What’s wrong with this pornographic picture? (Don’t worry, there aren’t any images in this post)

When I was much, much younger, my fellow pupils were highly amused by a 200th generation photocopy of various crude drawings depicting Mickey Mouse having sex with Minnie Mouse. If they’d been caught, they’d have been in trouble. If they were pupils now and got caught, would they end up on the sex offenders’ register? If they lived in Australia, yes.

Cartoon characters are people too, a judge has ruled in the case of a man convicted over sexually explicit cartoons based on The Simpsons.

In the Australian New South Wales Supreme Court today, Justice Michael Adams ruled that a fictional cartoon character was a “person” within the meaning of the relevant state and commonwealth laws.

Alan John McEwan was appealing his February conviction for possessing child pornography and using his computer to access child pornography.

“The alleged pornography comprised a series of cartoons depicting figures modelled on members of the television animated series The Simpsons,” the judge said.

The cartoons showed characters such as Bart, Lisa and Maggie Simpson having sex.

McEwan was convicted and fined $3000 and placed on a good behaviour bond.

To be fair, the UK’s anti-porn legislation doesn’t cover cartoons – although as we discovered this week, it can certainly be interpreted as covering horrid album covers from shite rock bands. But clearly, in some parts of the world a cartoon is, legally speaking, identical to a photo of a real person.

How can I put this? I know.

Cartoons aren’t people.

Don’t get me wrong. There are some appalling cartoons out there, many of which depict acts that are beyond illegal and well into the territory of “I didn’t realise human beings could possibly imagine such things, let alone get off on them”. But…

Cartoons aren’t people.

And I do realise that in some cases, cartoonists and the people who view those cartoons are basically doing it to get around the law, and if they thought it was safe to do so they’d be producing and/or looking at photos, not cartoons. But –

Cartoons aren’t people.

This is important, I think, because possessing an image of Bart Simpson doing unspeakable things to Homer, or Marge or whatever isn’t the same thing as possessing an image of a real human being abused. There’s no chain of abuse here, no evil bastards forcing cartoon characters into abusive situations to satisfy the warped desires of the credit card-wielding internet public. Because – and I think you know what I’m going to say here – cartoons aren’t people. The whole rationale behind criminalising possession rather than production of certain kinds of pornography is to protect the people who appear in the photographs. In the case of cartoon porn, there are no people to protect.

Of course, you could also argue that acting isn’t reality, and that if certain kinds of pornography are fantasies acted out by professional actors, then there’s nobody to protect there either. But that’s a great big can of worms that I’d rather not open.

You could also argue that people who do view cartoons are more likely to view the real stuff, and that a proportion of those people will go on to enact their fantasies in real life. Which may well be true, but if your legal system is based on presumed innocence, you can’t convict somebody of a crime you think they *might* commit.

More importantly, all I know about this case is from a single-source article that’s been reproduced widely. It’s possible that the defendant had loads of illegal porn, of which the cartoon stuff was only a tiny proportion, and that the appeal was a rather desperate idea by his lawyer. But in the absence of any more information, and based on the judge’s comment that the pornography was “comprised of” Simpsons porn, it does seem to be the case that the judge has ruled that cartoons are people. Which, as I may have mentioned, they aren’t.

This is important because some elements of the community see things in shades of black and white. A sex offender is a sex offender, and angry mobs don’t bother to check whether the offence was dogging, having sex with a 15-year old girlfriend when you’re 16, or actively preying on children. Sometimes they don’t even bother to check whether people actually are sex offenders: I think I’ve written about this before, but a few years back a big employer in the next town to me sacked a bunch of blokes for accessing porn at work. The word got out, and windows were smashed, wives were spat on in the street… you know the drill. The thing is, the porn they had been looking at wasn’t illegal at all. They weren’t sacked because they’d been downloading horrific stuff; they were sacked because they were supposed to be working.

In that example, sections of the local community simply decided that they were dealing with a bunch of Gary Glitters. Do you really think if someone’s convicted of possessing obscene drawings – and ends up on the sex offenders register – that the local vigilantes will stop to ask – “hey! Was it real or was it merely a depiction of imagined acts on fictional characters?”

When we’re talking about indecent images, technology is creating ever more shades of grey. For example:

According to the results of a survey released today by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and CosmoGirl.com, 22 percent of all teen girls — and 11 percent of teen girls ages 13-16 years old — say they have electronically sent, or posted online, nude or semi-nude images of themselves.

And these racy images are also getting passed around: One-third (33 percent) of teen boys and one-quarter (25 percent) of teen girls say they have had nude/semi-nude images — originally meant to be private — shared with them.

Around the world, the law is pretty clear on this: possession of any of those images is possession of illegal porn. Do we really want 16, 17-year-old boys put on the sex offenders register for life because they’ve got cameraphone pics of their girlfriends’ tits? What about the people writing slash fiction about Harry Potter and his throbbing purple broomstick? Are they really a menace to society? Or even to wizards?

[12 Dec: reworded a few bits because they were a bit rambly]