Unpopular causes struggle to find defenders. No-one much wants to be seen defending Holocaust deniers, even if they’ve been unjustly imprisoned. No-one is keen to stand up for Islamic fundamentalists, even though they might not actually be terrorists.

And of course, nobody wants to defend child p-rnography.

I certainly don’t. Child p-rn is a dreadful thing. But it’s worth taking a moment to remember why that is. It’s bad because children get hurt; p-rn is made either without their consent, or in circumstances where consent is meaningless.

Laws against the production of child p-rn target that harm directly. Laws against trading in it target it indirectly, in much the same way that we have laws against trafficking in stolen goods. But because pedophiles don’t enjoy the same social cachet that burglars do, the laws against child p-rn go much further.

Latest example is a case from Germany, reported in this morning’s Age, where prosecutors have launched a criminal investigation against players in a computer game, “who reportedly bought virtual sex with other players, who were posing as children.”

If, in a cloud of electrons on a server somewhere, your avatar is having sex with virtual representations of children, so what? How on earth is that hurting real people?

Yet Australian law appears to allow such prosecutions. The NSW Crimes Act, for example, provides for up to five years imprisonment for simply possessing p-rnographic material “that depicts or describes … a person under (or apparently under) the age of 16 years”. (Just yesterday, a former NSW prosecutor was sentenced to a minimum 8 months’ jail under this section.)

Fair enough that prosecutors should not have to prove that the person featured is actually under 16. But the purpose of the law still has to be the protection of real people. Fictional, imaginary or virtual people just don’t cut it.

Otherwise we’re not talking about prevention of harm at all: we’re talking about punishing people for having s-xual tastes that we disapprove of.