I have long been in favor of making simple CP (child pornography) possession legal on civil liberties grounds. One of the counterarguments is the effect on children (often grown to adulthood) who are in CP videos. If possession is legal, more people would watch them, adding to the distress of those victims. I have no doubt that the distress that some of them feel is real and strong, and do not want to imply otherwise. However, when setting policy, it is only proper to count how many people are affected.
One key question is how those CP victims who are suffering are identified.
Some organization or government might send out questionnaires to the general population asking people if they know they have been in CP that is being distributed. This seems unlikely.
Another is that police seize the CP, identify the victim, and send them a notice. Some receive the notice, and some reply. But how do the police match the image of a child to a real-life person?
A plausible method is that some children will be discovered when police raid their molesters on suspicion of other crimes.
Also plausible is that CP victims make themselves known (as adults) after they become aware of their material being viewed. Perhaps they go to police or to mental health professionals, who notify police or whoever else is keeping track.
However they are identified, these known cases are then extrapolated in some fashion to account for those who know of their CP being viewed who are distressed by it but are not included in that sample.
I suspect the number of CP victims who are actually identified who report feeling distress is quite small. I asked about this on the SEXNET list of sex researchers, and no one was aware of any data.
I read that after legislation was passed allowing CP victims to sue those who were caught watching the CP made of them, fewer than 10 people sought to take advantage of the law.
My suspicion is that there are those who are passionately opposed to CP in any and all forms, including watching it. They look for any evidence of harm they can find to support their position. They identify CP victims who are distressed by people watching their past abuse and use their stories to support their position. Naturally they would like you to believe that such people are very common. Maybe they are. I have my doubts, and welcome any information people have on the subject. Could it be that those who are known who are deeply distressed are only a few hundred or even just a few dozen, worldwide?
It is also worth thinking about the nature and extent of the harm. Geography is relevant. To the extent the fear is that someone walking down the street might recognize them, people who live far away are largely irrelevant. People also care less who is looking at them to the extent they are far away and from different cultures. Those in Eastern Europe are relatively unlikely to be concerned about what Americans are doing.
A young adult might go through a phase of struggling with their past abuse and it being circulated on the web. As they get older, they may well make peace with that part of their past and put it behind them. Many of these videos were made many years ago.
We also have to separate out different sources of harm. Children who were abused typically bear some pain from that. Those who were abused deliberately and systematically so that video of them could be distributed might bear some additional pain. Those sources of pain will remain even if their videos were completely and for all time removed from the web, though this is very rarely possible. What we do with current policies is reduce the number of people who can see the record of their abuse. So the differential harm in CP viewing being made legal might be 10,000 as opposed to 1,000 people viewing their abuse each year. Although the CP victims might be suffering greatly from what they went through, I suspect that the differential harm from extra views is quite small. It may seem callous to limit our concern for a distressed person to one small part of their serious distress, but this is appropriate in evaluating policies that can only affect that small part.
CP victims might feel comforted that someone is on their side and trying to imprison those who watch, even if they are one of ten thousand. The ratio makes this response out of proportion, especially when the goal is to express sympathy to victims.
Recall that even if CP possession was made legal, CP production would remain just as illegal as ever. There would be no green light to people to abuse more children and film it. It might become more perilous, since the more people see video of a child, the likelier it is that someone will recognize him or her and catch the maker of the CP.
There are beliefs that CP victims might hold that would reduce or eliminate their distress. They might understand fully that all of the blame lies with those who made the CP. They themselves are innocent, and no shame accrues to them from others watching. Shame accrues primarily to those made the videos and posted them. Another is simply not caring what people do alone in their bedrooms. Another is even thinking that since what is done is done, pedophiles who would never actually molest a child might as well enjoy fantasies of what they would like to do in person. In any case, as long as such men are viewing videos, they are not harming any additional children.
I have argued in other posts that pedophiles who view CP are trying to achieve some measure of sexual satisfaction without hurting anyone else, and that they should be viewed with sympathy -- though certainly not approval. Part of the reason for handing down stiff sentences for the viewing of CP is to reduce and deter the distress of the children who are in those videos that comes from knowing more people (as opposed to fewer) are looking at them for sexual purposes. If, as I suspect, there are very few such people, and little of their pain can be attributed to the number of people viewing their material, then their suffering should have a much smaller role in our decision about the appropriate penalty for CP viewing.