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Porn, addiction, and the black market
Do online fetishes drive real-world crimes? A local man convicted of trying to sell sex with a child says yes.
Minutes before San Antonio resident Sean Block was sent up for his part in the attempted sale of his girlfriend’s 5-year-old and a single forwarded link to a child-porn website, he blamed his actions on his arrogance and selfishness, on his failure to “get the help that I needed years ago.”
Though jail guards lost his prepared remarks during transport, Block adlibbed a convincing sincerity at his July 2009 sentencing hearing. “I was too embarrassed to admit to other people what my problems were,” he told Judge Harry Hudspeth last summer. “My behavior started with — call it an addiction, call it a compulsion, I’m not sure, people call it different things — but an addiction to pornography.”
Over a decade’s time, Block estimated he watched up to 400 pornographic videos per month, although due to his intimate connection to his parents’ many foster kids, he dutifully deleted the one or two that slipped through each month with any trace of child porn, he said.
“And it was adult pornography that led me to many other things in my life — not even continuing my education after high school, because I tried,” he told the court. “I tried to go to college, and every night I was looking at pornography and not doing homework and then sleeping through class the next day. And it all started there.”
Block’s case is on appeal, so we may get the chance to see how far his porn-addiction defense plays out, but regardless of the outcome, his claim is part of a renewed conversation about the potential harm caused by the online sex industry. In Washington, D.C., last week, a coalition of morality-minded academics, supported by professors from the University of Texas, Baylor, and Rice, launched the latest volley in the bloodied-but-unbowed war on pornography. Armed with questionable statistics about online pornography use (lifted from creators of porn-blocking software) and extra helpings of anecdotal evidence, contributors to the Princeton-based Witherspoon Institute’s report “The Social Costs of Pornography: A Statement of Findings and Recommendations,” urged lawmakers to develop porn advisory labels and to create laws permitting civil suits for the “negligent exposure of a minor or an unwilling adult to obscene materials.”
With Washington’s hive mind focused on reforming the nation’s health-care industry, the National Press Club event created as much ripple as a dozen feigned orgasms buried beneath a field of pop-up ads. Yet despite Hollywood’s canonization of Larry Flynt as a Free Speech patron saint, the debate over porn’s influence on society is far from over.
“The majority of porn that’s on the internet is violent and degrading,” said Mary Anne Layden, one of the principal authors of the report and co-director of the Sexual Trauma and Psychopathology Program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Cognitive Therapy. Offering a graphic example to emphasize her point, Layden said the most rapidly increasing pornographic image online involves anal penetration followed by the man inserting his fecal-flecked penis into a woman’s mouth. “Violence is normalized, degrading is normalized, lack of intimacy is normalized, and the message also is that all men do this,” she said.
Online porn, the Witherspoon report states, is indisputably a different creature from its predecessors. It’s super-sized in its prevalence, its explosive growth, as well as in the so-called “hardcore” nature of the acts depicted. What’s less documented is how this material influences behavior in the off-line world. But Block’s case suggests online pornography provides — if not the outright national health risk critics allege — a dangerous accelerant when all the wrong sexual chemistries collide.
Two years ago, Jennifer Richards was turning tricks out of the Homegate Suites in Northwest San Antonio, trying to earn a steady income from sex work and escape her full-time waitressing gig at the Cheesecake Factory in North Star Mall. But Craigslist wasn’t churning out the johns as quickly as she’d hoped and business was slow.
An exotic dancer when she lived in Arizona, Richards had ruled out San Antonio’s strip-club circuit after working for about a week at Sugar’s, complaining that men here seemed to prefer the “chubby-sized” dancers. So Richards’s 40-year-old boyfriend, Sean Block, a bartender at the Cheesecake Factory, brought in a tutor — an S&M pro from out of town to help the 25-year-old Richards be “submissive” to better please him and her clients. But when the woman found out Block was already married with a child, she bolted.
Block and Richards had other secrets, as well. Increasingly, the couple talked about raising Richards’s two children, who were living with Richards’s mother in Seguin, as sexual slaves, trained to service their own desires and those of paying customers.
