Long-standing readers of this blog will know UK government attempts to censor the Internet under the banner of “child protection”. For years, media regulators and sections of government made the argument that online pornography was harming children. Given that there was little evidence to support this, they relied on disseminating moral panics in order to bounce government into taking action.
Various vested interests were rallied to support these panics and add a level of credibility. These included anti-sex feminists – who added a ‘women’s rights’ narrative, and the NSPCC (a child protection charity) which lent its brand to spreading dubious claims about porn addiction. I documented these campaigns in my book Porn Panic.
The solution offered by the regulators (which was passed into law in the Digital Economy Act of 2017) was to force porn providers to verify the ages of their visitors. While this might have sounded reasonable to the unaware, this would have involved large amounts of infrastructure spending in three places: first, porn vendors would be required implement age verification systems; second an “age verification regulator” (the BBFC) would be given powers to act against porn companies that did not comply; and third, ISPs would be required to block sites if ordered to do so by the BBFC.
Expensive change is always good for someone. In this case, the biggest winner would have been the Age Verification industry, which would have been granted a large state-enforced market. Unsurprisingly, members of the AV industry were often involved with lobbying activities, designed to make the case for the porn block. The AV industry also became a regular sponsor of adult industry events, in anticipation of the day that the porn companies would be forced to use their products.
Then after the election of Boris Johnson as the Tory Party leader, in a rare display of common sense, the government suddenly scrapped the scheme. This was good news for anti-censorship and privacy campaigners, but less good news for the AV industry.
Now, four AV industry providers (AgeChecked Ltd, VeriMe, AVYourself and AVSecure) are suing the government for £3m for changing its mind. Watch this space for more.
Recently, I came across a campaign called We Can’t Consent to This, which purports to be ‘a response to the increasing use of “rough sex” defences to the killing or violent injury of women and girls’. But when I browsed the campaign’s site, it seemed somewhat familiar, and I started to suspect that the campaign was not what it claimed to be. British radical feminist campaigns tend to fit a particular pattern – a pattern with which I became familiar when I observed it over a number of years for my book Porn Panic!
For several years, a small, active (and hateful) radical feminist group called Object was a key driving force behind claims that pornography was harmful, and made repeated calls for porn to be censored. Additionally, Object was behind a number of other pop-up anti-sex campaigns. These included Stripping the Illusion (a campaign to get strip club licenses revoked by councils), Lose the Lads Mags (which attempted to stop supermarkets selling magazines such as Zoo and Nuts), and Rewind and Reframe, which called for the censorship of “sexist” music videos. Object may also have been influential in the No More Page 3 (NMP3) campaign, which called for the Sun newspaper to end its iconic daily topless model on page 3. The same groups of people are also behind anti-sex work campaigns such as Nordic Model Now. At times it seems there are more radfem campaigns than there are activists.
Each campaign had a set of common features, most obvious of which was the shallowness of their arguments. In place of evidence that porn (or lads’ mags, music videos, …) was harmful, the campaign would resort to fear-mongering and the vague insinuation that erotic imagery caused ‘objectification’ which in turn (somehow) caused men to harm women. The campaigns rarely, if ever, attempted to provide evidence of the alleged harm, and with good reason: there was none to be found. Instead they relied on moral panic, scary anecdotes, and the endless repetition of the word ‘objectification’, as if this alone was all the justification they needed. In the rare cases when the campaigns provided statistical evidence, it was often false or misrepresented. One such case was the use of the ‘Lilith Report’ to demonstrate that strip clubs contributed to the prevalence of rape in the local area. This report was mercilessly dismantled by Dr Brooke Magnanti, who showed that the Lilith result had been falsified by cherry-picking only the evidence that matched the claim and ignoring evidence that contradicted it. This did not prevent Object from quoting Lilith for years after it had been discredited.
