Apr/May 2003 spotlight

A Few Photographs of Molested Children

by Thomas Larson


In San Diego where I'm a contributing writer to a weekly feature newspaper, I decide to profile the world of pedophiles and child molesters-those who prey on strangers (the youth group volunteer or coach who puts himself in contact with young boys and girls; the maker and sender of kiddie porn on the Internet) and those who prey on children within families (dads, grandpas, uncles, brothers who to molest children have opportunities that are difficult to detect). To begin, I contact the man responsible for prosecuting child porn manufacturers and distributors in San Diego, deputy district attorney Jeff Dort. We meet in his office on the twelfth floor of the Hall of Justice, a cubicle crammed with computers, stockpiled videotapes, pamphlets, files, and shelves of binders in which he is accumulating evidence for several cases. Dort is stocky, solid, news-anchor handsome-his suit, tie, and white shirt are the crisper side of new. Make no mistake, though; he's a seasoned prosecutor, having spent three years working on the third strike of "three-strike" cases. Newly re-assigned to ICAC (Internet Crimes Against Children), Dort describes molesters he's caught and tried, among them Mac David Cochran, who videotaped himself forcing sex upon his nine-year-old daughter and posted the tape on a web site. Thanks to Dort's prosecution, Cochran is serving 114 years in prison. Dort says one of the myths that helps him do his job is that pornographers think they are being private online. They aren't, and he won't give away any of his or the FBI's methods of electronic tracing.

"So, you're writing about children and sex offenders?" he says, a man who, I sense, has found some means of distancing himself from the perpetrators' lies and the victims' trauma. "I'll tell you what I tell families of the victims: 'Don't even try to understand how these people are put together.'"

We talk for a while, not only about Cochran and other "scum bags" he's prosecuted, but about the exponential growth of child pornography on the Internet, the fact that he commonly sees confiscated hard drives with up to 100,000 images of kiddie porn.

Really, I say, that many. I've never seen any kiddie porn.

"Oh, yes. There's multiple cases I have sitting here," and he retrieves one three-ring evidence binder, photographs he's collecting, investigations he's building, against those who traffic in child pornography. I move my chair next to his and, like a hand dealt in poker, the thick tome opens to a picture in a plastic sleeve: "This is very typical. These are very similar to other stuff I have-just thousands of pictures, books and books and books of this." Dort is paging; I'm trying not to stare, aware that I need to control my reaction as he goes. He is my subject, I think. "This little girl right here, she's obviously under 18. Kids and mom, maybe?" There it is: The mother, in lingerie, is posing, readying (I assume) to have sex with her kids, a boy and a girl. The boy is an adolescent, maybe 12; the girl is younger. Dort said "little girl" with anguish in his voice, a vestigial Oh, No; he said "kids and mom" as though here's an activity that "moms" like to do with the "kids."

Despite knowing that it can be found at any of several million web sites and (so far) having resisted my (what?) journalistic duty to look, there is something dumbfounding about seeing grown-ups forcing sex on kids. At once Dort lets each image linger long enough to imprint upon me. Then he flips through a new batch of pictures, quickly, like he's looking through an L. L. Bean catalog for a pair of snow boots he forgot to mark. "Just by looking at this," another paused-at image, "you can tell that's a little girl. You have no idea where this is, how this is happening." This folder he's compiled (he won't tell me how he is getting these images, but I know he's "posing" as an interested party so he can receive them) from a man whose computer is DSL-downloading the pictures day and night. "There are images in here that are probably not illegal." He pages: "That one is not illegal. Now that one's OK." It's a woman, a young woman, an older adolescent girl? I'm not sure.

What do you mean "OK"? I ask.

"I mean the girl looks to me like she's at or above the age of consent. Whether we like it or not, an eighteen-year-old is old enough. According to the law." He pages: "Now she's obviously underage." He pages: "Now she's clearly underage."

What am I seeing? The sex? The image? The children? Girls we've guessed to be "old enough"?

