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‘Porn Block’ – a realistic proposal from the UK government?

December 20th, 2010

Dr Petra

father ted, careful now*

Amidst stories about snow and the final of The Apprentice you may have noticed yesterday’s news claiming the government wants to persuade Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block access to online pornography.
The Sun – Porn Block on PCs
The Daily Mail – Porn, keep out! Parents to be allowed to block computers from receiving sexual material (not only do the Mail confuse the opt out/opt in system, but also seem unaware parents can already restrict access to adult content online)
The Guardian – Broadband firms urged to block sex websites to protect children (as with much other media coverage the Guardian stacks its story up with a problematic survey from Psychologies magazine, more on this later)
The Telegraph – Internet Pornography Curb By The Government

Where did this story come from?
It originated from a question asked by MP for Devizes (Cornwall) Claire Perry in a House of Commons debate on Internet Pornography on 23 November (summary here). From this Ed Vaizey (Minister for Communication, Culture and the Creative Industries) suggested a meeting with the major UK ISPs to talk about a potential blocking of access to porn and a sign up system (so those wanting to access sexual materials online would have to opt in to gain access).

You can see from the debate linked above and media coverage the focus is presenting this proposal in terms of child protection, and as a mental health issue.

As yet no meeting has been set up and no ISPs agreed formally to any proposed blocks at source. Indeed from today’s news ISPs appear to be saying the proposal is ‘unworkable’.

This proposal is, however, likely to be politically popular – at least in some quarters. It taps into fears parents may have around sexualisation and risks to young people. It appeals to sex negative/conservative voters. It also removes responsibility from parents who may lack confidence or familiarity with the internet and be uncertain what young people might be seeing online or know how to address this. Like many discussions within the sexualisation debate (which this is falling under) it may seem intuitively a good move, yet there are numerous problems associated with this proposal.

Here are some of them

What is this proposal aiming to do?
Although the proposal is suggesting a block at source, it seems this is going to be difficult to provide in practice. It is also only focusing on online pornography, not addressing other areas of sexual content young people might be accessing, nor social networking sites where young people may also be having contact with others people (sometimes in a sexual way). This doesn’t mean these other sources should also be blocked – but it does raise the question why the government is only focusing on ‘online pornography’? What evidence is there that this poses the most significant risk to young people (compared with other media), and what evidence do we have that the best solution to tackling the problem is a block at source with an opt in approach?

Despite media coverage and political debate it is not clear what is proposed (aside from wanting to meet some ISPs), and certainly no clear explanation of why the focus should be on online pornography only or the extent to which this is a major child protection issue (greater than say, addressing poverty; housing; poorly performing schools; addressing the physical and sexual abuse of children; and improving the training funding and support for social services, schools and other youth services).

Defining ‘porn’
One of my plans during my PhD (which focused on evaluating research on pornography effects) was to create absolute definitions of ‘pornography’ and ‘erotica’ as distinct and measurable categories which could be used in research, legal and health settings. In practice I found it pretty difficult to achieve (and gave up trying).

When asked, participants would define porn as ‘dehumanising’, ‘degrading’, ‘exciting’, ‘base’ while ‘erotica’ was described as ‘arousing’, ‘mutual’, ‘equal’ or ‘tender’. In fact what people were really doing was suggesting the values they attributed to said terms. Erotica was viewed far more positively than porn.

However, when I presented the same participants with actual sexual images to talk about they couldn’t agree upon which were porn or erotica. Indeed some saw certain images as ‘erotica’ which others viewed as ‘pornographic’. Unpacking why they felt this was a fascinating part of my research, but indicated for me something that has plagued researchers and lawyers for years. Because sexual materials are usually linked to moral and/or political judgements you can end up in a situation described by Ellen Willis (1979) as “[i]n practice, attempts to sort out good erotica from bad porn inevitably come down to What turns me on is erotica; what turns you on is pornographic”

Before any blocks at source can be made there has to be some level of agreement of what ‘online porn’ is. Currently it isn’t clear what this is defined as and given the range of sexual material online it will be difficult to agree what should or should not be restricted. And who will make these decisions?

Moreover it is unclear where sex advice, art, and conversations about porn online will fall within this proposed restriction. Critics of the proposal are concerned over wider censorship issues that it raises.

What about parental control?

