Stranger Than Fiction

Pin it


Stranger Than Fiction by Philip Jenkins      

Kiddie porn is the Timothy McVeigh of the sexual imagination: the only form of smut that has literally no defenders, not even among the most dedicated libertarians. Perhaps snuff films (the boogieman of the early anti-porn movement) fall into a similar category, but there is little evidence that these actually exist. Child pornography, on the other hand, certainly does exist, and the anonymity of cyberspace has made it ever more easily available. There’s no live-and-let-live attitude toward this material. If perverts get off on children, most people figure, they deserve to go to prison. No measures — censorship, entrapment, life sentences — are too severe in fighting this awful thing.


A recent prosecution takes that approach to its logical extreme — and it’s a case, in several senses, of “be careful what you wish for.” On July 3rd, in Columbus, Ohio, a man named Brian Dalton was put in prison for writing down his sexual fantasies. He’d written them in a secret journal. There was no evidence that he’d acted them out. He’d never even shown them to another person. Dalton was already in trouble with the police, on probation for possessing obscene images of children; while searching his belongings, his probation officer uncovered a notebook in which Dalton had scribbled down terrifying scenarios. The entries described Dalton caging three small children in his basement, molesting and torturing them. At first, the police assumed these were descriptions of real crimes, but it soon became clear that they were fictional. Nonetheless, Dalton was charged with indulging in obscenity involving a minor, and got ten years in jail.


The sentence itself isn’t surprising, since judges always throw the book at probation violators in sex cases. But the charge is utterly bizarre — and the implications far-reaching: if sexual fantasies, however grotesque, however “unhealthy,” can be made illegal, none of us are safe.


Now let me make myself clear. Having written a book on the subject, I would never downplay the horror of child porn: if anything, I’d argue that it’s more available and more hardcore than almost anyone outside that deeply hidden subculture actually realizes. Downloading a single image can earn you a federal prison sentence, so while doing my research, I didn’t use any visual materials whatever, just text from the bulletin boards. I could offer a thousand quotes to illustrate the reptilian tone of these conversations, but I will just offer one typical posting, in which a collector refers to the legendary “KX series.” These images — which run to several thousand photos and videos — depict kindergarten girls masturbating and giving blowjobs to adult men: “I posted some more KX,” raved one enthusiast. “Inga gets a mouth full of sperm; oh, it’s a dream series!” At the time of filming, Inga was six.


Reading postings like that can make “freedom of speech” sound like a weak and foolish defense. But it’s important to understand the distinction here: if Dalton had been writing about adult subjects in his journal, his musings, however horrendous, would have been protected by the Bill of Rights. In 1984, a federal child protection act removed First Amendment protections from any material whatever that involved minors — and the courts have upheld that proviso. In practice, this means that any vaguely suggestive photo of a minor may be deemed child porn by a prosecutor — a distinction that has proven malleable enough to include nude pictures taken by grandparents and family portraits by photographer Sally Mann.
But until now, “fantasy writing” has not been successfully prosecuted. Now, it seems, the obscenity label has been extended beyond the realm of pictures and videos to that of words and thoughts, even those kept totally private.


It’s already cliché to point out that many great works of literature contain material that, according to the increasingly broad legal definition, would be considered kiddie porn. Nabokov’s Lolita is the classic test case. And indeed, Lolita — a book whose narrator drugs and molests his prepubescent stepdaughter — has been termed both a horror-show and a masterpiece. But in light of the Dalton case, one might legitimately wonder if the novel’s protective status as literature really holds up. Whatever else it is (a moral satire, a cunning word game), the book is a turn-on. Of course, being dead, Nabokov can’t be prosecuted. But since possession of kiddie porn has been deemed just as bad as manufacturing it, legally speaking, has every single copy of that book become child pornography? If not, why not? What is the difference between Dalton’s scribblings and Nabokov’s? Is it because one is a novel and the other a journal? Because one man is a great public figure, the other a criminal suspect? After all, each of them was writing fiction.


History demonstrates that the nation’s district attorneys cannot be relied on to be its literary critics. But even if they could — even if Oklahoma police hadn’t seized videotapes of the satirical German movie The Tin Drum because of a symbolic sex scene, even if the government didn’t cry “kiddie porn” as an excuse to crack down on sexual minorities of all stripes — the Dalton case would still be troubling.


The central issue here is the right to fantasize, to play with ideas, even if those ideas strike most people as revolting or dangerous. An analogy that comes to mind here is the after-effects of Columbine, which provoked school authorities to impose a zero tolerance policy on anything that a teacher understands as a hint of violence, whether written, spoken, or drawn. As a result, the last few years have witnessed an official reign of terror for any teenager who might be seen as deviant or dissident — and God help any bright kid with a twisted sense of humor. I very much hope that their Orwellian experiment is not about to be projected onto the erotic imagination. We need fantasy; we live by fantasy. Arguably, too, fantasizing about dark deeds keeps us from acting them out. But even if such fantasies serve no therapeutic purpose, cracking down on private thoughts is a dangerous mistake.


I doubt if legions of libertarians are presently en route to Columbus to demonstrate on behalf of a man who fantasizes about torturing kids, and frankly, that’s a shame. Because these questions are only going to grow blurrier and more troubling as time passes. What about drawings or paintings of children and teens? Computer-created graphics that don’t use any actual children as models? Scientific or journalistic accounts? If the police were to decide that these, too, have crossed the line from literary or journalistic use to masturbatory fantasies, then the Dalton precedent suggests that writers, publishers and readers could be prosecuted. Even web readers. If you clicked on this article — if you read the passage about Inga above — you might now be a child pornographer. You protest: “but it was a serious discussion about sex, nothing bad!” Ah, tell it to the jury.

©2001 Philip Jenkins and Nerve.com, Inc.