At first glance, the sex act with adult and child seems bizarrely consensual. The figures seem to be participating with one another, equally; no one is crying out stop, no one is appealing to the camera for help. The print has a grainy texture, and its sepia-like color (French postcard brown?) adds something dirty and staged. One image Dort pauses on is unmistakably lurid, and I squint at it in disgust. The photo is shot from behind and above the head of a grown man who has his upper body on a bed, his legs are spread-open and his feet are on the floor. Between his legs a girl-Dort says, "maybe seven? maybe five? maybe four? I don't know"-has her mouth on his penis. The man's legs easily enwrap the upper half of the girl's body. When I say "has her mouth," that is accurate, as if to say that's all the reality there is: This one moment, nothing before or after. One can imagine the girl's head in motion or the man's thrusts. But the photo resists that. Here I stumble out the words, "The look on her face is so-"

"Innocent," Dort completes the sentence. "She doesn't know what's happening," he says. "See what I mean." But, I think to myself, it's not innocent; it's knowing, almost canny. In the photo, the girl's eyes are dumb, caught in half-lash; unposed; compliant; not resistant; stuck. There's a mask of "I know what's expected of me."

Later, at home, I find I can't let go of my participation with this image. How I completed it by viewing it, for one. Has her mouth on his penis. Or is it, Has his penis in her mouth? No. Who's the agent? Mouth on versus penis in, reveals conflicting agents. But I saw it the first way, not the second. It seems as though she is active, he passive; she the siren; he, the prop. The truth is, I saw it from the girl's viewpoint, the recipient, for that's the design. The photo gives her agency, which makes it seem like the girl is in charge. The image—not the reality, I assume—contains as much of her doing the act as it shows the act being done to her.

Back with Dort, his hand a biologist's searching for a different specimen in the tank, he flips the big binder to yet another image. Here the camera peers down from the rapist's shoulder (like a devil on his shoulder, telling the man in the photo to go at her), and the penis is halfway in a very young girl's vagina. Dort says, "You can tell this is a child. Look how small her body is; and look how large he is." Later, (I've begun crisscrossing between then and now), I recall the Polaroid-like border background of black around the body images, that shame-filling darkness to which the manufacturers are drawn. And how quickly I see darkness as shameful before I can stop and say that, too, is what the pornographers want me to see. I recall the alienlike contrast between grown and undeveloped bodies, group scenes, those of an "implied" family having sex (it's OK; it's sanctioned by the family) that with clothes on might be a pillow fight on the bed. I recall the hammer-handle penises in every shot, arousal within the image to tempt arousal without.

Dort says, shutting the folder, the book-closing evaporative sound of deal with it-"I was thinking I wasn't going to show these pictures to you but you need to see them so you can put some sort of connection to it." I say that I understand why he might be reluctant but I'm glad he did. And I am glad. "Now," I say, "I know what we're talking about."

But, months later, hoping my brief sojourn would help me understand what I saw that day, I still don't know what we're talking about.

Writing the article hasn't helped. I chose not to include descriptions of the graphic images of child molestation because those images were not germane to the piece. I concentrated on the testimony of district attorneys, psychologists, sociologists, a radio talk-show host/anti-molester vigilante, and a 35-year-old man who described the aftermath of having been molested for five years as a young child by his father. The story developed little from what I had learned. I kept it away, in the experiences of others. Where Dort said it ought to remain. Objectivity: Journalism's guard rail to protect the reporter, should he swerve. Despite publication and thirty letters the article generates from victims and pedophiles alike, my conscience is unrelenting: you haven't really reported it, haven't begun to report honestly what it is you are looking at, what your exposé kept hidden even as you thought you were uncovering it, and you may unconsciously be helping to keep the sexual abuse of children covered up despite your effort to be informative and provocative.

