Who’s afraid of internet porn?

The current panic about internet porn is born of adult anxieties rather than children’s degeneracy.

Recently, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), the National Association for Head Teachers (NAHT), and the deputy children’s commissioner, Sue Berelowitz, asserted that pornography on the internet threatens the wellbeing of children. End Violence Against Women (EVAW) and Rape Crisis have issued a letter of support. The problem of internet porn’s effect on the young is said to be of such urgency that drastic measures are required to ensure our children do not become either abusers or abused.

The main recommendations from this group of the professionally concerned include: extending sexuality and relationship education (SRE) to younger children at primary level; expanding the content of SRE to include lessons on how to cope with pop-up porn on the internet; providing this education to reluctant or unwilling parents; and the Youth Justice Board including questions on exposure to pornography when assessing those youngsters who show violent or sexually harmful behaviour.

You would think all this must be a response something real, something that has actually happened – an outbreak of horrendous sexual assaults by porn-obsessed youngsters, perhaps. But no, this sudden media and political focus on internet porn is the product, not of events, but of advocacy research. A whole heap of it in fact, from the Children’s Commissioner’s report, ‘Basically… Porn is Everywhere’: A Rapid Evidence Assessment on the Effects that Access and Exposure to Pornography has on Children and Young People, to the 2011 NSPCC report Child Abuse and Neglect in the UK Today. And this has all been topped off with a few police stats about the number of sexual-abuse offences committed by under-18s in 2012.

In fact, ‘Basically… Porn is Everywhere’ is archetypal advocacy research. That is, undertaken by several academics, it is produced to confirm the existence of a problem and support a particular change in policy. The actual report itself is rife with uncertainty and methodological limitations, from the difficulty of defining ‘pornography’ in a highly sexualised culture, to problems of only having time to stage a couple of small workshops with, first, experts and second, a few young people.

Not that this stops the authors from drawing unwarranted conclusions. So, under the subheading, ‘What we can confidently conclude’, the report states: ‘Access and exposure to pornography are linked to children and young people’s engagement in “risky behaviours”.’

And the evidence for this ‘confident’ assertion? ‘Young people who used pornography were more likely to report having had anal sex, sex with multiple partners and using alcohol and drugs during sex.’ The report even features the necessary caveat: ‘The majority of the research that has found this is cross-sectional and/or correlational, therefore causal relationships cannot be established.’ So, the authors even admit that they have yet to establish a causal link between pornography and so-called ‘risky behaviour’ (which itself is a slippery concept). And yet they still feel ‘confident’ that there is a causal link.

It is also worth looking at the NSPCC’s rather loose definition of sexual abuse (which incorporates the watching of pornography), not least because it is used by many other organisations. Take this definition from its 2011 report, Child Abuse and Neglect in the UK Today:

‘Sexual abuse involves forcing or enticing a child or young person to take part in sexual activities, including prostitution, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening. The activities may involve physical contact, including both penetrative or non-penetrative acts such as kissing, touching or fondling the child’s genitals or breasts, vaginal or anal intercourse or oral sex. They may include non-contact activities, such as involving children in looking at, or in the production of, pornographic material or watching sexual activities, or encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways.’

The NSPCC’s conflation of actions and behaviours of varying degrees of seriousness is striking. In what world is enticing a child into prostitution or anal intercourse in any sense equivalent to kissing or looking at pornographic images?  Advocates of such ideas would say that one leads to another – the ‘slippery slope’ argument. But it’s worth remembering here a maxim of educational philosopher Robin Barrow: what would the world need to be like for this statement to be true? Or in this case, what would people need to be like for this statement to be true? 

The simplistic relationship proposed by the NSPCC between watching porn on the internet and intentionally perpetrating abuse is actually contradicted by the ‘Basically… Porn is Everywhere’ report. One young workshop participant, for example, admitted to seeking out porn sites online ‘for a laugh’. In other words, like most teenagers, this individual was experimenting with boundaries, pushing at the limits of what and what is not acceptable.

In the past adults have had a far more sensible attitude towards children’s experimental behaviour in relation to their bodies and emerging sexuality. Compare, for example, contemporary admonitions to teachers to look out for possible deviancy and potential abuse with Lady Plowden’s advice in 1967 on how to deal with children’s ‘show me yours, I’ll show you mine’ games. She wrote that if such acts were treated as ‘breaches of good manners, and even then without too much solemnity, rather than as grave moral delinquencies, we think that their true weight will have been accorded to them’ (1).

No doubt advocates of increased SRE for porn-watching kids would point to the fact that children did not have access to the internet in 1967. But that misses the point about Plowden’s views: namely, that aspects of children’s behaviour which are today interpreted as signs of abuse were once regarded as a passing phase. Plowden’s mature, sober assessment of children’s behaviour has nothing to do with the non-existence of the internet, and everything to do with her being part of a society in which adults were confident in their authority over, and distinction from, children. As such, it shows that the contemporary drive to introduce SRE into schools and homes is less a response to a real-world problem and more a change in the way in which adults view young people’s behaviour.

This is apparent in the provenance of the ‘Basically… Porn is Everywhere’ report. It was not a response to some actual, real-world problem today. It was part of a larger project, Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups, launched by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner (OCC) in October 2011. And the OCC itself was established by the 2004 Children’s Act, which was informed by the United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which came into effect in 1990. And it is within the conceptual framework created by this elite institutional coterie that singular events are given a general significance. Rare and tragic crimes, such as that of the young Edlington brothers who engaged in 2011, are automatically transformed into examples of some general problem.

In saying all this, I am not denying that there are cultural differences between the 1960s (when I grew up) and today. A child today, for example, could encounter pornography by just surfing the internet and accidentally being exposed to a pornographic pop-up advert. Hence there has been a growing call for internet companies such as Google to block pornographic sites.

Yet the reality of today’s culture is that unless children are kept in some sort of purdah, they are likely to seek, have access to, or be exposed to, some form of pornography. What is important is that we, as adults, think carefully before imparting our anxieties to our children. It is not necessary for us to have organisations and professional guidelines to simply say to children, ‘Yes, unwanted things may appear on your screen, but you can delete them by clicking the “x”’. 

A certain amount of anxiety on the part of parents in relation to their children is understandable, of course. But the elevation and exploitation of this anxiety by moral entrepreneurs such as the NSPCC or the OCC is neither educational nor empowering, as they claim. Instead, their interventions, their calls for parents to be educated, and teachers to teach SRE, cast children as especially vulnerable to hostile forces out there, and parents as incompetent ignoramuses unable to cope with the trials and tribulations of everyday family life. This is of no benefit to anyone except the fearmongering organisations themselves. 

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert is reading for a PhD in the philosophy of education. She is a member of the Institute of Ideas Education Forum.

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Footnotes and references

(1) Children and Their Primary Schools, A Report of the Central Advisory Council for Education, led by Lady Bridget Plowden, 1967, p261