These campaigns had a number of other things in common. First, they all received uncritical backing from the Guardian, sometimes in comment pieces and occasionally via editorials and planted ‘news’ stories. Second, they all drew their arguments from a small number of unreliable sources: often the leading anti-porn radical feminist activist Gail Dines. And third, they were supported by small numbers of MPs, generally from the Labour Party, and often including the veteran Labour MP (and radical feminist) Harriet Harman, who regularly lends her name to anti-porn and anti-prostitution lobbying efforts. The Guardian, Dines and Harman reappear regularly in support of anti-sex campaigns. All three appear in conjunction with We Can’t Consent to This, with the Guardian publishing a supportive piece, rich in anecdote and panic, on the subject.
We Can’t Consent to This makes the central claim that, increasingly, men accused of murder are using the defence that the death occurred during ‘sex games gone wrong’. It does provide some statistics in a briefing document. However, the statistics quoted by WCCTT themselves seem to suggest that the use of such a defence is extremely rare, and that in any case it doesn’t appear to be taken seriously by the courts. WCCTT’s own data suggests that the defence has been used in the killings of 57 women and girls since 1972 (a timeframe of 47 years), and never more than five times in any year. Furthermore, in almost all cases (51), the defendant was found guilty of either murder or manslaughter. One case has yet to reach court.
WCCTT is a strange campaign: not only is the problem it identifies (the use of a ‘sex game gone wrong’ defence) extremely rare, but the defence it complains of rarely, if ever, works. The briefing document does suggest that the defence has helped reduce charges or mitigate sentencing, but provides no evidence to support this. Most of the site is dedicated to the individual, harrowing, stories of women who have been brutally murdered. So given that murder and manslaughter are already illegal, what exactly is WCCTT trying to achieve?
The direct goals of the campaign are not stated clearly anywhere on the site, but are hinted at: “We do not believe that women can consent to their grievous injury or death, and will campaign until claiming this is no longer a useful defence”. WCCTT asks supporters to write to their MPs calling on their support for an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill. The content of the amendment is not on the WCCTT site; to find out what it actually says, one must visit Parliament’s website, and now we can finally see what the campaign’s true mission is.
There’s a subtle difference between this amendment and the wording on the WCCTT website. While the campaign refers to death and serious injury, the amendment also includes a third category: actual bodily harm. But ABH is defined as follows:
Actual bodily harm is a criminal offence in which someone gives another person a minor injury
ABH refers to bruises, scratches and so on. So this law is primarily designed to stop people causing minor injury to each other. It’s likely that 99% of injuries sustained during sex are both minor and consensual. And so here, apparently, is the big con: We Can’t Consent to This talks loudly about murders and horrific injuries, but actually is campaigning for consenting BDSM, fetish and kink sex to be criminalised.
Is this deliberate, or naive? Fiona Mackenzie of WCCTT contacted me on Twitter after I tweeted about the issue, and denied that the campaign was anti-kink.
I pointed out the campaign seemed to be linked with well known anti-sex campaigners.
Mackenzie is right. According to legal precedent, one cannot consent to being injured. In 1993, during the trial of R vs Brown (aka the Spanner case), a group of gay men were convicted of “unlawful and malicious wounding” after participating in a sadomasochistic sex party, despite the fact that all participants were consenting. However, the case was seen to be deeply homophobic as well as an intrusion into people’s private sex lives. It is unlikely, these days, that police would choose to arrest people for going to an S&M party. And yet, this is what Mackenzie, Harman and their supporters seem to want. I thought I should clarify this point:
She didn’t reply. I tried again:
Again, Fiona Mackenzie failed to reply. I have contacted her again, asking for comment, and will update this article if she responds further.
So We Can’t Consent to This is actually acting to prevent pro-dommes and lifestyle kinksters from enjoying perfectly consensual and (barring the odd bruise) harmless sex lives. The campaign should perhaps be renamed to We Don’t Approve of You Consenting to This.
If you are a pro-domme, or enjoy a fetish lifestyle, and would like to support my work, you can make a contribution here.
(Photo credits: photos courtesy Hyena Photography and Red Heaven Media)
Yesterday, the Crown Prosecution Service announced that they would be loosening their obscenity guidelines to formally allow – for the first time – strong fetish material, so long as it features consenting adults. This news was greeted with joy by fetishists and campaigners. But it was also an inevitable step towards stronger censorship of the Internet by the UK government.
