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Claire Fox: Online pornography is damaging but there is no need to over-react

Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas, writes:

It’s not often teachers’ trade unions and the British prime minister and deputy prime minister agree. But recently the National Association for Head Teachers (NAHT) and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) united with David Cameron and Nick Clegg in worrying out loud about easily available online pornography that "pollute(s) the internet".

ATL’s general secretary Dr Mary Bousted warns, “children's unchallenged exposure to pornography is a time bomb, ticking away with each click of a mouse”. But what to do? Straightforward censorship is politically sensitive and probably technically futile for our canny digital native generation.

Teachers feel on the front line; this seems a new and nasty threat to children’s innocence. Ofsted criticizes schools for their failure to act when “research shows that children as young as nine are increasingly accessing pornographic internet sites”. There are demands for “improved advice for schools to help them manage these issues most effectively” (ATL); that professional associations should “provide training on how to deliver age appropriate SRE lessons on the dangers of pornography”. While no-one likes to imagine nine-year-olds consuming hardcore material, there’s a danger of educators becoming swept up by scaremongering of their own making. 

It sometimes seems that the most corrupted minds are those of adults, feverishly obsessed with images of youths depraved by gross obscenity. Maggie Atkinson, children's commissioner for England, claims that the next generation is being “raised on a diet of pornography" with "violent and sadistic imagery" at their fingertips. But her creepily titled report Basically…Porn is Everywhere admits that “accidental exposure to pornography is more prevalent than deliberate access”. It seems unlikely that stumbling on graphic images, however gross, will leave lasting scars or indeed merits reorganising the curriculum or teacher-training. Are pupils really becoming porn-obsessed deviants?  The LSE’s EU Kids Online report found that only 11% of 9- to 16-year-olds in the UK had viewed sexual images online in the previous 12 months and just 2% “had seen something that showed sex in a violent way”. These statistics hardly suggest children are wallowing daily in what one commentator describes as a “smorgasbord of unimaginable depravity”.

Yes, the ease with which the young might access porn is disturbing. But that’s a far cry from the unchallenged assumption that children’s attitudes to sex and relationships are being completely “distorted” by porn. Broadcaster Mariella Frostrup writes hysterically that “According to the research, access to pornography is directly influencing how young people treat each other sexually and exposure to it can be linked to a rise in sexual violence”. Scary stuff – if that’s what the research shows. But Frostrup herself concedes: “It's fantastically hard to quantify how much the nameless, manicured people groaning and grunting on the internet can change the way sexual behaviour develops”. Even Basically…Porn is Everywhere, which reviewed 40,000 pieces of research on the issue of correlation, admits that “there are still many unanswered questions about the affect exposure to pornography has on children” and calls for – guess what – “further research” to prove its case.

Instead of incontrovertible proof, we are given anecdote. Sue Berelowitz, deputy children's commissioner tells a much-cited tale of an 11-year-old “raped by ten 14-15-year-old boys…and one of them said in his witness statement to the police that it was like being in a porn film." Not only unconvincing as a causal link, isn’t this also a dangerous concession to a “porn made me do it” excuse for rapists? Shirin Rose Monks, an outreach worker, states that “The violent behaviour young people see in pornography becomes indistinguishable from rape.” Irish Senator Mary Ann O’Brien concludes that the young “think these gross scenes are normal and set out to copy them”. But why do teachers accept this “monkey see, monkey do” thesis? If it were true, schools would only need to make The Joy of Sex mandatory to ensure blissful, loving relationships.  

When Berelowitz says that young people “were doing things that it's difficult to imagine they had dreamed up unless they had seen it somewhere”, she seems to underestimate youthful sexual imagination and experimentation, which pre-date the internet. Karma Sutra anyone?

And why are campaigners naive enough to accept teenagers’ bravado (or bulls**t) in order to back up their theses. Journalist Eleanor Mills who organized the recent Generation XXX conference blithely reports that “young teens venture online for sexual information”. She quotes a 14-year-old boy saying that “Internet porn is what you use to find out stuff about sex. It’s all we’ve got”; another asks “How else are we meant to know what to do?” Dare one suggest this is disingenuous bunk; sex has never been more visible in mainstream culture; the Jeremy Kyle show is family viewing after all. Nonetheless these teen testimonies are used to back up opportunistic special pleading to boost the case for statutory PSHE. 

The ATL complains, “If children spend more time learning about the Ice Age than internet safety and have little or no guidance, we fear their only source of information about sex and relationships will be the internet or classmates." The cavalier disparagement of academic subject knowledge by a teachers union is bad enough, but should SRE really become so prominent in the curriculum, a cross-curriculum focus. But if we are anxious that porn is too ubiquitous online, why solve the problem by making it such a talked about focus offline? And if we worry that porn can warp young people’s attitude to sex, how will focusing on the dark, abusive side of sex help?

NAHT’s general secretary Russell Hobby wants schools to address “relationships, sexuality, the influence of pornography on students' understanding of healthy sexual relationships, dealing with emotions and staying safe". No wonder teachers feel they need extra training. Shaping pupils’ emotions or laying down best practice for “healthy sexual relationships” should really be beyond the interventionist scope of educational establishments. And one suspects that teacher-led lessons in how to be loving are as much a threat to youthful idealism about romantic relationships as any dehumanized images of loveless sex.

A disturbing feature of pornography is the way it voyeuristically makes public what is in effect a private and intimate area of life, and divorces sex from loving relationships. But surely encouraging pupils to publicly disclose their intimate activities and thoughts merely objectifies sex in yet another forum. As to “evidence based develop healthy, not harmful relationships”, as advocated by researcher Dr Miranda Horvath, I can’t imagine anything more dehumanising. Online porn is a menace. Let’s not allow this growing storm of over-reaction make its effects even more damaging.  

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