An open letter to John Grisham: Child pornography consumers are “real pedophiles”

October 23, 2014 | By Ryan Dalton


I grew up reading your books. Your characters had an influence on my young mind and their stories gave me impressions of the legal world that I will never forget. In fact, I still have nearly a whole shelf in my library dedicated to your works. Eventually, I decided to become a lawyer, went to law school, and now my career is in human trafficking law and policy. I am responsible for analyzing state laws and making recommendations to state legislatures in order to improve their laws so children are not exploited by sexual predators, including consumers of child pornography.

I am writing you because your comments in your recent interview promoting your new book where you criticized harsh prison sentences for those who view child pornography were discouraging and harmful. Frankly, I’m a little surprised and really disappointed.

John, there is an astonishing demand in America for sex with children. These men who pay for sex with children are acting on fantasies they have cultivated through the consumption of child pornography. Consumption of child pornography is not harmless or a victimless crime. Child pornography includes the recorded production of a real child experiencing real sexual abuse and exploitation. Viewers can normalize the sexual assault of a child and seek to actualize the experience, further victimizing more children.  According to the Demanding Justice Project report, buyers who solicit sex from children are also often involved in production or dissemination of child pornography. It is undeniable that consumers of child pornography drive the demand for sex with real children.

In your interview, you distinguished those who physically victimize children from those who “haven’t hurt anybody” by downloading images of children involved in sex acts. Your distinction is hollow. The collective desire for child pornography creates an illicit market where child exploiters are going to provide images of sexual acts with children that they have produced for the demand. While the child is not being physically victimized by the person who downloads an image of a child, the production of that child’s victimization was done for the consumer. Each time that child’s photo is downloaded, the image of that child is used for the sexual gratification of someone who may ultimately act on that fantasy. Why aren’t you willing to call that person a pedophile? Both are “real pedophiles.”

In your interview, you told the story of your friend who was caught in a sting by law enforcement for visiting a website offering images of “16 year old wannabe hookers” and justified his behavior by claiming they “looked 30” and were “not ten year old boys.” You probably don’t know much about human trafficking or child exploitation, so I am going to give you the benefit of the doubt and explain why both those statements are, at best, uneducated.

Those 16 year old girls who “looked 30” were groomed by their exploiters and sexualized to appear older than they actually are. This is a tragically common strategy that sex traffickers use to entice buyers who are looking for sex with children. Have you ever known any 16 year old girls whose career dreams involved becoming a “wannabe hooker?” The dark reality is that these children are forced into the commercial sex industry at young ages through manipulation, coercion, deceit, and abuse of trust.

All children are worthy of protection from pedophiles, regardless of their age or gender. You further tried to justify your friend’s decision to download child pornography by distinguishing “ten year old boys” from the “16 year old wannabe hookers,” as if to say that child pornography involving young minor girls is not as worthy of prosecution as child pornography depicting younger minor boys. The broken philosophy underpinning this statement reflects cultural attitudes toward prostitution and children, especially girls. Children are not prostitutes, they are exploited, and that is equally true for the child pornography depicting the 16-year-old girls and the ten-year-old boys. Both offenses deserve harsh penalties.

Judicial reform is a serious and urgent topic. But child pornography convictions don’t deserve lighter penalties; in many states the penalties are far too lenient in comparison to federal penalties for the same offenses.

John, there is a war in American culture and media for the innocence of children. Every time you say that your friend merely “pushed the wrong buttons” and found himself on a child pornography website, you absolve him from responsibility. This has to stop. Men must stand up to protect the exploited and be honest about the consequences of consuming child pornography with themselves and with other men. Nothing is more urgent.


-Ryan Dalton

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Written by Ryan Dalton

Ryan Dalton, Esq. is policy counsel and the Demanding Justice Project campaign manager for Shared Hope International. He also is the co-founder of Rescue Forensics, a big data digital forensic which targets online human trafficking. Previously, Ryan served as the Director of Anti-Trafficking Operations with Operation Broken Silence and as a Law Fellow for Shared Hope International. He received B.S. degrees in International Relations and Philosophy from the University of Memphis and received his Juris Doctor from the Cecil C. Humphrey's School of Law. Ryan researched and lobbied for laws to significantly improve Tennessee’s anti-trafficking legal framework. He serves as a source of expertise on anti-trafficking law to governmental agencies and on the Tennessee Human Trafficking Task Force. Ryan developed the CARE network, a multi-disciplinary collection of agencies and professionals on the front lines of anti-trafficking work in Memphis. Ryan is published on human trafficking law and is the recipient of the Dean’s Distinguished Service Award from Memphis Law School, the 2013 Outstanding Law Student Award from the National Association of Women’s Lawyers, a House Joint Resolution honoring him from the Tennessee General Assembly, and has been featured in Memphis Magazine and by the National Association of Legal Professionals.

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Shared Hope International strives to prevent the conditions that foster sex trafficking, restore victims of sex slavery, and bring justice to vulnerable women and children.

We envision a world passionately opposed to sex trafficking and a committed community restoring survivors to lives of purpose, value, and choice — one life at a time.

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