Porn Wars – Sex, Lies And The Battle To Control Britain’s Internet

internet-censored

April 2019 was the month that the Great British Porn Firewall was supposed to finally come into force, with the BBFC tasked with enforcing government regulation of adult websites, which must now be hidden behind bland log-in pages that can only be accessed with age verification. Once again, though, it has been delayed, as the powers that be struggle with the mammoth task in hand, namely running an effective block while safeguarding the personal information that will be required to prove ID – credit cards, passports and such – which would be a blackmailer’s dream if the sites holding that information were ever hacked (and as we saw with Ashley Madison, that’s not an unrealistic fear). The main player in age verification is MindGeek, the company behind PornHub and RedTube and other adult sites, so this system not only puts all the industry power in the hands of one company, but also asks people to trust a business that has effectively made its money by hosting pirated, unlicensed footage. No wonder there is so much disquiet about the block.

Of course, some of us have been pointing out for years that not only is this a flawed system, but it is based on flawed research and hysterical, biased reporting. The current block is in law because previous attempts at blocking porn via ISPs – having filters automatically turned on – had failed miserably. The people had spoken, but the people were wrong, to paraphrase one MP during the video nasty panic in the 1980s.

As a way in to how we got to where we are now, here is a look back at the 2013 Rapid Evidence Assessment (because why would anyone want to study evidence carefully and over time) from the Children’s Commissioner that was, alongside similarly dubious studies by the NSPCC,  a motivating factor in the new laws being introduced…

Now that’s a scientific fact: there’s no real evidence for it, but it is scientific fact.”
Dr Fox, Brass Eye

The oddly sensible suggestion from the Sex Education Forum in April 2013 that young people be taught about porn in an unsensationalist, non-moralistic manner – that it’s not all bad, can be entertaining and helpful but of course is fantasy, not reality – has predictably been ignored. It was, after all, far too well thought out an idea that might have allowed kids to understand the realities of porn without demonising it in such a way that the message would be rejected. As Norman Wells of the Family Education Trust commented to the BBC, “The intention appears to be to steer children and young people away from a belief in moral absolutes and to encourage them to think that there are no rights and wrongs when it comes to sexual expression.” And we certainly can’t have that.

Instead, we’ve had the National Association of Head Teachers saying that children should “hear about the dangers of pornography” – no suggestion of an even-handed approach there, just the guilt and shame that you imagine Mr Wells approves of when it comes to sex. Kids will be taught that porn is evil, and that’s that. Once they know that, teenagers with raging hormones will no longer have any interest in sex and we can return to the innocent days of the 1990s when no one had intercourse until they were married.

As the relentless fight continues,we now have a new report, Basically, Porn is Everywhere (no bias there then) from the Office of the Children’s Commissioner. This is a Rapid Evidence Assessment, put together in three months – and as anyone who knows about such thing will tell you, REAs are useless, badly (if at all) researched documents generally designed to confirm an already-existing opinion or support planned legislation – the last one involving sex was put together by a couple of anti-porn campaigners to back up the ban on ‘extreme porn’. Essentially then, this is another one-sided propaganda piece to sit alongside all the rest, from Mother’s Union head Reg Bailey’s made-up rubbish about sexualisation to the infamous Video Violence and Children pack of lies from the 1980s that set the standard for evidence free, pro-censorship campaigning masquerading as research. The media, of course, has happily piled on with simplistic reporting (clearly spoon-fed to them), dubious and convenient anecdotes to ‘prove’ the dangers of porn viewing and quotes from the experts at Netmums. The campaign to censor the internet isn’t going away and this flimsy study is just the latest in a series of attacks aimed at wearing down public opinion.

Interestingly, the introduction to this latest study states that “it is unclear whether pornography is more extreme and violent today than in the past” before the report and the press interviews by all involved go on to make exactly that claim – or at least imply it and allow the unquestioning press to do their dirty work for them. Deputy Children’s Commissioner for England Sue Berelowitz then claims that “most worryingly, the evidence here shows that… there are links between violent attitudes and violent media”. Astounding that this report, put together in just three months, has found the evidentiary holy grail that has eluded other researchers for decades. But of course, it hasn’t. And it admits as much later – “We do not know what effects the cultural context has on young people’s attitudes and behaviours towards and stemming from pornography.” No evidence for this ‘link’ is ever established in the report, and yet there it is in the introduction and the conclusions, even though it is then immediately followed by “This link has never been demonstrated and causality has not been established.” So, no link then.

The inference then seems to be that what we don’t know, we’ll just assume and feed to the press as the ‘evidence’ they are salivating for, knowing they will only skim the report and take their pre-determined information from the headlines, not the actual content.

We can see where this report is really coming from in Finding 2: Access and exposure to pornography affect children and young people’s sexual beliefs.

Awkwardly for the moralists at work here (and predictably disregarded by those claiming porn to be the cause of all the child-on-child sexual assault that equally dubious stats have also been recently reporting as on the increase) is the line tucked away on page 35 – “The use of internet pornography by adults or by children and young people was not predicted by their belief in the rape myth: ‘women say no when they mean yes’.” So porn – even the ‘horrific’ and ‘violent’ porn that the media is today reporting that our kids are seeing every time they turn on their computer – is not responsible for encouraging rape, right?

