I think everyone can agree that the presence of paedophilic images and videos on the internet is a bad thing. The children in them are being abused. It’s not controversial to say we should be trying to stop that. However, I disagree with David Cameron over whether making it impossible (if his proposals actually do, which seems highly doubtful) for paedophiles to see such images prevents them from committing future offences against children in the real world. That’s not how paedophilia works. You can’t take away the underlying urge by removing what is, for the paedophile, a relatively risk free method of satisfying it. The recidivism rate for paedophiles demonstrates this (not to mention that they didn’t just suddenly pop into existence on the day the internet was born). So, I don’t believe his plan prevents future harm to children. I’m not saying we don’t need to deal with the presence of sexual and violent content involving children. I just think the emphasis should be on catching the people who make the films and take the photos and that’s a worldwide endeavour. We should protect the children who’re already victims and prevent more children being assaulted and filmed. We should learn lessons from the failed war on drugs and focus on the big players. My dissertation back in 1997-98 was on populist, ineffective law making and a third of it was devoted to our plans for a paedophile register and the lessons from America’s Megan’s Law. Intended to stamp out sexual assault of children by strangers, the fact that only 4% of abuse involved a stranger was ignored. This reminds me of that. It’s a sop. A soundbite. It won’t really achieve much.
Slightly to my surprise, there isn’t universal agreement over the issue of violent pornography (I’ve mentioned sadomasocism below – distinguishing between the two things is important). There are even women arguing that a ban on rape porn is unfair on women who fantasise about rape and might want to watch it. I accept that what we call rape fantasies aren’t that uncommon but I don’t accept the argument that filtering out rape porn hurts women who fantasise about rape. Its not like I’ve ever watched it but I assume it’s called rape porn for a reason. Does witnessing brutality against another woman actually fit into their fantasies? I don’t know. I doubt it. I also don’t know what proportion of the content online is simulated and how much isn’t but for these purposes, does it really matter? At the risk of bringing these objectors down on my head, the word fantasy implies it’s something you can do in your own head. If you’re a woman who prefers visual aids, fine, but I don’t believe the right to watch rape, simulated or real, is a right due to you as a feminist. I’m not saying there’s anything inherently wrong in women fantasising about it themselves – have at it, even if I strongly suspect your fantasises aren’t really about rape in the legal sense – but I do believe it’s wrong to victimise other women in the process.
Before I say anything more, let me say this. There is no such thing as “good” or “better” rape. I’m not saying that at all but I do believe rapists don’t all do it for the same reasons. If you want to reduce the occurrence of rape, it’s important to recognise the distinction. There are rapists who rape through the need for power and violence. As with paedophiles, I’m not convinced removing one stimulus makes them less likely to offend. We’ve never successfully made any real progress on reoffending among that kind of rapist. Then there’s another kind of rape. The kind which seems to be becoming more common and even socially acceptable again. This is rape predicated on the assumption that the man’s sexual needs trump the woman’s choice but you won’t hear them admit that because this is the kind of rape which many men (and even some women) won’t admit is rape at all. Maybe the vast availability of porn is making it easier for men to justify rape by objectifying women but that’s not to say the availability of rape porn encourages these rapists because many justify their actions by denying that it’s non consensual, along the lines of she wanted it, she was asking for it, she got into it. I haven’t seen rape porn but I’m assuming it wouldn’t leave you in any doubt that what you’re seeing is meant to look non-consensual, whether it’s real or simulated. I just don’t see men who tell themselves rape was consensual when it wasn’t, or even those who think sex with or without consent is their societal due, being influenced into that belief by obviously violent porn. That being the case I believe:
a. The first type of rapist will rape with or without violent porn to watch, and
b. The second type of rapist will rape with or without the presence of violent porn in the world.
Although some of the women in rape films might not strictly be victims, we know that sex trafficking is a huge problem and that many are likely to be victims. Apart from anything else, there’s a booming industry in non-violent porn for women who choose to be in porn. Again, given how little difference I think filters are likely to make to the commission of new offences, I’d rather we prioritise shutting down the people who make these films.
