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Pre-teen Modeling ... Legal Child Pornography?

E-mail Lis

Red carpets. Photo shoots. Makeup artists. Hair extensions. Expensive outfits.

And we’re not talking Glamour or Vogue super model shots.

Instead, pre-teen models dreaming of becoming supermodels are preening for the cameras. But does pre-teen modeling lead to stardom — or exploitation? Many child models are used in catalogs and commercials and I’m not worried about that ... but I am concerned about Web sites that showcase less-than-legal age “models” in less than innocent positions.

While always clothed, the young beauties are posed in ways which leave us suspicious of just who they’re "vogue-ing" for. When I saw some of these Web sites I wondered about whether some of them could be considered illegal under child pornography laws.

Now I realize that models have been around since there were clothes to strut down the runway. Child modeling, on the other hand, is a more recent phenomenon developed rapidly through internet Web sites that display portfolios of child models. Parents who support pre-teen modeling say that this exposure helps develop these children into better adult models, and earns money for their college education. Others — cynics or realists, you decide — feel that pre-teen modeling is a sexploitation fantasy world that links pedophiles to unknowing children.

A Web search for “legal pre-teen model Web sites” generates about 12,400 hits. Some Web sites do only show children in conventional photos in which the children are portrayed in age-appropriate activities and attire. Other Web sites —sadly a majority of them— show children in, to put it gently, less than appropriate poses and clothing. Site after site portrays little girls with make-up, hairdos, scant clothing, and erotic poses that make most moms’ jaws drop. Many sites offer membership for fees of about $20 a month to simply view the photos.

In addition, some have videos available for purchase for about $29.95. These sites mention no contact information to hire the pre-teen models for future jobs, or availability of the clothes modeled for purchase—clearly showing the sites’ only profit coming from membership dues or video revenue. How can they get away with this? Let’s go from pause to play and find out.

The sites post these suggestive poses with a disclaimer that apparently fits perfectly through a loophole in our laws. Each site has the identical disclaimer: All models on this site have their parents consent to appear on this site and have signed authorization and Model release papers. NO NUDE or sexual oriented pictures inside. Only art images you will find here. But aren’t these legal “pre-teen model” sites effectively getting away with child pornography-lite, and at the children’s expense? And of course I had to wonder, aren’t there laws to protect us from this sort of thing?

There are federal laws and state laws that protect our children from this industry. The Protection of Children Against Sexual Exploitation Act of 1977 is a federal law that prohibits the “lascivious exhibition of the genitals or pubic area” of a child, and can include “non-nude depictions.” The problem with prosecuting many of these Web sites under this Federal Act, however, is that prosecutors would have to prove “lascivious intent” on the part of the Web site owners or parents in order to have a valid claim — and this is is not an easy task given that the Web sites classify these young children as “models” and include the “art form” disclaimer.

State law may be an easier win, depending on whether a particular state has granted more protection. State statutes vary, but “reckless endangerment” of a child may be a potential legal remedy. That only requires a prosecutor show that posing for the Web site subjected the child to a “substantial risk of harm.” Arguably, the pre-teen modeling Web sites present both potential physical harm from a pedophile stalker and potential psychological problems from being exploited. A prosecutor would have to show concrete risks to children from working with these pre-teen modeling sites though, rather than just the hypothetical about the potential dangers —which may be hard to do.

And shutting down these Web sites presents the question of freedom of expression under the First Amendment. We tolerate many disturbing things in the name of our First Amendment, and the bad and the ugly come with the good! The President of the National Center for Missing and Exploited teens, Dr. Ernie Allen, expressed the organization’s position on child “model” sites: “Outrageous! Our view is that they clearly exploit children and take advantage of the fine legal distinction between illegal child pornography and child erotica. The overwhelming motive and intended purpose is to whet the appetite of child predators and pedophiles.”

Some members of Congress seem to have taken on a similar outlook. The “Child Modeling Exploitation Prevention Act of 2002” would have prohibited employing or displaying a minor under the age of 17 in “exploitive child modeling,” which was defined as “the display of a minor without a direct or indirect purpose of marketing a product or service other than the minor.” The bill was referred to the Committee on Education and the Workforce in 2002, and the Committee on the Judiciary. It never became law though.

And that’s the closest we’ve gotten to closing this legal loophole. So is the war over, or has it just begun? I guess only time will tell. I just hope these pre-teen "models" aren’t the ones to pay the price for our dragging our collective heels.


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Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.