While in opposition the Conservative Party made much complaint about the so-called ‘nanny state’ they saw being endorsed by Labour. Frequently Conservative MPs used the mantra of ‘parent power’ to advocate not having to tackle sex education and sexual health care for young people. Ironically we now see the same party suggesting rather than parents deciding what their offspring can have access to or supervising access to the internet, this decision will be made for families by the state in collaboration with ISPs.

Parents are currently already able to limit access online. They are also able to limit what access young people have to sexual imagery from other media sources, and decide whether or not to allow a young person to play computer games or use social networking sites. Parents can also talk to young people about safety online, confidence and communication generally, and tackle wider topics around sex and relationships.

Sadly, however, many parents don’t do this. This may be down to embarrassment, time pressures, a lack of awareness of risk to young people, a lack of knowledge of about the internet, or a lack of involvement in parenting generally.

For many parents a block at source could seem appealing as it means they don’t have to set controls over what their children are accessing. They may also believe this absolves them of the task of controlling media access more generally, or having to talk about sex and relationships, or around issues of respect, assertiveness and communication.

Simply putting a block on porn access online would not prevent young people seeing imagery elsewhere. Nor would it mean they would no longer require parental support, supervision and advice.

Blocking more than ‘porn’?

One of the major concerns over this proposal is it would block more than porn. Anyone who has had the fun experience of working within organisations like the NHS (as I’ve had for many years) will recognise how intranet blocks can stop you accessing advice sites and even research papers tackling topics containing ‘naughty’ words like breasts or testicles, psychosexual problems or sex education.

A feature of blocking at source means it’s not just sexual imagery created for entertainment/arousal that is blocked, you may also find you cannot find self help, advice or educational materials.

This government proposal could mean the many young people who have questions about their gender or sexuality, are being abused or bullied, want to know about puberty, STIs, contraception or pregnancy, or have general ‘am I normal?’ worries will not be able to gain access to such information online. For many young people these questions are not always ones they can ask of teachers or parents. Parents or teachers don’t always give them the answers they need. It may be on more sensitive topics they can’t ask friends or even use internet cafes or libraries. The privacy of online advice may be the only place they can find answers. As not knowing about these issues can put young people at risk and cause mental distress it seems ironic a proposal based around safeguarding young people’s mental health could directly harm it.

Advice websites, online information forums, resources like Scarleteen that talk frankly about sex for young people could easily find themselves blocked within this proposal.

Under such a proposed scheme parents (and other adults) may also find they cannot find out information about ovarian cancer, psychosexual problems, smear tests, fertility, miscarriage, pregnancy advice, partner abuse or rape.

Young people (and adults) have a basic human right to information about their sexual lives, gender and sexuality (see here and here for two examples discussing this issue). These proposals bring up wider discussions not only around censorship, but also about open access to health information.

Do blocks and bans work?

Many adults may remember our recent history where pornography was largely illegal within the UK, or was heavily restricted in accessibility. Jokes abound about the only place to find porn – aside from under your parent’s bed – would be what you stumbled across during walks in the woods (or perhaps shared by a bigger boy at school). However this did not stop young people wanting to see, or seeking out, sexual materials.

It would be wrong to suggest availability, access and commercialisation around sexual imagery hasn’t altered. It does seem sexual imagery is more prevalent and easier to access than in the past – but not just in terms of ‘online pornography. Shifts within commercial markets have also meant more discussions about sex in the mainstream media, advertising, music and other entertainment industries – aimed at adults as well as young people.

This does not mean such materials should also be met with a blanket ban. Focusing on ways to talk about the messages shared within popular culture, from parents and peers are important. It seems peculiar this government seeks to block access to one form of sexual imagery but are less interested in addressing realistic and rights based sex and relationships education.

Generally blocking or banning one area doesn’t seem to work (research and wider issues discussed here) – people still find ways to access material, and given sexual media appears in more places than online porn it is unlikely just blocking one area will make much difference. Indeed we’re left uncertain what difference politicians expect as a result of such a block.

Moreover in discussions in this area we are not hearing about research that talks about the more complex and nuanced relationships young people have with the media (see here and here for examples). This proposal also seems to be assuming the majority of young people have some kind of private internet access at home, and this is their main source of viewing explicit material. However this may not be the case and does not guarantee young people won’t find sexual imagery in other sources. The proposal seems to be suggesting that online access to porn is causing specific harms and yet no clear evidence is being shared about what those harms may be.