I don’t object to the censorship of images and films which involve the abuse of children and women. The proposals do go beyond existing law by extending the ban to content which appears to depict rape but I don’t have a major issue with that. My first problem, as I’ve said, is that I don’t believe his plan prevents future harm to children and women. To me, Cameron’s strident call to ISPs and search engines is an admission of failure. We, the Government, together with other governments around the world are failing to catch and stop the people making films of paedophilia and rape so we’re outsourcing responsibility (only you won’t get paid) so that we can shift blame to you. Well, they are the party of privatisation. We should probably just be grateful they aren’t putting G4S in charge or they’d be inadvertently filtering mumsnet while simultaneously opening backdoors that leave us all knee deep in hitherto unimagined volumes of pornographic spam before you know it.
My next problem is that I have concerns about where this is all leading and the moralising surrounding adult viewing of porn. How will the filters differentiate between the illegal acts and lawful consensual activities? What about sadomasocism? Lawyers reading this might remember Laskey Jaggard and Brown. A group of sadomasocist gay men ended up in the European Court of Human Rights arguing that they shouldn’t have been prosecuted over consensual, if extreme (and believe me it was extreme – I read the entire judgement for an assignment at University) sexual activities. They argued (and there’s no doubt they were right) that they were prosecuted not because their activities were non – consensual but because they were gay men and they were into things which others couldn’t cope with. If they’d been able to upload footage of their entirely consensual activities back then, how would the filters be applied? They used fish hooks where no fish hook has ever gone before but they were all willing participants. Human sexuality is complicated and we run the risk of going backwards and pulling non-mainstream activities into the net with illegal ones.
I said recently that I feel the seepage of porn into popular culture is a bad thing. It warps attitudes to sex. It messes with body image and promotes the kind of objectification which may be contributing to the fact that rape seems to have become more acceptable to some people again. Far from saying anyone should have less sex (including teenagers), I think it should be better, that respect and self-respect matter. It’s never a good idea to just say “right. We’ll limit access. That’ll do the trick”. Barring teenagers from watching porn seems like a bit of a shabby, lazy compromise. We still aren’t getting it right when it comes to sex education. Personally, I think honesty is the key to pretty much all issues involving teenagers. Sex, drugs, alcohol. They can be good. They can be great. They can also be awful, make you feel bad about yourself and even kill you. And then there’s the fact that this doesn’t address the existing problem. There’s a whole generation of people whose attitudes to sex have already been moulded by porn and is that seepage into popular culture just going to disappear? Will people magically change, as if 15 years of steadily increasing levels of porn never happened? Will it stop young people filming footage and taking pictures of their own and sharing them that they’re bound to regret sometime? Will it give them body confidence?
Despite my own reservations about the extent to which porn is messing with people’s minds, I’m still concerned about the moral judgements being imposed on adults. Cameron was on the wrong side of the moral argument on equal marriage as far as many of his own party were concerned and we’ve just seen more moralising rants about teenage mothers. The party of small government was always keen to moralise and I am concerned that there’s an element of this in the filtering of lawful content. Cameron’s been banging this drum for a while now, slowly moving further towards the point where he says it’s not just children who have to be protected against the possibility of seeing porn but adults too. As the Register put it:
“Cameron said the new “opt-in” scheme will give all internet users the “unavoidable” choice of whether to use filters on their connection. Quite what will happen to the lists of adults who disable the filters is not clear.”
I’m all for a society capable of happy healthy relationships in all respects, including sexual, but I draw the line at interfering with what consenting adults do in the privacy of the bedroom, or any other room for that matter. I’m reminded of the old “pornography causes sexual thoughts” thing. No it doesn’t. It’s just a cheap imitation of the real thing, like staring at a McDonald’s when you could be eating a steak when you’re hungry. My view is that the problem isn’t the existence of porn; it’s the normalisation of it. It’s trying to turn steak into a burger (of course the reason this analogy works so well is that our attitudes to food have become that screwed up). For some people, it’s using a recipe for a cheap takeaway burger and hoping that you end up with steak. What matters is knowing the difference and preaching from the moral high ground isn’t the way to get the fact that there’s a difference across. Part of me hopes most adult households disable the filters as a matter of principle, just to tell the Government they don’t get to make choices for them. There’s something unpleasant about leaving electronic post it notes asking adults “are you sure you want to watch this? Well, ok. If you must but know this: YOUR COUNTRY THINKS YOU’RE A PERV”.