Should Those Who Look at Underage Pornography Be Allowed to Tell Their Therapists Without Fear of Consequences?

I was about three years into recovery, taking part in a group therapy session when the therapist said something in passing that caught my attention. He mentioned that in Maine, if a patient reports that they have looked at underage pornography and the therapist does not deem them to be a threat to act-out in a hands-on manner, that behavior does not have to be reported to authorities.

As I’m sure you know there are plenty of behaviors that have to be reported, like threat to commit suicide, plans to hurt another person, certain deviant illegal behavior, etc. But in Maine, there is no provision for reporting the use of underage pornography.

I bring this up because yesterday in the Los Angeles Times, there was an article about how their therapists are mandated to report the use of underage pornography and that the law is being challenged by therapists and therapists’ groups because they don’t think they should be reporting these people outside of their office if they pose no danger.

It’s an interesting debate and I’m not completely sure which side I fall on.

A quick recap of my story

Unless you’re new here, you know that I was arrested in early 2014 for illegal behavior in a chatroom that happened in late 2013. I encouraged a girl who I was unaware at the time was underage to perform sex acts on herself. At the end of our session, I created two screen captures as “trophies.” I’m not going to turn this into a giant rehash of exactly what happened or include my typical disclaimers about blaming myself, not the addiction. You can find them many places on this site.

It was obvious to the judge I wasn’t a serial offender but rather an ill person who took strides to get better, but you can’t do what I did and get away with it. I think a lot of discretion was shown in the fact I only served six months compared to what I could have done.

I appreciate that discretion. I was a guy who made a terrible mistake, not a pedophile, child stalker or anything of that ilk.

In the six years since the crime took place, I’ve been called a pedophile twice. It wasn’t out of malice. It was out of generally not understanding what the term means.

A pedophile is somebody who is attracted to children above the age of infant, but who have not yet reached puberty. There is also a difference between a pedophile and a criminal. Not all pedophiles are criminals. Most never act out on their attraction.

Both in rehab and as part of the ongoing legal case, I took several assessments to test for my likelihood of recidivism. It was as non-existent as the tests could score.

The fact my victim was underage was not lost on anyone, but based on the fact I’d done similar things in chat rooms with over a dozen adult women and the teenager in question could realistically pass for an adult, I was not cast a sex offender with a taste for underage girls, which was entirely correct.

Meeting the offenders

All of that said, when I was released from jail, I was court-mandated to participate in a weekly meeting of people who were on probation and had similar crimes. There were a few guys, like me, who I believe just made horrible mistakes. There were also several guys who – in a non-contact way – had been acting on their pedophilic tendencies for quite sometime before being arrested, sentenced and released.

Some of them were too ashamed to ever talk in any detail about it and others genuinely wanted to get beyond it and move on to having normal lives. Having spent a year seeing these men weekly (I was moved to a different group that only met monthly after a year – again, deemed no risk to re-offend) I felt like I got to know them on a personal level and I got the feeling that they couldn’t be “cured” but that they could develop the tools to not succumb to their attraction.

These men didn’t talk in graphic terms of what they saw in the underage pornography they looked at or why they were attracted to it, but I can’t remember a single one who struck me as the kind of person who would take that attraction off the computer screen and actually harm a child. Most clearly had co-occurring addictions and/or mental health disorders and it seemed like the pornography they used was a certain way to cope, leaning toward their pathology.

This is largely what they are arguing in California. A passage from the LA Times article that ran Monday, December 9, 2019:


Sharon O’Hara, a Los Angeles County therapist who began her career treating rape survivors, said people “with true porn addictions tend to look at everything.”
“They are looking for intensity,” she said. “It is the intensity and shock value” they seek.
She compared them to people who play violent video games but lack a propensity for violence in real life.
Ira Ellman, one of several scholars who joined a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, said the state law is based on misconceptions.
“Half of the people who molest children don’t test positive for pedophilia, and a lot of people who do test positive for pedophilia are almost at zero risk for molesting a child,” said Ellman, a retired law and psychology professor from Arizona State University and now a scholar at UC Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Law and Society.
The scholars cite a federal government study that followed men whose only sexual offense was viewing child pornography and found that 96.4% committed no contact sexual crime during an 8½-year follow-up period. A 2010 study found that “online offenders rarely go on to commit contact sexual offenses.”
Therapy may not be able to change a person’s sexual interest in minors, Ellman said, but it can help someone control impulses and avoid criminal acts.
People who molest children are likely to have antisocial personality traits, including lack of empathy, the scholars said, and therapists can identify them.
“I am not suggesting there is nothing wrong with looking at pictures of kids,” Ellman said. “Obviously, the creation of such a picture requires horrible abuse of a child. Everybody agrees that is a horrible thing.”

What to do?

I could present another dozen statistics that are in line with what these experts from the LA Times article are saying. There really is no connection between a hands-off crime leading to hands-on crimes. The link has never been made.

Here’s where the whole thing may fall apart for me. The people looking at the underage pornography are still consumers. Most never purchased it, but they are creating the demand for the product. If there was nobody who wanted to see the stuff, it stands to reason that far less would be made, right?

Any child who appears in any of those photos is a victim. Sure, maybe it’s not a violent sex act, but a “harmless” photo of them on a nude beach from a vacation in 2008. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being naked on a beach where it is allowed, but I do think there is a problem with posting a photograph of anybody – child or adult – at one of those beaches in a state of undress without their consent.