For Richards, however, moving beyond her goal of running a “sexually open” household to pushing her kids into prostitution was still sensitive territory, according to her court testimony. In fact, the couple didn’t even talk about it when they were together: Richards and Block developed their detailed fantasies through instant messages and texts.
The collision of real-world ambitions and violent online sexual roleplaying resulted in instant messages about Richards’s 5-year-old, such as the following:
Richards: “She comes down and starts licking my pussy.”
Block: “Hmm, grab her head.”
Richards: “Pushing her head, telling her mommy she likes it rough. She starts biting my pussy and clit so hard it starts to bleed all over her face.”
Block: “Holy fuck. I fucking love you so much. This is so fucking hot.”
Richards: “ … She screams, faster, harder, more pain, rougher, cut me, daddy, make me bleed.”
Ever since Block propositioned an FBI agent who was posing as an underage girl in an online chatroom, the FBI had been keeping tabs on the bartender. But the feds couldn’t nab him and his girlfriend on their technology-enhanced fetishes alone. It took the intervention of 40-year police informant William Gholson, owner of Billy Bobs Beds. Posing as a pedophile, Gholson promised an apartment and a used car in exchange for sex with Richards’s 5-year-old. The couple took the bait and the Feds came swinging in. Block got a 30-year sentence, and Williams, who quickly turned witness against her former S&M “master,” transformed a likely life sentence into a mere 20 years.
Block’s father was stunned by the ruling against his son. The trial, he says, showed that Block had never actually touched either of Richards’s children. “A 30-year sentence is an awfully, awfully harsh sentence,” said Royal “Roy” Block, until recently the executive director of Pathways Youth & Family Services and current director of the Texas Foster Family Association. “I mean, you see murderers and rapists and everything else that don’t get anywhere near that. And in this case there never really was a victim. Was any crime committed?”
As Block’s original defense attorney, Jimmy Parks Jr., stated at the July 2009 sentencing hearing: Despite “a lot of man hours, a lot of money” spent investigating Block, prosecutors were still “bereft and devoid of one single child that he has actually touched or beaten or physically abused.”
Block’s current lawyer says the Feds’ handling of Block is “bigfoot” tactics run amok. “Regardless of what the criminal elements may be, I just think they looked at this guy like, ‘Let’s put him away for the rest of his life,’” said San Antonio attorney Nancy Bahron. To date, her client has not received a brain scan, despite the fact that a serious car accident put his head through a windshield well before he developed the violent sexual tendencies he acted out with Richards and two previous girlfriends. “‘This is icky. This is awful.’ And that’s sort of as far as it gets,” Bahron said. “My gut feeling is there’s more going on here. We can’t even rule out organic problems, [which are] certainly consistent with addiction.”
During the four days of his trial, Block was adamant on one point: He was no pedophile. His family testified that he had been a dependable big brother to the dozens of children his parents cared for through the years as devoted foster parents. Testimony seemed to support his claim that the girls he fantasized about were in their young teens.
“Well, of course,” said a clinical therapist who works with sexual abuse victims and sex addicts. “What age is Miley Cyrus?”
Academics are divided over what links, if any, exist between pornography and the development of violent sexual behavior. In recent years, the headlines have belonged to people like Anthony D’Amato, a widely published author and Leighton Professor of Law at Northwestern University School of Law. In a 2006 paper, D’Amato suggested that while “the American public is probably not ready to believe it,” porn may actually be reducing sexual violence. Culling rape statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice, the law-school prof reported a dramatic decline in rapes nationally since the release of Deep Throat on VHS in 1972 and the dawning of our new millennium, so marked by ubiquitous online X-rated videos, photos, and chatter. Reported rapes have dropped — from about 2.5 offenses per 1,000 people in 1980 to .4 per 1,000 almost a quarter-century later in 2004 — he wrote in his paper “Porn Up, Rape Down,” published by Northwestern as part of a research series in public law and legal theory.
