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August 8-14, 2007

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Technology News - Annalee Newitz

Technology News

Kids Safer Online!

By Annalee Newitz

THERE IS a horrifying new menace to children that's never existed before. Experts estimate that 75 percent 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 youth 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 has just formed Citizens for Decent Literature, an anti-porn 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" have created a hitherto-unknown situation where kids can "accidentally" be exposed to porno at the local drugstore or bus-station magazine rack.

Among the dangers we as a society must confront as a result of this situation are "stimulated" youth who run wild, think it's OK to rape women and turn 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. 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 how violent they are. 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 an encyclopedic knowledge of smut. Nor is the point that smut has gotten worse. Putnam admits 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 same 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 a half-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. And 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 "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 ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who learned about sex before she learned about the Internet.

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