Editor's note: The following column by child-protection advocate Parry Aftab contains explicit and graphic descriptions of child pornography encountered during investigation and law-enforcement activities. Readers are advised to use discretion when deciding whether to read this column.
The computer graphic loaded from the side, starting with her blonde silky curls. As it continued to load, her shell-shaped ear came into focus, followed by her flushed cheek and her big blue eyes fringed with thick eyelashes that were almost white, they were so blonde. Her eyes were enlarged with surprise.
He remembered thinking this was one of the most beautiful children he had ever seen. What he saw next explained why he has dedicated himself to protecting children from exploitation and molestation. This big, tough FBI agent and father of two had tears in his eyes as he described his first exposure to online child pornography. He went on, in hushed tones, as the rest of us listened carefully. "Her eyes were enlarged. They displayed her surprise, pain, and shock as she was forced to perform oral sex on an adult male who had just ejaculated all over her face."
This kind of conversation happens whenever child pornography investigators and anti-child-exploitation experts get together. They describe the one image that touched them the most deeply--the one that changed their lives. And anyone working in this field has one. They may have seen thousands of images, but one especially touches their heart and soul. For me, it was an image of a 3-year-old girl.
Within three days of agreeing to run my Internet safety and help group (under its former name), I received a tip from one of our site visitors. The tip indicated that child pornography was being hosted at a site, and it included the URL for the site. The person asked me to shut the site down and put the people behind it in jail.
What happened next changed my life forever. Although I was a recognized expert on child-pornography laws and cybercrimes in general, I had never actually seen child pornography. Being able to describe the typical image and how to identify the age of the child being victimized is a far cry from being exposed to it firsthand.
I clicked on the URL and was taken to a site with names of graphic images. No photos or text appeared other than lists of images, with names like susan4.gif, betsy2.gif, and tyler8.gif. I clicked on one of the hundreds of image links in the directory. An image of a 3-1/2-year-old child slowly opened. It was a little brunette girl who was being graphically raped by an adult male. While all of her and his genitalia were clearly visible, only her face was in the shot. His was hidden. You can understand why this is "my image," the one I will never forget--the one that motivates me every day.
The cameraman had her facing the camera. A flash or special lighting was clearly being used and shone in her face to illuminate the graphic rape. (When I recount this, I have problems looking anyone in the face.) The little girl was not only being painfully molested, she was forced to bear the additional humiliation of being filmed at the same time. Unable to stop the rape, she did the only thing she could do to protect herself: She shut her eyes.
Most parents will be especially touched by this gesture. When our children are very young, they think that by closing their eyes they become invisible. They stand in front of us, thinking that if they can't see us, we can't see them. "Mommy, can you see me?" is the game of the day, and we all pretend that we can't. We call out to them, "Where are you? We can't see you!" pretending to look everywhere for them. The game ends with lots of giggling, tickling, laughter, and hugs. This little girl's attempt to be invisible would end very differently.
At first, I resolved to find that little girl, and my friends in law enforcement helped. But once I began to look, I discovered how many other children were being molested and their molestations memorialized forever in images online and offline.
Then my resolve to help stomp out child molestation and child pornography online grew.
Each year thousands and thousands of children, girls and boys, lose their innocence and much more because of the atrocities forced upon them by pedophiles. There are graphic pictures available of babies being molested at the age of 1 or 2 months. Infants not even old enough to sit up by themselves are being brutally raped or forced to perform oral sex on their molesters. Two-, 3-, and 4-year-old children that are just beginning to discover life have that life ripped away in just one heartbeat. Grade-school children lose their childhood in that same heartbeat. The pain doesn't go away. You can see it in their eyes.
Parry Aftab is a cyberspace lawyer, specializing in online privacy and security law, and she's also executive director of WiredSafety. She hosts the Web site aftab.com and blogs regularly at theprivacylawyer.blogspot.com.
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