Thought Crimes

When Bob Dylan wrote, "If my thought-dreams could be seen, they'd put my head in a guillotine," he was expressing a distinction that our culture seems increasingly to blur; namely, that thoughts are not the same as actions, that fantasies are not the same as reality. The Supreme Court's recent ruling that the Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996 unconstitutionally abridged free speech implicitly reaffirmed these distinctions.

Child pornography was made illegal originally to protect the actual children used in its production. In 1996, however, Congress expanded the definition of child pornography to include computer-generated images -- images not of real children but of virtual ones. The ostensible rationale of the bill was that virtual pornography was used by pedophiles to entrap real children and that the viewing of virtual pornography would stimulate the appetites of would-be pedophiles and increase the likelihood that they would then act out their impulses. The Supreme Court correctly rejected this argument, citing the absence of any credible evidence supporting these claims.

As Justice Anthony M. Kennedy pointed out, if we're no longer simply criminalizing the damage done to real children in the production of sexual images, but also the damage potentially done to them by exciting the impulses of the consumers of these images, then thoughts themselves become the crime. Following that logic, a filmmaker who uses an adult woman to portray a 16-year-old girl in sexual situations (as in the film "American Beauty") is potentially harming children, not on the movie set but in the minds of the film's viewers.

Such a position not only threatens free speech and artistic expression, but it contradicts what we know about human psychology. The problem lies in its failure to differentiate between private experience and public behavior, between fantasy and reality.

Every single day the patients in my psychotherapy practice tell me about thoughts and fantasies that are packed with powerful emotions, from rage and sadness to exuberance and sexual excitement. One patient gets so angry with his father that he imagines taking a shotgun and blowing his father's brains out; another has an exciting sexual fantasy about her next-door neighbor; and still another surfs the Web collecting pornographic images of teenage girls. None of these people has any intention of acting on their impulses.

While fantasies do not predict behavior, they do serve important purposes. The homicidal fantasy of the first patient, for example, expressed his fear and helplessness vis-à-vis his real father. Unable to stand up to him in real life, the patient did so in a dramatic way in his daydreams. The second patient used her sexual fantasy about her neighbor to momentarily escape from a deadening marriage. And the patient who pursued his Lolita fantasies on the Web was desperately trying to ward off feelings of depression. Fantasies are not usually rehearsals for action. Often, in fact, they're substitutes.

Clinical experiences like these are not extraordinary. But they shine an especially bright light on the meaning of sexual fantasies, and they belie the argument that fantasies expressed on the Internet lead to dangerous actions. Such fantasies may be pathological in many ways and may even significantly impair an individual's relationships and life satisfactions, but they are simply not usually a prelude to action.

The pedophilic fantasies portrayed on the Internet offend many people because we know that real children are hurt by the sexual predations of adults, an awareness that has grown in our society as a result of victims speaking out -- witness the current revelations about the Catholic Church.

Fantasies about hurtful actions, however, don't necessarily hurt anyone. Such fantasies may disgust or provoke us, but that isn't sufficient reason to outlaw them. For every instance of bizarre sexual behavior there are a million instances of bizarre sexual thoughts. For every case of actual pedophilia, there are thousands of people, mostly men, with pedophilic fantasies. While it might be true that the sexual abuse of children begins with a fantasy, the reverse is not the case.

Human beings use fantasies to express forbidden feelings and wishes, to master and overcome inhibitions and to creatively find comfort in a private arena that isn't subject to public judgment or sanction. We should put our efforts into apprehending, punishing or treating those people who are hurting children in practice, not in their imaginations.

Michael Bader is a psychologist and author of "Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies."

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