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Is MTV's 'Skins' Child Pornography? A Legal Expert Weighs In

The legal debate continues over whether the show is child porn.

Courtesy of MTV Networks

Does a 17-year-old's naked rear end count as child pornography? The controversy surrounding "Skins"—the new MTV series about a group of teenagers who indulge regularly in drug use and sexual activity—is about more than just that question. But since The New York Times reported last month that executives at Viacom—MTV's corporate parent—had met to discuss whether the show's third episode might violate federal laws, the issue of what is and what is not child pornography has hung over the series.

The Times reported that Viacom executives called for changes to the episode in question, which at the time had not aired. The version broadcast was still fodder for grousing among the concerned-parent set. It featured a running visual gag about a male character's erection and a shot of his bare backside. The actor who plays that character is 17-year-old Jesse Carere. The Times' reporting prompted the watchdog group the Parents Television Council, which had already labeled the series "the most dangerous program that has ever been foisted on your children," to send a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder asking him to investigate "Skins," whose cast members range in age from 15 to 19. In the letter, the PTC said, "It is clear that Viacom has knowingly produced material that may well be in violation" of federal statutes related to child pornography and the sexual exploitation of children.

According to Melissa Henson, director of communications and public education for the PTC, her organization is "not making that accusation," that MTV and Viacom violated child pornography laws, but it's enough that Viacom executives apparently worried that the violation occurred. "If they're that close to the line, I certainly think that it warrants further investigation," Henson said.

An MTV representative declined to comment for this article and instead referred to an earlier statement released by the network: " 'Skins' is a show that addresses real-world issues confronting teens in a frank way. We review all of our shows and work with all of our producers on an ongoing basis to ensure our shows comply with laws and community standards. We are confident that the episodes of 'Skins' will not only comply with all applicable legal requirements, but also with our responsibilities to our viewers. We also have taken numerous steps to alert viewers to the strong subject matter so that they can choose for themselves whether it is appropriate."


Henson said the PTC attempted to open a dialogue with MTV but was rebuffed. Advertisers, meanwhile, have fled "Skins" in droves following a call by the PTC for a boycott; sponsors such as Proactiv, Taco Bell, and General Motors have asked that their commercials be pulled from broadcasts. "It's starting to reek of an agenda rather than a profit motive," Henson said.

And despite her claim that the PTC has not accused MTV of violating federal laws—a statement that seems to contradict the group's Justice Department letter—Henson implied that that agenda is promoting obscenity. She said that while the PTC is concerned for children watching the show at home, it is also worried for those minors involved in the production. She also dismissed arguments that because the parents of the actors involved have approved their children's participation, that participation is okay.

"A lot of parents may do things that may not be entirely beneficial for their children if they see an opportunity to advance their children's careers in the entertainment industry," Henson said. "That's a sad truth, and that may be what's going on here."

Henson was also not mollified by MTV's assertion that unaired episodes of "Skins" are works in progress. "In order for them to be in violation of law, they don't necessarily have to air the offending content," she said. "If they filmed something and it's on the cutting-room floor, just the act of filming it and editing it out could get them in trouble."


Ronald K.L. Collins, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law and a specialist in First Amendment issues, disagreed with that assertion. He pointed to New York v. Ferber, the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case that he called "the controlling case" when it comes to child pornography. In Ferber, the court ruled unanimously that the accused's right to distribute footage of young boys masturbating was not protected by the First Amendment.

"If you don't have distribution, it seems to me that one of the criteria of the Ferber case is significantly missing," Collins said. "If the child pornography rules are to be expanded in this way, then it seems that any number of entirely legitimate productions—stage productions, movie productions, and what have you—it stands that the freedom protected there would be jeopardized."

According to Collins, for "Skins" to qualify as child pornography, evidence would need to exist that children had been sexually abused during production—that, say, a shot featuring simulated masturbation actually involved a real-life teen masturbating. He also said that it's legally important to consider whether the show is contributing to the creation of a market for child pornography. While overall ratings for "Skins" have steadily declined since its Jan. 17 premiere, it has shown growth among viewers 12–17 years old.

Collins ultimately dismissed the idea that the series violates federal law, saying such accusations are dangerous. "I think the critics, if they say that this is offensive, this is unwise, this sets a bad example for our teenagers and what have you, certainly a lot of people could agree with that," he said. "But to call this child pornography is to demean the very meaning of that, and to also demean what it means to commit sexual abuse against children."