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This is why John Grisham’s child porn comments are so dangerous

Commerce Committee Hearing on Advancing the Science of Forensics

It’s not just about “60-year-old white men.” The real issue is so much bigger.

John Grisham should have stuck to promoting his book. A well-known writer of legal thrillers, he crossed over into a legal fiction of another sort in a recent interview where he asserted that American judges have “gone crazy” with penalizing what he considers casual or accidental consumption of child pornography:

We have prisons now filled with guys my age. Sixty-year-old white men in prison who’ve never harmed anybody, would never touch a child. But they got online one night and started surfing around, probably had too much to drink or whatever, and pushed the wrong buttons, went too far and got into child porn.

The way Grisham tells it, all it takes to become a pedophile is a night of drinking and unrestricted Internet access. Yet Grisham insists that the actions of these “60-year-old white men” don’t constitute real pedophilia.

“I have no sympathy for real pedophiles,” Grisham said in the interview. “God, please lock those people up. But so many of these guys do not deserve harsh prison sentences, and that’s what they’re getting.”

In the interview, Grisham goes on to describe his “good buddy from law school” who ended up serving three years in prison for downloading porn from a website labeled “sixteen year old wannabe hookers.” Grisham’s take on his good buddy’s actions was mild, to say the least. He merely calls it “stupid.”

His drinking was out of control, and he went to a website. It was labeled ‘sixteen year old wannabee hookers or something like that’. And it said ’16-year-old girls.. So he went there. Downloaded some stuffit was 16-year-old girls who looked 30.

He shouldn’t ’a done it. It was stupid, but it wasn’t 10-year-old boys. He didn’t touch anything. And God, a week later there was a knock on the door: ‘FBI!’ and it was sting set up by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to catch peoplesex offendersand he went to prison for three years.

Grisham’s stance on child pornography is exactly the attitude that encourages a market of child abuse to persist. The idea that predators who “look but don’t touch” are harmless is not only false, but enables human trafficking—one of the fastest growing crimes in the world—to grow and profit off the exploitation of children. Where does Grisham think the children in those images come from? At least 100,000 children are forced into prostitution each year, with 9,000 instances of trafficking in the U.S. between 2008 and 2012 alone.

Grisham’s statements specifically about the American judicial system and how American judges have “gone crazy” with sentencing are interesting given the fact that of all known child abuse domains, 58 percent are housed right here in the United States. Perhaps it’s easy to forget that the people we see on the Internet are real: the screen creates a barrier between the consumer and reality. But that dissonance doesn’t erase reality, particularly the realities of abused children, and when an individual chooses—drunkenly or not—to sit in a chair and consume images of sexual exploitation, it encourages a market that is already growing steadily. Without a market of engaged viewers, after all, child pornography wouldn’t be a multi-billion dollar industry.

Grisham describes what he perceives as legally wronged consumers of child porn as “60-year-old white men in prison who’ve never harmed anybody, would never touch a child.” His mention of age and race is baffling: It almost seems to imply that these two factors should entitle white men of a certain age to a different code of legal and moral conduct.

What’s more, his idea of consuming child porn yet never “touching a child,” and therefore doing no harm, demonstrates a tragically, criminally limited understanding of what harm actually is. Does the harm of a rape victim end after the physical trauma of the crime itself? Certainly not. Impact on victims is both immediate and long term, and when the Internet aspect is added to the trauma, it’s eternal. Images on the Internet can never be fully erased or recovered, and specifically in the case of consumers of child pornography, are passed from person to person indefinitely. Viewing the abuse of a child contributes the continuing abuse of that child—and other children worldwide.

Grisham’s idea of girls being less victimized by child pornography is just as disturbing. When describing the website his law school friend was busted for downloading from, he made a point of mentioning the fact that the sixteen-year-old girls on the site looked thirty. “It was stupid,” Grisham says, “but it wasn’t 10-year-old boys.” He also bemoans the fact that these offenders are put in the same prisons as what he considers “real” sex offenders: “Like they’re a bunch of perverts, or something.”

The idea that 10-year-old boys being exploited are more deserving of our shock and disgust than sixteen-year-old girls being made up to look like adult women displays not only profound misogyny but a callous lack of understanding about the way sexual exploitation, rape culture, and sex trafficking work. Eighty percent of transnational victims of sex trafficking are girls. Seventy percent of victims who are trafficked into the commercial sex industry are girls. Rape culture decrees that girls are inherently exploitable: that their bodies were never their own to begin with and, therefore, consent is a fluid concept. “Some girls, they rape so easy,” Wisconsin State Representative Roger Rivard infamously said, illustrating the ideas held by many about consent and how little it means to those who don’t view women and girls as whole human beings.

Teenage girls especially face rampant sexualization of their bodies and their very identities: the “sexy schoolgirl” characterization that fetishizes underage girls has, for many men (and clearly for Grisham), created the idea in mainstream culture that sixteen-year-old girls are viable sexual partners, despite the fact that federal law makes it criminal to engage in a sexual act with another person who is between the age of 12 and 16 if they are at least four years younger than you, and Grisham explicitly defended the actions of “60-year-old white men.” His attitudes reflect the notion that girls’ bodies are objects that exist solely for the pleasure of the male gaze, and that the sexualization and exploitation of those bodies is not only expected, but acceptable.

It’s not. Looking or touching, boy or girl, ten or sixteen: Consuming child pornography in a world where tens of thousands of children are forced into a life of rape and exploitation—a world where those images will exist for eternity as a permanent digital record of the ruination of their childhood and, often, the ruination of any chance of a normal, happy life—means you approve of that ruination. Sitting down at a computer and making the decision to view those images means you are an advocate for the persistence of a system that chews up the bodies of children and spits out their bones. “Looking doesn’t hurt anyone” is the lie you tell yourself to preserve what you think is left of your humanity but in actuality is the attitude that keeps that multi-billion dollar machine of sexual violence churning year after year.

Grisham calls for more lenient sentencing, thinking only—bewilderingly—of the poor “60-year old white men” who American prisons are supposedly packed with. In his mind, these casual child porn consumers are snapped up by the FBI left and right and thrown in jail without a second thought. I only wish that were true. In truth, child pornographers are notoriously difficult to track down, moving into what is called the “Deep Web” to avoid detection. Law enforcement organizations all over the world (and even Google) are dedicated to fighting child pornography.

But as long as people like Grisham—particularly people exactly like Grisham, with a huge platform and a global megaphone—continue to spout this kind of dangerous, destructive bile that excuses consumers of child porn, myths about what constitutes harm and who is damaged will continue to do more harm. Grisham has since apologized for his remarks, but the children this issue affects need more.

Photo via SenRockerfeller/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Olivia A. Cole

Olivia A. Cole

Olivia Cole is an author and blogger, contributing to the Huffington Post, xoJane, and others. She is the author of A Conspiracy of Stars.