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We Need Education on Porn, Not Censorship

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Anything described as "a victory for the Daily Mail" should probably immediately arouse our suspicion. In this case it encapsulates precisely what is most baffling and offensive about David Cameron's war on internet porn. Just as the tabloid peddles hysteria over pornography's effects on young people while itself stringently policing body and gender norms, Cameron is driven to restrict access to online pornography in an attempt to 'protect' young people, while seeing no cause for concern in the everyday objectification and sexualisation of young people and ordinary women offline. His inaction on The Sun's page 3, for instance, nicely demonstrates his commitment to sexy, scandal-making pet projects, rather than any genuine interest in the myriad, mundane ways in which children are taught that their bodies are objects up for public evaluation.

Motions to "protect" the innocence of children are alway easy vote-winners. It doesn't matter whether it's effective, ethical or logical, as long as it hits the right buzzwords and appears to be tough on the boogie-men in our closets. David Cameron clearly knows this well, taking aim at the ghoul that is internet pornography. It's my hope that we can expose the hypocrisy of such measures before they get any further.

This "War on Porn" actually targets a variety of tenuously related types of internet content. Proposed measures include cracking down on illegal child pornography and default censoring of legal 'obscene' material by internet service providers. Who determines what counts as 'obscene' seems to be of little concern to Cameron, though he has indicated that it may extend to non-pornographic materials, such as suicide-related content, self-harm and eating disorder websites, 'smoking' and 'alcohol'.

This gives us at least two main fronts on which to evaluate the proposed legislation. The first measure is, in my understanding, a red herring. Cameron has bravely called on search engines like Google to block searches for illegal material such as child porn, ordering them not to "just stand by and say nothing can be done". This must have been slightly baffling for the internet giants who have already taken numerous measures to keep illegal material out of their search results. Surely somebody in Cameron's circle should have pointed out to him that these illegal materials are primarily shared through highly secretive, private networks, not search engines. A representative for the Metropolitan Police could perhaps have mentioned that they have their own departments working every day to eradicate these networks - if it were a simple case of blocking certain search terms they would have probably suggested such a move years ago.

Illegal pornography is therefore probably not jumping off laptop and smartphone screens at our kids as Cameron would have us believe. But what of the legal variety?

The way in which this proposal has been framed hints at a fundamental misunderstanding. Advocates of these measures talk about wanting an internet where porn is not the default. I find this surprising since I already have porn-free internet access: all I have to do is refrain from actively searching for pornography and Hey Presto! I can continue my day without seeing any naked people. This seems like a pretty effective 'opt in' system to me - if you don't want to see porn, do nothing; if you do want to see porn you can take a voluntary trip to that end of the internet. By using the standard browser ad-blocker I can even avoid any pop-up advertisements that might offend me.

Of course the real worry addressed by these proposals is not that people are being forced to look at indecent images against their will, but that our children are actively choosing to explore available content. There is a fear, well founded, that young people watching pornographic material without context or guidance might develop a number of dangerous misconceptions about sex and sexuality. I don't doubt that a young girl watching numerous videos in which female participants are invariably submissive might mistakenly believe that this is the only sexual role available to women. I don't doubt that a boy exclusively exposed to portrayals of men aggressively dominating others might learn that this is the totality of male sexuality.

But is the answer really to shut down such exploration, reinforcing the notion that sex is something dirty and shameful? That their curiosity is wrong and dangerous? It seems to me that positive cultural change rarely comes through censorship, but rather education. I would much prefer to have frank, age-appropriate discussions with my kids about what sex is, the many different ways people practice and enjoy it, as well as the ways in which it can reinforce damaging cultural notions of what is 'normal' or 'right'. These are the same discussions I would have in regards to television, films and magazines which surely do at least as much harm in enforcing unhealthy views of relationships, body image, gender roles and violence.

Even if you do believe psychologically damaging pornography is so overflowing the internet that it is seeping unbidden into our children's homework research, these measures will hardly stop it. What it will do is further reduce the audience traction for new, healthier forms of pornography that have been slowly gaining ground. Cameron and co. seem to have totally ignored the possibility that pornography can have positive value and effects of its own.

Because the internet is not a monolith and not all pornography is inherently damaging. Until its recent takeover by Yahoo, Tumblr was a hive of incredibly artful, diverse and empowering sexually explicit images and gifs. On a platform dominated by teenage girls, these images were not boxed-in by traditional ideas of 'sexy', but rather explored the beauty of alternative bodies and sexualities. While some argue that pornography normalizes certain sexual practices and body types such that young people feel pressured to conform, these images helped impart the notion that all sorts of people can be desirable and sexually fulfilled. Even videos aimed at straight men offer more celebration of diversity than I've ever seen in women's magazines or Dove adverts. It was not pornography that taught a generation of women to find their pubic hair disgusting, but Sex and the City.

Referring to Cameron's additional proposal to ban outright 'simulation rape' pornography, one of his former MPs, Louise Mensch, argued on Twitter that "it is not for our government to police consensual simulation, between adults, of one of women's most common fantasies". Indeed it has been noted elsewhere that the pornographers who film these scenes tend to come from the BDSM community, which has arguably been more active than anyone in challenging rape culture and emphasizing the importance of explicit, continual consent. In a society where date rape is all too common I would be particularly worried by the suppression of this type of material - where fantasy and reality are explicitly separated, consent is central and women's desires are taken seriously.

In a surprising show of honesty, Cameron has confided: "I'm not saying we've thought of everything and there will be many problems down the line as we deal with this." We should all keep this admission in mind, and demand that likely consequences are considered without bias before action is taken.