In defence of porn
In its latest plea to “please, think of the children”, the UK government has announced that websites that publish porn will be required to implement age verification checks in order for users to access their content.
This is the government’s Online Safety Bill – spearheaded by the bewildering spectacle that is Nadine Dorries, the oxymoronic Culture Secretary.
This is legislation that this government has been kicking around for a while. There was a white paper in 2019, that was then turned into a bill in 2021. It’s been through some committee scrutinisation but its legislative timetable seems unclear. The primary purpose of the Online Safety Bill seems to be to generate some headlines to make it look like the government is doing something – tackling the internet, making people safer, protecting children, that kind of thing.
If you just read the headlines, it’s hard to argue with what seems to be the basic premise of what’s intended by this proposed legislation – children should be protected from harmful content.
In theory, the UK has the legislation in place to do this. It’s a little confusing, but the Obscene Publications Act – together with the guidance from the Crown Prosecution Service – means that you can be prosecuted if you are publishing harmful content that is available to people under the age of 18.
The impetus for the government’s Online Safety Bill appears to be a tabloid-driven hysteria that parents don’t know what their kids are looking at online, and it seems quite easy to access pornography online – therefore, kids are looking at porn and that’s bad.
It’s the conflation of pornography and harm-to-children that I have a problem with.
What is pornography?
It’s always helpful to try and agree some definitions when we’re debating what is and what isn’t harmful.
A fairly widely used definition of pornography is that it is the explicit depiction of sexual acts for the purpose of stimulating sexual arousal.
Sure, there’s plenty of variations within that genre – not everyone finds the same things stimulating or arousing – but even if what’s being depicted is something that doesn’t arouse you, it’s fairly straightforward to identify the intention.
Who can view pornography
Under UK law, there’s not a lot of logic to this.
While people can consent to engage in sexual activity from the age of 16 and above, the laws restrict access to pornography to those aged over 18.
Of course, the reality is that anyone who has access to the internet and can punch in a basic search query can view all sorts of content that is undeniably pornographic.
While we might have the legislation in place that can in theory prevent this from happening, we don’t have the mechanisms in place that can robustly restrict someone who is under the age of 18 from accessing porn on the internet. Which brings us to the Online Safety Bill – please, think of the children.
Is porn harmful?
This really depends on who you ask.
Putting to one side the question of age/access threshold, and also any debate about how porn is produced, if we look at porn in a vacuum, it’s difficult to see where the harm is.
Remember, when we’re talking about porn it’s the explicit depiction of sexual acts for the purpose of stimulating sexual arousal.
Maybe you’ve got a moral or a religious objection to the depiction of sexual acts, or the concept of sexual arousal, but that’s a different conversation.
Perhaps I’m over-generalising, but it seems fairly clear to me that sexual arousal is an essential part of our humanity. Sure, becoming sexually aroused is not exclusively dependent on the explicit depiction of sexual acts but it certainly helps. Pretty much every civilisation throughout history has demonstrated a penchant for creating explicit artwork of some kind – there’s nothing new about porn.
Some people describe their consumption of porn as an addiction. That’s not great, and if your usage of porn is disrupting your day-to-day life then you’re going to want to get some help with that. But that’s not the porn that’s causing the problem, it’s at most a symptom of other underlying issues that you need to address.
There are some studies that look at the type of porn being consumed. For example, recent analysis by the Chief Censor in New Zealand found that one-third of all pornography being watched depicts a fantasy of non-consensual sexual activity. This seems to correlate with concerns raised by women about how the consumption of porn by men has a negative impact on the quality of sexual encounters for straight women.
We clearly don’t have all the answers, but it suggests to me that while porn in and of itself is not harmful, if you’re approaching your sexual encounters – and life in general – from a slightly distorted perspective, then your consumption of porn may feed into that world-view.
For example, if you’re a straight guy, and your sense of identity isn’t particularly well-grounded, and you’re struggling to form meaningful relationships with women, then you’re potentially going to be more responsive to porn that makes you feel better about where you’re at – the fantasies that you’re going to respond to are those that lean into your perspective of the world. Porn isn’t causing that, but porn is part of that picture, and we can’t completely disassociate the production, distribution, and monetisation of porn from the people that are consuming that content.
Are age-verification gateways to the internet the answer?
Everyone seems to pretty much agree that the Online Safety Bill will not achieve what it’s setting out to do – it will be complicated to enforce, it will add to the existing regulatory complexity, and it won’t prevent people under the age of 18 from accessing pornography on the internet.
It will also increase the risks of data theft and privacy breaches for people using the internet. Where will the data be held once the age verification information has been collected from people using porn sites? How will it be secured?
I’m not suggesting some kind of porn free-for-all, but I do think we need to try and take the fear out of sex – we need to understand that porn is not inherently harmful because sex is not inherently harmful.
Children don’t need to be protected from sex, they need age-appropriate sex-education that helps them to understand how the human body works, how it develops, and the mechanics of sex and relationships. We all need to get better at talking about intimacy, consent, pleasure, and how to build sexually satisfying relationships.
Porn is not the enemy here. The continued demonisation of sexual pleasure does us all a disservice.