Lisa Thompson, Vice President of Research and Education for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, sat down with James Broughel and Patricia Patnode, an IWF Junior Fellow, to discuss the recent scandal with advertisements made by Balenciaga, how to protect children from obscene content online, and some practical challenges with legislative solutions to content moderation and online pornography distribution. 

A few weeks ago, Balenciaga released an ad campaign that lit the internet on fire with outrage. A child was photographed holding some BDSM-inspired accessories, and it was quite obviously in poor taste and very inappropriate. The brand apologized, but the reputational damage will be difficult to repair in the short term. Celebrities continue to announce that they are severing ties with the historic brand, and Balenciaga will probably be doing damage control for all of 2023. The desire to protect children was a powerful motivator for people to demand answers from Balenciaga, and it’s often a tool that policy advocates take advantage of to enact broader change in the world. 

Children are particularly deserving of legal protection, especially considering they often don’t understand the capabilities or effects of the technologies they are using or what their opinion will be on art pieces that their parents involve them in later in life. Consider the famous naked baby on the Nirvana album cover. Now an adult, the child model has unsuccessfully tried to sue for his image being used.

In the case of internet and social media regulation, the federal government seeks to protect children from predators online and restrict data collection, and occasionally updates those protections with tech advancements. The Communications Decency Act (CDA) was passed in 1996 and it is often pointed to as the piece of legislation that let the internet grow and flourish in the United States, largely due to Section 230 in the Act. The CDA prohibits any individual from knowingly transmitting “obscene or indecent” messages to a recipient under the age of 18. It also outlawed the “knowing” display of “patently offensive” materials in a manner “available” to those under 18. In 1998, lawmakers were still concerned about the data collection of children and passed The Children Online Privacy Protections Act (COPPA) to further restrict internet companies from knowingly gathering data from children. 

Almost every year, there are new bills introduced in Congress and in state legislatures to further restrict the ability of minors to exist online and limit the ways internet companies, particularly social media companies, present content to minors. However, it’s a tricky balance to strike between protecting data privacy, allowing freedom of choice, and not discouraging innovation. These bills almost always fail to pass but in 2022, the governor of Utah signed into law the “Device Filter Amendment” which requires all devices that may be used by minors to have what functions as an automatic porn filter that can be turned off for adults. But there is a catch; at least five other states have to enact nearly identical legislation in order for it to take effect. 

Critics say that the law is likely to be tested in court for its constitutional solvency. Practically, there are some device filter apps and firewalls already on the market, and the ultimate determinant is parent attention and involvement. This attention to children’s behavior and mediating screen time isn’t something the government can legislate into reality, or should attempt to. However, encouraging schools to hold parent education seminars on content patrolling and educating kids on the psychological dangers of porn consumption are tangible steps that communities can take.

Lisa Thompson, the Vice President of The National Center on Sexual Exploitation, was kind enough to talk to me and James Broughel about some of the major issues we as a society are facing due to the proliferation of porn online, how online children are, and some limitations of our technology and law enforcement capabilities to deal with bad actors. 

Lisa wisely pointed out that the proliferation of porn and hyper-sexualization is growing because porn users, (58% of adult men, 11% of women) shape culture. Banning children from using websites or punishing an oblivious parent who isn’t aware that their kid has an Instagram account won’t correct the very real societal shift in attitudes towards sex, family life, and what it means to be faithful in a relationship. 

New advancements in artificial intelligence and algorithms will undoubtedly improve the ability of law enforcement to identify inappropriate images online and also help social media websites identify inappropriate materials. I wrote in a previous piece for Discourse Magazine that “there is a major disconnect between the perceived harm of social media and its actual dangers.” That disconnect can produce policies that punish oblivious parents or mandate companies to enact policies that they are not technologically capable of enforcing, or parents already have the option to enforce. We need to be mindful of promoting truly effective policies and encouraging smart parenting tactics for internet usage in our own families and communities. 