Four years ago, the sex worker activist Charlotte Rose organised perhaps the most entertaining protest ever seen in the UK: the face-sitting protest, outside Parliament. I was one of the speakers at the event, which was called in response to a sly act of government censorship. Without even calling a parliamentary vote, the government had extended DVD pornography rules so they were now applied to Internet video.
Among the acts now banned were “dangerous” acts (hence face-sitting, which could in theory suffocate someone – I kid you not), watersports, female ejaculation, and fetish material including most spanking, sado-masochism and bondage. At a stroke, thousands of porn sites (including all of the free “tube” sites) became technically illegal. You probably didn’t notice, as nothing actually happened. The tubes, and many other sites, continued to stream face-sitting, spanking and squirting material into the UK, and British consumers continued to watch it.
The law change was a failed attempt by the media regulator ATVOD to gain the power to close down overseas websites. Their cunning plan was to approach banks, point out that they were clearing payments for content that was illegal in the UK, and ask them to withdraw their services from the offending sites. The banks, however, didn’t see much of a problem. The material was legal in the US, and the new law, having been sneaked in by the back door, didn’t have much standing. The regulator had failed, and porn had won.
ATVOD was later scrapped, and Ofcom, the mighty media regulator (and censor) took over the online remit. This time, there would be no half-measures. In 2017, the Digital Economy Act was passed. For the first time, a British state censor would have the right to order websites to be blocked if they didn’t conform to UK regulations. The Act allowed porn sites to be blocked on two grounds:
If they didn’t verify the ages of visitors, or
If they contained extreme material.
Now, porn businesses based in America or elsewhere would surely have to pay attention. And they did. Mindgeek (the giant owner of Pornhub and other leading tube sites) began to play ball, and announced it would be conforming to the new UK law. This gave them two massive headaches:
How to verify the ages of millions of UK visitors, and
What to do about all the material that was US-legal but UK-illegal.
The first problem has occupied the industry for some time (and set champagne corks popping in the boardrooms of age verification companies). But not much attention has been paid to the second problem.
The problem now was that big porn companies have accepted (albeit reluctantly) that they will enforce age verification for UK customers (hint – you can use a VPN to mask your location). But why would Mindgeek and others bother to enforce the age verification rule if their content is illegal in the UK anyway?
If the new British censor – the BBFC – was unable to bring the porn industry on-board with its new regime, it would lose all credibility. Unless Mindgeek signed up, the new censorship law (due to go live this coming April) would fail. So, just for once, the interests of the porn industry and the British government coincided with those of the fetish community. In a nutshell, the change to the law transformed an unworkable system of censorship into a viable one.
So the timing of yesterday’s announcement is little surprise: unless UK obscenity laws were brought into line with American ones before April, the new censorship system would be a flop. It is of course wonderful (and long overdue) news that UK porn users will no longer be criminalised for enjoying a bit of face-sitting porn in the privacy of their own homes. But like much good news from the British authorities, it came with a catch.
I have long predicted that the porn panic – the war on sexual expression – would engulf content far beyond pornography. The takeover of the British anti-censorship movement by members of the fetish-porn scene has thus been frustrating, as it has suggested that the threat to free speech is about the needs of people with unusual sexual tastes. I have predicted, in particular, that dating sites like Craigslist would be hit hard, as they allow people to post adult images on their ads. Last week, Craigslist did indeed close its dating section, but in response to legal changes in the US, rather than the UK.
While the UK’s attacks on Internet freedom have focused on the “need to protect children from pornography”, US attacks have focused on prostitution (labelled as “sex trafficking”). Using the latter excuse, the United States just approved a pair of laws, known as SESTA and FOSTA, which criminalise online services that enable “sex trafficking”. While this might seem a worthy effort, when one scratches the surface, we find the hand of anti-sex feminism at work, as usual, and the story is not as it seems.
