Throughout this last election cycle, the media, candidates, and pundits repeatedly reminded us that the nation is in crisis. Indeed, our economy, financial system, and military face severe and complex challenges unseen in over half a century. It is easy, and perhaps wise, in such times to focus on pressing crises. There is a risk, however, that in doing so we will ignore or underestimate other significant challenges. One such challenge is the struggle to protect another precious resource: our children. In the battle against child sexual exploitation our nation must fight on multiple fronts for the “hearts and minds” as well as the protection of our children.

The crisis for our youth at this time in our history threatens a generation of internet-savvy minors. Reported instances of suspected online child sexual exploitation continue every year, surpassing 500,000 such events in 2007. Child pornography is a multi-billion-dollar industry, appearing in many media, including on computers and cellular phones, items to which a significant portion of youth have access. Sex trafficking, meanwhile, has been labeled the largest subcategory of modern day slavery by the State Department. How we as a government and as a society respond to the increased risk of sexual exploitation of children will no doubt have effects long outlasting any one administration.

There is good news. Late last year, the federal government enacted the PROTECT (Providing Resources, Officers, and Technology to Eradicate Cyber Threat to) Our Children Act of 2008. This bipartisan legislation provided numerous measures to combat child sexual exploitation. The bill calls for the establishment of a “National Strategy for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction.” The Act envisions a comprehensive and long-range strategy that seeks to reduce child exploitation through preventative and interdictive approaches. Because of the national strategy’s influence on resource allocation and prioritizing programs, the impact of this strategy will be profound. The goals outlined for the strategy are ambitious, but commensurate with the national treasure to be protected: our nation’s children.

The legislation allows the Attorney General one year to submit the initial strategy to Congress (which will be resubmitted every two years). It requires the strategy to include comprehensive long-range goals for child sexual exploitation reduction as well as measurable objectives designed to meet the aforementioned goals. The Department of Justice must review past policies and work as well as plan future programs relating to child exploitation. These include its inter-jurisdictional coordination with international, federal, state, local and private sector entities on both prevention and interdiction. The Act notably includes directives on prevention, the collection of comprehensive data on the current crisis, and consideration of future trends and challenges. The Attorney General is tasked not only with executing this broad vision, but selecting a senior official responsible for coordinating and developing the National Strategy. The Act also allots one year for the National Institute of Justice to prepare and submit a report to Congress identifying investigative factors that reliably indicate the level of risk of potential offenders.

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The importance of developing this strategy and report makes 2009 a critical year for our children. It is not novel for presidents or cabinet officials to possess authority of broad magnitude, potentially affecting the lives of numerous citizens. Indeed, the Secretary of Defense has the lives of our service members in his hands and the Secretary of Health and Human Services develops policies directly affecting the well being of millions of vulnerable people. However, the implications of this strategy potentially exceed even these precedents. To develop a flawed strategy is to risk losing a generation. Consequently, by focusing on prevention and cross-jurisdictional coordination, the Act allows the Attorney General not just to respond to the problem of child sexual exploitation with penological solutions, but to address the broader atmosphere surrounding such exploitation.

Child sexual exploitation is a complex problem occurring in many forms. While it is criminal to exploit a child sexually, the temptation to focus narrowly on reactive criminal penalties must be resisted. The problem is more than an issue of criminality and penological response. Children are not victimized in a vacuum. Certain societal realities exist that permit the conceptualization of children as sexual objects to be consumed for adult arousal. Any comprehensive review of both the problem and its solution is of little value if it fails to assess the climate in which we live.

Many social influences contribute to child sexual exploitation. I focus on the realities of increasing sexualization of children and objectification of persons manifested through both popular culture media and pornography. These forces can legitimize treating others as commodities—as means to an end—permitting society to be desensitized to the sexual objectification even of young children. These confusing cultural messages can also weaken children’s abilities to deflect such exploitation and influence their self-conceptualization as such objects.

While the “adult sex industry” asserts that the expansion of pornography and its increasing social acceptance has only positive effects on society, a growing body of analysis suggests that today’s pornography increasingly depicts violent sex acts involving men dominating women. While there is no unanimity in studies of the effects of pornography, recent meta-analysis has found “substantial data showing pornography correlates with various negative outcomes,” including increased risk for sexual deviancy, difficulty in intimate relationships, and damage to family life. Additionally, the blurring of the line between legal adult pornography and child pornography is apparent in the explicit marketing of pornography with youthful-looking models in settings with youth-based themes.

