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Wednesday, October 12, 2011 

We need to talk about porn.

This government, by its own admission, has a problem with women. Despite being able to keep the majority of this country's men convinced that a policy of economic suicide is a fantastic idea, the women for some reason don't appear to be taking to the plan of retreating to the bunker and hoping desperately that something will turn up, probably because they're the ones losing their jobs while the retirement age is being pushed up. Austerity, inflation busting fuel bills and the prospect of working even longer for those lucky enough to still be in employment are the bleedingly obvious reasons for why support for the coalition has been slipping.

What then do the geniuses in Number 10 suggest to arrest this alarming fall in contentment? As the coalition refuses to go beyond Plan A+ on the economy, the obvious answer is to simply make a number of gestures: no one besides the incredibly easily outraged cared that David Cameron had been slightly rude to Angela Eagle and Nadine Dorries in the Commons, at least amongst those that even noticed, but nonetheless shiny head came out and apologised. Next came some slight changes to child care, which are still a couple of years away and where it's not clear where the money's coming from. Now we have the similarly slight implementation of some of the proposals made by the blessed Reg Bailey, chief executive of the Mothers' Union, in his report on the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood.

If you've spotted a theme here, it might be that even though it's women the government is attempting to get back on side (itself potentially patronising), it doesn't appear as though the boys in charge could find a single one to either consult or advise them on what might just do the trick. Instead it seems as though they've just guessed, and flailed around looking for policies and legislation they'd either delayed or cast aside that at least gives the impression of doing something. Hence the latest wheeze, the adoption of an opt-in system where those who take out new contracts with any of the four big internet service providers will have to make clear that they want full access to "adult" content. Otherwise, much of the web will be off limits, behind a firewall designed to protect children from seeing explicit material.

In this the government has picked up at least one curious ally. The Guardian, the same organisation which last year brought us the Wikileaks files, deciding quite rightly that publishing American cables on Iraq, Afghanistan and general diplomacy online was in the public interest, has decided that's quite enough internet freedom as far as they're concerned. "The internet's many benefits were never intended to include the bombarding of people's homes and children by pornography", it intones. Indeed, David Cameron's modest proposal simply doesn't go far enough, especially as "the destructive effects of pornography on relationships and values, harming not just children but also adults, far exceed any liberating effect which some claim to discern".

Putting aside the fact that almost as soon as dial-up bulletin boards came into being they were used by the teenagers of their era to swap unbelievably low quality semi-pornographic images, and how you could make an arguable case that without the easy access to porn that came with it the growth of the internet may not have been as exponential as it was in the 90s, it's incredibly dubious that the overall effects are as destructive as has been claimed. As we still have an understandable if debilitating aversion to openly discussing the use of pornography, pretty much all we're left with is the two opposing sides in the debate making equally unconvincing arguments. Whether it's the "feminist" porn director Anna Arrowsmith declaring that porn is unequivocally good, or Brooke Magnanti, aka Belle du Jour, saying much the same, or the Graun's surprisingly unenlightened view, no one seems prepared to delve into the middle and do research into whether the porn free for all is having an adverse effect, either on children or adults.

For there's very little even anecdotal evidence to suggest that it's as a result of this new supposed hardcore culture that other aspects of life have becoming increasingly sexualised. It has to be remembered that hardcore wasn't legalised in this country until 2000, when internet video sharing was still in its relative infancy. Rather, the pushing of sex has come overwhelmingly from the tabloid media and its hangers-on, the very same organisations which are now so vociferous in calling for the protection of children. It takes a lot of chutzpah to complain about Rihanna and friends when tits are on every other page of certain papers, and when they follow the every movement of such upstanding role models as Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian and Katie Price, all of whom have featured in their own homemade escapades.

This isn't to suggest that the internet and the cornucopia of perversions available at the click of a mouse isn't potentially problematic: while "rough" material has been around since the very beginning, there's little doubt that American produced "gonzo" porn (and it is overwhelmingly American made porn which is the most widely distributed on the internet, even if European porn is equally guilty and may well have even started the trend) has had an effect on the genre as a whole. Where once it was rare for a film to feature anal sex, it's now probably rarer for a full-length movie to not have at least one or even two scenes containing it. Likewise, the "facial" has now become so ubiquitous that it's difficult not to look for a deeper reasoning behind why almost every scene must end with the man ejaculating onto his co-star's face. Is it all about male power, and more to the point, is it having an effect on the impressionable? There's little doubt that at the very least this, along with the grooming issues which have also been picked up upon, is having an impact on the young and their expectations of sex, something which desperately needs to be properly quantified.

None of this however justifies a blanket prohibition on internet porn at the source unless you "opt-in". Not only is it doomed to failure when the technology moves faster than that which aims to block it, as such filtering will not block the sites where copyrighted material is freely exchanged, such as Rapidshare, with individuals now using social networking sites to swap links, it also makes a mockery of this government's responsibility agenda. The parents are the ones who should decide what their children can and cannot see, with filtering software being so easily available and installable; the government should not be intervening and making that decision for them, let alone in effect decreeing that adults are to be treated like children unless they expressly ask not to be. We already have the Internet Watch Foundation, which along with its praiseworthy work of filtering child pornography also blocks material which is "criminally obscene" and "incites racial hatred". Giving ISPs the power to block effectively whatever they feel like with government approval almost invites censorship.

Equally, blocking porn, even if popular with women, is hardly going to win back their support. 79% of women might want an opt-in system (PDF), but 53% thought it would be easy to get round, as it would be. The last government was authoritarian but ineffective; this one seems determined to carry on repeating the error.

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