Is Tony Abbott trying to use an ill-informed myth about the link between metadata and child sex abuse in the hope that the Opposition, the Senate, and the electorate will allow him to do what he wants? Dean Laplonge reports.
Tony Abbott has stated there is a link between metadata storage and protecting children. In an attempt to secure support for legislation that will require companies to store metadata for two years, he has claimed the new law will assist with investigations into child pornography and child sexual abuse. “We know that access to metadata has played a role in preventing and investigating terrorism offences. But it’s also vital to investigating major crimes that destroy lives in this country – and no crime is more abhorrent than crimes against children.”
The connection he makes between crimes against children and terrorism is intentional. Both topics generate intense emotions of fear and anger. The mere thought of either occurring can lead people to insist that anything and everything must be done to prevent and stop them irrespective of whether the actions taken are illegal or curtail individual freedoms. The threat of terrorism has been used to justify wars. The fear of child sexual abuse has been used to gain cross-party support for the introduction of cyber predator laws in several Australia states – laws which allow police officers to masquerade as children online in an attempt to entrap potential paedophiles.
Abbott’s sudden concern for the well-being of children is at odds with his recent response to the Forgotten Children report issued by the Australian Human Rights Commission. This report concluded that the detainment of children in immigration detention camps breaches Australia’s international obligations. It recommends that all children in immigration detention be released and calls for a royal commission into the issue. Abbott labelled this report a “transparent stitch-up”.
On the one hand he views the fact that children in detention are suffering as less important than his and his government’s reputation, but now he claims to be working to protect children.
The children mentioned in the Commission’s report are real. This report does not talk about potential harm to children who might be placed in detention in the future. It cites examples of doctor’s reports on how actual children are suffering because of their detention now. The children to which Abbott refers in his latest comment are imaginary. His concern in this case is about the potential and possible sexual abuse of unknown and, as yet, invisible children.
This is not to say that children are not victims of sexual abuse. To help Tony Abbott better understand this issue too, however, we should consider what experts in this field have to say on the matter.
In her ground-breaking and challenging book, Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, Judith Levine argued that “Projecting sexual menace onto a cardboard monster and pouring money and energy into vanquishing him” renders children “more vulnerable both at home and in the world”. This is because the vast majority of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by somebody already known to the child, and often from within the child’s own family circle.
In their 2012 article “Reconstructing the sexual abuse of children: ‘Cyber-paeds’, panic and power”, UK academics Yvonne Jewkes and Maggie Wykes argue that the relocation of child sexual abuse to the virtual space has effectively silenced reporting on sexual abuse in the domestic space. “Anxiety around ‘cyber-paeds’ has become a smokescreen diverting attention from the real sites of sexual harm to children: men in paternal/familial settings and a socio-economic context that constructs children as sexually desirable,” they write.
Another UK academic, Mark O’Brien, has argued that the response to internet child pornography and child abuse constitutes a moral panic. He quotes from professor Stanly Cohen’s work on moral panics about youth cultures in which a moral panic is defined as something that is “presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media” and when the “moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right thinking people”. The outcomes of the current moral panic about online child sexual abuse are, according to O’Brien, an absence of balanced scrutiny of the issue, a reluctance to debate the difference between voyeurism and practice, and opinions presented as fact.
Katherine Williams wrote in the Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law that laws which are introduced to respond to online child pornography seek to preserve a specific ideal of sexual morality. She notes that such laws are often introduced without evidence to support claims about what they will achieve. Instead, assumptions are made about who is viewing the images, what these images are being used for, and how they relate to the actual sexual abuse of children.
Professor Carissa Byrne Hessick from the College of Law at the University of Utah argues for disentangling child pornography from child sex abuse. She suggests that while “child sex abuse is often a messy intrafamilial problem,” we just don’t want to think about or deal with that. The idea of a stranger posing a threat to “our” children is oddly more appealing.
Looking at child pornography laws in Canada and the USA, Robert Danay has addressed the claim that any resistance to government intervention to restrict usage of the internet is simply a ploy on the part of paedophiles to organise and elevate their status. He writes that such a suggestion is based on “hysterical misinformation and has masked some of the real harms that stem from our current child pornography prohibitions.”
Finally, Ludwig Lowenstein’s review of “Recent research into the downloading of child pornographic materials from the internet” discovered that “Research concerning the use of child pornography by paedophiles had been mostly anecdotal, and the few empirical studies on the topic had been plagued by inconsistencies in definitions and problems involved in sampling methods and procedures.”
The ideas I have summarised here are not exhaustive or by any means extensive. There is a lot of work being done to investigate a range of related issues, including the effectiveness of online tools to monitor the circulation of child pornography, the use of sexting and pornographic selfies as methods of communication between young people, the impacts of the construction of child pornography on children, and the construction of the paedophilic gaze through laws that nevertheless claim to be seeking to put an end to viewing children as sexual objects.
The point I seek to emphasise is that the research does not state conclusively or even strongly that internet child sexual abuse is the biggest threat to children or that metadata laws solve this particular cultural problem. Child sexual abuse occurs; of that there is no doubt. How, where, and by whom are, however, matters of interest and debate, at least among those who seek to investigate this issue seriously.
Tony Abbott is no expert on this subject. It’s doubtful he has considered the issues of internet child pornography and child sexual abuse in as much detail as these researchers and writers have. Despite extensive search through journal databases, I was unable to find any peer reviewed article or even newspaper article written by him on this particular subject. He nevertheless deems it appropriate to speak about it in a way which puts forward his views and opinions as if they were unchallenged facts, and as if he does know what he is talking about.
Granted, the topic of child sexual abuse is highly charged. Even the presentation of other people’s ideas here is likely to result in personal abuse against me. I believe it important, however, that a serious and considered debate about this issue take place before we rush into accepting any new law which will allow greater government monitoring of our private communications but which has not been shown to be able to solve a problem to which it has now been linked.
Abbott has claimed that a report detailing the suffering of children in detention camps is politically motivated. I wonder if he will now dare to make the same claim about the facts concerning internet child pornography and child sexual abuse that I have outlined above. Are these people who read, investigate, gather and analyse data, and then write up their findings telling tales to get at him and his government? Or is he seeking to use yet another ill-informed myth in the hope that the Opposition, the Senate, and the electorate will allow him to do what he wants?
Dean Laplonge is a cultural theorist whose research and consulting work explores the relationship between culture and everyday practices. He is the author of GenderImpacts (https://genderimpacts.wordpress.com), a blog which explores the impacts of gender on the way we think and behave. He is also the Director of the cultural research company Factive (www.factive.com.au) and an Adjunct senior Lecturer at the University of New South Wales.
Copyright of this article remains with the author.
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