Child porn: ‘The heart of darkness’

The highly secretive nature of the industry, primarily through the dark web, makes it difficult to gauge the size of the child pornography market. (John McCann)

The highly secretive nature of the industry, primarily through the dark web, makes it difficult to gauge the size of the child pornography market. (John McCann)

On a Thursday afternoon in January this year, Eva Wolmarans* did what she does every weekday: she picked up her 11-year-old daughter, Maria*, from school. But on that seemingly regular Thursday afternoon, Maria, strapped into the backseat of their car, hesitantly held her mother’s gaze in the rearview mirror and said: “Oom Walter peter met my [Uncle Walter fiddles with me].”

Oom Walter was Wolmarans’s partner.

“She was looking at me and speaking to me in that rearview mirror,” says Wolmarans. “And I honestly don’t know how I got us home that day.
I’m telling you, I didn’t see a red light or a green light or a stop sign.

“When she started talking I registered nothing … All I did was look at her face in that mirror. I was so shocked, because he is the most awesome man you can get — so helpful, so sensitive.

“But, you know, when something like this comes from your child … I always believe that, from the mouth of a child, you will hear the truth.”

Then she was hit with another shocking truth — that, for years, her daughter’s sexual abuse had been filmed and photographed. He had photographed her in the bathtub, Maria said, filmed her “laying naked on the bed [while he] opened her legs and … did things”.

Determined to find evidence against the alleged abuser, Wolmarans went through his computer. She discovered in excess of 400 files containing child pornography. “And that was only on one of his hard drives,” she says, incredulously.

Although her sleuthing resulted in him being arrested, the images will always haunt her.

“It was terrible … just so terrible,” she says. “The one thing I remember seeing was a man — probably the child’s father of whatever — and this child, about eight years old, lying on a bed, naked. And he would pull open her legs and take the video — from the front, from the back — while he touched her. It’s terrible.

“You can’t think that a person could do that to a child. And in some of the photos, small children —
six, maybe seven years old — would be dressed up in the typical image people have of sex workers: high-heeled shoes, fishnet stockings, with full make-up on and their hair done up, in really very, very explicit pictures.

“It is …” she trails off, before adding: “No, I can’t think what those children must be going through.”

Child pornography has again been brought under the microscope with the criminal trial of a Johannesburg man, Robert de Vries, who has been charged with 107 counts of possessing, creating, importing and distributing child pornography. De Vries, who is accused of peddling child pornography from as far back as 1998, was caught while selling the images and video clips internationally.

On Thursday, the Johannesburg high court found him guilty on all charges. Sentencing had to be postponed, however, as his attorney was not present.

In handing down the sentence today, the High Court sentenced De Vries to 15 years’ direct imprisonment. This despite the total sentence adding up to 835 years. This was done, the court found, because “punishment and deterrence should not be a sledgehammer”. 

Miranda Jordan-Friedmann is the founder and director of Women & Men Against Child Abuse (Wamaca).

“This is the very heart of darkness,” she says. “Images of child abuse traded over the internet are fast becoming more graphic and sadistic and increasingly involve younger children, toddlers and even babies. Over the past three years, the number of images involving the severe abuse, including the penetrative and sadistic sexual abuse of younger children, has quadrupled.”

The highly secretive nature of
the industry, primarily through the dark web, makes it difficult to gauge the size of the child pornography market, according to Jordan-Friedmann.

The dark web is only accessible by means of special software, allowing users and website operators to remain anonymous or untraceable.

The Wamaca website notes: “Child porno­­graphy is a multibillion-dollar industry and among the fastest-growing criminal segments on the internet, according to the USA National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children and other
international sources. New technology such as inexpensive digital cameras and internet distribution has made it easier then ever before to produce and distribute child pornography.”

Although the South African Police Service’s serial electronic crimes unit — working in tandem with Interpol and the FBI, among others — has made some headway in cracking down on child pornographers, Jordan-Friedmann adds that, “for every possessor or distributor they arrest, there are 70 more. And they have 70 more. This is a network with tentacles all over the globe.”

She says that South Africa “suffers from the reputation of being the dumping ground for the worst kinds of pornography”.

Heila Niemand, the investigations commander at Gauteng’s serial electronic crimes unit, says that, despite successes in securing convictions in numerous cases, “we are only scratching the tip of the iceberg. They are difficult to track.”

For Jordan-Friedmann, her frustration is exacerbated by the fact that, “looking at these images really kills your soul, because you know that every one of those poor children you see in these images or videos is dead. If not now at the hands of a sadist, then decades from now from drugs, alcoholism or suicide.”

