Child Sexual Exploitation - NCMEC

Child Sexual Exploitation

NCMEC Analyst


Child sexual exploitation is a significant problem which continues to evolve and grow, requiring a multifaceted response. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children® is dedicated to helping families, victims, law enforcement and industry reduce child sexual exploitation and prevent future victimization. NCMEC will continue to work to ensure all child victims receive the help they need and deserve.

FAQ: Child Sexual Exploitation

Federal law (18 U.S.C. §2256(8)) defines child pornography as any visual depiction, including any photograph, film, video, picture or computer/computer-generated image or picture, whether made or produced by electronic, mechanical or other means, of sexually explicit conduct, where the:

  • Production of the visual depiction involves the use of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct,
  • Visual depiction is a digital image or computer/computer-generated image that is, or is indistinguishable from, that of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct, or
  • Visual depiction has been created, adapted or modified to appear that an identifiable minor is engaging in sexually explicit conduct.

Federal law (18 U.S.C. §1466A(a)) also criminalizes knowingly producing, distributing, receiving or possessing with intent to distribute, a visual depiction of any kind, including a drawing, cartoon, sculpture or painting, depicting:

  • A minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct that is obscene, or
  • An image that is, or appears to be, of a minor engaging in graphic bestiality, sadistic or masochistic abuse or sexual intercourse, including genital-genital, oral-genital, anal-genital or oral-anal, whether between people of the same or opposite sex that lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

Sexually explicit conduct is defined under federal law (18 U.S.C. §2256(2)(A)) as actual or simulated sexual intercourse, including genital-genital, oral-genital, anal-genital or oral-anal, whether between people of the same or opposite sex; bestiality; masturbation; sadistic or masochistic abuse or lascivious exhibition of the genitals or pubic area of any person.

For purposes of enforcing the federal law (18 U.S.C. §2256(1)) "minor" is defined as a person under the age of 18.

It is a federal crime to knowingly possess, manufacture, distribute or access with intent to view child pornography (18 U.S.C. §2252(b)). In addition all 50 states and the District of Columbia have laws criminalizing the possession, manufacture and distribution of child pornography. As a result a person who violates these laws may face federal and/or state charges.

Child victims suffer at the hands of the offender who sexually exploited them. This harm is compounded when the offender memorializes the victimization by taking photos or videos and then distributing these images on the Internet where additional offenders use them for purposes of sexual gratification.

Child victims also suffer knowing offenders may use images of their exploitation to coerce, entice or manipulate other children into performing sexually abusive and exploitive acts. The U.S. Congress has addressed each of these distinct harms by criminalizing the production, distribution, possession, receipt and viewing of child pornography.

Victims of child pornography often experience severe and lasting harms from the permanent memorialization of the crimes committed against them. Studies indicate that child victims endure depression, withdrawal, anger, and other psychological disorders. Victims also experience feelings of guilt and responsibility for the sexual abuse as well as feelings of betrayal, powerlessness, worthlessness and low self-esteem. It is impossible to calculate how many times a child's pornographic image may be possessed and distributed online. Each and every time such an image is viewed, traded, printed or downloaded, the child in that image is victimized again.

Images of child pornography are crime scene photos — they are a permanent record of the abuse of a child. The lives of the children featured in these illegal images and videos are forever altered.

Recent technological advances such as smart phones, thumb drives and cloud computing have made it easier for offenders to collect, store and trade child pornography. Other technological tools such as anonymizers and encryption have enhanced the ability of offenders to evade detection by law enforcement.

The size of an offender's collection of images of child sexual exploitation is not merely a reflection of these technological advances. Their collection may also suggest an active participation in the child pornography market — a market in which the demand for images fuels the ongoing, abhorrent sexual abuse of children.