Virtual child pornography - including drawings, paintings or computer-generated images - was made illegal in 2002. Photo: Louie Douvis
A call by two Dutch sexologists for "virtual" child pornography to be legalised so as to assuage paedophiles' desires has sparked fierce debate in the Netherlands.
Sexologists Rik van Lunsen and Erik van Beek of Amsterdam University Hospital (AMC) last month floated the idea of creating child pornography using drawings or computer-generated images.
How far should it go? How realistic should the images be?Peter de Vries, crime journalist
"If you make virtual child pornography under strict government control with some kind of label explaining that no child was abused, you can give paedophiles a way of regulating their sexual urges," Van Beek said, calling for an enquiry or at least public debate on the issue.
Virtual child pornography — including drawings, paintings or computer-generated images — was made illegal in 2002 as rapidly developing technology made increasingly photo-realistic images possible.
As with "traditional" child porn, creating, owning or sharing such images is currently punishable by up to four years in prison in the Netherlands.
"I think that repressing your fantasies can lead to frustration and, ultimately, for some types of paedophile, to a greater likelihood of doing something wrong," Van Beek said.
Around 1 per cent of the Dutch population of 16.5 million has paedophile preferences, mainly men, but only a tiny fraction will ever abuse children, noted the sexologist.
Many of them will moreover never feel the need to live their sexuality through child pornography.
The two sexologists' suggestion sparked fierce debate in Dutch media, blogs and discussion forums, as the idea has turned out to be controversial even in the free-thinking Netherlands.
For former parliament speaker Gerdi Verbeet, "it's really not a good idea".
"It would be an enormous responsibility for the government," she said during a debate on public television, noting that it might also be impossible to tell the virtual images from the real.
Crime journalist Peter de Vries said during the same debate that the proposal "could work", but that the potential problems were many.
"How far should it go? How realistic should the images be?" he asked.
Internet discussion forums overflowed with mostly critical comments, from "Don't do this to our children!" to asking why paedophiles don't just use their imagination.
"The proposal isn't really pertinent and for some people it will certainly increase the likelihood of going through with [sexual abuse]," warned psychotherapist Jules Mulder of the De Waag clinic.
Mulder, who specialises in treating paedophiles, noted that it would be very difficult to cover all "tastes".
"Some want photos of naked children, others want children having sex while someone else wants an eight-year-old boy with dark hair and a certain look in his eyes," he said.
"It's not possible to satisfy these different desires with a bit of virtual child pornography."
MP Myrthe Hilkens from the left-leaning PvdA party has put questions to Justice Minister Ivo Opstelten on the matter and he is to issue a written reply in the coming days.
The sexologists know their proposal is controversial but they also want to break what they say is a taboo.
"We don't make enough of a distinction in public debate between 'healthy' paedophiles, people who are not paedosexually active, and delinquent paedosexuals," said Van Lunsen, the head of the AMC's sexology department.
"We're not responsible for our thoughts or our fantasies, we're only responsible for one thing: our actions."
Most paedophiles who come to Van Lunsen for consultation have "a major feeling of guilt", have sometimes attempted suicide and ask him to ensure they are never tempted to abuse children.
"Regardless of the question of whether this can reduce abuse, I think that it's a courageous proposal," Jos de Mul, anthropologist at Rotterdam's Erasmus University, told the Protestant Trouw newspaper a few days after it published the initial story.
"They're breaking an enormous taboo."
But the Dutch branch of the Defence for Children International charity said that it was opposed to the proposal.
"It's preferable for paedophiles to learn to control themselves in a different way," it said.