The proponents of the anti-trafficking law FOSTA have claimed (falsely) that since passage of the law there has been a 90% fall in the number of sex advertisements published online. But whatever its real impact on sex ads, what’s beyond doubt is that the law has resulted in the censorship of a lot of constitutionally protected speech—including discussions about child sexual abuse prevention.
The Woodhull Freedom Foundation and four other plaintiffs are currently challenging the constitutionality of FOSTA in court. (You can hear Electronic Frontier Foundation lawyer David Greene talking about lawsuit in the clip from our launch event below.)
Although the plaintiffs’ free speech claims relate to discussions of consensual sex work and massage therapy, child sexual abuse (CSA) also falls within the statute’s definition of “sex trafficking,” at least in cases where somebody gives or receives something of value in association with the abuse. This doesn’t mean that any speech about CSA is forbidden, but it does create a large grey area of uncertainty about what is permitted and what isn’t.
In particular, would a platform that allows pedophiles to post online be considered as “knowingly assisting, facilitating, or supporting” CSA? Instinctively, many of us might answer yes. And that’s certainly the correct answer when it comes to content that directly facilitates abuse, such as transmitting child pornography or grooming children. These are not constitutionally protected speech and ought not to be allowed online.
But what about pedophiles who speak out against CSA? If this sounds unlikely, that may be because of the common but false assumption that all pedophiles abuse children, and that all child abusers are pedophiles. But in reality most CSA is committed by those who are primarily sexually attracted to adults, and conversely many of those who are sexually attracted to minors choose never to act on that attraction. Some of this latter group use social media to interact with peers and professionals who support them in their quest to remain non-offending for life.
What should be done about such content? Experts say that as confronting as it may be to hear from pedophiles and other so-called minor-attracted persons (MAPs) online, allowing them to safely connect with peers and professionals can provide them with a social support system that could help protect children from abuse. Even so, that’s a tough sell to Internet platforms, who don’t always have the resources or the expertise to differentiate between MAPs who speak out against abuse, and those who seek to excuse or minimize it. And FOSTA hasn’t made this decision any easier for them.
One significant Internet platform recently delivered its answer. Last Tuesday, Medium deleted dozens of articles that had been collected in a publication provocatively (yet accurately) titled “Pedophiles About Pedophilia,” and banned its editors and authors from the site. The Internet Archive (which is, not coincidentally, a plaintiff in the FOSTA lawsuit) has a partial archive of the banned publication here.
How Censorship Hurts Children and the LGBT Community
It would be misleading to say that FOSTA is the only culprit here. The stigma that surrounds pedophilia also creates a culture in which any attempt to discuss that topic factually devolves quickly into misunderstanding, harassment, and verbal abuse. For Internet platforms, this translates into more work for their trust and safety teams, more single-star reviews in the App Store, and a toxic environment for users. In this environment, censorship is usually the easier option.
Of course the stigma against pedophilia doesn’t exist without reason; even though it is only a small part of the problem of CSA overall, it still constitutes a significant risk factor that, together with other risk factors, must be taken seriously. Even so, the stigma against the condition can become harmful when it impedes the work of researchers, policymakers, and child protection professionals, or when it is weaponized for political purposes.
Both of these are very real dangers, and the best example of both comes from the recent example of a TEDx talk delivered by a medical student Mirjam Heine titled “Why our perception of pedophilia has to change,” which went viral on alt-right media in July 2018. The talk’s main argument, that pedophilia is an “unchangeable sexual orientation,” provoked death threats against the speaker, and caused her to self-censor the video for the sake of her own physical safety.
It also stoked baseless fears of a supposed pedophile agenda to insinuate themselves into the LGBT movement, and prompted the release of multiple openly homophobic and transphobic videos and articles. Several of these articles even targeted a legitimate child abuse prevention organization, the Prevention Project, which is led by a CSA survivor (disclosure: Prostasia has participated in the Prevention Project podcast). Responding to this increasingly ugly situation, Elizabeth Letourneau, Director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse, wrote:
Child sexual abuse is a topic that can evoke strong emotions. When professionals (or, in this case, students) speak objectively about individuals with sexual interest in children, it can sound like we are taking an “offender defender” stance. We are not. When we talk as if people with sexual interest in children are, in fact, people and not predators or monsters, some listeners react with anger. This is unfortunate because, as the speaker rightly notes, open and honest conversations about child sexual abuse are necessary if we are to move the field toward the development of truly effective prevention interventions.
Even Prostasia itself, during our launch event on August 15, was accused by one concerned parent of “giving credibility to pedophilia,” simply because part of our mission includes supporting research into outlets that could divert MAPs away from offending behaviors—research that no other advocacy organization is promoting, due to fear of this very stigma.
Resisting Censorship of Science
For the sake of increasing our understanding of the causes of CSA with the objective of its eventual elimination, we have to overcome our society’s aversion to learning and talking about the true nature of sexual paraphilias. This in turn must include allowing those who are personally affected by and striving to overcome these inappropriate sexual attractions to speak about their experiences.
It must also include allowing scientists to speak inconvenient truths. Despite a few questionable points in her presentation, Mirjam Heine’s statement that pedophilia is comparable to a sexual orientation is accurate, and draws on mainstream research by scientists including Prostasia advisors Dr James Cantor and Dr Gilian Tenbergen, suggesting that for those who have a sexual interest in children, this is an innate characteristic of neurological origin.
