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OPINION: Shifting gears on child sexual abuse

Warning: The following opinion piece may be triggering to some readers. A list of available resources is included below.

Warning: The following opinion piece may be triggering to some readers. A list of available resources is included below. 

A recent Outlook article, “Canmore man sentenced to three years for possessing, distributing child pornography,” describes the various charges, court processes and the three-year sentence received by a local man.

We both reacted to the article and worried about society’s minimization and misconstruction of the crime, specifically the impact to victims. Child pornography is a massive industry that systematically promotes the sexual abuse of children.

Technically, the article is accurate as far as the court process. But the truth and the harm of the story, is buried. It’s buried by the language we use to talk about this crime and the length of sentencing received.

The term “child pornography” is the legal definition in the Criminal Code of Canada, but these words minimize the harm caused to children by conflating it with adult pornography, an act that is legal in Canada for sexual gratification amongst consenting adults. Experts in child pornography are urging us to change our language and call it what it is: child sexual abuse, child sexual abuse imagery, and child sexual exploitation.

The truth is child pornography is not pornography. It is the act of producing, recording and documenting children being sexually abused.

This is an act that has profound, lifelong impact on its victims. It’s time to stop burying the truth in yesterday’s language.

As two university researchers who have spent their careers in violence prevention, we have sat at the table with survivors of this form of violence. We’ve seen women who want to end their own lives, who have become addicted to drugs, who suffer from isolation and a myriad of physical and mental health issues as a result of the sexual violence they experienced as children or adolescents. The language we use and how we talk about this crime needs to reflect the experiences of the victims and focus on how we can prevent and stop offenders.

Choosing the right words to talk about this issue matters, not only because the problem is so heinous, but because it is so widespread. In 2019, a group of tech companies reported over 45 million online photos and videos of children being sexually abused in one year alone. Researchers and advocates, law enforcement and the criminal justice system are struggling to keep up with the exponential growth of this crime.

If our society speaks inaccurately about this issue, it’s not for lack of information. The Canadian Centre for Child Protection operates cybertip.ca – Canada’s tip line for reporting child sexual exploitation online. In 2016, the centre released a report summarizing seven years of data on 43,762 images and videos of children being sexually abused.

Of these images and videos, almost 80 per cent depicted children under 12 years old and 63 per cent appeared to be under eight years of age. Seven per cent of those children appeared to be babies or toddlers. The vast majority of these children were girls, and three quarters of the children’s faces are visible in the images and videos. Half of the images and videos involved explicit and extreme sexual assaults.

Decades of research has confirmed the impacts of child sexual abuse including a wide range of physical and mental health issues, academic difficulties, substance use, aggression and attachment issues. These impacts last long into adulthood and manifest themselves in addiction, mental illness, relationship difficulties and so much more.

A survivor of online sexual exploitation has the added trauma of having a permanent documented record of their abuse; potentially available forever. These victims experience re-victimization every time the image is shared. Think about that. Every time.

So, let’s be accurate when we talk about the crime of possessing and distributing child pornography. When someone looks for, finds, possesses and distributes child sexual abuse imagery, they are not sharing pornography. They are participating in the sexual abuse of children. They are supporting those that produce this material. They are contributing to the lifelong trauma and revictimization of these children.

We need to remember the survivors of these criminal acts. When we write and speak about child sexual abuse materials, the survivors need to be the protagonists in these stories.

We encourage the community to learn more, seek out resources and continue to have the difficult conversation of how to prevent this form of violence from happening in the first place.

Resources:

If you need support around sexual abuse or assault please call or text Alberta’s One Line for Sexual Violence: 1-866-403-8000

For information on Internet safety: www.protectchildren.ca/en/programs-and-initiatives/protectkidsonline/

For more information on understanding or identifying child sexual abuse: protectchildren.ca/en/resources-research/understanding-child-sexual-abuse/

For local impact, donate or get involved with YWCA Banff: ywcabanff.ca

Dr. Sarah Fotheringham PhD is a sessional academic in the Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary, and is the founder and principal consultant of a research and evaluation firm.

Lana Wells is associate professor and Brenda Strafford Chair in the Prevention of Domestic Violence, leading an initiative called Shift: The Project to End Domestic Violence, Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary. Go to www.preventdomesticivolence.ca for more information on the initiative.