Virtual Child Pornography Ethical and Legal Overview


Virtual child pornography is the explicit or exploitative virtual representation of a minor.

These child avatars may be cartoonish or highly realistic.

Virtual child pornography is one of many growing virtual reality trends.

Society and lawmakers must decide how this trend impacts children.

Interpol has recently put out a report calling for the criminalization of harmful activity in the Metaverse. [1]

This call is one of the first from an international criminal organization addressing the growing digital threat.

This article explores virtual child pornography and the lack of global response.

What Are Virtual Worlds?


Virtual worlds are simulated environments that use a network to join a group of people portrayed by avatars.

First created in the 1970s, virtual worlds have grown in power and complexity.

Users may create an avatar based on their real-world appearance or invent a new appearance.

Some sites allow virtual users to sexually interact.

Interactions may include, “age-play” a role-playing scenario in which one or more parties pretend to be a different age.

Age-players sometimes adopt a child’s avatar, then engage in sexual interactions with an adult avatar.

Historical Precedent

Realistic sex dolls are one of the closest analogs to modern virtual child pornography.

Companies may be closer to producing an advanced robotic child sex doll than their adult counterparts due to the former’s smaller size and weight.

While no U.S. or international laws exist prohibiting child sex dolls or robots, the 1996 Child Pornography Prevention Act (CCPA), contains the phrases “appears to be” and “conveys the impression of” in reference to any depiction of a minor, electronic or otherwise. [2]

This wording has caused some child advocates to claim the act bans sexualized content of non-real minors.

Recently, Baroness Berlin has declared her intentions to conduct a review on the impact of illegal pornography and AI-generated images. [3]

The latter part may be instrumental in forming a basis for understanding virtual child pornography.

Virtual Reality Trends

Virtual child pornography has received increased attention compared to erotic chat rooms partially because of the heightened realism associated with avatars and voices.

Xtended Reality (XR) is a category of virtual entertainment that enhances users’ experiences with features like specialized VR goggles and extra sensory experiences.

These advancements may draw larger crowds of participants thanks to their boosted realism.

While the cost of many XR systems is prohibitive for the average consumer, innovations are quickly increasing accessibility.

Users can create a makeshift VR headset by building a cardboard headset and inserting a smartphone.

Currently, this option lacks the visual depth of a full-price unit, creating interactivity limitations.

However, next-generation mobile devices are incorporating hardware to address this issue.

Quality and price improvements suggest a mass influx to the VR market is inevitable.

Lawmakers must prepare for questions regarding societal, moral, and legal norms. 

Risks

While sex-positive virtual spaces like areas of Second Life require users to be over 18, practically, these restrictions are easily bypassed.

Curious children may make up a significant portion of onlookers in these spaces, risking their exposure to virtual sexual interactions involving an adult and a minor.

Abusers might use virtual sexual encounters to seduce or encourage minors to participate.

Virtual child pornography users have been discovered in possession of child sexual abuse material (CSAM). 

Critics are concerned virtual child pornography may normalize expressing sexual attraction to minors in more harmful ways.

While no study exists establishing causation between viewing virtual child pornography and committing offenses, conducting sufficient research in this field is unethical since it involves forcing pedophiles to engage in behavior potentially harmful to minors.

However, research ties CSAM usage to hands-on child abuse. [4]

This connection may stem from both offenses being illegal, child-harming activities in the pursuit of sexual gratification.

Council of Europe Convention on Cybercrime


The Cybercrime Convention of 2001, known as the Budapest Convention, was the first international treaty to address internet and computer crimes. [5] 

While European countries drafted the treaty, it is open to all states, being ratified by the U.S. in 2006.

In reference to rapidly evolving technology, the explanatory report from the convention says, “...only a binding international instrument can ensure the necessary efficiency in the fight against these new phenomena.”

Unlike many national definitions of child pornography, the Cybercrime Convention includes virtual images of non-real children.

Article 9 (2. c): “This latter scenario includes pictures which are altered, such as morphed images of natural persons, or even generated entirely by the computer.” [6]

How Legislation Must Lead the Fight Against Child Abuse

While the Budapest Convention on Cybercrime is a significant step forward, it remains a regional instrument, and certain aspects, such as Article 9 (2. c), are optional.

To achieve an effective global response, the following changes are imperative:

Legal Clarity and Harmonization: A global legal instrument should provide a clear and consistent definition of offenses related to child exploitation.

Harmonizing international legal definitions will ensure a unified approach to the Metaverse and online worlds.

Criminalization of Virtual Child Pornography: A global instrument should explicitly criminalize the creation, distribution, and possession of virtual child pornography, closing existing loopholes and providing a robust legal basis for prosecuting offenders.

International Response: Child exploitation is a global issue that requires an international response.

An international legal instrument would facilitate cooperation among countries, enabling seamless information exchange, joint investigations, and coordinated law enforcement efforts.

Combating Impunity: The effectiveness of legal measures relies on their universal adoption and enforcement.

A global instrument ensures no jurisdiction can become a safe haven for offenders.

A consistent legal framework that facilitates offenders’ extraditions deters criminals.

What is Human Trafficking Front Doing?

Human Trafficking Front advocates for a strong international legal framework criminalizing virtual child pornography.

The latest attempt at such a framework is from 2001, an unacceptable gap considering the technological development over the past two decades.

If you want to make an impact sustaining anti-child-abuse education, consider donating to our programs.

With your help, our outreach efforts affect teachers, parents, and officials, providing crucial minor safety guidance. 

Conclusion

Virtual child pornography has the potential to harm children through online exposure to bad actors and simulated pedophilic interactions.

A global legal instrument must criminalize virtual child pornography to provide a unified front against new ways to exploit children.

As technology progresses each year, this need becomes more pressing. 

Key Takeaways

1. Virtual worlds are simulated environments that enable pedophilic sexual encounters.

2. Laws like CCPA include language interpretable as banning sexual depictions of non-real minors.

3. Improving technology may cause a significant increase in virtual child pornography engagement.

4. Virtual child pornography risks exposing children to harmful content and actors online. 

5. The Budapest Convention attempted to gain international support opposing virtual child pornography.

6. Human Trafficking Front advocates for the international criminalization of virtual child pornography.

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 25). Virtual Child Pornography Ethical and Legal Overview. https://humantraffickingfront.org/virtual-child-pornography/

References

[1] BBC News. Interpol working out how to police the metaverse. BBC News, February 2023, https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-64501726  

[2] Congress.gov. Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996 - H.R.4123. Congress.gov, https://www.congress.gov/bill/104th-congress/house-bill/4123#:~:text=Child%20Pornography%20Prevention%20Act%20of%201996%20%2D%20Amends%20the%20Federal%20criminal,disk%2C%20or%20other%20material%20that 

[3] GOV.UK. Illegal pornography, abuse and exploitation to be investigated by new reviewer. GOV.UK, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/illegal-pornography-abuse-and-exploitation-to-be-investigated-by-new-reviewer

[4] Bourke, Michael L. The Myth of the Harmless Hands Off Offender, 37. Respect International, https://respect.international/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/NetClean_Report_2016_english.pdf

[5] Council of Europe. Convention on Cybercrime. Council of Europe, https://rm.coe.int/1680081561 

[6] Council of Europe. Explanatory Report to the Convention on Cybercrime, para. 101 at 16. Council of Europe, https://rm.coe.int/16800cce5b 

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.