This finding has been controversial from the outset, and it’s clear why. Following the release of the fifth edition of the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V), in which pedophilia was classified as a “sexual orientation,” a very similar furore to that which faced Mirjam Heine arose. This forced the APA to admit to a “typo,” and to redescribe the condition instead as a “sexual interest;” which although it otherwise carries the same meaning, does not connote that it should be treated in the same way as homosexuality by society or by the law. The APA is now considering whether to also delete a sentence that identifies pedophilia as a lifelong condition, which would further distance it from comparison to other sexual orientations.
Were there any evidence that pedophilia wasn’t a lifelong and unchosen condition, this should be welcomed. There is no redeeming value in a sexual orientation towards children, since it cannot be acted upon without placing a victim at dire risk of harm. But our scientific knowledge as it stands suggests that there is no cure for a sexual interest in children. Even if there were such a cure, society’s fixation on pedophilia obscures the important fact that a majority of CSA (perhaps about 73%) is committed by non-pedophilic adults and juveniles. We cannot address pedophilia alone and think that our job is done.
The good news is that although we cannot eliminate pedophilia, it is possible to influence the behavior of those affected by it.
The good news is that although we cannot eliminate pedophilia, it is possible to influence the behavior of those affected by it. Faced with a choice between something that is probably impossible and something that we know is possible, it makes sense to focus on the latter. As we have written before, this does not amount to “normalizing pedophilia.” It is simply to acknowledge that even if we can’t eliminate pedophilia, we can still eliminate child sexual abuse. And that should be enough.
These findings should be framed in ways that do not invite misunderstanding (particularly to the detriment of the LGBT community). But failing to acknowledge them openly and censoring them when they are spoken impedes our progress towards the elimination of CSA, and plays into the hands of bigots and conspiracy theorists.
A Way Forward
Prostasia encourages Internet platforms to push back against pressure for censorship of speech about pedophilia, whether this comes from non-offending MAPs themselves who write about their own battles with minor attraction, or from the brave scholars and scientists who work with this population.
Medium’s decision to ban Pedophiles About Pedophilia is not an isolated incident. It comes hard on the heels of the censorship of a MAP Support Chat server by Discord in June, which professionals had used to interact with non-offending MAPs. Tumblr is another platform that censors blogs by non-offending MAPs and researchers, however it does also suffer a problem with actual grooming and abuse. Regrettably its trust and safety team seems ill-equipped to distinguish between the two, based on its arbitrary response to complaints of abuse (including the censorship of at least one mental health professional).
In combination, this has left the support professionals who work with non-offending MAPs at a disadvantage, and has largely reduced spaces for public online discussion about minor-attraction to the echo chamber of alt-right conspiracy theorists and sexual conservatives, who wield the stigma around pedophilia as a potent weapon to undermine the progress of the LGBT movement, the anti-fascist movement, and their other political enemies.
This has to change, and Prostasia will be a part of that change. In the short term, we are recommending against the use of Medium for the discussion of CSA prevention that involves engagement between professionals and minor-attracted persons. Good alternatives for this currently include Twitter (which has already engaged in discussions with some of Prostasia’s founders on this topic), and WordPress (whether hosted at WordPress.com, or on an independent third-party server).
In the longer term, our strategy to secure a censorship-free environment for legitimate discussions of CSA prevention is threefold:
- We aim to equip Internet platforms to make more nuanced decisions when dealing with the discussion of CSA and sexual paraphilias. We will do this by consulting to platforms on their terms of service, providing expert input or review of decisions by their trust and safety teams, providing individual and group trainings, and working with their legal teams on standards for compliance with FOSTA and other applicable laws.
- In 2019, we will be publishing a new independent whitepaper to independently analyze and rate the transparency and accountability practices of Internet platforms and agencies that are engaged in content moderation and censorship of content related to child abuse and its prevention. For example, do platforms comply with the Manila Principles on Intermediary Liability? Are they explicit about what sexual content is allowed and what isn’t? Are users given the opportunity to retrieve their content when their accounts are deleted (as Medium does), or the opportunity to have their account deletion reviewed (as Twitter does)?
- Also for 2019, we are organizing a two-part convening of Internet platforms and experts to discuss and suggest best practices for policies that would protect children, while avoiding such unforeseen impacts that would infringe on the human rights of children or others. The anticipated outcome will be the publication of a set of model terms of service for Internet platforms with respect to child protection.. Already Microsoft, the Internet Watch Foundation, the DotKids Foundation, and European Digital Rights have agreed to participate, and we are actively seeking additional partners along with funding and venues for these convenings.
Prostasia firmly supports the elimination from the Internet of unlawful sexual images of children, and other content that amounts to CSA. But to treat discussions of CSA prevention in the same way is a dangerous false equivalence. Every such act of censorship risks preventing someone from obtaining the support they need to avoid sexually offending, and makes it that much harder for researchers and therapists working in this important field.
By supporting Internet platforms in resisting legal and social pressures to censor information about CSA and its prevention, Prostasia is working towards a future in which sexual paraphilias and the other causes of CSA are better understood, in which interventions targeting CSA may be sought and provided without stigma or censorship, and in which more children are protected from the harms of sexual abuse.