Don't Censor Child Pornography
In November of 1997 a Williamson County, Tenn. grand jury indicted Barnes & Noble booksellers for violating state obscenity laws prohibiting the display of "material harmful to minors". The materials in question were two books that featured photographs of nude children: Jock Sturges' Radiant Identities and David Hamilton's The Age of Innocence. Since then, Radical Right activist Randall Terry has launched a crusade aimed at forcing bookstores to remove the "criminal garbage" of Sturges, Hamilton and (recently added to his list of demons) Sally Mann from their bookshelves (bookweb). To implement his program Terry issued a call to Right sympathizers, urging them to march into bookstores and tear offensive pages from the targeted books. Several bookstores around the country fell prey to Terry's vandals. In response to these incidents and the threat of future public vandalism, Barnes & Noble recently issued a memo to each of its 1000+ stores directing them to place the contested materials under lock and key, and to allow customers to view them only in the presence of a store manager (apocalypse 9709).
This response is upsetting. It is upsetting because it means that, in several significant ways, Terry has won. True, no one (as of yet) has put Sturges or the others in jail (as Terry has called for), but the public's right to view the supposed "pornographic" content of their work has been significantly diminished by Barnes & Noble's action. By acknowledging the threat of Terry and his small group of supporters, B&N has reified their claim that the work of the named photographers needs to be segregated from the "decent" public's reach. It installs a technology of surveillance that insures that all but the most unabashed of teens (and many adults) will not choose to view these images for fear of stigmatization. By placing these books under lock and key, B&N reinforces the discourse on child sexuality promoted by Terry: that it is a deviant behavior that must be repressed, and anyone who thinks otherwise must be a pervert or a pedophile.
But what of this? What is it about child sexuality that causes this reaction against images of nude children? None of the pictures in Mann's, Sturges' or Hamilton's books show children engaged in any sort of sex act. And none of them were taken without the model's and her or his parents' permission. So why are they labeled "pornography" by Terry, and (more disconcerting) by many people with less extreme political views? What is the discourse of child sexuality in the United States such that these pictures are even at issue?
Terry, who is also the founder of the anti-abortion group Operation Life, was confronted with these issues at a recent press conference. According to the Village Voice, Terry was asked if he considered the images in question arousing. He responded that he did not. "So what's the problem?" the questioner followed. "If they're not...