TRANSCRIPT (lightly edited for clarity)

James Broughel: Welcome everyone, this is the Culture and Progress Podcast where we talk about how American culture is evolving in the 21st century due to science, the economy, and broader social forces. My name is James Broughel and my co-host is Patricia Patnode, and today we are fortunate enough to be joined by Lisa Thompson, who is Vice President of Research for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. Welcome to the show Lisa!

Lisa Thompson: Thanks for having me. 

James Broughel: We are going to talk be talking today about the recent scandal that involved the fashion design company Balenciaga, and a controversial ad campaign that they produced. So, to start I’m going to turn things over to Patricia, and she’s going to give some background on what happened with the company, for those who aren’t aware of it, and then we’ll open it up for our conversation with Lisa. So, take it away Patricia.

Patricia Patnode: Thanks James. So just briefly, there was a campaign that featured children for their 2022-2023 collection, there was some BDSM gear that was featured on a teddy bear and a child standing on a bed, and it was very odd. A lot of parents quickly became outraged online. There was coverage from every major media outlet and newspaper in America and, very quickly, the brand backtracked and started cleaning house a little bit. They issued a statement, all the photographers involved issued various statements on Instagram. Kim Kardashian, who is pretty much the main ambassador for the brand, stated that she was reevaluating her relationship with them. There was quickly a lot of outrage and backlash once people noticed the campaign, which is good and noticeable. Their creative director, Demna, is still their creative director. And he said that he did not realize the full context of the campaign.

So, there were images that showed children that people were concerned about, and then once people started digging into other images for the fashion line, there were some that had in the background of the photo a book that featured some very disturbing drawings like cannibalism and of children that people were worried about. And then there were some conspiracies online about, like something involving Satanism that may or may not be solvent, or they may just be conspiracies that grew from this just being a very odd situation. And there were court documents from this case, Ashcroft v. Free Speech, which was basically about child pornography. So, everyone was very up-in-arms and worried. 

So that, just in a nutshell, is the situation, people are upset. Balenciaga did file a lawsuit that they then dropped against the company that produced the images. So, it is yet to be seen if there will be anything that comes with that like legally. As of now, it seems like nothing will happen except reputational damage. So that’s pretty much the situation.

James Broughel: So Lisa, what are we to make of all this? I mean who is to blame here—is it the company? Is this just some rogue photographer or set designer? What do you make of this whole situation?

Lisa Thompson: I guess James, I would say it’s emblematic of a broader, long-term systemic problem that’s been going on for decades. The sexualization of children isn’t something that’s a new phenomenon, it’s been going on for literally decades, like I was shocked to realize that as far back as like the 1930s there were films featuring a three-year-old Shirley Temple and other toddlers that were very highly sexualized in nature, and these were broadcast and anybody could go to the movie theater and see these films in which these very sexualized scenes are played out three-year-old person. Fast forward and you know, we have these momentary spurts of outrage fairly frequently over different child celebrities, oftentimes that get sexualized in the mainstream media. So, for some of us who are older, we will think of Brooke Shields being very emblematic of that kind of sexualization for a young girl. Shown in very, highly sexualized ways in advertising and of course later films that she was in. I think Miley Cyrus is another great example of a child who was sexualized young and, of course, you know how hypersexualized or pornified she became in her career as an adult. Brittney Spears, Beyonce Knowles, it goes on and on and on the list goes of people who start out in these childhood starts or in media or in fashion and are performers and it seems like we have a way as a society, particularly if they are girls, of really sexualizing them. And, oftentimes, blaming them and hating them for it at the same time. 

But, there’s a huge demand for the sexualization of children. And with the Britney Spears example—I mean she was on the cover of Rolling Stone, in a bra with toys on a bed. And there was outrage, people got mad, I’m glad they did, and I’m glad that we are here now talking about the case with Balenciaga. I’m glad that there was outrage about those images because that shouldn’t be normal, that shouldn’t be accepted in our society and in our world. But, what we need is sustained outrage. We can’t just have these momentary flashes in the pan and then we all go on because the problem is just metastasizing. It’s getting bigger and bigger, children are just perpetually being sexualized, and it’s becoming more and more ingrained in part of the fabric of our lives. So, I think as a society we need to work on sustaining our outrage and getting very specific about the ways to direct our attention and our energies to hold companies like this accountable, but also to attack the deeper roots of the problem. 

