Some of you may have seen a (very quiet) announcement in the news that by the end of the year, the majority of British ISPs will block access to pornographic content unless a homeowner opts in to receiving it. There are a multitude of reasons why this is a Very Bad Thing, and why we should all be worried.
1. Who voted for this?
Not me or you, or anyone in fact. This is a deal that has been struck under the table between senior politicians and the ISPs. Commercialism over Democracy. Whatever the measure, whatever the cause, we should all be concerned about sanctioning such methods. Today it’s ISPs being bullied into blocking porn; tomorrow… who knows?
2. Where’s the line?
Who decides what’s pornographic and what’s not? Is it just film clips and gifs, or still photos as well? Do all depictions of nudity count, or do they have to be explicitly sexual? Is a head shot of a woman sucking a lollipop in a suggestive manner porn? What about Renoir’s Lise on the Banks of the Seine or Flandrin’s Naked Young Man Sitting by the Sea? They’re both naked. Where is the line between erotic art and erotica? Moreover, who gets the authority to decide where that line is?
But it goes further. Is the written word pornographic? And does it have to be a direct description of sex to be so? What about medical texts?
When I got my new mobile I had to get the factory-installed porn blocker removed (at the princely sum of £1!) simply to access the Huffington Post’s LGBT politics blog. Clearly, the mention of homosexuality is something young children need to be protected from. And we thought only Russia had an anti-gay propaganda law!
3. A blanket ban on ‘pornographic’ content protects no-one.
Let me repeat that again: it protects no-one. The rhetoric is all of the hand-wringing, pearl-clutching, ‘suffer the little children!’ variety. Yes, we’ve all seen the stories in the media about pre-adolescents addicted to pornography. They’re very sad, but Nanny State stepping in and blocking those sites isn’t going to solve the problem. The core issue, and one we seem reluctant as a nation to address, is an abject failure in parenting.
Perhaps that seems a little cruel, but it’s the truth. This generation of parents are the first who’ve had to deal with children who have access 24/7 to devices that can, at the click of a button, present them with the most extreme type of pornographic content imaginable. It’s no surprise, really, that they’re failing to step up to the challenge and do something to curb their children’s behaviour, but they need to. Whenever I see a story in the media about pre-adolescents accessing hardcore porn on a regular basis, I always ask myself what the bloody hell the parents were doing. Everyone knows there’s porn easily accessed online. Everyone. So if you’re going to give Little Johnny his own computer or smartphone, take some precautions. Install blockers, or get someone more tech-savvy to do it for you if you’re really that clueless. Put the computer in a public space in your house rather than in Little Johnny’s bedroom.
Most importantly, speak to Little Johnny, and not when he’s 15 but when he’s young enough to listen and before he hears half the truth from someone else. You can’t prevent him from seeing god-knows-what with his mates, but you can explain to him the difference between loving, consensual sex and, for example, rape or torture porn. You can tell him that if he sees anything he doesn’t understand, that upsets or disturbs or frightens him, he can come to you and have it explained to him. If you don’t he’s going to go back and look at that stuff again, if only to try and understand his own reaction to it. He’s going to grow up thinking that all sex is as shocking and extreme as the very worst stuff he can access; that passive partners are inherently inferior and that everyone should be turned on by everything that falls under a sexual banner.
As adults, we are mature enough to understand that pornography is most often an extreme depiction of a sexual act, caricaturised and almost parodied for the gratification of those for whom that act is a turn-on. We understand (for the most part) that to not be turned on by certain acts is okay; that not everyone finds everything sexual personally arousing. (This is still problematic in the mainstream with acts like oral and penetrative sex, but that’s a whole other blog post!) All a blanket ban on sexual content does is reinforce the message that all sex is shameful and deviant. That’s a dangerous and damaging message to impart to anyone, and as a society we’re supposed to be moving beyond that.
4. What Next?
I have no doubt, sadly, that this move will be welcomed with open arms, but we should be looking further to the future. As I mentioned, my phone decided for me that HuffPo’s LGBT news section was not something I should be accessing. What if the government, the ISPs or some other organisation decide we shouldn’t be able to access certain political or news sites? If we shouldn’t be allowed to contact people from certain countries via social media in case they tell us what our military is really doing in their homeland? Where does it end?
This isn’t even limited to government censorship. As noted at the beginning of this post, this is a corporate arrangement, and there’s dozens of others out there censoring what we see and access every single day. From Paypal’s attempts to control the content of books published on sites like Smashwords, to Google’s ‘pruning’ of sex blogs hosted on its Blogger platform, corporate censorship is everywhere. Certain big companies have recently threatened to pull advertising from Facebook unless they remove it from some of their pages (and Facebook is a pretty regulated site, remember). Most of this barely ripples the surface outside of the small online communities that are directly affected. So what if Marks & Spencer and BSkyB (among others) threaten to pull their ads from a Facebook page aimed at gay men? First they came for the gay men, and I did not speak out because I’m not a gay man…
5. It’s pointless.
The fact is, the genie is out of the bottle where sex and the internet are concerned. I’m not talking here about specifically pornographic websites, but spaces like Tumblr, Flickr, Twitter, Facebook, even Wikipedia. Whatever social media site you use, there will be people uploading porn to it somewhere, be it pirated films from professional houses or some dude’s drunken selfie. (George Burgess, I’m looking at you. All of you…)
Indeed, what the people I know who have older kids are most afraid of isn’t them accessing porn, but them making and distributing it. It’s a very real fear, because I doubt a dozy teen realises the repercussions for taking that selfie and sending it to a friend or uploading it online. We have created a veritable monster where cheap, easily accessible devices which are capable, not only of searching for and downloading explicit content in a matter of seconds, but of capturing and uploading such content just as quickly, meet a society that rewards physical attractiveness like it’s some kind of achievement.
So what do we do?
Rather than trying to censor the internet, the government should step up and provide a robust, compulsory sex education programme in all schools. The earlier the better. Ignore the right-wing tabloids screeching about sexualising our children – they’ve already been sexualised. The floodgates are open and it’s too late to close then and pretend it hasn’t happened. Moreover, they opened long before the advent of the internet. We all, I think, heard stories and rumours about sex from an early age. What we should be doing as a society is preventing the dissemination of false information. How many young girls have found themselves pregnant because they didn’t think they could get knocked up the first time, or if they did it standing, or any one of a number of other ridiculous fallacies? How many have caught an STI because no-one ever told them that they could? How many have been coerced into engaging in sexual activity by their peers because no-one ever told them it was okay to say no?
At the moment we seem caught in a web where we can’t help but look at (or even post!) smutty stuff online, but we like to pretend in public that sex doesn’t exist. That if we block access and deny our children information, it will simply…go away. It won’t. It never will. The UK has one of the highest teen pregnancy rate in Europe and one of the highest abortion rates, too. In one study, 80% of sexually active teens said they didn’t use contraception. These are shameful statistics, and yet there are still those who say the answer is to keep our children in the dark about matters sexual; to deny them ready access to contraception and hope the whole horrible thing just disappears (or at least, happens to another family instead).
Teenagers, however much their parents might dislike this, are sexually mature creatures. They are going to be curious and they are going to experiment. That’s a fact as old as time. What we older and wiser people know is while they can be as physically mature as they like, they’re certainly not emotionally mature. That’s where parents have a moral obligation to step in, and where the state can actually do good rather than harm. Education, not censorship, is the only answer.
This post will be censored in 5…4…3…