The trafficking panic has been rising for a decade, and has long ago been exposed as largely mythical by tireless campaigners such as Brooke Magnanti and Laura Agustin. Magnanti’s book The Sex Myth outlines how the panic rose in the UK, leading to Parliament approving funds to tackle sex trafficking; but although anti-trafficking campaigners had claimed thousands of victims, the police could find hardly any. Agustin, in her book Sex in the Margins, outlines how illegal immigrant women enter the sex industry voluntarily as an alternative to lower paid (illegal) hotel work, but are dismissed as “victims” by campaigners.
Illegal immigrants who sell sex are thus labelled “trafficked women”, and then rescued. Agustin refers to the anti-trafficking movement as the Rescue Industry. The Rescue industry is, in reality, a merger between the anti-prostitution movement and the anti-immigration movement. Now, when brothels are raided to “rescue” trafficked women, the women are often sent to asylum camps before being deported – hardly the rescue of helpless victims that people tend to imagine.
Despite the fact that genuine victims of sex-trafficking are more rare than one would assume from reading the headlines, politicians have been persuaded otherwise. The first American victim of the panic was Backpage.com, which last year was forced to drop its famous escort listings. SESTA / FOSTA is the latest example of this. American sex workers have strongly opposed the new law, arguing that without places to advertise, they will be forced underground, and inevitably face more dangers as a result. The police too say that street prostitution has increased since Backpage was closed. But the Rescue Industry is now a well-funded juggernaut with the power to shout far louder than sex workers.
Once escort ads were banned, US sex workers moved to classified ad platforms like Craigslist, which have never allowed blatant escort advertising. When SESTA / FESTA was approved last week, Craigslist had little choice but to close its dating section – a little corner of Internet freedom that has thrived for years.
Although SESTA / FOSTA doesn’t apply in the UK (where anyway, prostitution is legal), Craigslist is a US business – so the UK has lost one of its most vibrant dating and adult contact services.
What is the future for UK escort listing sites like Adultwork.com and Viva Street? On paper, there is no reason for them not to continue. But I predict that the Digital Economy Act, which already enables porn censorship, will inevitably be extended to block new categories of content, and that “trafficking” will feature in the next list of targets.
Whores of Yore is a website, run by academic Kate Lister, which describes itself as follows: “We are proudly sex-positive. An inter-disciplinary, pro-sex worker rights hub, dedicated to exploring the history of human sexuality and challenging shame and stigma.” (Here’s the link – please note it’s a teensy bit NSFW, at least if your boss is a religious fundamentalist or an anti-sex feminist).
Along with intelligent writing and resources on sex work issues, the site includes a gallery of Vintage Erotica (click at your peril!) which ranges from topless imagery to some quite naughty stuff. Who knew our great-great grannies were getting up to this sort of thing? Few people would consider these images to be pornographic but then, porn is such a tricky thing to define.
Unswayed by this apparent problem, the government has promised (in the current Digital Economy Bill) to block pornography unless it’s behind an age verification check (one that forces you to enter your credit card, mobile phone or other personal details). So what definition of porn does the bill use?
The bill defines porn as video, imagery or audio that the BBFC (the video censor which will now become the Internet censor) would classify at either 18 or R18 certificate. And while R18 refers to explicit, hardcore action, 18 is reserved for the soft stuff: faked sex, striptease and even simple nudity, if the censors decide that it might be titillating. An added level of complication is that the BBFC only currently classifies video, not imagery. And as for audio… what do they consider audio porn to consist of? Well, we’ll soon find out.
The problem is that this breathtakingly broad definition of pornography will catch millions of sites that range far beyond pornography. So how about Whores of Yore? Since it’s a blog that doesn’t (and effectively can’t) age-check its users, will it break the law when it comes into effect? Will it be blocked? Will Kate Lister be paraded naked through the streets of London and pelted with rotten fruit? OK, the last one probably (and disappointingly) won’t happen.
So Kate contacted the BBFC, the UK’s soon-to-be Internet censor with a simple question: will she be a criminal, and will her site be blocked, under the new regime? After all, these rules are set to become law within a few months, and have been under discussion for years. Predictably, the BBFC responded to say they simply can’t answer:
“Work in this area has not yet begun and so we are not in a position to advice [sic] you on your website. Pages 23 and 24 of our Classification Guidelines detail the standards applied when classifying sex works at 18 and R18 however and may be of interest to you.”