James Broughel: That kind of gets at a follow-up question that I had. If we blame society at large are we taking any of the blame away from the individuals responsible and involved in this?

Lisa Thompson: I think they are highly culpable. There should be some executive heads that roll within the parent company that owns the chain. It’s just ridiculous, think of all the layers of people that had to be involved in the decision-making about creating this ad campaign, thinking this was a good idea to create the product of the bears. Plush, cute, teddy bears that you dress up in BDSM, great, and then someone has the bright idea of “Oh we are going to put little children in these pictures, and won’t that be so cool? Won’t that be avant-garde and edgy? Won’t we be chic?” That’s the mentality that we are dealing with. 

There is a very real corporate responsibility involved here for putting something forward that juxtaposed children, with something that is very sexualized and fetishized. But there is also a layer that is very emblematic of how we see society writ large—the pornification of society, and how easy it is for people who are living in this pornified bubble—the world has become pornified—so how do we begin to look at this superimposed, pornified view that comes out in various forms of expression whether it’s this ad campaign or music videos that are produced? And if you want to peel back that layer of it at look at it deeper, you can get into the consumption of adult hardcore pornography. Which is, something that’s happening on a massive scale. I’m not saying that everyone who consumes adult hardcore pornography is going to go out and create an ad campaign that features children in BDSM, but there is an undeniable reality that people who are exposed to hardcore pornography over time get desensitized to that material enough to seek out different kinds, more novel, exciting material in order to get the same personal gratification from using that material, and for a certain number of people,  that’s going to lead them down various roads, and various extremes that exist in huge quantities on the Internet now. Things that we never would have dreamed of 30 years ago are now just blasé vanilla porn and for a certain number of people who are consuming this content, and for some of them it’s going to be the sexualization of children. [It starts with] ‘That girl is really young,’ so you start setting your sexual template in that direction, ‘Oh I really like this..’ and before you know it, some of the users of this content are looking at young children. And, so, I’m not surprised in the least that we would see something like what we saw with this ad campaign. 

Think about the Netflix Cuties film…

Patricia Patnode: Yes, they end up taking it down because people are shocked by how sexualized the child dancers were. They were like basically like a dance troupe and people became very upset and eventually, Netflix took it down after saying that they were going to leave it up. 

Lisa Thompson: They took it down? I know there was some outcry about it, but my understanding was that it was still available

Patricia Patnode: Let me look it up.

Lisa Thompson: If they took it down, I am ecstatic. That would be amazing news. But the fact that they even released the film, whether it’s up or down, the fact that it was released and the whole plot is about eleven-year-old girls who get sucked into the sexualized culture and get involved in a dance troupe. And the girls came from a more tradition culture, dressed more conservatively, they had a religious faith, and they are sucked into this dance troupe that’s dancing like stripper-esque, like a lot of hyper-sexualized dancing for eleven-year-old girls. So, even though Netflix has claimed—or some of the people involved in producing the film have claimed—that “Oh, it’s not normalizing it, it’s about combatting it..” But you can’t combat the problem while glamorizing the problem and putting it up for all kinds of people to consume, and lots of people out there are going to be very thrilled that there is a whole bunch of new material for them to consume that they are going to be sexually gratified by, that they see young girls dance in this way. 

So, this stuff is all around us, we have these flashes of outrage, but we need to sustain our outrage and create a movement of people who are fighting to stop the normalization of sexualization of children. 

Patricia Patnode: You were right, the Cuties film is still up, but they removed it from the search terms and manipulated their algorithms so unless you specifically search for it in the documentaries tab you wouldn’t come across it. So, it’s still on there. 

Lisa Thompson: I can’t believe they still have it up. Whatever you believe about the art meaning of it, the fact is that children are still being sexualized in the story line and I don’t see how you are combatting the problem that you are emulating in the film. Like the children are totally being sexualized in these dances, so that’s just another example. 

