Kids safer online!

Pub date August 7, 2007


TECHSPLOITATION There’s a horrifying new menace to children that’s never existed before. Experts estimate that 75 to 90 percent of pornography winds up in the hands of children due to novel technologies and high-speed distribution networks. That means today’s youths are seeing more images of perversion than ever before in the history of the world.

What are the "new technologies" and "distribution networks" that display so much porno for up to 90 percent of kids? I’ll give you one guess. Nope, you’re wrong; it’s not the Internets. It’s print.

The year is 1964, and I’m getting my data from financier Charles Keating. He had just formed Citizens for Decent Literature, an antiporn group whose sole contribution to the world appears to have been an educational movie called Perversion for Profit. Narrated by TV anchor George Putnam, the flick is an exposé of the way "high-speed presses, rapid transit, and mass distribution" created a hitherto unknown situation in which kids could "accidentally" be exposed to porno at the local drugstore or bus station magazine rack. Among the dangers society had to confront as a result of this situation were "stimulated" youths running wild, thinking it was OK to rape women, and turning into homosexuals after just a few peeks at the goods in MANifique magazine.

A lot of the movie — which you can watch for yourself on YouTube — is devoted to exploring every form of depravity available in print at the time. We’re treated to images of lurid paperbacks, naughty magazines, and perverted pamphlets. At one point, Putnam even does a dramatic reading from one of the books to emphasize their violence. Then we get to see pictures of women in bondage from early BDSM zines.

But the basic point of this documentary isn’t to demonstrate that Keating and his buddies seem to have had an encyclopedic knowledge of smut. Nor is the point that smut has gotten worse. Putnam admits in the film that "there has always been perversion." Instead, the movie’s emphasis is on how new technologies enable the distribution of smut more widely, especially into the hands of children. In this way, Keating’s hysterical little film is nearly a perfect replica of the kinds of rhetoric we hear today about the dangers of the Web.

Consider, for example, a University of New Hampshire study that got a lot of play earlier this year by claiming that 42 percent of kids between the ages of 10 and 17 had been accidentally exposed to pornography on the Web during the previous year. The study also claimed that 4 percent of people in the same age group were asked to post erotic pictures of themselves online. News coverage of the study emphasized how these numbers were higher than before, and most implied that the Web itself was to blame.

But as Perversion for Profit attests, people have been freaking out about how new distribution networks bring pornography to children for nearly half a century. Today’s cyberteens aren’t the first to go hunting for naughty bits using the latest high-speed thingamajig either; back in the day, we had fast-printing presses instead of zoomy network connections.

It’s easy to forget history when you’re thinking about the brave new technologies of today. Yet if Keating’s statistics are to be believed, the number of children exposed to porn was far greater in 1964 than it is today. Perhaps the Web has actually made it harder for children to find pornography. After all, when their grandparents were growing up, anybody could just walk to the corner store and browse the paperbacks for smut. Now you have to know how to turn off Google’s safe search and probably steal your parents’ credit card to boot.

And yet Fox News is never going to run a story under the headline "Internet Means Kids See Less Pornography Than Ever Before." It may be the truth, but you can only sell ads if there’s more sex — not less. *

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who learned about sex before she learned about the Internet.