It is not clear what this proposed block is for. Is it to protect young people? If so, from what? Finding out about sex? Seeing sexually violent images? Being exposed to adult content while they are still young? To prevent young people becoming sexually active? It seems to be working under an assumption that young people who see sexual images may be mentally harmed, or perhaps will become sexually active at a young age, or be coerced (or coerce others) into a sexual act they may not have previously considered. Yet within this no clear evidence is presented around whether this is being observed now and what impact this is having on young people long term.

The media’s lack of critical attention

Press coverage of this story has been largely uncritical. In that it has presented the proposals set out by the government without any real discussion of how workable they may be or the issues related to potential blocks that might put young people at risk. Moreover the media have not been particularly careful to focus on the wide range of evidence addressing media effects in this area (and particularly about young people’s use of online porn). Instead most media coverage have backed up their stories with the quote from a survey from Psychologies magazine that 1/3 of young people have seen online porn (when aged under 10).

This represents part of the problem with the media on this issue. Journalists appear to believe that online porn does cause harm to young people and therefore rather than thinking more critically about sexualised culture and youth, they accept studies that support their position.

The Psychologies survey is particularly flawed as it is presented as being representative of children across the UK, whereas it was actually only conducted in one London school.

I was concerned over the way this research was conducted on young people and when raising questions about it was sent various emails and was called by the editor about it. This included a copy of the survey questions and response rates.

From this correspondence it was difficult to identify whether parents did or didn’t know their children were completing an online survey about pornography. Questions asked were in placed muddled or confusing, and while some answers suggested young people had seen online porn, the majority of respondents had not (and nor were they in a sexual relationship). Indeed most respondents who had seen porn weren’t particularly troubled by it – seeing it as arousing or a joke. The limited sample, problematic questions, ambiguity over parental consent and young people’s ability to opt out of the research means this survey is not reliable. And yet it remains popular among both journalists and politicians as ‘proof’ of our ‘problem’ with online porn and young people in the UK.

It would be unfair to single out Psychologies magazine as they are not the only media outlet who has completed research in this area that could have been a lot more robust. Channel 4’s Sex Education Show also conducted a survey on porn as part of its second series (The Sex Education Show vs Pornography) which, despite being told that pornography was not the major issue affecting young people still made a show with this focus because the series was commissioned to have a campaigning focus similar to ‘Jamie’s School Dinners’ (as one producer informed me). Because many of the cases presented in the programme suggested accessing extreme porn was both easy and commonplace it persuaded many people this was a major campaign issue. Even people who might usually question evidence or ask to see research accepted the depiction of online porn within the programme as ‘the norm’.

Completing research on young people and sexual imagery is something that is important but has to be managed ethically, responsibly and carefully. At present while claims are made about the number of young people accessing sexual imagery and the impact this is having on them, in truth there is a lack of robust research in this area. This is mainly linked to a lack of funding to study the topic, and limits to what can be asked of young people by ethics committees.

We do have evidence around the impact of porn but not all of this is based on online porn and even when it is, is flawed by a lack of definitions about what ‘online porn’ is. Many studies are overly simplistic, lab based and feature undergraduate students. The experiences of sexualised media (not just online porn) on young people remains an under researched area and at this time it is difficult to make any firm conclusions about its impact.

Claims about how it is changing young people’s brains, behaviour and bodies sound frightening but often do not have much reliable data to back them up.

Unfortunately at present politicians continue to avoid engaging with evidence on a critical level and various lobby groups of different pro and anti porn (but largely anti porn) positions are making their views count more than independent research. As a result many claims are being made about online porn and its impact on young people but, if you try and source any evidence for said claims, it is difficult to find anything particularly reliable.

The media and politicians, rather than accepting a few flimsy studies that back up their beliefs, need to look more closely at what is happening to young people and hear from those conducting careful, respectful and ethical research in this area.

What happens now?
This is only a proposal. So at present no meeting has been set up and it may be no meeting may happen. Critics of the proposal are arguing it’s a play on the part of the conservative to faith based voters, in a similar move to actions taken in Australia (see here and here). And that it won’t go any further than a chat with ISPs (if that far). Others argue the proposal is based on well meaning, but ill informed, intentions that will continue to be focused upon as part of wider debates on sexualisation.