To save you the time of checking the BBFC’s online guidelines, let me assure you that they’re as useful as a chocolate dildo. Actually, far less useful than that. So either the BBFC really doesn’t know which sites it will be blocking later this year, or (and this seems more likely) it doesn’t want to admit that the law is so loosely drafted that almost anything might be blocked, at a whim.
And the response hints that the BBFC’s remit may soon go far beyond nude imagery (my highlight):
“Under its letters of designation the BBFC may not classify anything that may breach criminal law, including the Obscene Publications Act (OPA) as currently interpreted by the Crown Prosecution Service”
So we need to stop obsessing on the censorship of “niche porn”, which has served as a distraction from the main story. This is a blueprint for a state censor that can block anything it likes.
If you run a website, and are worried it may breach UK law, please contact the BBFC and ask whether you may be criminalised, or have your site blocked. It’s unacceptable, this late in the day, that the BBFC doesn’t know what content it’s going to censor. Let me know how they respond.
This blog has long documented ways in which the British anti-sex movement has set out to stigmatise legal, consensual sex between adults. By establishing a series of porn-panic concepts, from the odd idea that we’re all being “sexualised” to the recent insistence that porn is a “public health crisis”, the movement has laid the groundwork for politicians and police to begin rolling back recent advances in sexual freedom. The story of John O’Neill is among the most bizarre of all recent cases.
O’Neill was accused of rape, but swiftly found not guilty in court. Nonetheless, the judge requested that police continue to treat him as a threat to women. O’Neill must now give police 24 hours notice before having sexual contact with anyone; this apparently includes flirting or kissing. It appears that John O’Neill’s “crime” was nothing more than an interest in BDSM with consenting adults.
British sex workers are jubilant as the parliamentary sex work inquiry, led by Labour MP Keith Vaz, has recommended scrapping laws restricting the sale of sex in the UK. While sex work is legal, sex workers have long called for complete decriminalisation. In particular, sex work activists have pointed at the brothel-keeping law which effectively prevents two or more women working together for safety.
The statement includes a quote from Vaz which strongly recommends the scrapping of these laws:
“Treating soliciting as a criminal offence is having an adverse effect, and it is that sex workers, who are predominantly women, should be penalised and stigmatised in this way. The criminalisation of sex workers should therefore end.
The current law on brothel keeping also means sex-workers can be too afraid of prosecution to work together at the same premises, which can often compromise their safety.”
This is fantastic for those who have campaigned to make life safer for sex workers. There are caveats, however:
“There must however be zero tolerance of the organised criminal exploitation of sex workers, and changes to legislation should not lessen the Home Office’s ability to prosecute those engaged in exploitation.”
So, for example, it is unclear whether a partner of a sex worker who works from home might still be criminalised. Such a statement suggests that full decriminalisation is not, in fact, on the cards – rather a loosening of existing laws. Nonetheless, life is set to become easier and safer for sex workers in general.
However, this is an interim statement, and there is a huge omission: the committee has yet to determine whether sex buyers will be criminalised under the so-called Nordic Model, which has been implemented in Sweden, Northern Ireland, and most recently in France.
“The Committee will evaluate a number of the alternative models as this inquiry continues, including the sex-buyers law as operated in Sweden, the full decriminalised model used in Denmark, and the legalised model used in Germany and the Netherlands.”
As I reported in my article about France, the introduction of the Nordic model was dishonestly presented as decriminalisation. A Twitter user suggested to me that:
“France is not banning prostitution actually quite the contrary. We are banning the buying of sex and de-criminilising prostitutes” [sic]
So the language of decriminalisation is malleable and slippery. Since “decriminalisation” has become a popular word, so prohibitionists have adopted it and changed its meaning. Shifting the legal burden from workers to clients is not, of course, decriminalisation – it just uses different tools to achieve the same ends; it would also make a mockery of a new law that allows brothels to be kept, but doesn’t allow anyone to visit them.
So there is certainly great cause for celebration, but perhaps the most important decision has been left to a later date. We await with interest.