At first Dort said neither parent-victims nor anyone else should try to understand it. This was his desire speaking: to protect people from imagining and seeing what we commonly call the "unspeakable cruelty" of a sex crime against a child. But I believe once we classify the cruelty as "unspeakable," aren't we saying we refuse to understand the nature of molestation, risking even more isolation (and, ironically, more freedom) for the perpetrators? And then, after reflection, I thought Dort's second challenge contradicted the first. Having shown me several images, he said-again desiring to be helpful, perhaps feeling my shock-that I might put some sort of connection to it. It's this, more than anything, that troubles me. How do we, how do I, "connect to" something I've never seen, never imagined, without engaging some part of myself? And, once engaged, what can that part of me say about how and why molestation remains hidden in our culture?

I was not aroused when I saw images of adults forcing sex upon children. To be flummoxed and fascinated was mental arousal only. Viewing the images in their moment versus mine sets up an interplay between observer and observed that is full of conundrums. For one, these hidden photos have value as unseen icons. Anyone who looks and lingers demagnetizes the lure of their hiddenness. But once viewed, the lure doesn't evaporate. It is displaced from the object and lodged in the viewer's sensibility, exerting an extraordinary transformation: my response becomes the object, not the image. The image-and the action of having looked-"implicates" the observer.

John Berger, writing about images of war in his essay "Photographs of Agony," has expressed a similar crossing-over from image to beholder. "It is generally assumed that [the war photograph's] purpose is to awaken concern. The most extreme examples... show moments of agony in order to extort the maximum concern. Such moments, whether photographed or not, are discontinuous with all other moments. They exist by themselves. But the reader who has been arrested by the photograph may tend to feel this discontinuity as his own personal moral inadequacy. And as soon as this happen even his sense of shock is dispersed: his own moral inadequacy may now shock him as much as the crimes being committed in the war."

Transfer this to the images I saw. There is the crime and damage of the molestation itself, then there is the "crime" of "moral inadequacy" in me the viewer, occasioned by the image itself. As Berger suggests, focusing on the moral inadequacy of the looker is unfair to the victim, for it removes the crime of its power and raises (attempts to raise) our reaction to a level equal to the crime itself. So I'm damned from the outset-how dare I measure my reaction against what I'm witnessing?

Any response to molestation is a byproduct to what we might call molestation's "clear and present danger." We know pedophilia is wrong; adults abuse children and destroy their lives; the story has been told forcefully in such memoirs as Half the House by Richard Hoffman and My Father's House by Sylvia Fraser. Thus, we need not over analyze what its images represent. If we are curious about representation, then this reflects individual differences and is not part of a social code that tells us molestation is wrong. By recalling how I sentenced the girl's agency in the image—has her mouth on his penis—I am responding to my not knowing the right or accepted way to feel about this image. Though some might call this, What don't you understand about rape?

Despite their availability on the Internet these days, such images are not called up by most people. The pictures and stories of child sexual abuse remain in their shoe boxes, receive scant coverage. "It's like, how do you expose it?" another district attorney who prosecutes molesters told me. "The problem is, if you run a front-page article with all the pictures, showing people what's really out there, you couldn't do it. You couldn't publish the photographs. The public—I don't want to say the public doesn't want to know, but where can they go to read it? If I have kids, how do I go home and sit there with my paper and read this. And if I don't have kids, I'm 18 to 35, I don't care. It's so annoying, so distasteful, that even reading it for information's sake, people can feel as if they're condoning it or being a part of it."

Here may be the skin of the body I want to inspect. Why does mere looking feel like we're condoning it? Will the act depicted—some pervert's "desire" seen—rub off, embed itself in our psyches, if we linger on the image? And, if it's clear that what it depicts is wrong, why must the depiction be kept from us? Or, better, why do we, especially non-child-molesting men, agree so readily (secretly responding with revulsion and fascination as I did) that we should not look?

At first blush, the depiction of sex seems a welcome problem for men. Most men are aroused by pornography, have grown accustomed to the visual stimulations of the R- and the X-rated. Men are raised in a culture where they expect buxom bikini-ed babes in their ads and their movies, while those desires producers and babes gladly accommodate. Imprinted thus, men learn that seeing is wanting and wanting consumes them. There is, of course, an imaginative leap made from sexual ideation via the tantalizing visuals to the sex act itself. But when the accustomed-to images get mixed in with those that depict children—a ten-year-old in a bra and panties, for example—the effect can destabilize any looker because he may without knowing it feel the twinge of excitement he felt with the adult image.

