A while ago a rough consensus emerged about the importance of no longer using the term “child pornography.” Part of some people’s reasoning turned on the use of the word “pornography”. It carried with it ambiguous overtones, suggesting the participants depicted were engaging in sexual activity on a voluntary, consensual basis when, of course, that can never be true if a child is involved. The phrase “child abuse material” or “child sex abuse material” emerged as preferred descriptions because they more accurately reflected what was actually going on. The children are victims. The pictures are crime scenes.
Now to be completely clear, if there was any way we could all be sure that legal pornography would only normally be seen by persons over the age of 18, even though I definitely have “issues” with it (see below), I most probably would not be writing this blog. However, whereas in the past we all know kids could occasionally grab someone’s porn mag and sneak a peak behind the garden shed, by and large their exposure to hard core porn was limited and spasmodic. Not any more. The scale, nature and ease of access to porn has created an entirely new paradigm.
However, to revert to my opening theme, there is a larger difficulty with the word “pornography”. In too many people’s minds it conjures up ideas taken from a time and a world which for practical purposes has all but ceased to exist.
Thus when people like me talk about the importance of finding new and better ways of shielding children from porn I can hit up against a wall of incomprehension or misplaced liberal sentiment. Am I pushing a religion-inspired agenda or am I simply, somehow anti-sex or troubled by sex, reflecting a personal hang up which probably has its origins in an unfortunate childhood experience? The answer to the first question is an emphatic no. As to the second, what can I say? If there is anything lurking there it is buried so deep I cannot call it forth into my conscious memory.
The porn industry has gone online and it has been industrialised. That is the root of the contemporary problem. Much of the material being published now is a million miles away from anything that used to be thought of as porn. Think Enid Blyton and Stephen King. The gap is much, much wider than that. Yet the vast bulk of porn publishers, based outside the UK, appear to think they have no real responsibility to try to keep their wares away from children, even very young children. That is the parents’ or anyway someone else’s problem, not theirs. Wrong.
In its new online milieu market forces seem to be pressing porn production inexorably in one direction, towards the more bizarre, violent and degrading end of the spectrum. Moreover there is a world of difference between a static Playboy centrefold and the kind of stuff that is instantly available today on millions of free web sites in high definition video with high quality sound.
Recently I asked a well known feminist if she thought there could ever be such a thing as “feminist porn”. She said “Yes in theory but I can’t remember the last time I saw any.”
I also spoke to someone who works in the field of relationship counselling. They acknowledged that there were instances where pornography can help individuals or couples to “get things going again” or even “get things started” but the circumstances in which such materials were incorporated into therapy typically are carefully choreographed and the images are chosen judiciously. No self-respecting sex-therapist would ever just say “have a butchers at the internet”. Porn on the internet is causing far more relationship difficulties than it is solving.The idea that young people might learn anything useful from the great bulk of online porn is way beyond a sick joke.
Much of the porn available on the internet looks like nothing more than a series of violent and often bizarre acts perpetrated on women many of whom, we know from research, have had extremely troubled lives. Very often they are also being “managed” by aggressive pimps who use drug dependency and physical force to secure compliance.
Is it nonetheless possible that some of the women actors nevertheless are truly choosing and consenting to take part? Are they genuinely ok with being subjected to the sort of acts that now feature regularly and prominently on many online porn sites? The power imbalance that is often so evident suggests otherwise.
Yet maybe there is a tiny minority of women porn actors for whom this is a true career choice or work option, even an artistic or creative one, but the modern context of the internet has completely changed the terms of the debate. We are all free or should be free to make choices that don’t harm others but it is evident that because of the lack of controls over the output harm is being done both to the position of other women and to those who might be exposed to it, particularly children.
Time and again we hear young women complain that online porn is shaping boys’ expectations of how they will behave and many young men also feel extremely uncomfortable with the brutalised roles they are pushed towards. True enough there may be other aspects of popular culture which play into the “pornification” agenda but anyone who cannot tell the difference between an advert for perfume and Pornhub needs their heads or their eyes examining, probably both.
If there is a contemporary equivalent of someone or a group of people seeking to produce ethical, or feminist porn, I doubt they will want children to be able to access it and if they are worried about the way the policy environment is moving in relation to their oeuvre I suggest they pick a fight with the real culprits: the porn industry, not child protection organizations. Not everything the internet has brought us is an unqualified good and in the case of porn we need to find ways of dealing with it that more closely align with long-established real world standards.
In the meantime if anyone has any bright ideas about how we can use language better to convey the reality of modern porn I am keen to hear.