Restricting access to pornography: principled and practical reasons why I object

This post is arriving ridiculously late, but – at some point now lost in the mists of time (OK, a week ago today) – the UK government announced their intention to require Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block access to pornography unless a subscriber has formally indicated their willingness to view such material.

Let’s begin by taking this back to first principles, shall we?

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The unclothed adult human body is natural and normal.

Sex between consenting adults is natural and normal. (Whenever I use the word consent, or its derivatives, in this piece you should assume I mean informed consent, given without duress or coercion.)

An interest in consensual adult nudity and sex is also natural and normal.

Masturbation is commonplace across the animal kingdom, not least among humans; it, too, is natural and normal.

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Attraction to sexual stimuli is an irreducible biological urge for species that reproduce by means of copulation.

In humans, vision is the dominant sense; where a dog sniffs out a potential mate, a human looks for one.

A strong attraction to visual sexual stimuli is therefore natural and normal for most (but not all) humans.

This includes females as well as males; in the online age the myth that women don’t enjoy looking at porn cannot withstand even the lightest of scrutiny.

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Visual depictions of unclothed adults are not immoral, provided the person or people depicted have consented.

Depictions of consensual sex between adults are not immoral, provided all those depicted have given their consent.

Agreeing as an adult to appear in such consensual depictions in return for money is not immoral.

Producing and publishing depictions of consensual adult nudity and sex is not immoral if all those depicted have consented to publication, even if they have only done so in return for money.

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The requirement to perform certain specified services in return for money is a standard feature of all employment contracts.

Most people only turn up for work because they need the money, not because they have a burning vocation to, say, scrub a stranger’s excrement off a public toilet.

Like most cleaners, most porn actors do not receive the full value of their labour – a portion is syphoned off by the person or company which controls the means of production. This is a standard feature of capitalism.

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Where a worker in any industry is exploited, abused or has their health put in danger by unsafe working practices, this is an argument to regulate the industry and to prosecute those employers who break the regulations. It is not an argument to ban the industry.

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Evidence that sex offenders have looked at pornography is not evidence that pornography causes sex offending.

If there is evidence that sex offenders look at pornography more than the general population, then this would be evidence of a correlation. But we still wouldn’t know if porn causes people to become sex offenders, or if people who always would have been sex offenders are more likely to view pornography.

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It is the responsibility of those people who are offended by consensual adult pornography not to seek it out; it is not the responsibility of the rest of us to hide it from them.

If parents do not wish their children to access pornography, it is for them to police their own children’s behaviour, not ISPs. Remember that no child needs a smartphone, tablet, or laptop – a simple phone capable of texts and calls, and access to a shared computer in a family room, is more than adequate.

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If access to pornography is so harmful to children that wider society must step in to ensure they are protected from it, then access to pornography is a child protection issue.

As with all child protection issues, the first onus is on the parent to protect the child, and the second onus on the authorities to step in and remove the child to a place of safety if the parent is unable or unwilling to fulfil this role.

Wandering the streets late at night is considered harmful to children, and is therefore treated as a child protection issue – parents unable or unwilling to prevent their children from wandering the streets late at night lose custody.

The problem of children wandering the streets late at night is not addressed by means of a general curfew which applies by default to everyone, including adults, unless they have pre-registered their wish to go out after dark.

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Adults should not have to pre-register their wish to be treated as adults.

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So much for the principles involved, what about the practicalities of restricting access to porn sites?

1 – What’s a porn site?

Some porn blogs are hosted on wordpress.com. Does that mean that people are going to be prevented from reading my blog unless they’ve contacted their ISP to tell them that they’d like to look at pornography? Or are the government proposing that ISPs should trawl through every single blog on wordpress (not to mention all the other blogging platforms), individually blocking those that they think might qualify as porn? If so, who’s paying for that extremely labour-intensive effort? If the blocking is to be automated, how are false positives to be avoided? And who will pay to compensate owners of non-porn businesses who lose money because an algorithm mistakenly identifies, say, a lingerie website as porn?

Then, too, what about social networks? Porn is routinely shared by people who use tumblr, facebook, and twitter, but none of those sites is predominantly porn-orientated, and people locked out of them would lose access to a lot besides porn. I see that @David_Cameron is on twitter – should ISPs block access to the prime minister’s tweets by default, on the grounds that some other people sometimes share porn on twitter?

Or is the blocking to be based on keywords instead? If so, what about pics and video shared on social media without keywords? Or new variations on that old dodge of calling porn “pron”? And are people going to find themselves falling foul of the Patrick Cockburn/ Arsene Wenger/Chorlton-cumHardy problem unless they tell their ISPs they like porn?

2 – What’s porn?

Is sex education material porn? No? What about if it’s illustrated with graphic images, like (NSFW link) some of the sex ed articles on Wikipedia? Still no? But then what’s to stop someone using “smutty” pics from educational sites as porn?

