Skip to content.

Why language matters: why we should never use ‘child pornography’ and always say child sexual abuse material

Last updated: 30 Jan 2023 Topics: Blog
 Why language matters: improving safeguarding and child protection practice with words | Image: close-up of a computer keyboard

From the NSPCC's Library and Information Service specialists

There are some phrases or expressions we use automatically, without stopping to analyse what they really mean. For those working in child protection, it’s so important to be clear and direct in our language to ensure we are best able to protect all children.

Unclear language can lead to confusion, misunderstanding or even harm, as in the case of the term ‘child pornography’. This phrase, which continues to be used today, 1, 1 is a perfect example of how harmful language can be.

Why there is no such thing as child pornography

Child sexual abuse material is a result of children being groomed, coerced, and exploited by their abusers, and is a form of child sexual abuse. But using the term ‘child pornography’ implies it is a sub-category of legally acceptable pornography, rather than a form of child abuse and a crime.

In the UK it is legal to have, sell or share adult pornography with other adults (providing the pornography does not fall under the category of extreme).2 By contrast, it’s always illegal to take, make, distribute, or possess an indecent photograph or pseudo-photograph of a child under the age of 18.3 Child sexual abuse materials are serious criminal offences against children, and not spelling that out only trivialises the crimes.

Referring to child sexual abuse materials as pornography puts the focus on how the materials are used, as opposed to the impact they have on children. Changing our language to talk about child sexual abuse materials leads everyone to face up to the impact on children and recognise the abuse.

In short, using the term ‘child pornography’ minimises the harm experienced by children, which research shows is both long-lasting and devastating. Children who have been abused in this way may grow up with feelings of shame, guilt, humiliation, and fear that abuse materials may resurface in future, giving them no sense of closure for the crimes committed against them.4 And, as child sexual abuse material can remain online indefinitely, children continue to be re-victimised each time it is viewed, shared, or downloaded. Having no control over where the material ends up can be particularly damaging for children and young people.5

> Learn more about child sexual abuse
> Learn more about online abuse

The impact of terminology on safeguarding children

Using the phrase ‘child pornography’ hides the true impact of perpetrators’ behaviour. They are not making or watching pornography, they are abusing children.

The term diminishes the seriousness of the crime, which can lead to children not getting the support and protection they need. For example, our analysis of case reviews around online harm and abuse highlights the fact that police don’t always:

  • recognise the risk posed by perpetrators who have possessed or shared online child sexual abuse materials
  • consider whether contact sexual abuse may also be taking place.

This means intelligence is not shared when necessary, and perpetrators may be given unsupervised access to children.

Children who are the subject of child sexual abuse materials may be worried about talking about what has happened to them. They might think they will get in trouble or be seen as complicit in the creation of the materials.6 Rethinking the terminology we use may reduce these barriers, helping children to realise that what happened to them is abuse and never their fault.

Using accurate terminology forces everyone to confront the reality of what is happening. If everyone starts to recognise this material as abuse, it is more likely that an adequate and robust child protection response will follow.

What we should we say instead?

At the NSPCC, we talk about child sexual abuse materials to ensure that we don’t minimise the impact of a very serious crime and accurately describe abuse materials for what they are.

The thinking around the use of the term ‘child pornography’ is changing around the world. ECPAT International’s 2016 terminology guidelines for the protection of children from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse acknowledges that the term ‘child pornography’ should be avoided.7 And the term is increasingly being replaced in national guidance and legislation.8,9,10

These are positive steps towards changing the language we use to better reflect the crime, protecting children and young people from further re-victimisation and trauma, and acknowledging the abuse perpetrated against them.

Key points to take away

  • There is no such thing as child pornography. It’s child sexual abuse. ‘Child pornography' likens child sexual abuse materials to legal pornography.

  • Instead of using 'child pornography', use ‘child sexual abuse materials’. Changing our language ensures we are not trivialising serious crimes, whilst making sure we don't cause further harm to children.

  • Reframing the language we use around child sexual abuse materials better enables professionals to trigger the appropriate child protection response. Everyone is forced to confront the harm caused. This can lessen the risk of children being wrongly made to feel complicit in their abuse or to blame for what happened to them.