A growing body of research comments on the potential negative effects of the proliferation of pornography on juveniles. “Evidence indicates that pornography and related sexual media can influence sexual violence, sexual attitudes, moral values, and sexual activity of children and youth.” The existence of the Internet means that children, previously unexposed to such material, are now surrounded by it. Today’s youth have access to the Internet and with that access, if unrestricted, comes unlimited access (wanted or not) to countless pornographic websites. Because pornography patterns are established during adolescence and rapidly develop in early adulthood, experts argue that accessing pictures and text with degrading or exploitive sexual content may adversely impact the sexual and emotional development of children, or function as a catalyst causing them to act in sexually problematic ways.

It is not only the substance of contemporary pornography that is problematic, but the direction of its migration into mainstream society. What is happening to our society has been referred to as “pornification” or “pornographication.” As Pamela Paul documents in her examination of pornography in contemporary American culture, Pornified: How Pornography Is Damaging Our Lives, Our Relationships and Our Families, pornography has evolved into the “norm,” no longer residing on the fringes of social acceptability. Indeed, a recent study concluded that pornography’s acceptance among young adults has reached unprecedented levels. This is true notwithstanding its increase in violence and depictions of male domination over women. Pornography has reached “near mainstream status in American culture.” Consider children’s pimp and prostitute Halloween costumes, the glorification of the words “pimp” and “pimping” as acceptable in award-winning music titles, prime-time television programming and films, media featuring college-age women and teens’ drunken debauchery, and internet web sites counting down the minutes until teen idols obtain the age of eighteen. (For more on pornification, see Pamela Paul’s recent paper delivered at the Witherspoon Institute conference “The Social Costs of Pornography.”)

The logical inference from these anecdotal realities is supported by growing research and analysis. The American Psychological Association (APA) has documented the deleterious effects of media its Report on the Sexualization of Girls. The APA cautions that the content of mainstream media is potentially damaging to girls. The potential cognitive effect of this material is a self-objectification in which chronic attention is given to physical appearance, thus leaving fewer cognitive resources for other mental or physical activities. The mental effects can include eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression. Finally, far from leading to a healthy sexual development, the APA reports that sexual objectification leads to a diminished sexual understanding.

These are just a few of the factors affecting the sexual objectification and exploitation of children. Such effects influence both the demand and supply aspects of exploitation. A challenge for the national strategy is to respond comprehensively. To do this, it must assess the societal climate allowing the sexual objectification of children. The strategy need not debate the value of this material to adults, but must acknowledge the direct and indirect effects on our children and explore constitutional ways to protect them.

To include these realities in a national strategy will require fortitude. First, to comment on the role of mainstream media and increasingly mainstream pornography is to invoke certain wrath from some absolutist free speech advocates. Indeed, the constitutional questions must be examined. However, the Constitution should not be used as a reason to forbid even examining these difficult questions. Rather, it should be used with other tools to inform a thoughtful and considered analysis of these contemporary challenges.

Second, to do so will mean to come into direct conflict with the powerful adult entertainment industry’s bottom line. This is a highly profitable industry whose own trade association, the Free Speech Coalition, has a mission to “protect and support the growth and well-being of the adult entertainment community.” The “Vision Statement” of the Free Speech Coalition includes unabashedly becoming “a national association that helps limit the legal risks of being an adult business [and] increases the profitability of its members.” With such goals, the trade association boasts “the adult Internet is the fastest expanding segment of the U.S. adult entertainment market, having grown from a $1 billion dollar industry in 2002 to a $2.5 billion industry today. . .The number of adult entertainment Websites . . . was more than 17 times greater in 2004 than it was just four years earlier, surging from approximately 88,000 in 2000 to nearly 1.6 million sites in 2004.” An industry with such a financial stake will be a formidable opponent to any strategy that seeks at least to acknowledge the presence of such material as having deleterious effects on society and on children.

The risks of sexual exploitation appear to be on the rise, making our moment unparalleled in its importance to our culture and children. One year has been allotted to develop an initial strategy that will direct government action and affect our societal and cultural responses to a critical problem documented by researchers, scholars, authors, and professional associations of all disciplines. The person selected to coordinate this effort must be sensitive to the limits of government’s ability to solve all social ills, but at the same time bold and courageous enough to outline all the direct and indirect contributors to child sexual exploitation. President Obama stated in his weekly radio address the day after assuming office that 2009 commences “in the midst of an unprecedented crisis that calls for unprecedented action.” At the end of January he called for “bold” action for the economy. The same must also be true for our children.