First, here’s the good news. Porn-maker Pandora Blake announced yesterday that her fetish website, Dreams of Spanking, will be switched back on, following a decision by Ofcom that it did not, after all, fall within their remit. The site had previously been targeted by the video-on-demand regulator ATVOD on the basis that it lacked age verification controls, and contained content that was harder than would legally be allowed under the UK’s insipid DVD regulations. In January, ATVOD was closed down, and its powers brought within Ofcom, the UK’s media regulator and censor.
Blake’s appeal was one that has been successfully used a number of times since the video-on-demand (AVMS) regulations were introduced in 2010. AVMS is an EU framework designed specifically to regulate TV-like video-on-demand services. ATVOD, however, attempted to stretch the definition of “TV-like” as far as possible, in order to shore up its own income and power. Its first overreach, in 2011, was an attempt to define newspaper websites as TV-like, and thus bring news content within its remit. A raft of publications, led by the Sun, appealed that their content was not TV-like. Ofcom agreed with them, and ATVOD was forced to back down.
Playboy TV attempted to make a similar appeal with regard to its websites, but lost. The first porn site to successfully appeal was Urban Chick – Supremacy Cell (UC-SC – listen to my podcast interview with the site’s owner). So UC-SC became the only porn site legally allowed to remain in the UK without having to meet ATVOD’s stringent rules. Dreams of Spanking now becomes the second such site. So we have the bizarre situation where exactly two websites are legally allowed to operate in the UK without Ofcom’s oversight. Can this continue? No.
Here’s the not-so-good news. Blake’s site is probably the last porn site to wriggle through the “not TV-Like” loophole, and its reprieve is a temporary one. Yesterday’s media celebrations are overblown. For example, in Broadly: Feminist Porn Director Gets Big Spanking Win for Fetish Sites. But this isn’t true. It is extremely unlike that any more fetish sites will be following UC-SC and Dreams of Spanking into libertarian paradise. And furthermore, those two sites have only won a short stay.
Ofcom, along with the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, has long been lobbying for greater powers to censor the Internet. One of its gripes has been the “TV-like” loophole which Pandora Blake and others have successfully used. The government’s consultation on “protecting children”, issued earlier this year, made clear that government plans to remove this restriction, extending Ofcom’s jurisdiction from video-on-demand services to all forms of adult content, even including still imagery.
Ofcom’s loathing of pornography is well known, and it hasn’t suddenly seen the light. To refuse Blake’s appeal would have opened up the regulator to challenge and scrutiny: its existing powers have dubious legal status. Far better to wait a few months until the new Digital Economy Bill is passed into law; at that stage, it can happily pull the plug on all the adult sites it chooses, without the risk of legal challenge.
So while this is a wonderful personal triumph for Pandora Blake, nobody should believe this represents a movement by the authorities, who now have victory within their sights. Ofcom and DCMS have quietly put the pieces into place for Internet censorship, and will hardly get distracted now by a couple of small fetish websites that have – for the moment – evaded their net. Nothing of significance will happen until Ofcom’s new powers are set in stone by the Digital Economy Bill – and then Blake’s site, along with many other porn, webcam and erotica sites will become illegal, and begin to vanish from the web.
This blog recently published a paper by Nick Cowen on the UK’s extreme porn law. This paper now forms the basis of a briefing from the Adam Smith Institute (ASI), which is available here.
As someone who, until recently, considered myself left-wing, I am ever bewildered and anguished by the fact that the defence of individual liberty, once a cornerstone of the left, is now the preserve of the free-market right: the Adam Smith Institute being a good example. Meanwhile, the left has become increasingly intolerant to free expression in many forms, of which porn is merely the most obvious: I document this strange reversal in political polarities in my book Porn Panic.
The word “extreme” in “extreme porn law” refers to the porn, though may be better used to describe the law. The law is odd for at least two reasons: first that it outlaws the depiction of acts that are popular between consenting couples; second that it targets the consumer rather than the producer.
The first aspect is strange: numerous acts such as whipping and fisting are perfectly legal to do in the privacy of one’s own bedroom. Yet the moment they are recorded, the video becomes illegal to possess.