How does looking equate with condoning? When Jeff Dort said a few images of adolescent girls were OK (even by the limit of law), I balked. Was I, as he paged through the binder, supposed to look at the "barely legal" sexed-up girls and see their potential for arousal as OK, and then feel sickened by images of kids with penises lying on their faces? (I kept quiet in my non-responses, which may have seemed, to Dort, like a brooding inquisitiveness in those images.) My sense is now, there was something dirty about it all: The depictions of the "young" were "soiled" in proximity to those of the "too young." Had I felt any desire for those girls in the "OK" images alongside the "not OK," I would have felt ashamed, unclean. But wait: How can I be so sure of my response when I have never seen such images before? I'm glad I was not aroused, though part of my worry was that, suddenly shown the smut, I might be. Something stopped me from making a connection between looking and being a part of what I saw.

Joyce Carol Oates' Blonde is the fictionalized portrait of the harrowing change of Norma Jeane Baker into Marilyn Monroe. The novel's best part is the story of her adolescent years. At the hands and with the lusts of attending males-among them an English teacher, a detective, and her first husband whom she married at 16-her sexuality was teased out of (and projected into) her early on. Post-pubescent, her vitality, her vulnerability, were thoroughly sexualized: calendar girl, screen siren, man-craving vamp, by extension, things many men hoped were latent in every woman. The source of her famed attractiveness is an edge that existed and was nurtured between her adolescent and adult personas. Even Marilyn herself toyed with this edge. She was beautiful not because she was a sexually free woman. She was beautiful because she pretended to be stirred by men's desire, by playing both sides of waywardness, the vixen adolescent, the vixen adult. Men would choose which one they fancied.

I think I sensed tension between looking at and condoning what I saw in Dort's binders as an awareness of this edge, which operates between adult and adolescent, but here is costumed, as it were, between adolescent and child. Consider a woman, in sexual pose, who puts her hair in pigtails to replicate a farm girl. Consider an adolescent girl in pigtails. Then consider a child, forced into sexual pose, with the same pigtails. The child's actual innocence mixes with the mock innocence of her "older self." And it is mockery, feigning the "real," that elicits desire. She is not what she seems to be; therefore, she is desirous. Mockery-as-desire is especially suited to the molester's ego.

Here's how. That sexual "stirring" of desire-pigtails, lingerie, make-up-may be but is usually not in the girl herself. (Marilyn did have some of it, even at 16.) The molester believes, though, that the girl or the child he is attracted to possesses only a sexual identity. How often do the police officer and the psychologist hear from the perpetrator the counter-charge, she came on to me. The older the girl or boy the more the molester might, in his mind, think she or he is exhibiting adult-like traits that make his advances welcome. But the prey's age is not a factor; the perpetrator has merely justified his advances. The molester who believes he is come on to has simply recast the sexual plot, matching his desire to the edge between adult and child bodies. The consequences of such behavior can be mystifying. Not only does the molester say the child is responsible for drawing him in, but he accuses the makers of such images (as seen on film or as part of young female bodies) of pandering to his lust even as he watches those images. He thinks himself twice-wronged by child and image. (Despite knowing, as some molesters do, that it is wrong and he is ashamed to desire children, the desire for contact drives him unmercifully.) Moreover, since the menstruating girl can be seen as biological fulfillment-she has attracted the man because our co-reproductive natures command us to hurry mating-then the molester is also not (or certainly less) responsible for his actions: He is simply furthering evolution's scheme.

Along this edge the contemporary theater of adult sexual stimulation "strays" into kiddie porn-and, surprise! it's the molester's design. Molesters use the adult motifs of pornography to catch all lookers in the act, to make us think we're equal to them on some leveled field. When those pigtailed images play the edge, a few men, maybe one in a hundred, who can't control their responses, will cave. To promote the best defense, it is easier to deny all men access to child porn than it is to risk unleashing the urges of those few. Thus, the square-chinned, thick-necked district attorneys, the psychologists, judges, newspaper editors, religious leaders, lawmakers-all forbidding entry.