But it’s not really sex crime that these people are fretting about. It’s sexual attitudes, and the fear that there might be a generation growing up that doesn’t have the same hypocritical value system as them.

Essentially, this report is saying that porn supposedly puts young people at risk of “developing unrealistic attitudes about sex.” What are they? Well, although they dress it up in terms of gender equality, what it seems to boil down to is that porn promotes “sexual permissive attitudes and greater acceptance of casual sex”. One study quoted (under the heading of ‘risky behaviour’) says that young people exposed to sexually explicit materials have “more liberal attitudes”. You might ask why that is seen as a bad thing – surely it’s no one else’s business if a person wants to enjoy a varied sex life with different partners rather than settling into a relationship with just one. But no – such attitudes are wrong. As Norman Wells says, we have to have moral absolutes, not sexual freedom.

The same section then claims that “the double standard reinforced in pornographic material: that is, women with multiple partners are considered promiscuous, while men with multiple partners are revered.” I’m sorry? Are they honestly trying to claim that porn movies condemn women for being sexual? What nonsense. Porn is the one place where sexually active women are treated as being the norm, celebrated on an equal footing with men. If they want to see women being condemned for their sexuality, they should look in the Daily Mail or women’s magazines where slut-shaming is the norm.

And of course, porn is blamed for gender inequality, though the use of the terms ‘dominant’ (male) and ‘submissive’ (female) is loaded with inferences. Are they really talking in broader sex terms or actually talking about BDSM as another ‘negative’ effect of porn? One imagines they don’t think BDSM to be a healthy or desirable sexual activity. Of course, not that many years ago, they would have had the same pathetic fears about young people being drawn into gay sex, bisexuality or cross-dressing. Such misguided bigotry is no longer acceptable, but it’s okay to shift it to other sexual minorities or activities.

There’s also talk about body image, even though porn features a bigger variety of shapes, sizes, ages, races and everything else than you’ll ever find in the mainstream media. Bizarrely, the report at one point seems to think that professional porn producers are digitally enhancing their performers, which frankly credits them with more tech savvy and bigger budgets than they actually have.

What’s curious about this report – and the way it has been hyped to the press – is that in the end, it can’t offer any evidence to back up its claims. The section ‘what do we know and are confident about’ is, despite the title, full of inconsistencies. Much seems to rely on Swedish research, and Sweden of course is a hub of hardline anti-sex feminism. Even here, it has dubious conclusions – “a sample of Swedish female teenagers indicating that four out of five believed that porn influences people’s behaviour and that 32 per cent of those who viewed it believed it had influenced them.” In other words, the old “it doesn’t affect me but does affect other people” claim. And this is quoted as ‘evidence’?

It’s also claimed that studies show that exposure to porn increases the belief that “women are sex objects”. But that’s a rather loaded statement. What does it mean? That men are more likely to objectify women and treat them accordingly in day-to-day life? Or that they are more likely to admit to finding women who appear in erotic materials sexy? It’s rather unclear and there is a considerable difference. Throwing out buzzwords without further explanation is hardly good enough.

Given that this section – the bit they are ‘confident’ about – is so full of half-facts, suppositions, inconclusive statements and caveats (“it should be noted that the majority of this research is cross- sectional and correlational and therefore causal relationships cannot be established” – typical of the notes that have been ignored by both the media and the moral campaigners), it’s unsurprising that the rest of the report is even less conclusive and yet makes bigger leaps in its statements, some of which conflict with the earlier, more ‘solid’ evidence. It’s a real mess, quite honestly. But in the summary, the following (ignored by the media) are noteworthy:

Finding 6: We do not know what effect viewing violent images has on children
and young people

Finding 7: We cannot draw conclusions about causality

In other words, no evidence to back up the hysteria. But as we saw with the Bailey Report, the fact that there is no evidence no longer means that we conclude that the hysteria is unfounded. No, the problem exists, and even if we can’t actually prove that it is a problem, we’ll still claim that it is anyway. The ‘conclusion’ of the study, despite no evidence to back any of this up, is that “exposure to sexualised and violent imagery affects children and young people and that there are links between violent attitudes and violent media”. Because we say so.

The report ends by welcoming the work of Claire Perry MP – ardent anti-sex and pro-censorship campaigner. And why not? It was effectively written to help her campaign to censor the internet and ensure that no-one develops an interest in sex that goes beyond lights off, missionary position with the same person for the whole of your life. The fact that internet blocking almost certainly won’t end with porn sites is something we are not supposed to think about.

UPDATE: AgeID have asked us to clarify the following:

“The age verification platform you are referring to is called AgeID, and we wanted to clarify that it is a portal rather than a system, meaning that a user leaves AgeID to verify their age (on a third party site) and enters the details required to prove their age e.g. Credit Card details, Passport, Driving License. The third party will then pass back either a ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ to AgeID. This means AgeID does not see, let alone store, any personal age verification data.

“AgeID is also one of several age verification companies responding to the law, and until the law is live, it cannot be assumed it is the main player.

DAVID FLINT

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