As the Russian revolutionary leader Lenin said, “A lie repeated often enough becomes the truth”. So it is with many of the Porn Panic stories that have emerged over the past few years, each designed to frighten us into believing that a free and open Internet is a threat to our children and the very fabric of our society.
In 1984, Britain introduced the toughest video censorship regime of any democratic nation, following several years of media hysteria which is now better known as the Video Nasties moral panic. The British public were told that horror films on video were turning children into potential rapists and murderers. The architects of the panic further claimed that we could not leave parents to decide what their children should watch, because Bad Parents were allowing their children to watch scenes of horrific sex and violence. Therefore, the only possible way to save our society from imminent collapse was to empower the BBFC to censor videos before the public could be allowed to buy them. As a result, even today, British people cannot (legally) buy many DVDs that are available in most of the free world.
Those who are familiar with the Video Nasties panic have seen an almost identical copy of it emerge in the past five years or so: the Sexualisation Panic. We are told that our children and our very culture have been “Sexualised”. This time, the blame is mostly put on online porn, along with lads’ mags and other “Sexualised” media. Although parental control systems work perfectly well, the panic architects tell us that more must be done, because (wait for it…) Bad Parents are refusing to protect their kids!
There is something uniquely odd about British culture. Most countries don’t experience these intermittent panics. Just as Britain was the only European country to scare itself to death over horror videos, now it is the only European country to get itself agitated about online porn (which, don’t forget, has been with us for almost 20 years).
But is there any evidence that Sexualisation is real? In a word: No. The architects of this panic have failed to provide any, opting instead to create a drumbeat of fear via Britain’s newspapers. As with Video Nasties, journalists and editors have simply repeated the scare stories without ever asking for evidence from those who are banging the Sexualisation drum.
The Sexualisation myth originates largely from two government papers; the first was published by the outgoing Labour government, and the second (in 2011) by the new Coalition government. This second report, known as the Bailey Review of Sexualisation and Commercialisation of Childhood, is the prime root source of the panic that has unfolded.
And yet, the Bailey Review is not a study of Sexualisation at all, but merely a study of what the public thinks about Sexualisation. The sex researcher Dr Brooke Magnanti analysed the Bailey Review and found that it contained no evidence to back the idea that children were being Sexualised:
It does not summarise any academic evidence regarding sexualisation…
It does not conduct new evidence seeking regarding the effects of early commercialisation or sexualisation…
It does offer the results of questionnaires and focus groups…
It does make a number of recommendations, purportedly based on the results of the questionnaires and focus groups; however, close examination shows that in many cases, the responses do not support the changes suggested.
It is also worth noting that Reg Bailey is not a child psychologist, but in fact is head of a large, international Christian organisation, Mothers’ Union. Why did the government pick a religious leader to undertake this study? Why has the press swallowed Bailey’s opinions and regurgitated them as fact? Because moral panics don’t exist in a vacuum: they are created to justify censorship, and just as the Video Nasties panic culminated in the Video Recordings Act 1984, so this panic is aimed at legislation to introduce Internet censorship.
We need to also stand up for our children, and ensure they are treated with the same respect as children in the rest of Europe. We do not create caring adults by treating children as idiots who cannot be trusted to use the Internet, or by denying parents the right to control what their children see and hear.
As for Sexualisation? The evidence suggests that teenagers are becoming more, not less grown-up about sex and sexuality. In Britain, teenage pregnancy rates are the lowest since the 1960s. The Internet, with its free and open access to information has created a more sexually mature generation of young people than we have ever seen before.
There is no cause for panic, but there are powerful vested interests that want to close off the British public from the outside world, just as they tried to do when video appeared in the 1980s. This time, we need to stop the panic before Britain loses access to a free and open Internet.