Pornography, as most people eventually discover, bears as much resemblance to reality as the dead surface of the moon does to all the beautiful meadows and forests of the Earth. But people, and particularly young people, should still have the unrestricted right to access legal pornography. One of the most objectionable features of the UK’s new Digital Economy Bill, which is being currently scrutinised in the House of Lords, is its wild definition of, and extraordinary claims about, “children.”
The new legislation will require all websites which foremostly publish pornography to verify that their users are aged over eighteen. The government will force ISPs to block access to non-compliant websites. The expense and logistical difficulties of achieving this are not the topic of my article, though they are obviously considerable. I’ll just note that social media so far appears to be exempt from the proposed requirements – Lord Ashton, who is accompanying the bill through the Lords, has conceded that, “we don’t want to get to the situation where we close down the whole of Twitter.” The immunity which he describes would clearly give big players such as Twitter and Snapchat a future commercial advantage in the provision of porn. A vast organisation and hence “too big to fail,” Twitter can be potentially defined as an “ancillary service provider.” The small business owner who makes a living from publishing perfectly legal material is, however, not so big and so they can pay all of the extra costs.
Yet how can any decent person really complain, when all that the government wants to do is to protect children? Karen Bradley, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, has pledged that, “the Government is committed to keeping children safe from harmful pornographic content online… Only adults should be allowed to view such content.” This is her thinking:
The measures will protect children from accessing pornography online, just as they are protected offline. The risks and harm to young children who view pornography are real. Not only can it distress them, it can have a damaging impact on how they view sex and relationships for the rest of their lives. A recent survey by the NSPCC found that 47% of 11-16 year olds had accessed an adult site and that one in five 11-17 year olds said they had seen pornographic images that shocked or upset them.
Despite her brandishing of “young” children, Bradley actually wants to prevent under-eighteens from accessing pornography. Most of the criticisms of the bill in the media are (rightly) concerned with abuses to the rights of those over eighteen, to users of pornography whose verification details might be inadvertently exposed to partners and colleagues. Rarely is Bradley called out on her stupidest and most surreal assumption: that somebody who may have completed puberty for over a year and who may have legally married and sired children of their own is still defined by her law as a “child.”
Javed Khan, the CEO of Barnardo’s, writes an article on the bill from which one would assume that he was referring exclusively to pre-pubescent “children.” His beef is “responding to the epidemic of emotional and mental health issues that free access to such content is wreaking on children ill-equipped to process disturbing material.” His definition of children encompasses every seventeen-year-old male who might be otherwise just pure, eye-popping libido. With this bill, Victorian notions of childhood innocence are thus ravenously devouring more and more sexual adults. Short of forgetting about the planned censorship altogether, the government should extend the right to access pornography to over-sixteens.
Pity the future sixteen-year-old husband. For the first two years of his marriage, he and his young bride will have to try to find out what to do from Twitter. The Digital Economy Bill was originally promoted by David Cameron, who has resolved “to make the internet a safer place for children” and “to curb access to harmful pornographic content, which is currently far too widely available.” Now there speaks a man from the Tory shires, a man who on the night before his wedding would be taken to a brothel, by a bachelor uncle, to be shown what a lady expects (“Watch carefully, laddie…”). The fact is that for many young people, from traditional or religious backgrounds where sex is seldom spoken about, pornography can be uniquely educational.
For Bradley, at least from the evidence of the extract above, this is not the desired sort of education. Her department outlines how pornography can “distress” young people and she quotes research from the NSPCC that “one in five 11-17 year olds said they had seen pornographic images that shocked or upset them.” But early sexual experiences are inevitably shocking and distressing for some people. They might involve embarrassment, bleeding, shoddy treatment, or a failure to achieve climax. The aspirant lovemaker should surely talk about sex more and maybe even research it, rather than try to keep their brain weirdly unpolluted from pornographic images until they can sign on to the government’s age-verification system (now how can you read that without shuddering?) once the birthday candles are blown out.
I write here with some expertise, for I am the author of the 2008 online hoax “Letter from a Sufferer of Vagina Dentata.” Even today, it is read by hordes of young men who are checking out whether their intended destination actually contains teeth. I like to think that my misogynistic masterpiece has put thousands of teens off sex and prevented countless teenaged pregnancies.
When it comes to pornography, I may be idealising the intentions of the average teenager. Of course, young people ultimately watch porn for gratification – what they have in their hand isn’t a pen, and they aren’t using it to write down notes about how to be a more sensitive lover. Pornography can heighten expectations about sex and lead to bitter disappointment. I suspect, however, that most newbies get some use out of pornography – that the acquired sexual knowledge increases confidence and reduces inhibitions. If the young lover simply “goes with their heart” when they first get into bed with a partner, then they might not get very far. It is often dumb and usually ugly but pornography is nevertheless our collective imagination, and one far broader and deeper than that which comes already installed in the sexual novice’s brain.
Alternatively, watching pornography provides a “safe space” in which fantasies of violence and humiliation can be played out without hurting real people. This is also a factor. Privacy, by its very definition, contains demons which should not be unleashed upon the rest of society.
There is presently a lot to campaign against. The plight of Arabs stranded in airports by the Trump ban is undoubtedly worth ninety-nine per cent of the campaigner’s time and energy. But spare a thought for Karen Bradley’s overgrown, deprived “children.” You can sign a petition here.
[“Does Porn Hurt Children?,” David Segal’s 2014 article for the New York Times, offers a superb, searching look at the research.]