“Official” explanations, he wrote, attribute the decline to the subsidence of the crack-cocaine epidemic, women being better trained to avoid unsafe situations, and growing respect for “no means no” among U.S. men. But last year, Milton Diamond, director of the University of Hawaii’s Pacific Center for Sex and Society, cited D’Amato’s research in a 2009 paper arguing that porn may provide “a positive displacement activity for sexual aggression.” Diamond’s paper, “Pornography, Public Acceptance, and Sex Related Crime,” published in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, comes even closer to suggesting that pornography may not only be good for individuals, but for society as a whole. Pornography, writes Diamond, “has in no community or population been found to be generally harmful.”
Witherspoon author Mary Anne Layden dismissed Diamond’s and D’Amato’s numbers as somehow bogus. “I’m a consultant for the Department of Justice and I’m working on a case right now, and so I said to the prosecutor, ‘Do you know this D’Amato paper and this Diamond paper?’ And she said yeah. … ‘Where’s the data that they’re talking about?’ And she said, ‘We can’t find it either. We don’t know what they’re talking about.’”
Yet the data appears right where it’s supposed to be, in the DOJ’s National Crime Victimization Survey. And the low numbers reported in D’Amato’s 2006 paper are still holding steady. Rapes nationwide were charted as recently as 2008 at about .5 per 1,000. When confronted with the data, Layden responded on several tracks. First of all, the greateset reduction in the DOJ numbers was seen between 1990 and 1995, before the internet really took off, she said. Secondly, the numbers may have been further skewed in the late ’90s by police chiefs in several U.S. cities who had been improperly re-coding rape statistics under non-violent categories like disturbing the peace to improve their Uniform Crime Report statistics. Finally, our culture itself, she added, is already becoming increasingly tolerant of sexual violence due to the influence of online porn.
“Are we reducing rape? Or are we reducing the willingness to tell about rape,” Layden asked. “The question of whether it’s a real drop, we don’t know, because we have other surveys that suggest rape is going up.” Layden said the language of researchers is paramount. While woman will often claim they haven’t been raped, they will report they had sex after physical force or threats of physical harm. “You’ve got to use many more kinds of questions,” she said.
Numerous studies have correlated the use of pornography with prostitution. In an upcoming study, Layden says as many as one in four men aged 19-20 at Rutgers University said they had either been to a prostitute or are planning to use one. Given that the U.S. Department of Justice estimates the average age of those entering prostitution is 12, it is safe to say that many of those college-age men will be diddling children.
New Braunfels-based Dottie Laster, president of the Laster Global Consulting group, trains law-enforcement officers and nonprofit activists to recognize and fight human trafficking. She believes Hollywood’s idealization of female sexuality is in part responsible for the sexual exploitation of children. “It’s not a woman; it’s young, unrealistic. It’s replayed over and over,” she said. “Nothing moves without making sure it can sell. The easiest way to sell something is to make it sexually provocative.” Our on-demand consumer culture also encourages people to expect immediate gratification. “Those 12-year-olds are sold all day, every day. There isn’t like ‘Oh, we can barely find someone to buy a 12-year-old. It’s quite the opposite. They may be doing 40 tricks a day. … There’s obviously a demand.”
When sex is commodified, doubts about the age of a prostitute are more likely to be swept aside by those ready to pay, says Melissa Farley, a San Francisco-based clinical psychologist and anti-pornography activist. Farley tells a story of interviewing a man who had bought sex in Juarez, Mexico, with some high-school buddies. “He’s in the room waiting in a brothel. A young woman is essentially shoved in the room crying and cringing. And he looks at me and says, ‘It wasn’t very comfortable for me, but I paid for it,’ and he shrugs his shoulders.”
“Philosophically, I’m in favor of sex anytime, anybody who wants to have it, with whoever has enough power and equality to enjoy it with anybody else,” Farley continues. “I’m not in favor of buying sex, because in that transaction there’s a huge power imbalance.”