James Broughel: I’m just wondering, I mean is there any artistic defense about the Cuties or the Balenciaga campaign? Is it possible this is just, in particular with Balenciaga, is this a misunderstanding? Patricia mentioned some of the examples of the Supreme Court files that were surreptitiously inserted in a different ad campaign, and it’s been questionable if that was an accident or not… is it possible that there is some kind of defensible reason for this, artistic or otherwise?

Lisa Thompson: No. I don’t see how you could possibly defend it. Also, think about the layers of people involved in this decision-making. I can’t imagine one person decided ‘oh we are going to make BDSM fashion bears’ alone. That alone, is bizarre and weird and (to me) just points to the pornification of our society, and how they are wanting to present themselves as edgy and trendy…

James Broughel: But is it an adult product? Is the bag for an adult, or is it for children?

Lisa Thompson: It is a very childlike product, a teddy bear, but then you dress it up in leather and fishnets, so it has that kink look that comes out of mainstream pornography, then you do the really edgy thing and juxtapose it with a child. So, I can’t imagine that that was an accident, and if that was an accident, then clearly a lot of people are asleep at the wheel at that company, and they should be fired. 

Patricia Patnode: I will say, the Kardashian-West family, which I am casually a fan of Kim, she’s very interesting and I like the show. They often, North West and the entire family, they do looks from Balenciaga and her children are shown in looks that are from the Balenciaga campaigns that are inspired by BDSM sex gear. Not lingerie, but masks and the leather looks, so that line and pieces from similar lines have been shown on children which is very odd and raises a red flag. That’s why I wasn’t very surprised when I saw the Balenciaga ad campaign, because I’ve been following the Kardashians for so long, and that’s where the brand has been going for the past several years. 

It seems like we are now talking about children as sexual beings, and we go through puberty, you have hormones, everyone grows, that is presumably the life course of a human. But, in the Netherlands, the ‘Dutch education model’ has been pointed to as a good education model for how to educate children on sex and how to introduce them to these things about life, by educators, as directed by law, at a very young age. And supposedly that is good for their development, and they are introduced to terms like masturbation at a very young age, like in elementary school and middle school, so they have a very wide vocabulary to navigate the world. To me, I think the United States is slowly moving in that direction and thinking about children as sexual beings, legislating that through law—New Jersey just passed a law saying that they want these topics taught to their middle schoolers—so is this Balenciaga campaign, like, just people noticing the societal shift that is being allowed by the things we are voting for and policies we are enacting? What are your thoughts on that?

Lisa Thompson: Well, there’s so many things happening here. You have the adultification of children, in other words we are viewing children with adult-like qualities and presenting them in ways that you would present an adult to be, or how you might see an adult. And they you have the childification of adults, in other words having adults present themselves as children. For instance, in mainstream pornography, it’s a very common phenomena now for mainstream women involved in producing pornography to present themselves as children—that is something going on, on OnlyFans as we speak. Women who are trying to look like teenagers or babifying themselves to draw more attention to themselves to get more subscribers to support their business model. One of the most famous pornography performers in the world, Belle Delphine, that was her entire motif. She started as an Instagram poster, as a teenage girl, she had an interesting and genius way of presenting herself and combining different genres of cos-play (costume play) and presenting herself in a very cute way—and she was a child. Then she launches herself at 18 and one of her first films, one of the first pornographies that she produces, is her having sex with a man in a teddy bear costume. Dressed in a very childified way, with a teddy bear costume, and I think the next one she is dressed very childified way, and she is abducted and raped in the woods. So, this is one of the most famous pornography performers in the world. She does go on and off the internet, so her presence is somewhat erratic, but she is garnering huge amounts of attention, a huge following in OnlyFans, and she is providing content that normalizes the idea of having sex with children and sexually abusing children. And you can’t expect to have millions of people consuming that content and not have it effect the decision of some percentage of them, to act out in that way. For anyone consuming pornography, they should think about how there’s a considerable body of research that shows that overtime pornography is going to influence your attitudes and behaviors, and what people need to understand is that porn users shape culture. 