Is The Alternative WI Calendar – the one that inspired the film Calendar Girls – porn? Should the (NSFW link) Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research charity website be blocked as a porn site because it sells the calendar, and shows a promotional image? No, because the calendar features women who are supposedly too old to be considered sexy? Well, what about Warwick University Rowing Club – they produce (NSFW link) naked calendars featuring the young, fit members of the club. Is that porn? Yes, because people are more likely to get turned on looking at the photos? But then these calendars are in part charity fundraisers, too, as well as raising funds for the club. So is it right the efforts of these idealistic young people to do good in the world should be frustrated by a ban on porn?

What about Édouard Manet’s painting (NSFW link) Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, is that porn? It features two fully clothed men in the company of two women, one in her underwear and the other fully naked. It caused a scandal when it was first exhibited because it was seen as an image of sexualised nudity, rather than the supposedly asexual depictions of nudity in classical painting and sculpture. So, is an image of sexualised nudity – one that exposes the female but not the male body to the objectifying gaze of the spectator – porn? No, because it’s a famous painting? But say a present-day artist chose to remake the picture with a twist. Would a photo-realistic painting of naked and semi-naked men in the company of women in business suits be porn? Not so long as it was uploaded to a serious website dedicated to feminist re-imaginings of patriarchal art?

But then, hang on a minute, Clothed Female Naked Male (CFNM) is a recognised sub-genre of porn, one that’s catered to on many explicitly pornographic websites. So are we saying that the same image simultaneously is and isn’t porn, depending on the context, and should be blocked on one website but not another?

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The bottom line is that I object to these proposals as a matter of principle, not just because they are impractical and unworkable.

I object, as a childless adult who can guarantee that no child will ever have access to my internet connection, that it is proposed my freedom to look at consensual adult pornography should be restricted by default, while households which contain children are at liberty to register for porn. If this was genuinely about protecting children it would be households with children that would be targeted, and the block for such households would be mandatory, not optional.

I object, as a gay man, to the attempt to encourage and exploit feelings of shame connected with sexuality. I’ve had more than enough in my lifetime of people telling me that my tendency to experience sexual arousal when I look at naked adult males is something of which I should be ashamed. I’ve dedicated some fraction of the last 20 years of my life to insisting that consensual adult sexuality is not shameful. I’m not inclined to go quietly when a bunch of neo-puritans try to undermine that work.

I object, as a man who considers himself staunchly pro-feminist, to the cause of progress being deflected by ill-advised people who believe that they are engaged in a progressive cause when they encourage the resurgence of pre-modern attitudes to sexuality. When, as a feminist, you find yourself on the same side of any argument as the Taliban – who, alongside their conviction that consensual adult porn should be banned, also believe that women should not receive an education, and that the victims of rape should be stoned to death – it may be time to return to first principles.

I object, as a man who considers himself staunchly pro-feminist, to the inability of some anti-porn feminists to recognise that it is always those lacking in power – which, under our still patriarchal system, means principally women – who are most likely to be harmed by regressive attitudes towards sexuality. It is women who are most damaged by the assertion that “good women say no” to overt sexuality, whether that injunction is coming from a feminist or a moralising male. Why would any feminist connive at the notion that a woman can only escape degradation if she refuses to acknowledge the erotic potential of her body? That simply reinforces the whore/madonna dichotomy, which remains one of the most virulent means by which the erotic freedom of women is savagely curtailed.

I object, as a man who considers himself staunchly pro-feminist, to all attempts to restrict women’s freedom over their own bodies. When it comes to abortion, I’m unambiguously pro-choice – I defend the right of each individual woman to decide for herself, in the light of her own conscience, whether or not to have an abortion. And when it comes to consensual adult pornography, I’m also unambiguously pro-choice – I defend the right of each individual woman to decide, in the light of her own conscience, whether or not she wishes to appear in consensual adult porn. I no more support a blanket ban on consensual adult porn than I do a blanket ban on abortion. In both cases, some women will find the idea morally abhorrent, but that does not give them the right to impose their own view on every woman everywhere.

Finally, I object, as a sincere adherent of the cause of individual liberty, to the authoritarian attempt to ban something of which one does not approve. If anti-porn feminists believe that consensual adult pornography is harmful, then by all means they should make their case. Protest, demonstrate, give speeches, write articles: do everything in their power to seek to persuade their fellow citizens to their point of view, and to voluntarily reject pornography – both appearing in it, and viewing it. But they should not seek to ban it.

We have arrived where we have today thanks to a long, hard-fought battle against authoritarians, whose go-to response when confronted with anything they dislike or disapprove of is to seek to ban it. These people are always the opponents of freedom, and the opponents of democracy: they arrogate to themselves the right to impose their subjective view of what is good on the rest of us, irrespective of our views.

Sometimes these authoritarians are obviously illiberal, as when they banned consensual sex between adult men on pain of imprisonment. Other times they may refer to themselves by an apparently liberal label – the men who edit The Guardian, in particular, could benefit from being reminded that some feminists are the polar opposite of left-leaning liberals, the sort of people who would see no harm in mass internet surveillance by the NSA if it were used to round-up men who look at consensual adult pornography. How ever they describe themselves, these people are always to be resisted by those of us who recognise that individual liberty is the only guarantee of our collective freedom from oppression.

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