If it’s true that incidences of rape have decreased, sexual abuse, assault, and sexual slavery are still very much with us. It is these victims that the “pro-pornography” contingent tends to overlook. In Texas, the headlines continue to roll out. Federal agents in Brownsville, Houston, and San Antonio break up criminal rings who were bringing women from Mexico and forcing them to perform in strip clubs as sex workers. Former Spurs Guard Alvin Robertson is arrested on charges of forcing a 14-year-old San Antonio runaway into stripping and prostitution.
San Antonio resident “Christine,” now 36, was forced into prostitution in California by her mother when she was about 6 years old. A few months before her eighth birthday, a perpetrator took her far away from home and into the middle of some open fields to abuse her before finally returning the child home, causing her normally scornful mother to crumble with concern.
“My mother never hugged me, never held me, never even held my hand. Walking down the street, if we fell behind, instead of holding our hand, she’d pull us by our hair. … And when this gentleman brought me back to her, she hugged me and said, ‘I was so worried he wouldn’t bring you back.’ And it triggered something in me, it triggered so much anger,” she recalled. Christine took off running until she found the police. “There were men that would hold guns up to my sister’s head that I do things and vice versa. They were just horrible men that she would leave us with. I told them everything.”
Christine spent years bouncing through foster-care households, during which she endured several more encounters with sexually abusive men, before she found someone who would serve as a reliable father figure to her. To escape a foster parent who insisted on watching her shower, Christine took all the money she could find — about $500 — grabbed her sister and strapped on a pair of roller skates. When the pair were stopped by police, she threatened to kill herself if she was returned. “They didn’t take me back,” she said with a smile.
Today, Christine has connected with Elizabeth Crooks, director of a San Antonio-based outreach for victims of human trafficking through her nonprofit Embassy of Hope. That relationship has helped her make sense of her experience and inspired her to join a church-based survivor’s group. Surrounded by rescue dogs and the children of an older sister who is still prostituting in Central Texas, Christine is surprised by those who continue to express shock when cases like Block’s make the news. “This is not anything new,” she says. But she can’t accept Block’s porn-made-me-do-it defense. “There’s gotta be some underlying illness someplace,” she said. “It’s gotta be more than pornography. I know because I’ve seen men that are OK men; they’re good men. Yeah, they’re stuck in pornography, but they wouldn’t hurt anybody over it.”
Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas who has studied pornography-related issues for 20 years, said it’s difficult to draw a straight line between pornography and individual crimes. “There was rape before pornography; there would be rape if pornography were magically eliminated tomorrow. There are men who use pornography and do not rape. There are probably men who rape, but do not use pornography,” he said. The aspect of the conversation that interests Jensen is the wider “pornification” of society. As long as pornography expresses sex as something men “take” from women, it will have what Jensen calls a “predictable effect.” And while DIY, gay, and lesbian porn are increasingly part of the stew of sexual images, studies on their effect are scarce.
Documented links between pornography, prostitution, and sex trafficking are more plentiful. According to the Department of Justice, 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked in the U.S. each year. Of the women and children involved, 70 percent are used for sex. Trafficking is typically defined as the use of “force, fraud, or coercion” to manipulate people into prostitution or labor. The Witherspoon paper quotes a senior fellow at the Beverly LaHaye Institute, the think tank for Concerned Women for America, as saying, “Many traffickers are found with filming equipment and cameras to create and sell pornography.” And the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has received roughly 714,000 calls since 1998 about the possession, manufacture, and distribution of child pornography, the vast majority of which now occurs online.
“When you put pornography online, you cannot tell pornography and prostitution apart,” Farley insists. “The internet has expanded the reach of traffickers and it’s actually intensified the humiliation and the violence of prostitution.”
Bexar County Sheriff Amadeo Ortiz knows the world of forced sex and prostitution has always existed. “Slavery has always been there, since Day One, but it’s always been a back-room thing,” Ortiz said. What has changed is the ease of access. Tourists who come to the city for sex with minors, rather than to see the Alamo or River Walk, make their connections online via Craigslist and MySpace and sites with “names too gross to mention,” Ortiz said. The most vulnerable to being seized and forced into prostitution are those who “get down in the trenches” of drug and gang culture, he added.