You can’t stand by and watch this content, and expect that for decade after decade that it won’t affect your attitudes and behaviors toward other people. Particularly towards women, if you are depicted in an objectified and demeaning ways in pornography, now there is a common practice of choking as a sexual practice, and that just happened almost overnight, but it came straight out of the influences of pornography. And it made its way into the actual sexual behaviors of normal people, and women are shocked that guys are trying to choke them all the time. And that’s something that they’ve applied from pornography and what they’ve been taught that girls want. 

And so, there’s a lot of different layers here in terms of Balenciaga. There’s definite corporate responsibility that should happen. They should institute some child protection policies at the corporate level, that if they are even involving children in the production of their ads that they will have standards for what happens to children on set and what kinds of ads they are in, to make sure that they aren’t sexualized in anyway. That’s at their corporate level, and if we broaden it back out, what could policy makers do? Well counties around the world, legislators could work together within their countries to establish guidelines for the ad industry, for the fashion industry, for any kind of industry, like film production for the involvement of children, how are they going to be portrayed in highly-sexualized ways? 

So, policymakers could work together to produce standards in that way. And if you want to go even bigger, I really think that we need to be looking, as a society, and reassessing, and taking stock of our embrace of hardcore, adult pornography.

One of my main points here is that mainstream adult pornography is not a harmless medium. What we are seeing when we see ads like the Balenciaga ads is that is seeping into what we call the “mainstream” world. And if you look around, the mainstream world looks more and more like the porn world. It looks like the pornography industry’s vision of reality. Because we have so many people consuming it, and then they begin to express it all around them, and it bleeds out into reality. 

When I was a kid, you never would have dreamed of seeing a brand do an ad campaign like what we have seen. But within the decades since I was growing up, we had the internet coming out, and we had the pornography industry migrate to the internet and then we didn’t have good regulation of the internet. I give our legislators credit, they tried to pass laws to protect children from exposure to hardcore content online. And over and over those laws—a piece would get overturned here, or a law would get overturned there by courts, sometimes the Supreme Courts—and we’ve been left so hamstrung as a country, to regulate and protect children from content online. So, like the communications decency act, Section 230, is the prime case for why everyone in the child protection space is like running around with their hair on fire, saying “We’ve been trying for so long,” and crying out for so long that children are being damaged and harmed by consuming this content online, and we can hardly do anything about it because of this law that was passed in 1996 and a series of really tragic court decisions which have really, in our opinion, missed the point of the law. So, that’s an area where we need major policy shifts, in correcting Section 230, we’ve made a dent in that recently called SESTA. But there have also been issues with the enforcement of our existing federal obscenity laws. I think if you polled 1000 Americans, would even 1 of them know that we have federal obscenity laws by which we can prosecute people that distribute hardcore pornography? That much of the content we see on the internet could actually be prosecuted if the Department of Justice decided to do its job and enforce the laws that had been passed by Congress? They just decide not to. The prosecutorial discursion to not enforce laws, that’s what they are doing. And what we are seeing with the explosion of child sexual abuse material and the explosion of the pornification of our world is precisely the result, the fruit, of our decision to not prosecute adult hardcore material.

Patricia Patnode: I’m hesitant that altering Section 230 would solve the pornography issue, but that’s just a difference in policy opinion on that, but I think that you’re absolutely correct in that there are a lot of laws that people choose to not enforce or standards that we don’t hold companies or individuals. But with obscenity laws, if you show a child porn, that is a crime. There are a lot of things that states could do within the legal framework that we have. And even with child actor protections, those could be extended to children (influencers) that are posing content online so that their parents are more responsible and liable for if they are setting themselves up—I know when I was a teenager, I followed a lot of other teenagers who were famous that were, unfortunately, setting themselves up (unfortunate in my view) to enter the adult film industry. I remember, Bhad Bhabie, who got initially famous on Dr. Phil, immediately following her 18th birthday entered the porn industry after posting very scandalous content for years as a minor. I thought it was very strange that there was no intervention there, with the content that she was producing online and what was happening in that county? What was happening with our ability to protect children when they are doing things that other authorities have a vested interest in protecting them from themselves and protecting them from bad partnering. James, do you have any thoughts?

