A response to my David Cameron ‘pornblock’ post

Is internet pornography damaging our children? (Photo: Getty)
Is internet pornography damaging our children? (Photo: Getty)

I wrote a week or so ago about the “opt-in” system for online pornography which David Cameron has half-proposed, saying that not only was it confused and unworkable, it was also unnecessary. I quoted a few studies and so on, and concluded that it seemed unlikely that there is a serious problem of “sexualisation” of children or that pornography is hurting our kids. Understandably, this was a controversial point. I got in a lengthy discussion on Twitter with Londonistar, aka Alison, who feels I was underplaying the damage porn causes.

I agreed that, if she wrote a response, I’d cross-post it here. I’ll quote some extracts, and you can read the rest at her blog – please do, because I don’t want to misrepresent her views:

Studies are now showing that almost one third of young men get their sex education from pornography. And that porn is filtering down into the mainstream is most obvious when you switch on MTV, wonder at pole dancing classes as exercise and see t shirts for tweens emblazoned with the word “hot chick”. Hot implies ready, waiting and lascivious. That’s the “fun” side of porn. Jenny McCartney observed that even the industry itself has noted the changing landscape into a dark and sinister place from 30 years ago when basic on screen sex was considered erotic and risky. Naomi Wolf notes that “Today it is perfect porn that is ‘real’ sex to young people – and real naked women are just bad porn”.

This more sinister side to the industry being so easily available means that it is quite reasonable to ask whether the desensitising nature of free and abusive sexual entertainment hasn’t been influential in schoolyard gang rape and the subsequent circulation of a video of the rape around a school. Or in this case where police struggled to keep evidential video of a hideous rape from being disseminated on Facebook and failed: it was viewed by young children who came home traumatised. And even here in the UK where it occurred to the gang rapists of handicapped girl, whom they referred to as a “ho” and “whore”, to film their subject’s torment. Filming this is pornography after all. Made easier by mobile phones. Just how much had these young men (and women) been influenced by what they learned about women as abusable whores on-line which they then extended into their seedy violent machismo world?

Whether pornography has any significant harmful effects on consumers continues to be a controversial issue, not only for average citizens but also for behavioural scientists who can offer different researched conclusions depending on your viewpoint. I take the simpler view that we understand that influence when we are young is utterly and completely intrinsic to a good education. This is why we give precedence to an education full of influential ideas and people. To me this is not about some social inadequate endlessly hunched over his laptop indulging in his private porn stash. With the easy access the net gives us inside and outside the home, it is an influence and as such is an education in itself. There is a reason 63 per cent of young women from a UK survey of 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19  considered their ideal profession to be “glamour model”, posing nude or seminude. If you believe that no one was ever corrupted by a book, you have also to believe that no one was ever improved by a book. You have to believe, in other words, that art is morally trivial and that education is morally irrelevant.

I’m going to take advantage of my bully pulpit and make a few comments. Alison’s point about corruption and improvement is her most telling one, I think. I don’t think I agree with it – I would suggest that the way people are improved by books is by learning new facts and viewpoints about the world: it’s not that they ape the behaviour of the characters. If that’s the case, it’s harder to see how a book would “corrupt” someone. But I’m not sure I’m convinced by my own argument.

Her example of the gang rapists filming their victim is of course horrifying. But you can find individual examples of utter horror in every generation: without wanting to sound glib, Jack the Ripper carried out some of the most appalling sexual crimes imaginable, but surely no-one would blame porn for that. The question is whether such things are more widespread now, and whether they are influenced by pornography.

Again, all I can do is point, rather feebly, to some studies which seem to suggest that children are not being exposed to pornography earlier, being damaged by that pornography, or being “sexualised” prematurely. To clarify, I’m not saying that the porn industry is a good thing: the treatment of women who work in it is famously unpleasant, and there is perhaps a case for saying the portrayal of sex and women in the more extreme stuff is unacceptable whether or not it corrupts children. But please do read Londonistar’s post and make up your own minds.

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