And that, paradoxically, is the very thing molesters live for: Forbidden entry.

The forbidden brings up perhaps the deepest element associated with these images: The taboo. I want to say several things about taboo and the sexual abuse of children. The first should be obvious by now. To protect children, our society stamps kiddie porn, taboo. Keep the visuals away, and you're all right. Look at it, and you're soiled. Not looking, though, has jurisdiction over everyone but the molester. The taboo funnels him to the sacred: Even in JPEG collections of 100,000 images, each one is a shrine. A second thing to say is that the taboo works on us, the non-molesters, with an arcane agency. It seems that we have so fully closeted as taboo the adult perversion of forcing sex on children and its images that we don't even know what we're not seeing and why we're not seeing it.

In Totem and Taboo, Freud cites the work of the late-19th century experimental psychologist Wilhelm Wundt. Wundt wrote that taboos are "the oldest unwritten code of law of humanity," classifying them sacred or profane. Taboos inhere in people or objects from which we feel inspired awe or aversion. Awe, like the power of a volcano or the ritual of a priest, is the sacred or mysterious taboo; one is forbidden to go near. Aversion, like the prohibition of handling food after one has handled the dead, describes the profane or unclean taboo, what's called a negative taboo. At bottom is "the fear of the effect of demonic powers." Those people or objects infected by a demon might, in turn, infect anyone who breaks the taboo, i.e., comes in contact with person or object. Freud, summarizing Wundt, writes, "Some persons and objects possess a dangerous power which is transmitted by contact with the object so charged, almost like a contagion. The most peculiar part of it," he continues, "is that any one who has violated such a prohibition assumes the nature of the forbidden object as if he had absorbed the whole dangerous charge."

Wundt also wrote that taboos strike us as "anything which for any reason arouses dread or is mysterious." Thus, with the images in Dort's office, I dreaded to look at that which (at once) had kindled a mystery. Awe, it should be clear by now, is not sexual arousal. I was separating the untouchable mystery of taboo from the twin untouchables of image and molester. I hadn't realized that inside me, in the non-molesting, non-aroused man, I could still be affected-"the dread of contact," Freud calls it-by that which seemed to be gunning for me. "The fact that a taboo is transmissible," Freud writes, "has surely given rise to the effort of removing it through expiatory ceremonies." Like a very long hot bath, the means some of us use to expiate our bodies' uncleanliness is to essay, to discover how it has affected us. In a world where journalists work without "acts of penance and ceremonies of purification," the reporter must minister to himself.

Freud also includes this quotation from Wundt: "The violation of a taboo makes the offender himself taboo." Makes him-he who has looked-unclean, infected, dangerous, outcast. If I linger on images of child molestation and consider too closely the industry of its purveyors, I risk not only being debased but also, with no ritual to oust the debaser who has got under my skin (that may be grandiose but it feels accurate), being contaminated permanently. An example of this occurs in prisons where molesters are often segregated and abused. Or, in Jeffrey Dahmer's case, some are beaten to death, so afraid are the other prisoners of contracting his disease.

This, then, is the taboo's gambit: It insists I pretend to know what I'm not seeing, insists that I can't and shouldn't know why I'm not seeing it-in order to protect me. It's there, it's working, it's in place for a purpose. How good that the psyche continues to shield us! As the burka fundamentalist Islamic women wear bars the man's curiosity and (thus) tempts him to remove it, so does the taboo bar and tempt an "interest" in sex with children. It reminds us that any desire for infection is equal to the certainty of infection. The taboo's multiple personality, what Freud calls its "ambivalence," is more solidly friend than enemy.

