The Victorian government recently proposed changes to “child pornography” legislation. The new laws will double the criminal penalties for possessing child abuse material from five to ten years’ imprisonment.

The Victorian laws, if passed, will also introduce three new criminal offences:

administering a child pornography website;

encouraging use of a website to deal with child pornography; and

providing assistance to another person to avoid apprehension for a child pornography offence.

The legal changes are welcome. But the continued use by politicians and the media of the term “child pornography” minimises the seriousness of these crimes. Applying the term “child pornography” to photographic and digitised images of child abuse contributes to the view that the person committing the offence was “only looking” and “so what’s the harm”.

Calling it what it is

There are three key problems with not calling these images what they are: online child abuse material, or child exploitation material.

First, it creates a false distinction between the viewing of images and the contact sexual abuse of a child. Not only does research suggest that there is an overlap between those who view child abuse material and those who engage in contact sexual offences, but the viewing of the material also contributes to the demand for its production.

Viewing the material needs to be understood as collusion in the continued sexual abuse of children. For victim-survivors, the knowledge that images of their abuse continue to be viewed and distributed extends the trauma of the original crime. Viewing these images is not somehow a virtual or victimless crime.

Second, it potentially mislabels the material as a legally acceptable form of pornography. Using the term “pornography” likens online child abuse material to an acceptable sub-genre of mainstream, adult, consensual pornography. Online child abuse material represents the photographic or video evidence of a criminal act against infants, children and young people.

Third, it contributes to the normalisation of child sexual assault. Research suggests that perpetrators sometimes use online child abuse material to desensitise themselves to the impact of their actions prior to committing a sexual offence, or to “mentally rehearse” the abuse. Perpetrators also use online child abuse material to “groom” child victims in preparation for contact sexual offences against them.

The images normalise that other children or young people are “doing these things”, and make it easier for an offender to coerce victims into sexual contact. It is in part for this reason that Australia and the United Kingdom, among others, have passed laws criminalising computer-generated, hand-drawn or otherwise simulated images of child sexual abuse – though not without some disagreement.

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