Three concerns about Cameron's porn plans

Monday, 22 July 2013


The announcement today that the government is to take action on a number of issues surrounding pornography have, predictably, caused an enormous backlash. The news that internet providers will block UK households from accessing pornography (introducing an "opt-in" system), that possessing pornography that depicts rape will become a criminal offence in England and Wales (as is currently the case for that depicting bestiality, necrophilia, and life-threatening injury), and that search engines will return no results for certain terms associated with pornography depicting the abuse of children, has prompted more discussion about censorship, free speech, and morality.

I started my life as a feminist speaking out against porn. Very quickly, I found out that people don't like it when you do that. I know a lot more now than I did then, and those debates might pan out differently. It's actually something I don't write about much now, because it often prompts so much anger from both sides of the debate and that's more than I can be bothered to get involved in. What I've seen today, however, is a lot of really great discussion and engagement between people holding a variety of opinions - and that's quite heartening. That's not to say that I haven't found some of the backlash against the government's plans unpleasant and some opinions from both sides dismissive of the concerns of all involved. But considering that my last blog post was actually quite down on the state of internet feminism, it could have been worse.

Many people have highlighted many valid concerns about today's announcement. I want to write about three of mine.

Forgive the corporate-speak, but I'm not convinced that today's announcement constitutes "joined-up thinking".
Cameron wants a Britain "where children are allowed to be children" and I'm not going to disagree with him (let that be noted) that children don't need to be seeing pornographic depictions of rape. Unfortunately, "children being allowed to be children" is all very well until you consider the wealth of ways in which they can also receive potentially harmful and also deeply misogynist messages about sex, relationships, and women in general. The Prime Minister has already received criticism for his refusal to support a ban on topless women appearing on Page 3 of the Sun. The screenshot below shows the story as reported by the Daily Mail today - a sight, as was noted by plenty of people, that is "beyond parody". Note three women in bikinis (one "barely-there", one "skimpy"), one mention of a sex tape, a story about one young woman's midriff, one about a "topless Instagram snap", and one Daily Mail Special - a story about a 16-year-old girl looking "Older than her years".


Some criticisms of the No More Page 3 campaign have focused on the fact that the sort of media and messages it's speaking out against also appear in abundance in women's magazines and in the fashion industry. Why focus on Page 3 when it's just one page in a newspaper? Why not cast the net wider and take issue with it all? This is an important question and in the same way, you have to consider the fact that today's announcements focus only on one aspect of a range of unpleasant aspects of culture, media, and material that's available. Our culture may condemn content depicting child abuse, but the abuse of women, along with unhealthy attitudes about sex and relationships, are practically mainstream. And all this contributes to childhood being "corroded", as Cameron put it earlier today.

This brings me onto my second concern about today's announcements: if the government wants to take action to stop children seeing unhealthy and abusive depictions of sex and relationships, is it going to ensure that they receive more helpful messages through comprehensive sex and relationships education? Last month, MPs voted against an amendment to the Children and Families Bill proposing that SRE be made a compulsory part of the National Curriculum.

There is a need for young people to learn more about what constitutes a healthy relationship and how they can recognise - and deal with - an unhealthy one. There is a need for them to learn more about what constitutes sexual exploitation. Consent is such a huge issue and it is clearly one that, for many people, needs clarifying. But without fail, such proposals are usually met with noises about "protecting innocence" - or as I like to think of it, keeping young people in the dark and doing nothing to remedy the widespread problem of abuse in teenage relationships. In the same way, blocking people from accessing problematic material doesn't solve anything. It's not going to "get rid" of such content - it's going to brush it under the carpet. It's up to the consumer to decide whether they "opt in" to seeing it - which was incidentally Cameron's comment about why he does not support action against Page 3. There is also concern that educational material and sites completely unrelated to pornography could end up becoming inaccessible, stopping children and teenagers from finding important information.

Thirdly, although I do, in theory, support what Cameron's plans are hoping to achieve, I don't believe that his government truly have the interests of children, of women, and of the most vulnerable people in society at heart. This year, a report from the End Violence Against Women coalition gave the government "2.5 out of 10" for its preventative work against domestic violence and called current efforts to combat VAWG "virtually meaningless". To talk about all the ways in which the cuts and changes to benefits have affected women and children is another blog post (or perhaps a series of posts). Talking about "tackling the sexualisation of children" sounds good, and these plans to stop young people accessing explicit material may be helpful in some ways, but there's a long way to go before we make any headway with the issues that "sexualisation" is so intertwined with.

Further reading:
Salt and Caramel - Porn and posturing politicians

 

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