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Keep the State Out of Our Love Lives

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Onanists beware! The Icelandic government is trying to push through legislation that will make porn illegal - and in doing so, I imagine, create an awful dilemma for that great bastion of morality, the Daily Mail (the Mary Whitehouse in it disapproving of the porn, but it's strident anti-nanny state stance scornful of the government inference). As the Observer reports, a nationwide consultation has found broad support for the measure from lawyers and police operating in the area of sexual violence and health and education professionals, according to the country's interior minister Ögmundur Jónasson.

She also said: "We are a progressive liberal society when it comes to nudity, to sexual relations, so our approach is not anti-sex but anti-violence. This is about children and gender equality, not about limiting free speech." To be sure, this is a well-meaning stance, but not an altogether consistent one. The stated motives behind are admirable, but, contrary to Jónasson's claims, it is undeniably also restricting freedom (granted, not necessarily freedom of speech - not much of that in porn - but it's a distinction without a difference). It's the classic problem for liberalism - how far is one tolerant of 'intolerance'. Nick Cohen summed up an equivalent problem - that of the problem of Bangladeshi integration into British society - brilliantly when he said liberal multiculturalism "contains the seeds of its own negation. It can either be liberal or multicultural but it can't be both." It seems the Western world faces a similarly paradoxical choice over porn - either 'progressive' through 'illiberal' means (censorship) or 'anti-progressive' through 'liberal' means (freedom of expression).

It's a strange problem because in many similar cases of freedom of expression the cause is unarguably noble - not necessarily the case when the freedom fighters are, essentially, fighting for their right to jack off with ease. It's certainly a significant step, not least for a country which prides itself on its liberal sensitivities. But those in favour of censorship - for, despite some claims, that's what it is - do have some strong arguments on their side, including evidence suggesting correlations between porn and porn addiction and rises in violence and gender inequality. And the move does seem to have wide support in Iceland. But the measures do somewhat suggest that porn is some outside malevolent force, imparting evil on unwitting citizens. This is, of course, rubbish. People make a free choice to watch porn, and it can actually support healthy sexual relationships, by cordoning off more extreme aspects of sex into the realms of (sort of) unreality, just like violence in computer games. And the internet didn't invent porn - think of all the stories of curious pre-teens raiding their dad's cupboards and finding stashes in the woods. So, chances are, just like pirated movies and illegal sport streaming, those who want to look at horny MILFs that much will always find a way, such is the labyrinth nature of the internet.

What's far more disturbing - if unlikely to be implemented - is the Observer's accompanying editorial, which advocates the teaching of relationships in schools. It argues "it is travesty that the mechanics of sex are a compulsory part of the school curriculum, while an understanding of relationships, a vital part of emotional and physical wellbeing, is not". Superficially at least, it's well-intended. But when examined it just dissolves into a heap of left-wing nanny-state rubbish, which should only serve to make us grateful that the state generally stays the hell away from our private lives - something that should be expected but looks positively praiseworthy compared to the authoritarian nature of many governments and religions (often one and the same thing of course).

The truth is relationships and sex are (literally) f***ing minefields. Any attempt for the state to intrude further into non-criminal in this would inevitably draw widespread criticism from those of all political persuasions. Just look at how Michael Gove's proposed changes to the history curriculum are being praised by the right and condemned by the left. Personally, it's to the great credit of UK education that it gets attacked by both the right and the left, but - having previously been a teacher (albeit a substandard trainee) - having to negotiate various political pitfalls just add to an already onerous workload.

So, any kind of 'relationship education' would either be somewhat radical and incur the wrath of parents, protective and angry (quite reasonably too), over the state telling their kids how to live their lives; or, more probably, it would be meaningless, cover-all-bases mush. For instance, what would teachers be supposed to say about the practices of arranged marriages and stay-at-home women, both prevalent in many Asian communities? It also puts teachers in very tricky water with personal relationships with pupils (if individual kids even give a damn what their teachers think, that is).

The reason kids are taught about the mechanics of sex and not relationships is that the former is governed by universal fact; the latter is most certainly not. What works for one, will definitively not for another. Much better, surely, for people to learn about this in the outside world, from experience, rather than textbooks or intentionally sterile words from teachers.