There is Nothing About This That Doesn’t Make Me Uncomfortable
The authors of this study looked at the incidence of reported sex crimes (taken from the Czech Ministry of the Interior) during a period ranging from the mid 1970s to 2007. They compared rates for 15-17 years before the change in pornography laws to an 18 year period after the change. Although it's the child pornography angle that's been largely reported in the media, the study actually looked at all sex crimes, as well as murder, assault, and robbery figures for comparison. After the introduction of legal porn in 1989, the number of reported cases of child sex abuse dropped dramatically, from around 1,200 to about 750. The rate subsequently rose from 1995 to 1998 and then began to drop again. The number of reported rape and other sexual assault crimes involving adults remained relatively constant during the entire period looked at. The rates of non-sexual crimes, such as murder and robbery, show a dramatic increase after 1989, which implies that the decrease in child sexual abuse cases does not simply follow a larger trend of crime in general. The conclusion of the researchers is that the availability of child pornography led to a decrease in child sex abuse cases, but I'll be honest, I'm not convinced. In fact, the rate of reported child sex abuse crimes shows a steady decline for the entire period studied, dropping from around 2,000 in 1974 to 1,250 in 1980. There's a short plateau region from around 1980 to 1989 before the drop attributed by the researchers to the availability of porn, but it's not as if the rates were constant for a long time and suddenly dropped - there's been a consistent downward trend for roughly 30 years. The data are presented as raw numbers, rather than as a fraction of the population (which has grown considerably over the time period studied), so it's a bit hard to judge the graphs by themselves, but from what's presented it looks as if child abuse cases were declining even before the legalization of porn, and while there is a very sharp drop immediately after porn became available, it isn't clear that this is because of the availability of porn. (And the rates quickly rise again to pre-1989 levels before once again declining.)
Obviously a lot of upheaval and cultural changes accompanied the transition to democracy which may have affected either the rate of actual crimes or the rate of reportage. Without knowing what the cultural climate of the Czech Republic was like during the period studied, it's hard for me to feel confident in the authors' interpretation of the data, since the only evidence given is a correlation. The fact that the authors have to rely on reported crimes also doesn't help, since sex crimes are notoriously under-reported and any changes could be due to how comfortable victims feel coming forward, rather than an actual change in incidence. Surveys indicate that cultural attitudes towards pornography did not change in the years immediately followed 1989, although attitudes toward sexuality generally became more liberal. Concern for sex crimes and support networks for victims of such crimes did increase in post-transition, so if anything one would expect the number of reported incidents to increase rather than decrease, but this still doesn't explain why the downward trend starts before 1989. All in all, I simply don't think there's enough data to demonstrate that the availability of child pornography reduces the rate of child sexual abuse, although it made for a really great story that the press was happy to eat up.
Let's say for the sake of argument, however, that there's a chance that the availability of child pornography does reduce the rates of sexual crimes against children. Would it be worth it to legalize it? It seems morally unconscionable to me to allow even a small number of children to be exploited, even for the sake of saving other children. Especially since the children being exploited would likely come from poor countries which offer fewer protections to their youngest citizens than places like the US do. There is a possible alternative, however, to pornographic videos of actual children - that is, simulated porn, in the form of cartoons or CGI creations. The idea still squicks me out, but if videos of cartoon kids in sexual scenarios reduced the rate of abuse of real children, I'd be willing to allow it, personally. In fact, this kind of material is already protected under free speech in the US. Simulated child pornography was temporarily banned in here the US, but the Supreme Court struck down the law because it was not directly related to the protection of children, unlike child pornography featuring non-cartoon children. Other countries are more strict about what kind of porn is legal. Simulated child pornography is banned in Canada, Australia, South Africa, and the Philippines, among others. There's even been an attempt in Australia to ban pornography featuring adult women with small breasts who could be perceived as underage. Again, I'm not convinced that the availability of pornographic materials of (simulated) children would actually prevent child abuse, but if future studies indicate that this is the case then I would rather people who are inclined to be sexually attracted to children feed their desires with manufactured porn rather than real children.
Dr. Pisaster has a doctorate in biophysics, not actually anything sexy. She does however enjoy having sex, reading about sex, and talking about sex. Especially when she's had a little whiskey.