The second aspect is dangerous: millions of people (including, probably, you) have broken the law and risk being imprisoned and listed as sex offenders. If you have looked at porn without using your browser’s incognito mode, your browser cache will be full of images from the pages you looked at. To merely have an “extreme” image on one’s phone or PC, or stored somewhere in a cloud email or storage account that you own, makes you a possessor of extreme porn. And who knows what constitutes extreme? Nick Cowen does, I do, and possibly a couple of thousand other people in the UK. To create a law that most people will never understand, yet carries heavy penalties, is draconian.
The law originated with a moral panic following the killing of a teacher, Jane Longhurst, by a man who had an interest in BDSM pornography. Clearly, nobody had explained to the government that correlation does not equate to causation: that the fact that a violent person might watch violent porn doesn’t mean that porn causes violence.
The Home Secretary who signed the law into force was Jacqui Smith; yet when I interviewed her, she was unaware of the law’s detail, or of its consequences (over a thousand people a year are now arrested for possessing extreme porn). To find that such a dangerous and unnecessary law could come into being without any serious political opposition or thought was a depressing realisation as to the nature of politics.
Nick’s ASI paper is worth reading; for those short on time, here is its executive summary:
The ban on possession of ‘extreme pornography’ was introduced in 2009 and extended in 2015. The law, as drafted, bans depictions of some sex acts that can be conducted safely and consensually between adults, with a specific risk of prosecution posed to LGBT minorities.
The Crown Prosecution Service reports more than a thousand offences prosecuted each year, implying significant enforcement costs that could be deployed effectively elsewhere.
A significant minority of the British population enjoy sexually aggressive fantasy scenarios but do not pose a specific risk of committing violent or sexual offences.
Access to pornography has increased dramatically in recent years, yet social harms imputed to pornography (especially violence against women) have reduced moderately but significantly.
While some survey evidence claims a correlation between individual use of pornography and sexual aggression, econometric evidence suggests this is not a causal relationship and that, if anything, increased access to pornography can reduce measurable social harms.
The ban itself represents a potential risk to political integrity. Like the ban on homosexuality in much of the 20th century, prohibitions on private sexual conduct can be used to silence, blackmail and corrupt individuals in positions of authority and responsibility.
There are better policies for reducing violence against women in the dimensions of criminal justice, education and economic reform.
The prevailing free speech doctrine in the United States shows that it is realistically possible to simultaneously tackle damaging forms of expression and maintain strong protections for innocuous forms
Response to government consultation: “Child Safety Online: Age Verification for Pornography”
This is a response to the consultation titled “Child Safety Online: Age Verification for Pornography” dated February 2016. I am the founder of the Sex & Censorship campaign, and author of the book Porn Panic! (to be published on 26th August) which explores how recent moral panics over sex have become excuses for censorship.
Summary of Issues
There are numerous problems with the consultation document, which can be grouped into six areas:
The chosen definition of “children” includes sexually-active young adults under 18.
The document skilfully hides the fact that no other EU country is following the UK’s “lead” into censorship.
The solution proposed would have no significant effect on the availability of sexual imagery.
The evidence of harm presented is weak, cherry-picked, and ignores the strongest research, including the British government’s own research.
Adequate tools for protecting small children already exist.
The proposed solution would unnecessarily increase Ofcom’s censorship controls over the Internet. This is not how democratic governments are supposed to behave – especially those that lecture other nations on free expression.
1 Definition of “Children”
It is customary to refer to those in the 13-17 year age group as young adults, not children. However, the government, and government regulators such as Ofcom, insist on referring to this age group as children. So the document, for example, provides the almost meaningless statement that “13% of children aged 6-14 visited an adult site in May 2015”. To talk about the behaviours of 6 year olds along with those of 14 year olds is deeply misleading: we suspect deliberately so.
We suggest that data combining small children with young adults is unsuitable for making important policy decisions and should be rejected.
