They’re out there right now – by the next pump at the gas station, in the supermarket aisle, sitting across from us in the doctor’s waiting room. They look and sound just like everyone else going about their humdrum daily routine. But their world differs from the rest of ours.

They’re scared whenever they’re out in public. Some recoil at the sight of a raised cellphone camera. A casual glance from a passerby – no big deal to most – can instantly catapult them back to when they were a child being sexually abused by demented adults and it felt like the whole world was watching.

“The sound of a camera, someone holding up a smartphone, or some other form of camera, takes them back to that moment when they were filmed,” Yiota Souras, vice president and general counsel for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, told me. She was talking about victims of child pornography – a crime that occurs not just once but every time anyone logs onto a computer or other device and watches over … and over … and over again.

I’d called Souras not to talk about last week’s arrest of Eliot Cutler on four counts of possession of sexually explicit material of a child under 12. Stunning as that news was, the downfall of one of Maine’s wealthiest and most prominent political figures should not be foremost in the public consciousness right now.

Rather, as Cutler joins a long parade of men charged with finding, downloading and ogling images that should never have been out there in the first place, now is a time to focus on the survivors of the abuse. Innocent children who had no power to stop what deviant grownups once did to them – and no power to stop those who troll the internet, every hour of every day for perpetuity, feasting on those photos and videos to feed their own depravity.

“There certainly are plenty of survivors for whom the existence of the images is an aggravating element of their victimization – contributing to the fact that they can’t put this episode in their life behind them,” said David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center.


Finkelhor co-authored a research project titled “The Complex Experience of Child Pornography Survivors.” The study was based on a 2013 survey of 133 adult survivors of child pornography – roughly two-thirds of them female, one-third male – and examined the impact the experience had both on their childhoods and later in their adult lives.

In 93 percent of the cases, the perpetrator was either a family member or acquaintance. Almost all of those surveyed were sexually molested during the production of the pornography. Three out of four endured their exploitation for more than a year.

The impact back then? As children, 74 percent of the survivors reported feeling ashamed or guilty all of the time. In addition, 54 percent worried that people would think they were a willing participant, 51 percent felt they were at fault for the creation of the images, and 48 percent feared being recognized in public.

The effects later in life? The study participants’ words speak more powerfully, and devastatingly, than any statistic:

“Even after 30 years, I still worry the photos or films will someway return to haunt me or my family.”

“When a man approaches at a grocery store and tells me that he knows me from somewhere or that he recognizes me … I get so scared that he has seen my images. I don’t know how to handle that.”


“I can’t run for public office or speak in public beyond a certain level for fear of my photo getting out there.”

“I still have a hard time letting anyone take a picture of me – even a family portrait.”

“I have no idea what has happened to the pictures and it is very disturbing to imagine that those pictures are still out there and people still look at them.”

Souras at NCMEC said there’s yet another layer of anguish that keeps many survivors awake at night: that the pictures and videos once taken of them are now used to cajole a new generation of children into doing the unspeakable in front of a camera.

“We know the offenders use these images to normalize the behavior with other children,” she said. “They might show (a child in their care) images and say, ‘This is what you do as you grow up. This is what you do with your parent. This is what you do with people you love. Look, there’s nothing wrong with this!’”

Such coercion is as ubiquitous as it is repulsive. Last week, NCMEC issued an annual summary from its CyberTipline – used by victims, online providers and others to report cases of sex trafficking and other online crimes against children.


In 2021, the organization reported, it received 29.3 million reports of suspected child exploitation. That’s a 35 percent increase over 2020.

Both Souras and Finkelhor attribute the ever-increasing numbers to the ease with which child pornography can now be produced, disseminated and consumed. Where once this activity took place underground – with stealthily developed film and unmarked packages sent surreptitiously through the mail – it’s now accessible to anyone with a digital device and an internet connection.

At the same time, beyond the technological convenience, Souras noted that such proliferation perversely normalizes the behavior.

“An offender who might say, ‘I think this is probably wrong,’ goes into a chat group or finds somewhere online where there are, you know, 500 offenders trading those images,” she said. “That changes their perspective. They think, ‘Well, this is a community.’ ”

Which, in turn, perpetuates the myth that there’s nothing wrong with “just looking,” or that because there’s no direct contact between the person watching and the child being abused, it’s somehow a “victimless crime.”

To anyone who engages in such rationalization, UNH’s Finkelhor offers a simple suggestion.

“Turn the tables and say, ‘This is the worst moment of (a child’s) life and it’s being sent around for everybody to look at,’ ” he said. “Even (the casual child pornography viewer) would recognize that there’s some harm involved in that.”

Remember that as Eliot Cutler’s case winds its way through the court system. Attention-grabbing as all those headlines may be, what’s happening to him right now pales by comparison to the countless children, past and present, whose lives were forever upended – through no fault of their own – by a miscreant and a record button.

As yet another of those survivors noted in Finkelhor’s study, “The molesting or rape eventually stops. But images keep forever.”

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