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Cory Silverberg

What Is Virtual Pornography?

By June 26, 2009

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This CNN headline caught my attention yesterday morning:

Tennessee man charged in 'virtual pornography' case

I clicked on the link assuming the story was about someone charged for possessing porn that was completely user generated, pictures or videos of avatars or animated characters either engaged in violent sex or characters who were clearly created to look like minors. In fact, the porn in question is of real people with real bodies:

the photos feature the faces of three young girls placed on the nude bodies of adult females…two of the faces were of local girls -- a 10-year-old and 12-year-old, the station reported. The third face appears to be Miley Cyrus…

According to the CNN piece this is an increasingly common problem where individuals are using photo manipulation to try and avoid prosecution for child pornography charges. In 2002 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a law that made such images illegal. The wording in what was the Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996 referred to both computer-generated images and real photos that had been manipulated as being “virtual child pornography”.

I think I was surprised by this use of the term “virtual pornography” because when I think “virtual” I think of something that’s other than real. Interestingly the government’s definition turns on exactly the opposite understanding. They claimed the harm from virtual pornography comes from the fact that it is “virtually indistinguishable” from real pornography. I don’t know if the un-footnoted use of the term virtual in a definition of the term virtual bothered anyone involved in the writing of the Act, but it reminds me of Peter Sellers “lascivious adulterer” scene in What’s New, Pussycat? I’m not particularly interested in demanding a clear distinction between real and virtual here. But I find it odd that in the case of pornography CNN chooses to refer to real photos, which have been digitally altered as “virtual” yet I doubt that they have ever referred to the cover of People Magazine or Vanity Fair as the “virtual cover image”. What I’m interested in is how the media are constructing these two terms, contrasting them, and feeding them back to us.

There’s a larger question to be dealt with about whether pornography and child pornography share anything in common or are categorically distinct. What I’m interested in is legal adult pornography and how the increasingly blurry lines between what is real and what is virtual will play out in the production and consumption of porn.

Here’s another example. I was on one of the popular porn portals the other day, the kind of site that has tens of thousands of free video clips of porn which you can browse through by category. I was amazed to find that inside the different categories, the site was displaying porn featuring real people side by side with porn featuring avatars and animated images, without distinguishing them. So the real porn clip found in the “oral” category was right beside a porn clip featuring two avatars that looked sort of human, but clearly were computer generated. I wondered whether that decision was thought about at all, and what long-term effect it might have on what we find arousing.

Related - Sex Tech FAQ ; Is Virtual Sex Real Sex? ; Interactive Porn

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