James Broughel: I definitely wonder, it seems like there are a lot of laws that are already being broken with images online and revenge porn. So, it seems to be, ultimately, its going to have to be some kind of cultural shift to change this? If we could pass a law and get rid of a lot of this stuff, that would be wonderful, but it seems like the legal system alone is not enough. I wonder where the cultural shift begins? Does it begin with Kim Kardashian? Does she have the culpability being a celebrity associated with the company, and how do we even start that process? 

Lisa Thompson: I think that you are completely right that legal responses are not enough, people have tried multiple times to pass various laws and failed. I mentioned the Communications Decency Act, having a long and tortured history, and has tragically shielded the people who should have been held liable. The large, big tech companies that are allowing these things to metastasize on their platforms when they have so much power and capacity to cut that off and to deal with it, and they are choosing not to. 

In terms of dealing with it, I don’t want to throw the law enforcement community under the bus, there is a huge amount of people fighting online child sex materials and dedicating tons of people hours and resources and doing very hard work to catch the individuals consuming this content. But, they will never be able to keep up. There is an absolute tsunami of material, as far back as when they started tallying this information in 1998, there were 3,000 reports of child sexual abuse material, in 2018 there were 18.4 million reports of child sexual abuse material, so how could we possibly expect our law enforcement community to have the capacity to deal with that? And within those 18.4 million reports there were over 45 million images and videos flagged as child sexual abuse material. So, they have a staggering problem that they are dealing with, but my point is that their decision to not prosecute the adult hardcore content that could easily be prosecuted, and people often argue that it’s not easy to bring these cases, well I work with people who prosecuted these cases and won every single case. Fourteen cases, no losses, one of my coworkers prosecuting obscenity.

The President of our organization headed the child exploitation and obscenity section at DOJ and brought numerous prosecutions against people who were distributing hardcore adult content, putting pornographers all over the country in jail. And they were really having a big impact, but then we had a shift, and couple things happened. The internet came along, and the pornography industry migrated onto the internet and then we had a shift in priorities at the Department of Justice that they weren’t going to prosecute those cases anymore, they were only going to focus on the child content. Well, where has that lead us? To a problem that we cannot begin to contain. They are treating the wrong end of the problem, we need to get upstream, and the upstream is the adult content that as I mentioned earlier that people will be consuming, get desensitized and many of them will escalate to hard core content and for some of them, that will take them down the sea sand path. Not everyone, but some people will go down that path. And if you just put a Google alert for child sex offender and you can find story after story every day, of guys who say that they never thought that they would do that, that that wasn’t who they were, coaches and teachers and professors who are getting arrested. This is not something that they were born as pedophiles with a desire to have sex with children, it was something that their obsession with pornography groomed them to want. 

And then the other thing that I want to throw out there that I haven’t gotten to yet, is how pornography is working as a super groomer of children. Because we talk about, too, how much children are getting exposed to this content, how easy it is for them to access on their phones. We’ve just sort of left the barn door open for over a decade without adequate filters or controls so children have been exposed from very young ages to extreme hard content, and that has left many of them struggling with compulsive sexual behaviors that they can’t begin to control. And for many of them, they are wrestling for years to overcome their compulsive pornography use, so that leads me to something that we are working on which is a policy response. What we are calling the “Device Filter Bill,” which is that when a child is given device, that has internet capabilities, that filters need to be turned on automatically on that device for a child. If it’s an adult device, then there is a way to toggle off those filters. But any child should automatically receive a device that has filters turned on, so they aren’t exposed to this kind of content.

We wouldn’t take children and sit them in the middle of a ‘XXX Store,’ everyone would say that is terrible or abusive. But we hand them a devise that is basically a globe sex store with things that people have never even conceived of being possible with the sex adults in this hardcore porn. And children have full access to these devices can easily get sucked into that world. The device filter bills that we have been working on, the first was passed in the state of Utah, and five more states would have to pass it for it to go into effect, but that’s an example of  a policy measure that we are hoping people get behind to protect children. 

