Child modeling has become a more widespread phenomenon with the rise of the Internet and Usenet, and there are now many websites offering non-nude or nude photographs and videos of teens or preteens, usually girls, to subscribers. While some non-nude sites focus on non-erotic modeling, erotic non-nude sites may feature models in a variety of clothing types, including dresses, bikinis, nightgowns, or undergarments only. Certain types of erotic child modeling are considered child pornography.
In the late 1990s, several photographers started sharing collections of conventional child photos on the Internet. These collections, usually called series, first appeared on newsgroups dedicated to pictures of children. The more prolific photographers soon developed web sites to host the more popular series. These sites generally avoided suggestive apparel and eroticism.
Practically all of these early series featured children in conventional childhood locations and situations, notably the Amanda and Lil' Amber series. The pioneering sites Joseph Paul Photography and Paul Jones Photography (later renamed PJCrew) began with photo series featuring family members, but their series soon took on the look of model shoots intended for advertisers of children's clothing. The web sites generally made enough money so that other customers for the photographs were unnecessary.
Almost all internet child modeling centers around web sites that display model series or portfolios. The sites almost always present children as fashion models for hire. In fact, all of a model's income typically comes from membership subscriptions to the web sites displaying their photos. Subscription prices usually range from US$20 to 30 per month. In 2002, the PJCrew site was reported to bring in a net income of US$7,000 to 10,000 a month.
Occasionally a child modeling site suggests a rationale for individuals to join - these usually fall into two categories: advertising agency and fan club. Under the advertising agency rationale, people subscribe to the site if they are in the advertising business and need to "scout out" potential models. Under the fan club rationale, "fans" pay to follow the career of their favorite models, much as a movie star fan might purchase a fan magazine. To some extent, there is an assumption that fans of young models are other young people.
Many believe that such sites are used exclusively for erotic stimulation. While this may explain some of the sites' commercial appeal, there appear to be other motivations as well. The tone and content of several on-line discussion groups that cater to child modeling site subscribers reflect an almost parental interest in the models' welfare.
In November 2001, the NBC television station serving Miami, FL, ran a story entitled "Selling Innocence." A reporter "went undercover" to contact the site operators, and then tracked down Amber (a pseudonym), the model featured in Lil' Amber, at her family's farm in Palm Beach County. Amber's step mother, father, and brother refused to discuss Amber's modeling site, and asked the reporter to leave. Following this publicity, Amber and the model Molli of Mollirama "retired" from Internet modeling. The news report also prompted Florida Congressman Mark Foley (R-Palm Beach County) to propose legislation banning child modeling web sites. In 2001, Webe Web placed an essay that responded to all the criticism on the Jessi the Kid site. Amber and Molli are now modeling again. Molli returned in the early part of 2006, and Amber returned in July of the same year.
In April 2003, a child model named Cindy appeared with her mother on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Many reporters and experts also debated on the show. Cindy's mother noted that Cindy's uncle, Curt Newbury, an established professional model photographer, is her photographer and manager, and stated that she and Curt are trying to promote Cindy in the most tasteful manner possible. When Oprah told Cindy that modeling would never get her fame and the child responded with "It got me here," the show host was unable to reply. Appearance on the show increased traffic to Cindy's site.
On November 28, 2006, criminal charges were laid against the owners of Webe Web Corporation. Immediately all Webe Web child model sites went offline. Jeff Pierson pleaded guilty to child pornography charges, while the owners of the web hosting company, Marc Evan Greenberg and Jeff Libman, pleaded not guilty.
Some critics say that most subscribers to child modeling sites are pedophiles and that the sites' content may be used to groom a child. Such critics assert that, in some cases, material of this nature can be used to reduce a child's sexual inhibition towards questionable sexual activity. Defenders of the material point out that images of attractive children fill the mainstream media, including youth fashion magazines and clothing catalogs. Most producers of child modeling photos and videos say that their intent is to advertise and promote the legitimate modeling services of the model, bringing mainstream modeling trends into public view. In response, critics deny that the interest of the child is being served, and argue that producers of the material are well aware that they are engaging in exploitation.
Many child modeling sites that are viewed as pushing the boundaries of the law are not considered to violate the law. For example, some child erotica sites claim that what they show is art and not pornography.
Also, depictions of even a clothed child violate U.S. federal law (18 U.S.C. §§ 2252(a)(2), (4) and 2256(2)(E)) if they constitute "lascivious" exhibitions of the genitalia or pubic area..
Other U.S. federal laws dealing specifically with issues surrounding child modeling are:
In the United States, some members of the Congress have proposed prohibiting certain child modeling sites. Some states are considering similar legislation. Opponents of such legislation argue that it would probably be ruled to violate the first amendment to the US constitution.
Most producers of child erotica assert that they always obtain the consent of the models' parent or guardian.
In early 2006 the operators of the child modeling agencies "A Little Agency" and "The VMS," and Charles Granere, were arrested on charges of child pornography. Neither A Little Agency nor the VMS distributed nude photographs, but federal prosecutors argued that, even though the photographs did not focus primarily on sexual organs, they still contained "lascivious exhibitions" of the genitalia. They were indicted of transporting child pornography, possession of child pornography and receipt of child pornography. Both plead not guilty.
Charles Granere filed a motion to dismiss the charges against them.. Arguing a Web site they operated that contained pictures of young girls in suggestive poses does not rise to the level of pornography. Federal prosecutors claim their Web site, which has now been shut down, dealt in images of 9- and 10-year-old girls wearing scant clothing in suggestive poses. One photo reportedly shows a 9-year-old girl in "black stiletto pumps, a black lace thong, black bra, and a black jacket" sitting on a dining room table, according to court records.
In their motion, attorneys for Granere argue that there is no allegation of nudity nor do the locations of the photos suggest sexual locations.
However, courts have ruled that photos do not have to necessarily be nude in order to be considered "lascivious." The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals has defined "lascivious" as "tending to excite lust; lewd; indecent; obscene; sexual impurity; tending to deprave the morals in respect to sexual relations."
According to the Salt Lake City, (AP), Campbell the Federal Judge assigned to the case has denied the motion to dismiss noting that the law is clear on not requiring nudity under the definition of pornography. Also noting the determination of whether the images on Granere website were pornographic should be made by a jury.