Tuesday, 4 June 2013

A Gentle Reminder - Porn and the Internet


We need to talk about porn. Awkward, I know, but think about it from my perspective: at least you can see my photo. I have no idea what you look like so this is less of an exchange and more of a window. And that, of course, is the point. Leaving aside webcam services, the majority of online pornographic material is for looking at rather than interacting with, which is why it's long been a feminist issue (theories of objectifying rather than empathising) and is now becoming a technology and government issue. One which has implications beyond naked bodies and the contents of our second hard drives.

Many governments worldwide have become convinced that online pornography is a corrupting influence for the viewer. A 'normal, healthy' relationship, argue politicians and pressure groups, is not reflected in the sorts of material one can easily find just by Googling, and this, so the claim goes, is leading to all sorts of unrealistic expectations in the bedroom.

Iceland is currently attempting to address this ill-defined problem by banning online porn. It's slightly farcical because pornography is already illegal in that country, but the law hasn't been enforced because no-one has defined what pornography actually is. Until now! For the purposes of ridding its citizens, particularly the delicate young, of feathered-gimp hell, Iceland is defining pornography as 'material with degrading or violent content'.

At the risk of suggesting they are repeating themselves, without also defining 'degrading' and 'violent', they're not going to get very far, and that of course is where the danger of the banhammer approach lies. Any tech solution to the porn problem will be a blunt instrument - either a site will be banned or it will not. The two methods suggested by Iceland's interior minister, Ogmundur Jonasson, are to make it illegal to pay for porn with an Icelandic credit card, or to blacklist specific URLs. The flaws in those ideas are so immediate and laughable it's hard to imagine Mr Jonasson has more than a passing understanding of the internet. 

The answer is 'a time machine'.

But on what evidence are pressure groups basing their theories of harm? A lot of the hysteria comes from reasonable fears that children are accessing extreme images, without applying appropriate blame on lack of parental supervision or education. Several studies (Malmuth et al) show that the correlation between viewing of sexual media and actual sexual behaviour is heavily influenced by home environment, parents, cultural background and emotional state.

In adults, the evidence so far doesn't seem to confirm the fears that are leading to legislation. A University of British Columbia study (Williams et al) shows that for most people, watching porn doesn't correlate with sexually deviant behaviour. However, having sexually deviant desires to begin is very likely to result in seeking porn that fulfils them. Exactly the same misunderstood correlation that gets violent games and films a bad rep, then.

The chances of newspapers, parent or religious pressure groups, and politicians ever discussing this issue from an evidence standpoint and not a moral judgement one are slim, but when the price is firewalls, censorship, and the slow erosion of choice, we have an obligation to look at the facts alongside the porn.

A version of this post was published in Custom PC Magazine, February 2013.