Nationwide, about 600,000 children under the age of 18 are involved in prostitution or pornography, according to the DOJ. Runaways use “survival sex” to stay fed and under a roof, Ortiz said. Since 2000, calls from homeless youth to the National Runaway Switchboard have increased 200 percent, with 30 percent of callers reportedly turning to prostitution to survive on the streets. The group estimates that one out of three runaways are lured into prostitution within 48 hours. Others are taken in by so-called “Romeo pimps,” who offer flowers and gifts one day and a fist the next. In a warning to parents, Sergeant Jerry Garza, one of two fulltime investigators dedicated to fighting sex trafficking, says too many times, “All it takes is somebody to say, ‘Hey. You’re beautiful’” he said. “Sometimes it’s just a pair of shoes, but it shows that they care. And then they start using the word love. … Whether they mean it or not, they start to believe them.”
One attribute that marks the younger prostitutes and their pimps is their use of social media and obscure websites to advertise and arrange meetings. After all, an adult prostitute on the street won’t prompt concerned calls the way an obviously underage child will. Oftentimes, the older prostitutes will report the children themselves, Garza said. “The guys know that, so what they do is start using the internet,” he said. “It’s harder to track them. It’s harder to track their customers. It’s harder to get caught. They have all the advantages. They sell a lot of videos; they take a lot of pictures. … And then you do have the actual rapes on the net,” Garza said.
“There does appear to be something about the way we use the internet that intensifies the habitual or addictive nature of the media,” said Jensen. “Everybody’s had this experience of sitting down at the computer to do something for five minutes and then standing up three hours later and saying, ‘What in the hell just happened to those three hours?’ You combine that with the nature of sexually explicit images, meaning the intense sexual charge they deliver, and you see stories like this increasingly.” More than time is lost; sexual boundaries are obliterated, and new turn-ons unearthed. “I’ve talked to many, many men who say, ‘I started out watching kind of tame quote-unquote soft-core porn, and then that led to harder stuff.’ Men will often say it leads them to watching stuff they actually would have never thought they could have been aroused to — especially overtly violent pornography or pornography that is clearly rooted in the degradation of women.”
In his extemporaneous courtroom apology, Block mentioned his wife, his daughter, parents, inlaws, brother, and sisters, and even Judge Hudspeth and the FBI investigators (“for the images they had to see”). There was no acknowledgment of the women exploited through his self-identified addiction.
“To say that he should be rewarded because no child ended up being victimized in this case is a bit incredible,” responded U.S. Attorney Tracy Braun. “I also find it significant that the two children that are involved in the case … did not make the Sean Block list of apologies.”
The juggernaut that Block blames for molding his sexual fantasy life rumbles along, a massive industry valued in the billions of dollars. Jensen, for one, doesn’t see a problem with the largely anecdotal nature of much of the clinical world’s warnings about porn, of therapists’ offices being overrun by sex addicts, and the testimonies of traumatized child victims.
“What I have concluded is there are lots of questions we’d like the answer to we’re not going to be able to answer with any scientific precision, which means we have to look at the accumulation of evidence,” Jenson said. “And the evidence includes the people’s testimony about how these things work in their lives.”
Though neither of Richards’s children were ultimately molested, both her testimony (and her introduction of her children to FBI informant Gholson at a local Chili’s right before her arrest) suggest that the kids were headed to the bedroom soon. During the trial, Richards described her and Block’s fantasy life as something firmly rooted in reality. “We would talk about the, like, different fantasies that we would have. And we would either try to act them out or see what we could do to make those fantasies come true.” •
After granting a preliminary interview, Block’s attorney Nancy Bahron failed to return repeated phone calls from the Current. Block, contacted through Bahron, also did not respond to a request for an interview by press deadline. Media handlers at the Texas Attorney General’s Office refused to allow the head of their Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force to participate in this article.