If a nude photo of me from a beach ended up on the Internet now, I probably wouldn’t fret too much. However, if I had been 13 or 14 in one of those photos and it fell into the wrong hands of people I knew when I was in my 20s, I could see some severe long-term PTSD happening and a life with more therapy than I’ve already needed. The reality is, I can’t imagine a situation where any child, no matter what is happening in the photograph itself, provided their consent.

If somebody is perpetuating this underground network of underage pornography to continue, that’s a crime. Perhaps if they are downloading pictures and videos from peer-to-peer networks there is no supplier making money, but should the producer making money be our litmus test to determine if this is wrong? No. Looking at underage pornography is wrong. We all know this.

From a philosophical standpoint, everything I just argued makes sense, but in reality, reporting every consumer of underage pornography in California – heck, reporting every consumer in America – is not going to end the international problem and do we want to clog up our court system with people who clearly need rehabilitation, not incarceration? If a therapist reports their client for admitting to look at underage pornography, you risk potentially moving the client from an environment of rehabilitation into one of incarceration. Isn’t that exactly not what is best? The perfect-world philosophy and real-world circumstances are clearly at odds here.

Should California look the other way at perpetuating this underground industry, as Maine does, under the guise that the consumer will likely not physically offend? Isn’t it better, as many of the experts believe, that the patient feel comfortable enough to share this information and address their issue before it gets worse? If they can be given tools to fight their urges now, the situation may not worsen in the future, but if they know they’ll end up being reported to authorities, there is no incentive for them to share their tendencies, which will likely continue without therapeutic attention.

This feels like one of those situations where this is no clear-cut correct answer and you’re almost picking the least of two evils. I just go back and forth on which option is the lesser of the two.




17 thoughts on “Should Those Who Look at Underage Pornography Be Allowed to Tell Their Therapists Without Fear of Consequences?

  1. Therapist are no policemen. You should be free to discus everything in therapy, otherwise what is the point in talking? Every person is unique and the situation is unique. What, like you said, looking at such pictures happens when a person is out of reality and cleary ill?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. As a therapist you work with your client, so his or hers mental health comes first. On legal things you need to follow guidelines I mean on sc risk or forming a direct threath to others. And then it would be good that you would come up with a plan to help the person.
        Therapists are also bound by their professional secrecy which you cannot overstep whenever you want. With child abuse you can only report when there is a plan in place to take the child out of the situation immediately. Those are the only things I know you are obliged to report.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I guess it strikes me as the kind of thing that grey area isn’t necessarily a good thing. At one age range of victim should be mandatory vs. non-mandatory reporting? Some therapists are less skilled than others, so is a given therapist always going to be able to accurately determine level of risk? And if the underage porn viewer stops seeing the therapist a couple of visits later, what then?

    I agree that not all people who consume underage porn need to be dealt with via the legal system, but when it comes to child welfare I think society expects legislators to err on the side of an abundance of caution.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. All I can say is letting a 10 year old look at porn is the equivalent of letting them take a shot of vodka or snort a line of cocaine at that age. They can’t handle, much less control, the effect it will have on them going forward in their lives. The end result is rarely good.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. It is my understanding that in Alberta everyone is required to report any abuse of children – and I think viewing pornography of someone under the age of 18 would likely fall into that category. Therapists and counsellors have to report serious breaches in the law, including the use of child pornography. Essentially, society is protecting minors who are either not making wise choices or who are being exploited by others to make money. If there is no market (or if using that market leads to serious penalties) then underage girls are less likely to be drawn into behaviours that (I believe) have long term negative effects and consequences.
    Yes, it can be argued that users end up in prison rather than in rehabilitation centres. However, there are some people who would never risk doing something that would send them to prison. Addiction is a slippery slope. I genuinely believe some people stop and get help earlier because there are lines they fear crossing. It’s not true for everyone – but it is for some.


      1. Yes, it does create a problem. It’s not a straightforward issue at all. Certainly, it could be argued that it would be good to get help without being punished. In the past, people could talk to religious leaders and they were exempt from reporting to the police. I’m not sure what the situation is with clergy anymore. I used to live in the UK and at the point I moved to Canada, you could still talk to a minister or priest without fear of being reported.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It seems to differ quite a bit from country to country. As a professional you have secrecy which is taken very seriously. And how do you know it’s 100% true without the evidence? In my country it would be unthinkable to report straight away. I think a psychiatrist needs to be involved, a group of other professionals and when really serious I would refer to a forensic setting or a forensic psychologist. We report very little here, like the priests. And when you report, can they call you to court to testify?


  5. We need a way for people who find themselves tempted to, or actually viewing illegal/abusive images (as pointed out, these are not always the same thing) to get help to stop before the justice system kicks in. If our main aim is to stop this behaviour then making help available without the risk of conviction, this surely makes sense – if nothing else, it’s a lot cheaper! In the UK we do have ‘Stop It’ and I certainly wish I’d turned to them before the police appeared on my doorstep, but in general, here at least, it’s pretty much impossible to seek professional help without being reported in some way or another. Once convicted, that changes quite dramatically.

    So no, I do not believe therapists should report those seeking to tackle their need to look at such images. I would draw ‘the line’ where it’s clear that children are at risk of abuse by that person. I know that, in broad terms, the very fact the images are being viewed could lead to abuse in the production of further images but, in terms of the amount of additional risk, stopping viewing this stuff without involving the law seems a better option.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You bring up a ton of great points, as do others. Maybe there’s some kind of provision for age, or what is happening in the photos that also dictates what happens next. It’s a complicated question because there are so many masters to serve and as you’ve pointed out, it’s not just a difficult question that we face here in America.


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