How Sexual Interest in Children Spreads Gray Area Images

 In 2016, the international group End Child Prostitution and Trafficking (ECPAT) put out a comprehensive guideline detailing the correct terminology associated with minor abuse and exploitation. [1]

Reports like this are crucial pieces in helping lawmakers understand child abuse and what language to include in regulations.

Under the section describing sexual violence, the report says, “From a child rights perspective, what matters is that the protection granted or sought through both legislation and policies be as broad and effective as possible, leaving no room for loopholes and securing all children’s protection and freedom from harm.” [2]

Despite this comment, the report fails to identify types of GAI common online. 

This loophole contrasts a 2019 Guidelines adopted by the Committee on the Rights of the Child (the body of experts that monitor implementation of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocols) that recommends avoiding legislation that fails to address emerging concerns. [3]

Many countries must update their laws to address gray area images (GAI). 

GAI are controversial photos portraying children in potentially erotic scenarios.

This article explains how GAI arise, how these images spread, how they affect their victims, and potential solutions.

What Are GAI?

GAI are images of a minor that fail to break any local laws but show the subject in a potentially erotic light. [4]

Some GAI may seem nonsexual but are placed in an online context that uses minors to stimulate adults.

Authorities may be legally unable to remove these images, leading to scenarios where GAI stay online indefinitely, often alongside explicit content like child sexual abuse material (CSAM).

Why Are GAI Common?

In 2014, one in ten inappropriate image reports Save the Children Denmark received were GAI. [5]

This consistency highlights the photos’ popularity with the minor-attracted community.

Since GAI provides a legal method to engage in sexual fantasies regarding minors, it is a far safer alternative to CSAM.

Consumers may view GAI as more moral than CSAM since no child sexually engages with an adult or performs explicitly sexual acts.

Even offenders who own CSAM often have many GAI.

In 2011, an Australian court found a defendant guilty of possessing child pornography. [6]

This same defendant owned over 500,000 images of minors in nonsexual poses.

Why GAI Are Harmful

People who ask children to pose for GAI used for sexual gratification harm children’s trust.

Instead of seeing adults as reliable authority figures who are there to help the minors grow into thriving members of society, the children know the adults are using them primarily for personal benefit.

The resulting loss of trust and dignity damages healthy development.

GAI are often on websites hosting more extreme content like CSAM.

This association creates an environment where website viewers use even the most tame GAI for sexual gratification.

Once images spread online, it can be challenging to remove them.

Research suggests children struggle to perceive themselves as sexual beings like adults. [7]

Even during early puberty, this conceptualization is ill-formed, leading to confusion and discomfort.

When such children discover people are using images they thought were private for sexual gratification, they may experience intense anxiety, shame, and revulsion.

How Context Helps Identify GAI

Much GAI comes under the guise of modeling.

These supposedly model children will pose, often in a suggestive manner, often wearing scanty clothing.

Adults have clearly instructed these minors how to hold their lips, hips, and legs like an erotic adult model.

This setup helps attract children since many minors and their guardians dream of success in modeling.

Sexually-invested viewers may believe clicking on the photo is harmless since it ostensibly would’ve existed regardless of sexual interest.

Some distributors are more explicit with the photos’ erotic nature by titling GAI like “Horny preteen girls.”

In such circumstances, the GAI are more likely to end up on a site explicitly dedicated to pornographic content, often mixed with adult images.

Other GAI contexts may include the following:

● Children playing in nature.
● Children portrayed as angelic or fairyish in soft lighting.
● Children in ostensibly artistic images with a thematic purpose.
● Children in text and image forums posted without comment.

How to Find Exploitation of Children Intent

When users post GAI on websites containing CSAM, they demonstrate exploitative intent.

In this context, exploitative means using material for personal gain at the high risk of harming another.

More benign scenarios may contain exploitative intent.

Virtuous Pedophiles is an organization dedicated to supporting morally responsible attraction to minors.

During a discussion regarding ethical consumption of potentially erotic material, one member said the following:

“If you look at some children’s YouTube channels, you will see 4-50 views for videos where they’re wearing a shirt, but 400-400,000 views of videos where they aren’t wearing a shirt or they’re doing something erotic. I see this as a problem. Naturally, children want views. So they do what it takes to get them.” [8]

Anyone who recognizes this incentive but continues to visibly engage with more erotic children’s social media demonstrates exploitative intent.

Why Universal Terminology and Laws Are Crucial

Lacking universal terminology confuses cross-national parties who may use the same term to refer to different things.

This confusion frustrates advocacy groups and law enforcement, hamstringing the fight against global child abuse.

Good practices will include a multi-lingual approach that preserves the nuances of each language while focusing on a commonly understood idea.

GAI laws must consider the context for use and sharing online when considering if images are exploitative.

What is Human Trafficking Front Doing?

At Human Trafficking Front, we understand that knowledge is prevention.

That’s why we’ve invested in educating the population on how to stop the spread of harmful minor interactions.

Here are some of our projects:

We raise awareness and build capacity to combat all child sexual exploitation online and offline.

We equip professionals and the community to develop digital abuse-preventing interventions.

We empower the community with evidence-based tools to protect children.


Greater cross-national legal and definitional cohesion is needed to eradicate GAI.

This legislation must consider the context in which the material is posted and used.

Consistent implementation will help protect children globally from the harm of non-explicit erotic images.

Key Takeaways

1. GAI are legal images showing minors in a sexualized context or erotic poses.
2. GAI are a far safer CSAM alternative for producers and sexually-interested viewers.
3. GAI harm children’s trust in adults and damage their dignity.
4. GAI subjects may be presented as models, angels, or regular children.
5. Universal terminology and international laws will help prevent GAI from spreading.

Act Now. For more tools and information, check out our Resources page.  

Additional Details

This best practices prevention guide and publication is part of the Human Trafficking Front's program: Putting an End to the Online Sexual Exploitation of Children: Preventing Victimization and Strengthening Child Protection Systems.

Recommended Citation

Human Trafficking Front. (2023, December 16). How Sexual Interest in Children Spreads Gray Area Images.


[1] ECPAT International. Terminology Guidelines. May 2021.

[2] ECPAT International. Terminology Guidelines. May 2021, at 16.

[3] United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. Guidelines regarding the implementation of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography*  (CRC/C/156).

[4] Save the Children Denmark. Images in the Grey Area: How Children Are Legally Exploited as Sex Objects on the Internet.

[5] Ibid. 

[6] Uitts, Beatriz Susana. Sex Trafficking of Children Online: Modern Slavery in Cyberspace. Rowman & Littlefield, 2022, at 81. 

[7] Everyday Pictures of Children in Sexualizing Context. Save the Children Denmark, 2020, 

[8] Ibid., at 17. 

Human Trafficking Front

Dr. Beatriz Susana Uitts is a human rights specialist, Internet child safety advocate, and founder of Human Trafficking Front, a research and advocacy organization for the prevention of human trafficking. Dr. Uitts holds a J.S.D. and LL.M. in Intercultural Human Rights from St. Thomas University College of Law in Miami Gardens, FL, and is the author of the book Sex Trafficking of Children Online: Modern Slavery in Cyberspace regarding the growing problem of online child sexual exploitation. In this book, she proposes solutions to prevent its spread and promote a safer Internet for children and adolescents worldwide.