Why does it matter that John Grisham said what he said about child pornography?

There are a lot of reasons, but my biggest concern is that by getting in front of a camera and stating his beliefs on this, he legitimizes a really dangerous point of view.

If you’re new to the story (like I was this morning), here’s what you need to know: John Grisham, the hugely popular novelist, gave an interview to The Telegraph where he stated that using child pornography is not the same as victimizing or abusing a child, and therefore it’s a shame that we have so many “60-year-old white men” doing time in prison for doing just that. He goes on to say that a friend of his was sentenced in a federal sting because he had had too much to drink, poked around online until he found a site promoting 16-year-old girls engaging in sex, downloaded some videos, and was arrested a week later. Grisham thinks this is ridiculous; what harm did the guy cause? He says it’s not even like his friend was watching videos of “10-year-old boys,” but rather, 16-year-old girls who were made up to look like adults.

You can watch the video of Grisham’s interview here.

For some people, that video is enough to send us into a ball of angry energy. We watch, we share our outrage with each other online, we call our friends and say, “Did you see what that asshat said?!” We decry the racist undertones of his comments, along with his complete omission of the point of view of child porn victims.

But other people can see where Grisham is coming from. They think, yeah, it does seem like an overreaction to put someone in prison for just watching child porn, especially when it’s not little kids. It’s not the same as actually committing an abusive act, right? Perhaps these people know someone like Grisham’s friend who has been sentenced to time in prison, and it almost seems like an overreach.

That’s who I want to talk to in this post. If you find yourself nodding along with Grisham and saying, yeah, that doesn’t seem fair, then I’d like you to consider these three things:

  • Every child (including 16-year-old girls) who is involved in child pornography is a victim. It’s easy to see young children as victims, but perhaps it’s harder for you to see 16-year-old girls, who maybe “consented” to be part of a video, as victims. Here’s the thing: minors can’t legally consent to being in pornographic images or videos, so there is always a legal issue at hand. More than that, though, there is an ethical issue. A 16-year-old who has “consented” to be part of these videos is often not really consented at all. No reputable pornography company would hire minors, which means that any porn that includes minors is made by people who care more about money than their actors. It’s likely that those “consenting” 16-year-olds are really the victims of human trafficking, or at the very least, some serious manipulation. You also have to wonder how much of it came from girls who consented to having sex or being filmed, say with a boyfriend or girlfriend, but not to having their video distributed, either by hackers, exes, or rivals. The facts are concrete: if there is a child involved in pornography, that child is a victim.
  • If every child involved in porn is a victim, they continue to be victimized when someone downloads, uses, or distributes their image. Yes, the act of abuse happened in the past. To your knowledge, it isn’t continuing in the present. (Although, how do you really know that?) But every time someone downloads, uses, or shares those images, the victims’ experience is played out for a new perpetrator. Additionally, using child pornography makes a person complicit in the crime: they provide money, clicks, and “validity” to the criminals. They are funding the crime. If everything is an issue of supply and demand, then people who download child pornography are the ones demanding it to be made!
  • Grisham seems to think that if his friend had not been drinking, perhaps he wouldn’t have downloaded child porn. But is “he had too much to drink and made a mistake” a reasonable excuse for criminal behavior? If so, a lot of people would not be in prison right now. You can’t say that having too much to drink and committing the crime of using child pornography is not morally excusable, while having too much to drink and committing the crime of actually abusing a child is morally reprehensible. Both are morally reprehensible. Getting drunk before you commit a crime doesn’t mean that the crime didn’t happen, or doesn’t matter.

John Grisham’s words are going to have a lasting effect. They’re certainly going to affect the public’s perception of him, but I worry more about the way his words will affect people who think like him. He has just put a kindly, explanatory face on the justification of viewing child pornography. His message: it’s not that bad of a thing.

But it is a bad thing.

Child pornography is not a victimless crime. I suppose it all comes down to this: who would you rather stand up for? The victims of child pornography, or “60-year-old white men” who are in prison for being complicit in those victims’ pain?