But, I think to your broader question about how to create a cultural change, we need people to question their pornography use. Adults need to question their consumption of adult hardcore material. Is it making them a better person? Does it make them think more lovingly or kindly or behavior better towards other people? Has it led them to consume types of pornography that before they would have thought of as disgusting or revolting or unethical? If you can’t answer those questions in a positive way, or that you’ve never consumed the “bad kind”—people can’t say that. I bet very few people could every say that. So as a culture we need to reassess the normalization of adult hardcore content, and have a reckoning in recognizing that adult consumption of adult hardcore pornography has consequences. It’s not some benign thing that doesn’t impact other people, it creates a demand for other content. And that demand will result in more people getting sucked into the pornography industry, it’s going to result in more children being used in the production of content to meet the demand of people who have gone down that dark hole of people who don’t care if children are harmed to meet their needs. 

So, all this to say that there are so many different lawyers, and there is a huge elephant in the room that we need to each be taking a bite out of it. We need to start in different places, we can start with Balenciaga, we can start with ‘oh I’m not going to buy their brand’ or that you’re going to ask for some protections or creating a child protection policy, or I’m going to work to hold these industries accountable on a large scale and create standards. Or I’m going to really go to the roots and go to the monster that’s feeding all of this which is the adult hard core pornography industry. 

James Broughel: Just so we wrap up on a somewhat positive note, is there reason to hope given the backlash we saw to the Balenciaga campaign? Is there reason to think that we turned the tide, or is this just a one-off thing? 

Lisa Thompson: I always think there is reason to hope, and we are seeing some positive things happening, with the Balenciaga—it’s encouraging. Anytime I see people responding to this normalization that is going around, that is a very encouraging sign that not everybody has been lulled into complacency about what is acceptable. But, like I mentioned earlier, tragically, that response is usually very short term and it’s not a sustained outrage. And we need people to get a fire in their gut to say that we are so tired and fed up with industries and people using our children as sexual consumables and portraying them in that way—what the Balenciaga ad did was just add fuel to the fire. I talked about how many images are out there, how many children. There are 18.4 million reports of child sexual abuse material, each of which could contain multiple children. Potentially, millions of children are reflected in that statistic, individual children. And why would any corporation decide that they would put something out there that would contribute to the idea that children are acceptable sex objects? That’s just precisely what they’ve done with an ad campaign like that. 

I actually think that the individual children could be harmed for the rest of their lives because people will recognize them from those ads and say, “oh you were that kid!” and I promise that there will be pedophiles that will use that content, even though it was not explicit, there are people that desire any type of material that sexualizes children for their collection. 

Back to the hope—I do think there is hope. There is a movement of people who are looking to hold the tech industry accountable hold the pornography industry accountable and who are speaking out against the sexualization of children, but we need a lot more people. It’s been like rolling a bolder up a mountain, like a massive bolder. It feels like there’s a relatively small number of us over the years. But I do see that growing, I do see more and more parents getting concerned. I do see this young adult generation, coming into adulthood and becoming parents, and they know what happened to them in their teen years when they were given access to the internet without filters and were exposed to all this garbage. They maybe made their own images and sent them and saw the collateral damage that can come from all of that. There is the beginnings of an awakening to the harm. We need to harness that, create more awareness, and get more people on board with the efforts to push back against all of this. 

James Broughel: And where can people learn more about you and your organization?

Lisa Thompson: We are the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. We’ve been working on these issues since 1962. You can learn more about us at We have a very active law center that is currently engaged in litigation in the tech sector and big actors in the porn industry, we have a very active public policy shop that is working on things like the device filter bill, and many other initiatives. So, check that out. In our corporate advocacy, we have really robust and active pushes to hold corporations accountable to clean up their act and stop the dissemination of content that is harmful to children. We are hoping to have the safety of children baked into the design of the products…

Check the research on our website! 

James Broughel: Thanks for joining us.