Balancing rights like adult freedom of expression against a child’s right to a safe and secure childhood can be a difficult task, and the debate surrounding virtual child pornography is complex and by its very nature, controversial.

Initially outlawed in America, the ban on virtual child porn was overturned in 2002, but ‘real’ video footage of child porn remains illegal in the States. In the UK, real child pornography is also legislated against, as is possessing indecent photos of children, which can include cartoons or simulated images.  One of the first cases involving virtual child porn images in the UK was reported in 2011.

A recent article in South Africa’s Times Live talks about the potential benefits of virtual child pornography, animation which features sexual activities with children but which don’t involve the use of actual children to make, as a way of providing a ‘safe’ outlet for paedophiles. Virtual child porn is currently illegal in South Africa, so the article argues that legalising this kind of material could prevent ‘real world’ attacks on children.

However, the research doesn’t fully support this view.

Reports and investigations into the correlation between watching child pornography, of all kinds, and committing child sexual offences in the real world, offer three broad conclusions:

  1. Viewing child pornography increases the likelihood of a person committing child sexual abuse. Reasons given are that the pornography normalizes and/or legitimizes sexual interest in children, and that pornography may also eventually cease to satisfy the user.
  2. Viewing child pornography decreases the likelihood of an individual committing child sexual abuse. It is suggested that the pornography acts as a substitute for committing actual offences. Simulated child pornography is then seen as an alternative so that real children are not harmed.
  3. There is no correlation between viewing child pornography and acts of child sexual abuse, or available evidence is insufficient to allow us to draw any conclusions.

The same confusion surrounds the correlation between watching adult porn and instances of rape.  The reality must surely be that much of the relationship between seeing virtual or online material and acting on it comes down to individual personality, environment and opportunity – not an easy combination to simplify into broader generalisations.

In Japan, Rinko, a virtual teenage girl who features on a dating simulator app called LovePlus also blurs the lines between what is real and what is acceptable. She has become a mobile app sensation, and has begun to attract attention from adult men all over the world, despite the app being geared towards teenagers – the player has to assume the role of a teen in order to interact with Rinko. And whilst you can’t have sex with Rinko, you can stroke her chest, for which she may kiss you in return.

So where do you think we should draw the line when it comes to virtual animation of child pornography and should we make all child pornography illegal around the world?