I have written a lot about CP (child pornography), but in this post I'd like to focus on the person (usually a man) who is actually watching the CP. What's going through his head, in general and at the time? This is based to some extent on reports from real pedophiles who have been in this position.
Suppose you accept that pedophilia is an inclination that is not chosen and cannot be changed. You accept that locking up pedophiles who have yet to do anything wrong is not at all humane (or practical). Yet you have no sympathy for anyone who looks at child pornography. You feel that being aroused by it is revictimization of the children who are shown and a terrible moral flaw, that no decent person would seek out such things, no decent person would look at them when found, and that pedophiles who do so are rightly subject to severe criminal penalties -- years in prison.
Let's look at this in context. Sex is a powerful motivation, and it's easy to list the risks that people take to have sex. How many boys have truly believed that masturbation risks their immortal souls but masturbated anyway? How many devout Catholic men have confessed the sin of masturbation over and over again? How many devout Christians have committed the sin of adultery or fornication? Moving to temporal rather than spiritual consequences, how many young men have knowingly been rude and annoying in their pursuit of sex from women? How many have spent more than they could afford on prostitutes? How many have pushed the envelope in intimate situations, going farther than their partners really wanted? Sex is a strong drive for women too. How many single young women have risked sex in societies where pregnancy out of wedlock would ruin their lives? We must count both those who suffered that devastation and those who were lucky and did not get pregnant. And of course rape is all too common. While there is absolutely no excuse for it, it is mostly fueled by a desire for sex.
There are also child victims... Far too many men have found an available child, usually friend or family, and done something sexual. Their crimes are very serious, and pedophiles commit more than their share of such crimes.
And then we turn to adult pornography. Many men know that extreme situations depicted are morally wrong; and many suspect that the actresses are often being exploited. Many know that it goes against their religion (Utah has the highest pornography rate, see for instance <this>). Yet they pay for it anyway and masturbate to it anyway.
With all that in mind, now let's turn to a typical pedophile. He knows he must keep his attraction a secret -- if he reveals it he will be hated and ostracized, lose his job, family and social networks. He quite likely hates himself almost as much. Some pedophiles who meet this description abuse children, but let's set them aside. Many do not, possibly a sizable majority. Let's focus on this typical pedophile who does not. He knows he will never marry or have children and will quite probably never have sex with another person, or his occasional experiments with adults will be frustrating and embarrassing. Yet he has a sex drive as strong as anyone else's.
Imagine a man who is alone, drunk, and feeling desperate on a Saturday night. If he's an ordinary guy, he brings up adult pornography to see the people and situations that turn him on. If he's a pedophile, he searches the web for pictures of what fills the same role for him -- child pornography. He finds it easily enough. He doesn't pay a penny. The video shows no evidence the children are being damaged physically, and they are smiling. He knows they are not actually happy and are being exploited, but it's not apparent from the pictures -- and easy to brush aside given his state of sexual arousal. He also knows that whatever the children suffered, it's in the past -- maybe ten years in the past. He knows that their suffering does not increase just because he looks at their sexual activity and masturbates to it.
He has an orgasm and feels release. Then he feels immediately guilty and ashamed about his attraction and taking advantage of the exploitation of children. If he downloaded any of the material, he deletes it. He clears the browser cache.
Yet a week later he is again desperate, drunk and alone, and he remembers what he saw and how erotically compelling it was. He looks at more. Maybe after orgasm his guilt doesn't come back so strongly that time, and he downloads and looks and masturbates multiple times a day for some weeks, collecting thousands of pictures and videos. Then his guilt seizes him again, he deletes everything, and he stays clean for a few months. But he still has this same sex drive that leads young women to risk everything, that leads all too many men to harass and grope and even keep going when a woman says "no". He gives in again -- to looking at pictures.
Then he gets resolve. He deletes it all, and is determined he will never go that way again. But his past activity has left digital fingerprints on the web that can no longer be erased.
A year later, the police break down his door, force him to the floor, handcuff him... Telling his story earns him no sympathy. He is sentenced to 15 years in prison. When he is released, he stays on a sex offender registry for life, unable to find work, unable to live with family, maybe barely able to live anywhere at all.
Are you among those who think this is just treatment? Their reasoning is that by looking at those young girls or boys being exploited, he made them suffer all over again. It makes no difference if he was the 10,000th person to look, or if the abuse happened 10 years ago. It makes no difference that the makers create and share the images for their own purposes of status within a community of abusers, earning no money and oblivious to how many other people download their pictures.
The sexual abuse of a child, or the indisputable rape of a woman -- these crimes merit years in prison, and rightly so. The child and the woman suffered directly and severely for something the man did to them. Crimes of rudeness and harassment, unwanted groping -- these are rarely punished at all, even though they cause clear distress to the woman. Women rightly are angry about wolf whistles, but it would take quite the extremist to argue that a man should serve 15 years in prison for a wolf whistle. Yet that wolf whistle had a direct effect on an actual woman in real time. How does it compare to the harm to a girl photographed 10 years earlier when her video is viewed for the 10,000th time?
The production of child pornography is a serious crime. There are moral problems with viewing it. I am sure I would find some of it horrifying and revolting. But consider a young man who has an attraction he did not choose and cannot change, who has been taught to hate himself, who must keep a huge secret, who cannot get compassionate psychological help, who has the same sex drive as anyone else, and who has no way to achieve sexual satisfaction with another human being. And then he never abuses a child -- never -- but seeks some comfort and release with pictures of children. No one, including the children, will know he did that. Considered among the common crimes we imperfect humans commit out of weakness, this is just nowhere on the list that deserves years in prison.