Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

In which I am concerned about the things John Grisham has said about child pornography

Today, author John Grisham said some pretty distressing things about child pornography:

“We have prisons now filled with guys my age. Sixty-year-old white men in prison who’ve never harmed anybody, would never touch a child,” he said in an exclusive interview to promote his latest novel Gray Mountain which is published next week. 

“But they got online one night and started surfing around, probably had too much to drink or whatever, and pushed the wrong buttons, went too far and got into child porn.” 

and later this . . .

“His drinking was out of control, and he went to a website. It was labelled ‘sixteen year old wannabee hookers or something like that’. And it said ’16-year-old girls’. So he went there. Downloaded some stuff – it was 16 year old girls who looked 30. 

“He shouldn’t ’a done it. It was stupid, but it wasn’t 10-year-old boys. He didn’t touch anything. And God, a week later there was a knock on the door: ‘FBI!’ and it was sting set up by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to catch people – sex offenders – and he went to prison for three years.” (source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/11165656/John-Grisham-men-who-watch-child-porn-are-not-all-paedophiles.html)

So today as I discussed these issues on Twitter with people like C. J. Redwine and #SVYALit Project author Trish Doller, I have been thinking about what he says, and why I find it so problematic.

Years ago, I was working at a library that used some type of software that allowed you to look at what patrons were searching. Frequently, an IT person would sit in their office upstairs and call down and say, “Whoever is on computer number whatever is looking at porn, you need to ask them to leave.” Because while regular pornography may be legal, viewing it at the library was against library policy and we always asked these patrons to leave. Repeat offenses would result in the termination of library privileges.

One day, however, the IT person called down and said, “The person on computer whatever is searching for ‘teen sex’ and they need to leave.” I hung up the phone and then I thought, wait – isn’t child pornography illegal. So I ran upstairs and said, “Did you say they were searching for ‘teen sex’? Wouldn’t that be child pornography? Shouldn’t we call the police?” And after a two second discussion, we did.

The police came immediately and this is what they told us:

If, at any time, you suspect that patrons are using the library computers to view, access or distribute child pornography, you must call the police immediately. If you do not call the police, you are now complicit in criminal activity and we will file charges as such.

They then took the entire computer to determine what had been searched.

Child Pornography Definition from Department of Justice: Images of child pornography are not protected under First Amendment rights, and are illegal contraband under federal law. Section 2256 of Title 18, United States Code, defines child pornography as any visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct involving a minor (someone under 18 years of age).  Visual depictions include photographs, videos, digital or computer generated images indistinguishable from an actual minor, and images created, adapted, or modified, but appear to depict an identifiable, actual minor.  Undeveloped film, undeveloped videotape, and electronically stored data that can be converted into a visual image of child pornography are also deemed illegal visual depictions under federal law.
           Notably, the legal definition of sexually explicit conduct does not require that an image depict a child engaging in sexual activity.  A picture of a naked child may constitute illegal child pornography if it is sufficiently sexually suggestive.  Additionally, the age of consent for sexual activity in a given state is irrelevant; any depiction of a minor under 18 years of age engaging in sexually explicit conduct is illegal.(Source: http://www.justice.gov/criminal/ceos/citizensguide/citizensguide_porn.html)

Having patrons view porn was, unfortunately, a fairly regular occurrence for us at the library. But it was the first, and thankfully only, time we were ever faced with a situation that involved child pornography. It was jarring and we weren’t completely sure what the proper procedures were. It was an unfortunate learning experience as we discussed with the police the breadth of the crime that is child pornography.

And to be honest, there was some concern that the term “teen sex” may not actually constitute child pornography because it could involve 18 and 19 years old, who are of course legal adults that have the term teen in their age. I just knew that it was a potential issue because of course 13, 14, 15, 16 and 17 year olds also have the term teen in their age. Because of the potential crime involved in this search, we did call the police and it turns out that it was the correct response.

Today, as I read the comments by John Grisham, I was angry. I was angry – I am angry – at the implications that somehow viewing child pornography of 10-year-old boys is somehow more problematic than viewing the child pornography of 16-year-old girls. Both are considered child pornography – and illegal – and all victims, regardless of gender or age, have value. Their lives matter equally and viewing child pornography creates demand, which means that there are people who will be willing to victimize children in order to fulfill that demand.

For example, in one of the libraries I worked, a 12-year-old girl – who could easily look older when made up in the right way by the right people – was removed from her home because her parents were forcing her to participate in the creation of child pornography. Children of all ages are forced by parents, trusted adults and sometimes complete strangers to make the child pornography that fills this demand. Human trafficking happens in part because of the perceived demand for child pornography. What John Grisham seems to be saying is that those who create the demand shouldn’t be held accountable legally (apparently particularly if they are 60-year old drunk white men, which is another problematic statement), but they most definitely should. Without this demand, our children would be much safer.

I do routine searches using the term “teen” in order to be a better YA librarian. And I do routine research on sexual crimes against children in order to find meaningful statistics and discussion for the #SVYALit Project. I have never accidentally stumbled on child pornography in any of that searching. And if I did, I wouldn’t open it. And I certainly wouldn’t download it, and let’s keep in mind that downloading is an active process. Accidentally clicking on a link once is much different than actively downloading child pornography. The ease at which Grisham suggests people accidentally stumble upon child pornography has not been evidenced in my 20 years as a YA librarian working in a library system with sometimes over more than 20 public computers used daily by 100s of people.

It’s true, we do have worrisome prison statistics. Although our prisons are populated in alarming part by people of color and often low-level drug offenders, which is an entirely different discussion that we should be having. But the truth is, most sexual offenders do not receive adequate punishment for their crimes. You see this when you read the story about a man who raped his 3-year old child and received absolutely no prison time because the judge thought he wouldn’t fare well in prison. I recently discussed the story of a man who had raped his son who received 15 years while the mother who failed to protect him received a longer prison sentence, 20 years. And the boy who was found guilty of rape in Steubenville served only 10 months and is now back on the football team. Our prison issues have, sadly, far too little to do with sex crimes and child pornography because we’re still blaming victims, excusing perpetrators, and minimizing the devastation these crimes can have on our children.

If you view child pornography, you are complicit in a horrific crime. You are creating demand that will lead to more horrific crimes as children will be forced to be participate in the creation of child pornography to meet that demand. It doesn’t matter that you are not yourself touching the child involved, because your actions of viewing that porn are causing it to happen. And by viewing it, you are once again re-victimizing that child on your screen. It does not matter if it is a 16-year old girl or a 10-year old boy, all life has value. Each person has an absolute right to bodily autonomy and a safe space. Another person’s body is not there for your enjoyment, pleasure or sexual gratification without their explicit consent, and the laws states very clearly that in the case of child pornography they are not legally able to give consent. Consent always matters. Always. And not coercive consent, but real enthusiastic consent freely given.

John Grisham’s comments today are disturbing because they highlight so much of what is wrong in our culture in how we think about and talk about sexual violence. Children deserve our nurturing and protection, they deserve a good education and a safe environment. They deserve so much better than what John Grisham is suggesting.

See Also:
New York Time: The Price of Stolen Childhood


  1. Let's also be honest. Realistically, if the man stumbled across it in some world where that happens accidentally, I find it very hard to believe the police would arrest him for looking at something that easily accessible. They may QUESTION him, yes, but people who do not perpetuate that would likely do what you did and call the police! Or get away from the site.

    If he were actually arrested for accidentally seeing something, Grisham (who makes a living researching the law) is basically saying anyone could be punished for stumbling across something horrible on the internet and since we can't even punish people for making death threats on 4chan, I'm calling shenanigans on his version of events.

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