If you think about a hamburger for long enough, you’ll eat a hamburger. The more vivid the images of a hot, juicy hamburger just the way you like it, the quicker you’re likely to go get it. It’s just the way our brains work.
Psychologists have long advised athletes to harness this brain capability to envision successfully making their free throws, hitting the baseball out of the park, or running the ball into the end zone for the game winning touchdown. Our ability to think, verbally or in images, is what psychologists call behavioral rehearsal.
In the same way, if we think about a sexual fantasy for long enough, and vividly enough, eventually we’re likely act on it. This is why child pornography is often a precursor to sex with a child. It’s a vehicle by which people can vividly think through their fantasies. And when they think about those fantasies for long enough, and when they see their fantasies acted out in high definition images for long enough, just like the overwhelming urge to go get that hamburger, they’ll eventually begin looking for opportunities to do what they’ve been thinking about.
Most people reading this would never even consider child porn. In fact you may be wondering where all this is going— “why is she talking about this disgusting topic? No one I know is interested in that.” But the truth is that rarely does anyone start out with child porn. They start out with “average” porn. Some people eventually get to the point where the “culturally acceptable” porn does nothing for them, and they look for something more. Illustrating this point, a German study in 2014 (Brain Structure and Functional Connectivity Associated With Pornography Consumption: The Brain on Porn) found that the more porn that was consumed, the less brain activity in the “reward” circuit, which indicated desensitization, leading to an increased need for greater stimulation.
A joint study done recently by Indiana University and the University of Hawaii at Manoa (A Meta-Analysis of Pornography Consumption and Actual Acts of Sexual Aggression in General Population Studies) found a correlation between consumption of porn and verbal and physical aggression. The study concludes, “…the accumulated data leave little doubt that, on the average, individuals who consume pornography more frequently are more likely to hold attitudes conducive to sexual aggression and engage in actual acts of sexual aggression than individuals who do not consume pornography or who consume pornography less frequently.”
Unfortunately, the “something more” that desensitized, aggressive porn users are looking for is now readily available and easily obtainable. In fact, there are online “communities” of people who desire and actively seek violent sexual experiences. The sub-section of those predators who have a sexual appetite for children have found normalization of this behavior online. Those who used to be culturally shunned have now found camaraderie on what is commonly referred to as the “darknet.”
These pedophiles share pictures and videos, they trade ways to identify and abduct the most vulnerable victims, and they give one another tips and tricks to “grooming” children to go along with this heinous crime without telling anyone. One of these people was convicted of paying another to livestream the rape a young boy—a three year old boy who was abducted because he happened to meet the physical description given by the purchaser.
Ernie Allen, founding chairman of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, shared recently that the average age of child victims of commercial sexual exploitation is 12 years old. Many people justify their use of child porn by reasoning that the kids are adults dressed to look like kids. But the horrendous truth is that the pictures and videos contain real, live children who are being raped, humiliated, drugged, and who have no way to defend themselves. In fact, Ernie Allen explained that many pedophiles are now specifically seeking out very young, non-verbal toddlers, because they’re unable to communicate what’s happening to them.
It remains that the children who are most likely to be lured into sex trafficking are kids who have been abandoned, neglected, abused, or sold by their family of origin, many of whom have been in the foster care system.
Sadly, according to Pew Charitable Trust, the epidemic of parents using opioids is creating of too few homes for kids coming into foster care. When too many kids are in a home, they sometimes don’t get the structure and supervision needed to keep them safe. These kids are exceptionally vulnerable to the lure of traffickers. This is especially true for the children whose addicted parents sold sex with their child (or sold the child altogether) in exchange for drugs. This tragic behavior “normalizes” the transaction of sex in exchange for the child’s sense of belonging with the trafficker and his or her “stable” of others who are available for sale.
So, what do we do? We quit accepting porn as a “normal” part of our culture. We quit dismissing it as though it was harmless, because while it doesn’t lead every consumer to violence or pedophelia, it can. And the priceless life of one child saved because one person didn’t slide down the slippery slope of the never-ending search for ever-more-vile porn to find that no-longer-attainable thrill, is worth the effort we can make in taking a personal stand against it. Think about taking a stand. If you think about it long enough, perhaps you’ll take action.
Rhonda Sciortino, author of Succeed Because of What You’ve Been Through, is the National Child Welfare Specialist for Markel Insurance Company. Rhonda is a foster alum who chairs the Successful Survivors Foundation and serves as a spokesperson for Foster Care Alumni of America.
Dr. Sandie Morgan, Ph.D., is Director of Vanguard University’s Global Center for Women and Justice, overseeing the Women’s Studies Minor, as well as teaching Family Violence and Human Trafficking and produc- ing the Ending Human Trafficking Podcast. Sandie’s background as a Pediatric Nurse brought her into contact with her first victim of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children. She is committed to equipping our communities to be a safer place for vulnerable youth.