Many years ago I recall hearing (can't exactly remember where/when, but I believe it had to do with a then still very young Brooke Shields) that "Child Pornography" laws applied, even if the actor/actress was actually over 18, but the character was NOT. Such that a 19 year old girl playing the part of a 17 year old would violate "Child Pornography" laws if they 'acted out' behaviors that would otherwise violate the law. Am I (potentially, for sure) misremembering, misunderstanding or have the laws changed?

I ask this after reading an article regarding the new Netflix show ‘Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’ Which also brings up the possiblity that because it is 'streaming', the law doesn't not apply in this case (then why?).

  • Having not seen the show, does the scene in question have any frontal nudity? The article cited suggest that the scene left little to the imagination about the character's bodies, but they were not unclothed in anyway. The outrage is that this is a reboot of the popular late 90s-00s TV show which was a sitcom and a cartoon with a lot of pun based humor where as this is more of a drama.
    – hszmv
    Nov 2, 2018 at 19:41
  • I appear to have misread that portion of the article, but have not actually seen it myself (and don't plan to)
    – Cos Callis
    Nov 2, 2018 at 20:01
  • Yeah... I'm seeing this as the people who would be upset with something like "The Dark Knight" because their only previous exposure to the character of Batman was Adam West's version.
    – hszmv
    Nov 2, 2018 at 20:31
  • Another, more explicit, example is Californication
    – Matt
    Nov 4, 2018 at 1:10

2 Answers 2


That definition still applies, at least in federal law. Under 18 USC 2256:

“child pornography” means any visual depiction ... indistinguishable from that of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct

But the First Amendment limits its applicability in cases like Sabrina. In Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, 535 U.S. 234 (2002), the Supreme Court held that the law violates free speech and was overbroad, with a lengthy discussion of the threats it posed to legitimate artistic works:

Under the CPPA, images are prohibited so long as the persons appear to be under 18 years of age. 18 U. S. C. § 2256(1). This is higher than the legal age for marriage in many States, as well as the age at which persons may consent to sexual relations. ... It is, of course, undeniable that some youths engage in sexual activity before the legal age, either on their own inclination or because they are victims of sexual abuse.

Both themes-teenage sexual activity and the sexual abuse of children-have inspired countless literary works. William Shakespeare created the most famous pair of teenage lovers, one of whom is just 13 years of age. See Romeo and Juliet, act I, sc. 2, 1. 9 ("She hath not seen the change of fourteen years"). In the drama, Shakespeare portrays the relationship as something splendid and innocent, but not juvenile. The work has inspired no less than 40 motion pictures, some of which suggest that the teenagers consummated their relationship. E. g., Romeo and Juliet (B. Luhrmann director, 1996). Shakespeare may not have written sexually explicit scenes for the Elizabethan audience, but were modern directors to adopt a less conventional approach, that fact alone would not compel the conclusion that the work was obscene.

Contemporary movies pursue similar themes. Last year's Academy Awards featured the movie, Traffic, which was nominated for Best Picture. See Predictable and Less So, the Academy Award Contenders, N. Y. Times, Feb. 14, 2001, p. Ell. The film portrays a teenager, identified as a 16year-old, who becomes addicted to drugs. The viewer sees the degradation of her addiction, which in the end leads her to a filthy room to trade sex for drugs. The year before, American Beauty won the Academy Award for Best Picture. See "American Beauty" Tops the Oscars, N. Y. Times, Mar. 27, 2000, p. El. In the course of the movie, a teenage girl engages in sexual relations with her teenage boyfriend, and another yields herself to the gratification of a middle-aged man. The film also contains a scene where, although the movie audience understands the act is not taking place, one character believes he is watching a teenage boy performing a sexual act on an older man.

Our society, like other cultures, has empathy and enduring fascination with the lives and destinies of the young. Art and literature express the vital interest we all have in the formative years we ourselves once knew, when wounds can be so grievous, disappointment so profound, and mistaken choices so tragic, but when moral acts and self-fulfillment are still in reach.

Whether or not the films we mention violate the CPPA, they explore themes within the wide sweep of the statute's prohibitions. If these films, or hundreds of others of lesser note that explore those subjects, contain a single graphic depiction of sexual activity within the statutory definition, the possessor of the film would be subject to severe punishment without inquiry into the work's redeeming value.

This is inconsistent with an essential First Amendment rule: The artistic merit of a work does not depend on the presence of a single explicit scene. See Book Named "John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure" v. Attorney General of Mass., 383 U. S. 413, 419 (1966) (plurality opinion) ("[T]he social value of the book can neither be weighed against nor canceled by its prurient appeal or patent offensiveness"). Under Miller, the First Amendment requires that redeeming value be judged by considering the work as a whole. Where the scene is part of the narrative, the work itself does not for this reason become obscene, even though the scene in isolation might be offensive. See Kois v. Wisconsin, 408 U. S. 229, 231 (1972) (per curiam}. 

For this reason, and the others we have noted, the CPP A cannot be read to prohibit obscenity, because it lacks the required link between its prohibitions and the affront to community standards prohibited by the definition of obscenity.

If the law were applicable to Sabrina, the fact that it's streamed wouldn't save it. 18 USC 2252A prohibits knowingly receiving, distributing, reproducing, advertising, promoting or presenting child pornography, "by any means, including by computer."


A porn producer working under nom de plume Max Hardcore was brought to trial. The models were of legal age, but instructed to wear dress and make-up that suggested they were a 5 year old who had raided their mum's wardrobe and make-up supplies. The models were also instructed to talk like a 5 year old, appearing retarded. The concern was that this was aimed at, and would fuel the passions of pedophiles or otherwise normalise pedophilia (there were additional concerns about coercion used to obtain models' consent).

I believe he was not convicted in the end, but I don't know what weighed heavier, the fact that the models were of legal age or that the sort of practice depicted was deemed to fall within the range of "normal" play between consenting non-pedophiliac adults.

  • 2
    It's rather easy to find out the results through an internet search. It's all detailed on his wikipedia page, even. He was found guilty on all accounts, with the conviction upheld by the 11th circuit (evidently he did not try to appeal further up to SCOTUS, for unspecified reasons), and sentenced to ~4 years and the loss of the domain name. He served about 2.5. But this was all for distributing obscene materials; the child porn charges were all dropped pursuant to Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition. Apr 16, 2022 at 9:01
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