Rees Mann, the executive director of South African Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse (Samsosa), says the long-term effects on survivors of child pornography are numerous.

“Psychologically, they all see themselves as worthless. They tend to blame and judge themselves, especially if they continue into prostitution,” says Mann. “When they are very young and don’t know anything else, this is the way life becomes for them. They often don’t see any other choice, so they then move on through the sex industry.”

Once those groomed and forced into child pornography reach the age of 16, their “net worth as an asset will be diminished” because of their age. “They will then move out of that circle into prostitution or entrapping other kids and get them into the industry because they would be offered incentives to find other children,” he says.

Whether they break out of this pattern or not, Mann adds, there is “the anxiety they all have for the rest of their lives knowing that they have this ‘footprint’; that these images or videos are out there and that hundreds of millions of people could have access to them”.

“Their entire life is lived in fear of the threat that somebody might pick up pictures or videos of them. So even though they are trying to live as normal a life as possible, there will always be that fear.”

Months after having confided in her mother on that seemingly regular Thursday afternoon, Maria “is fine”, Wolmarans says.

But it’s impossible to come away unscathed after having spent years in “the very heart of darkness”. Maria still carries the scars.

“She has nightmares regularly,” Wolmarans says. “I know, because she sleeps next to me now. And she has these angry outbursts. She is also more distant from her friends, because now she doesn’t have to pretend that she is fine any more. When he did these things to her, he always told her to pretend as though nothing was happening; that everything was fine.”

For years, the brainwashing worked. “One day recently she asked me whether I am cross with her now. I asked her why and she said: ‘Because you know now what happened.’ ”

“You see,” Wolmarans says, breaking down for the first time during the interview, “he always told her that if she ever told me what was happening, I would be angry with her. He made her believe I would say it is her fault. But I told her: ‘No, I am not angry with you; I never will be.’

“But I looked at her,” she adds, wiping away tears and trying to compose herself, “and I told her: ‘My child, this is the biggest present you could ever have given me … because you telling me is the only way I can help you.’

“I told her she gave me the biggest present. Really, the biggest
present.”

* Not their real names.


Talk to your children about abuse, says board

The Film and Publication Board (FPB) said it “strongly condemns the purported sexual abuse of children”.

Sandile Nene, acting chief executive of the board, referred to the global report Hidden in Plain Sight, which he said detailed how violence against children “continues to affect every country, culture and community across the world with devastating impact”.

“The effect of sexually explicit material is an issue which cannot be separated from moral values and beliefs; there is no place for child pornography in our society,” he said.

“We encourage parents, educators and caregivers to have an open discussion with children about the subject of child abuse and child pornography so that children can openly and freely speak out when they are abused or feel that they are at risk.”

He added that pornographic images and videos “may affect the child and parents psychologically. Victims of sexual assault are more likely to develop subsequent psychological disturbances, especially children.”

The board employs two child protection officers whose function is to inspect and analyse content referred to the FPB on suspicion of being child pornography as defined in section 1 e (i), (ii) and (iii) of the Films and Publications Act. Such content is usually referred to the FPB by law enforcement agencies and the public.

The FPB said it will continue to monitor social media sites to check whether child pornography content has been shared and work with internet service providers to ensure that such content does not find space on online platforms.

“Such content is deemed illegal and a request can be made for the images/video to be removed once law enforcement agencies have been notified,” said the FPB.

The board said it has also observed a rise in child pornographic content shared through peer-to-peer instant messaging platforms.

Nthabiseng May, the FPB’s acting chief operations officer, said: “The general public is not fully aware of dangers lurking in cyberspace. We are intensifying our outreach and awareness campaigns to educate learners, parents and educators on how to be vigilant, as sex predators are not strangers but can be individuals known and trusted by our children and communities alike.”

May said the board urged people to contact it whenever they come across inappropriate content in the online space “so that we can ensure that such content is removed from any social media platforms immediately”.

The FPB’s child protection unit also provides counselling and referrals to minimise the psychological effects of pornography. — Staff Reporter

Report child pornography on fpb.org.za or call 0800 148 148 or 012 003 1400

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow fellow at the M&G


The Other Foundation

Carl Collison

Carl Collison

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian. He has contributed to a range of local and international publications, covering social justice issues as well as art and is committed to defending and advancing the human rights of the LGBTI community in Southern Africa. Read more from Carl Collison

    Client Media Releases

    Don't judge a stock by share price alone
    UKZN School of Engineering celebrates accreditation from ECSA
    MTN celebrates 25 years of enhancing lives through superior network connectivity