What is child pornography? On its face, that seems like a pretty absurd question. Were you ever unfortunate enough to be exposed to child pornography, you would think there would be no mistaking the filth that you were seeing. It would be obvious what it was, and you would obviously be disgusted and horrified by it.
But, as Todd Hoffner’s bizarre and tragic story shows, it may not always be as obvious as you’d think.
In 2012, Hoffner was the celebrated and well-respected coach of Minnesota State Mankato’s football team. In August, his university-supplied cellphone got broken and he sent it to the school’s IT department. The tech working on the phone found two short videos that Hoffner had shot of naked children dancing around and exposing themselves. The tech reported the videos to their supervisor, and several days later, Hoffner found himself arrested for producing and possessing child pornography.
According to the district attorney and other officials, it was an open-and-shut case, and the steps that needed to be taken were obvious (especially in light of the Jerry Sandusky scandal). But there was just one catch: the children in the videos were Hoffner’s children. He had shot the videos after they had just finished bathtime and were asking him to record a skit they had created. To Hoffner, the videos represented three happy kids goofing around, and he had recorded them without a second thought. To the DA, however, they had obviously crossed a line.
I highly recommend reading the entire ESPN feature, which is by turns fascinating, frustrating, and heart-breaking. In the end, a judge would conclude that the videos were not child pornography and that the charges filed against Hoffner were completely baseless. However, the damage was already done to Hoffner’s reputation and career — and all because of what had seemed like a completely innocuous act at the time.
Make no mistake: child pornography is a very real danger, a wickedness that needs to be prosecuted and stamped out as quickly and thoroughly as possible. But Hoffner’s story is a good example of what happens when common sense comes up against such a hot button issue. (To be clear, some of the reactions to Hoffner’s videos were completely appropriate, like that of the IT technician. Others, like those of the DA and university higher-ups, seem more questionable, especially as the case against Hoffner unravelled.)
But Hoffner’s case also serves as a good example of the results of our society’s sexualization. Reading through the comments on ESPN’s website, I was struck by the fact that some people found it inconceivable that someone might record videos of naked children without any sexual purpose. To them, anyone who would record such videos — or, for that matter, allow three kids to take a bath together — was obviously a pervert and a weirdo.
If the Hoffner case is any sort of indication, then we now live in an age where a child’s naked body is automatically a sexual object. And that, as much as anything about the case, has me deeply disturbed. I’m a parent of young kids, and kids in various stages of undress is a common occurrence in our household. And yes, my wife and I have taken the occasional photo or video of one naked antic or another because we thought our kids’ behavior was hilarious and sweetly innocent. However, nobody will see those photos and videos because we’ve either always deleted them shortly thereafter or we’ve cropped and edited them to make sure nothing private is showing.
Mind you, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on any great freedom because I feel like I can’t post innocent naked pictures of my children online. I wouldn’t anyway, if only to protect their privacy and save them from future embarrassment (After all, what teenager would want their naked baby pictures floating around on their mom’s blog?) However, if I did, it is sad and horrifying to think that it would almost certainly cross some people’s minds to view them as sexual media.
What’s more, this sexualization is something that my children will certainly have to deal with themselves as they grow older, either from society at large, or from their peers. Sex is one of God’s good gifts to us, and as such, I want my children to develop a healthy, Godly understanding of, and appreciation for, it. But Hoffner’s case is a sad, sobering reminder that there are larger cultural obstacles that will make that goal a difficult one to achieve.