Opinion | Sex under siege

UK PM David Cameron’s effort to censor internet porn is indicative of a new trend in value politics. Once again, sex is on the agenda

The very real danger exists that we will soon be telling our children and grand-children about the ‘good old days’ of the internet as a chaotic and creative sanctuary where ideas, cultures and life styles could be expressed without state surveillance and censorship. That party could soon be over. The independence of the World Wide Web – especially where it concerns the free access to pornography – is being characterised as a threat to contemporary society by an ever-increasing number of people. In other words, the debate regarding the role of sex in society has been reopened.

In Iceland, this debate has been going on for a long time. In order to counter the purported degradation of women the work in the sex trades, and to protect children and young people from material considered offensive by some, Iceland has, over the past years, constantly worked to whitewash sex from both public and private arenas. First porn magazines were removed from the shelves, then strip clubs were shut down and this year, internet porn was up for discussion. The purchase of sexual services was criminalised in 2009.

This removal of different parts of the sexual culture is not unique to our Northern neighbours. In the spring, members of the European Parliament tried to push through a resolution that would have lead to public authorities gaining the powers of censorship and media regulation over content deemed as pornographic. The resolution did not pass – this time.

Now, it is Great Britain’s turn. Prime Minister David Cameron has launched an effort to resist “online pornography’s corroding influence”. Initiatives include censoring previously legal pornography, blacklisting certain search words on the internet, and introducing a more or less obligatory internet filter which automatically sorts out pornographic material. There are specific initiatives to remove child pornography from the internet.

What’s new about Cameron’s efforts is the attempt to prevent people of legal age to see what is described as ‘extreme porn’. Citizens would also be forced to opt out of, rather than into, the ‘family-friendly filter’, thus reducing the chance of porn showing up in an internet search. Both are cases of significant government intrusiveness and measurable restrictions of the individual liberties of those people employed in the porn industry and aficionados of the genre.

David Cameron’s arguments for the initiatives are similar to those of Iceland, the European Parliament and other places where pornography and sex for hire are being discussed. References to pornography’s alleged damaging effects on young people are often made, as well as to porn’s creation of a culture that demeans and encourages violence towards women. The political discourse on which the new anti-pornographic trend relies seems to be reminiscent of feminist Robin Morgan’s controversial statement from 1980: “pornography is the theory – rape is the practice.”

Real life is actually a little more complicated than the one-sided view expressed by Cameron, Morgan and their supporters. Scientific research has revealed much about the connection between availability of pornographic material and the frequency of sexual assaults. Recent studies confirmed the results of earlier work on the subject; no statistical connection can be shown between pornography and violence towards women. In some cases, a line can actually be drawn from the legalisation of pornography and a reduction in assaults. Some theories suggest that pornography reduces sexual aggression in some people, helping to prevent sexual offences. In regard to internet pornography’s influence on young people, studies show that there is nothing to suggest that watching pornographic material has a negative effect on sexual behaviour. Of course, pornography is not all beer and skittles. As in the case of violent computer games, the effect often has more to do with the individual than any measurable trend. This is demonstrated by studies that show that pornography can indeed function as an ‘intensifier’ for people who are pre-disposed to violent behaviour. 

However, pornography does not cause ‘normal’ boys and men to become rapists and there are no signs that pornography has any of its allegedly damaging effects. These studies are available to the prime minister and those who share his view, but they do not take them into consideration. It is clear that their war on pornography is not about hard numbers, but rather about setting new moral standards when it comes to sex.  

Fortunately, the pornography discussion is not happening in Denmark. Yet. Even so, there are varying opinions about sex and sex-based policies. Last year, Denmark was close to criminalising of the purchasing of sexual services, the purpose of which was only to send a clear, values-based, political message. A majority in parliament continue to oppose allowing sex workers in Denmark access to the same labour market rights as every other citizen. Supporters of censorship always base their arguments on good intentions. In the case of censoring pornography it is about reducing sexual violence towards women and children, and in the case of criminalising the purchase of sexual services and prostitution, it is to protect prostitutes. In both cases, however, there is significant research to suggest that the proposed criminalisation would not have the desired effect. On the contrary, criminalisation could actually be damaging. The good intentions are primarily used as tools to start a political debate about values and how they relate to our liberated sexual culture, which some now see as moral decadent and unworthy of a ‘modern and enlightened’ community.

This is why sex has once again become a flash point in value politics. On one hand are the politicians pundits who want to banish any trace of sex from the public square – porn, strip clubs, prostitution – in order to ‘protect the community’. On the other side are those people who see sex as a weapon to be used to instigate a debate concerning freedom and rights, where freedom of speech and a person’s right to make their own choices is at stake.

Unfortunately, pornography and the sex trade are difficult to use as tools to debate freedom and civil rights because few aspects of human behaviour carry as many taboos as sex. Sex plays a part in any number of societal ills like sexual assaults, paedophilia and human trafficking. That is why it is of utmost importance that we are capable of separating the bad aspects of sex from the good. Yes, the human trafficking of women as prostitutes is clearly bad and should be stopped. But giving full rights to voluntary sex workers so they can enjoy the same benefits form the labour market as everyone else is clearly a good idea. Yes, paedophilia is clearly bad. But clamping down on legal pornography, made voluntarily by people of legal age, has no effect on preventing sexual assaults on children.

Restrictive prohibitions that confuse voluntary, victimless activities with social problems are little more than dangerous, value-based politics. It may please a certain politician’s constituents, but it creates problems for both the community and those people who could be negatively affected by censorship and criminalisation. 

The author has a PhD in political science