almost been normalized. In our society, as is apparent from the graphic sex education materials presented to ever younger children in schools, children seem expected to engage in sexual behaviors.

Furthermore, as our culture has coarsened, it has also become more materialistic, shallow and self-centered. These factors, the same factors that contribute to fewer and fewer parents willing to make the sacrifices in standard of living that were commonplace a few generations ago (that’s right, not every family had two cars, designer clothes, a television in every room, and the all latest electronic gadgets) to have one parent at home raising children, make it easier for certain parents to sell away their child’s innocence or to permit their children to sell away their own, capitalizing on the cash of the moment at the expense of something that used to be thought of as far more precious.

There certainly ought to be a law, some real, focused legislation to deal with these types of child modeling sites. Not only do these sites contribute to significant damage to the well-being of the featured children, but they also reveal frightening and ugly things about our society as a whole. I’ve contacted my legislators about this matter, as well as those in Florida, and I hope that you will too.

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