A question arises, which neither Freud nor Wundt consider: Does an urge to molest exist in all people or only in a few? The answer is, it's an unanswerable question because the taboo's nature, in lieu of scientific evidence, is no different from our own. Taboos, Freud notes, connect us to the mystery of our origins. The indeterminacy of those origins suggests that we may never know whether any individual is pre-disposed to fondle children. But we can recognize that the taboo and the thing we shouldn't see place molester and non-molester in the same enclosure. Besides, we can neither cure the molester of his desire to have sex with children nor (as yet) turn off the genetic switch for that desire. But we can manage his illness and our part in his illness if we get over our "failure to understand it," where it refers not so much to the disease but to our role in pathologizing the disease.

How do we help pathologize his disease, feed his penchant? Despite the molester's sought-after isolation, our "dread of contact" pushes him farther away. (In one sense, Megan's Law, the sex offender registration statute, isolates pedophiles as much as it exposes them, for the shame of identification makes molesters hide themselves more than they ever have.) I would argue that this dread is, in terms of perpetuating molestation, as potent a force as the molester's act. The molester has us right where he wants us once we categorize him king of the perverts. Expelling from our midst anyone who's that dirty gives him the separation necessary to hide the act even from himself. Such is the intrinsic shame of our sexual natures: We will nurture any taboo that walls in sexual feelings for children. It is yet another way we fit our species for survival, though it is not clear, given the extent of our sexual proclivities, what we are surviving as.

Maybe I'm beginning to grasp just how deeply unknown child molestation is as well as its ability to hide itself within and from men, within and from families, within and from the media and the society. And maybe this need to understand began, inadvertently, in the scripts of my choirboy youth. No parent, no grandparent, no teacher, no adult ever that I recall looked at me salaciously, touched me inappropriately, when I was a child. I trusted adults. Was I trusting because I was spared the wantonness of some adults in a small 1950s Wisconsin town whose moral script was never to present molestation in image, idea, or fact? They sent Mr. Wilson away because he didn't like children. Was Mr. Wilson actually lurking in the neighborhood? Could I not see him because I had no warning or sense (as women do instinctively) of his lurk? I grew up with the decree that to keep molestation at bay an unexamined male psyche was much more effective than an examined one.

But all that's changed. Today the disordered male psyche (not all of it is disordered with sex) is everywhere-absent fathers; adolescent men; militia groups; youth gangs; gangsta rap; bullying and shooters in high schools; child rapists displaying their crimes on the Internet; suicide bombers. (Dare we also mention the cultural terrorists in America, the adult male producers of extreme sports, violent movies, and video games, or those coaches, in corporations, on football fields, in military groups, who rationalize the good tuning boys and men must receive from unquestioned rituals of male bonding.)

It's a recursive nightmare-the male psyche ebbs and flows from ordered to disordered thinking, and it is this vacillation that censors (and in some cases attracts) our views about, and the images of, adults and children and sex. What trumps the male psyche is the male who can't or doesn't know that the problem of child molestation is in his psyche. Knowing that doesn't make a man a child molester. The man, alas, doesn't know this distinction because his culture won't tell him, won't implant the seed because to preserve itself the images and some collective responsibility for child molestation must be kept away from him.

One young woman told me a remarkable story about the proximity, real and imagined, of child molesters among us. When she discovered her landlord was a convicted child molester, who had done the deed and the time 12 years before (so the California Sex Offender CD-ROM informed her), she told her boyfriend that she was afraid and wanted to move. Her boyfriend said the guy was no threat because he'd paid his debt and, besides, his crime was just a one-time shot. For her these were twin insults, and they propelled her out of the apartment complex and away from her boyfriend. She also said that her boyfriend's inability to connect to her wariness as a woman around violent men lay in his maleness, which, without damning all men, we might also call his brutishness. She didn't want to be around a man who couldn't subdue the brute, a man who was ignorant of his fuses and couldn't configure the wiring to disarm himself. On some level, are all men unconscious brutes, biological explosives? Because a majority of men are insensible to their sexual behaviors, should the gender be governed by laws, whose creation and administration are deferred to women? There's nothing easy about this: It's difficult to argue for reason and compassion for men and not discount that their maleness exists one salacious touch away from violating an innocent.


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