Amy Adler discusses her legal scholarship in interdisciplinary forum

On April 30 Professor Amy Adler’s scholarship on child pornography law was the subject of an interdisciplinary forum, “Spectacles of Childhood: Law, Child Pornography, and Sex Panic,” co-sponsored by the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, the NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, the Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Study Center, and Studies in Gender and Sexuality.

The centerpiece of the forum was a talk given by Adler in which she explored the possibility that the expansion of child pornography law in certain areas may unwittingly reinforce the very problem it fights: the sexualization of children in our culture. She asked how we can better combat child pornography and protect children without creating unintended consequences that paradoxically undermine the law’s goals.

Adler focused on two cases. United States v. Dost (1986), a case decided by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, established a six-factor “Dost test” to determine whether something qualifies as pornography, including consideration of whether a child appears sexually coy, whether the child’s genitals are the focus of the image, and whether the material is designed to elicit a sexual response. The Dost test has been adopted by virtually all jurisdictions. The second case, United States v. Knox (1994), decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, held that a picture can constitute child pornography even if the child depicted is fully clothed.

Such methods of defining child pornography, Adler said, increasingly require us to examine images based on their potential appeal to pedophiles. In doing so, they have caused us to adopt unintentionally what she calls “the pedophilic gaze”: “What does it do to children to protect them by looking at them as a pedophile would, to linger over depictions of their genitals, and what does it to do us as adults to ask these questions when we look at pictures of children?" Said Adler, "As everything becomes child pornography in the eyes of the law—clothed children, coy children, children in settings where children are found—perhaps children themselves become pornographic.”

After tracing the evolution of child pornography law, Adler deconstructed the troubling significance of a recurring Dateline NBC segment, “To Catch a Predator,” in which men are lured to a suburban home after engaging in sexually explicit online chats with a decoy they believe to be a minor. Correspondent Chris Hansen then confronts would-be “predators,” questioning each one before reading the explicit chat logs aloud. “This recitation of the sordid chat log often goes on until the predator literally begs for mercy,” Adler said, adding, “The show continually restages the spectacle of the sexual child that it seeks to condemn.... Now the pervert’s fantasy is mainstream entertainment, packaged for sweeps week.”

Dr. Avgi Saketopoulou, a postdoctoral psychoanalytic candidate at NYU, and Ann Pellegrini, an associate professor of performance studies and religious studies at NYU, each gave presentations following Adler's lecture, offering their own perspectives on Adler's legal scholarship. In the concluding Q&A session, Adler discussed possible solutions to the problems she had raised, including a recommendation she has made to federal prosecutors to focus on the vast number of cases involving images of clear sexual abuse rather than pursuing cases “on the margins.” Otherwise, she said, there is a danger of diluting the ability of child pornography law to protect the most vulnerable.