David Cameron: getting off on porn scares

It’s not online porn that gets in the way of young people developing a healthy attitude to sex, it’s official scare stories about intimacy.

On Monday, UK prime minister David Cameron delivered a speech declaring it was time to get tough on internet pornography. The theme of the speech was the ‘corrosion of childhood’. He was careful to distinguish between the measures required to deal with the proliferation of illegal images online, particularly sexual images of children, and the measures required to prevent children viewing legal material.

In relation to the former, his proposed reforms are laughable. Internet service providers (ISPs) will upload ‘splash pages’ for anyone found to be searching for images of child abuse. These pages will warn those searching that what they are doing is illegal and that it could have a significant impact on their lives and those of their family. But as if half-hearted, web-based finger-wagging wasn’t enough, Cameron indicated that he wanted to ‘go further’. So these splash pages will also direct those searching for illegal images to a charity who can help them anonymously reform.

Anyone involved in this area must have found Cameron’s suggestions patronising in the extreme. I have experience representing clients in these cases, but you hardly need a professional to tell you that most illegal images are not easily reachable through Google or any other mainstream search engines. More often, the images are exchanged through file-sharing websites or sold on external hard drives. The idea that an individual looking for child pornography would be put off by warnings of the patently obvious consequences of their actions is ridiculous.

If anything, Cameron’s whimpering attempts to be seen to be tough on illegal pornography only emphasised the practical difficulties with trying to prevent those seeking to download illegal images from doing so.

Then there is the cultural issue: that young children are having their view of sex and relationships ‘distorted’ by looking at extreme pornography. There followed the well-trodden anecdotal evidence about young people ‘sexting’ with one another - in other words, sending each other self-generated sexual images using their mobile phones. In Cameron’s eyes, statistics like ‘over a third of children have received a sexual image by text or email’ is probative evidence of young people’s sexual deviance, brought on by their devouring of large quantities of hardcore pornography.

Quite aside from the panic around children watching porn, the panic around children making porn seems to have a life all of its own. This is despite the fact that only very limited research exists on the prevalence of ‘sexting’. A report by UK children’s charity the NSPCC on young people and sexting, published last year, conceded it was ‘small-scale qualitative research’ and warned against ‘generalising’ from its findings. There has been no widespread study into the extent of ‘sexting’. We should also be a bit more questioning of the claims being made. The statistic that over a ‘third’ of children had received a ‘sexual’ image through texts or email is so broad that it would include any young person who has inadvertently received inappropriate, legal material as junk mail. It certainly does nothing to demonstrate that young people have had their views of adults and sex warped by extreme pornography.

But then again, it wouldn’t be surprising if young people did have a warped idea of adult relationships and sex when we adults are so quick to warn them against the dangers of intimacy. We bombard young people with warnings about the dangers of intimate relationships, and the risk of them sliding into abuse. While Cameron bemoans the ‘corrosion of childhood’, we should consider that the government only last year widened their definition of domestic violence to include more young people, implicitly suggesting that in questions of liberty and criminal justice, children in intimate relationships deserve to be treated just like adults. This government has also refused to do anything about our age of criminal responsibility, which remains among the lowest in Europe.

If we are going to talk seriously about young people’s relationship to porn, we should focus less on access. Kids will find ways round any filters you throw at them. Instead, we should start by recognising that what we are seeking to protect them from is the proliferation and normalisation of pornography in adult society. We live in a time when porn has become totally mainstream. Although the share of bandwidth taken up by porn globally is in decline, the online porn market is still breathtakingly large. It is widely claimed that over $3,000 per second is spent on porn and that a quarter of all search engine requests are pornographic, meaning about 68million requests per day.

The move from pornography out of the ‘brown paper bag’ and on to the shelves of Waterstones shows how far we have come in accepting the idea of sex as a spectacle. If we want kids to stop looking at porn, maybe we should stop celebrating pornography as a new and funky part of adult sexuality.

Maybe we should then scrap those lessons that teach kids that all intimate relationships are potentially abusive, and start teaching them that intimacy is something to be celebrated, whatever age you are. We could let children know that falling in love, maybe even – god forbid – getting a bit ‘obsessed’ with someone is perfectly normal. That it hurts when you get your heart broken, but that everyone is capable of getting over it. Ironically, we spend more time telling children about the dangers of intimate relationships than we do about the possibly humiliating outcome of sending someone self-made pornography. If we are serious about resituating our young people’s attitudes to sex in a context of intimate and loving relationships, we should probably start by telling them that such intimacy is nothing to be scared of.

There is no evidence that children are growing up with a seriously warped attitude to sex and relationships. But to the extent that children do view sex in a skewed way, it is society’s mistrust of intimacy in adult life that is to blame. If we are serious about reversing the proliferation of porn and reshaping young people’s attitudes to sex and relationships, then we, as adults, have to begin doing something which might well be seen as a bit uncool, maybe even a bit Christian. That is, we need to start celebrating human intimacy and sex in the context of a grown-up, private relationship. If we continue to problematise intimacy in young people, if we continue to tell them that becoming close to their peers could result in abuse and mental illness, we should hardly be surprised when they turn to porn as the less-scary alternative.

Luke Gittos is spiked’s law editor. He is also a paralegal in criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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