2 The UK is Alone
This is far from the first UK government exercise in “protecting children from online adult content”. The UK has introduced a series of measures over more than a decade, including mobile content filters and home broadband filters. The age verification measures mentioned in this document have actually been part of UK regulation since ATVOD was established in 2010. Although we have often been told that other European countries are set to follow us, this has never happened. These measures have not been replicated anywhere else in the world. In other words, no other country sees fit to “protect its children” by introducing multiple layers of censorship.
The consultation document masks this fact, stating “It is clearly important that other nations have also been considering their own approaches to how best to protect children from potentially harmful content on the internet. However, we want to continue to lead the way.”
This statement is inaccurate. We cannot lead when no other nation is following. Going it alone is not leading. This misleading narrative hides the simple fact that no other democratic nation sees the necessity to implement expensive and draconian controls on adult content: indeed, many of the measures introduced in the UK would be unconstitutional in the United States under the first amendment, which protects free speech.
3 The Proposed Solution Would Have Little Effect
While it may succeed in changing the policies of some large, commercial content providers, the solution proposed will clearly have little to no impact on the availability of sexual material to UK consumers. As the consultation document itself points out, there are around five million adult sites in the world. Ofcom would need a huge and very expensive army of enforcers to make any dent on the availability of this material. Is this how the government intends to re-employ the estimated 40,000 people to made redundant by the collapse of the steel industry?
Alternatively, and more likely, Ofcom will come back to government in a year to point out that millions of sites are still ignoring UK law, and request further powers to block transgressors. This slippery slope of censorship is well known. Perhaps it would be better to abandon this exercise now, save time and money, and perhaps instead invest the savings in improved sex education.
4 The Evidence Offered is Weak and Cherry-Picked
The consultation document appears designed to mislead by presenting pornography as potentially harmful. In fact, not only does the growing body of research not back these claims of harm, but it in fact suggests that porn availability plays a role in reducing sexual violence. This applies especially in the case of teenagers: the very group to which the consultation aims to restrict access to sexual imagery.
The document instead cherry-picks and misrepresents the research available. Perhaps the strangest example is the following:
“There is also a question about the effect of pornography on ‘unwanted sex’ – for instance more young people are engaging in anal intercourse than ever before despite research which suggests that it is often not seen as a pleasurable activity for young women”
This is curious at several levels. The fact that some people report having anal sex, and other people report not enjoying anal sex is not evidence that anyone is being forced into anal sex as a result of pornography. Does the government really consider it its role to stop young people having anal sex? We would point out that anti-sodomy laws were removed from the British statute half a century ago and seem unlikely to return.
Most surprisingly, the document ignores the research into pornography carried out by Ofcom on behalf of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. To remedy this omission, here are key phrases from the government’s own research.
“There seems to be no relationship between the availability of pornography and an increase in sex crimes in other countries; in comparison there is more evidence for the opposite effect.”
“Research with adults indicates no relationship between the commission of sex crimes and use of pornography at an early age. Again in comparison there is evidence for the opposite effect.”
To put this simply: the government’s own research suggests that restricting sexual imagery to teenagers may result in a rise in sexual violence among that age group. We call on the government to abandon these plans until strong evidence can be presented that they will not increase harm.
5 Adequate Tools for Protecting Children Already Exist
Parental controls for child access to the Internet have existed for over two decades. They are mature and effective: so much so that tablets are safely marketed for children by family brands such as Tesco. Regulators have repeatedly ignored this fact when lobbying for more Internet censorship controls.
But specialists believe that the most effective child protection tool of all is comprehensive sex education for all age groups. We therefore call on the government to broaden sex education, rather than attempt to keep teenagers ignorant of sexual matters until they are 18.
6 Take a Stand Against Censorship
The British government takes a strong stance against censorship in states like Iran and China. We agree with this position, and believe that free expression should be defended without compromise by the British government, in the absence of clear evidence of harm. It is unsurprising that Ofcom seeks to extend its already significant censorship powers; we expect our elected representatives to stand against a power grab by unelected regulators, and in favour of a free and open Internet for British citizens. We cannot lecture other countries on free expression while allowing ours to be continually eroded under the pretext of protecting children.
Jerry Barnett Sex & Censorship
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