We have seen little critical discussion of the issue within the media outside of talking over whether the proposal is workable. Debates about the evidence in this area, the acceptance of limited studies to make policy, parallels with Australia, and the needs and rights of young people are largely absent in media coverage and in debates on blogs or twitter (which have tended to focus more on the censorship or tech angles).

Because this is a proposal there are things you can do about this issue. You can lobby your MP and ask them what their views are, and provide them with more balanced information about young people, their rights and ways in which we can empower them to negotiate a commercialised/sexualised culture. (Here’s a nice set of free resources to help them!)

We can all ask to see what evidence the government has that this specific proposal would make a demonstrable difference to the lives of young people, what that difference might be, and how it might be measured.

Critics who fear this is another form of censorship and regulation need their concerns addressing.

We need to be careful to continue discussions about young people’s rights and responsibilities without questioning of this current proposal (or ones like it) degenerating into accusations of promoting abuse or denying young people need support. (As previously experienced in debates on extreme porn).

Parents can lobby for greater responsibility and control and reject the idea of an opt in system. They can argue the existing system where parents can already block access and talk to their children about sex/relationships issues is adequate. This requires parents to step up to the plate and be more engaged in the parenting process and certainly educators, practitioners, healthcare providers, therapists and youth organisations can do more to support parents in this role.

Despite this debate being largely about them the opinions of young people are largely absent. It would be good to hear more from young people about what they think about online porn and related issues. We do not do enough to include young people’s voices, nor offer support or empowerment to them on this or other child protection issues and that is something we should rectify as these debates look set to continue.

We can focus on increasing access to relationships education both at home and school, support online services already offering independent and ethical advice to young people on sex/relationships, and ensure any education offered covers topics around delay, respect, communication, confidence and pleasure. Not just about biology, STIs, just saying no, and contraception.

We should question the government on this issue. Why are they considering this proposal? Why is it important to them? What do they think it will achieve? Who are they aiming to protect? And if they are interested in child protection what other areas such as child poverty (in particular) might they also be focusing on?

This proposal raises wider issues around health, education, access, and rights to information. So it is worth looking beyond what may be fairly empty government proposals or broader discussions on censorship and think about what this government’s understanding of young people’s rights may be – along with their awareness of ‘sexualisation’ and how to deal with it.

Certainly young people are living within a different culture where there is easier access to sexualised (and often commercialised) messages. These are not just within the domains of ‘internet porn’ but often in the pages of our daily papers, celebrity sex scandal stories, music, advertising and so on. It is important to talk about the information both young people and parents need, but deciding to begin this debate recommending a top down, censoring approach does not allow us to really explore what would help young people and where actual risks may be from.

Want to know more?
If you are interested in this issue a discussion is ongoing about it on twitter using the hashtag #ukpornban Meanwhile people like @quietriot_girl @auntysarah and @bishtraining have been actively engaged in debating this proposal on twitter. Bish has also written an excellent summary about the issues raised by the proposal here. If you see any other blogs or articles discussing this issue you think are helpful please email me ( and I’ll add them to this post.

Other interesting writing on this topic from:

Pandora Blake
who talks about some of the flaws in both the proposed scheme and the ‘research’ behind it. This is picked up by both @violetblue in ZDNet and @TomRoyal in ComputerActive who focus on the groups behind the proposal. Particularly the pressure group Media March. Tom’s post was written a year ago, but it seems Media March are still keen to persuade politicians to their cause. More on this organisation can be found at Liberal Conspiracy

Both Mashable and
Guardian Technology discuss whether the proposals even make any sense. (The piece by @tomscott says pretty much what I say above, just a lot more succinctly!)

@foxsoup writes at ThoughtSoup on the major limitations of The Psychologies survey (which journalists are continuing to treat as though it is a robust and leading piece of research in this area). While The Register takes a more pragmatic approach and discusses whether this proposal is really an issue and if it will ever lead to any action (they also talk about the reasons why this issue is being raised now).

In a more personal account Unaverage Girl focuses on how blocking porn could have killed her, reminding us of the wider issues about access to information for young people.

While on a lighter note @zoeimogen suggests we remember Cleanternet (a similar suggestion to this current proposal)

Meanwhile Claire Perry announced on twitter 100% of negative or abusive commentary about opt in system for internet porn is from the chaps. Women 100% positive (so far) Since then many women have taken the opportunity to tell her they disagree.

* Image used here comes from the amazing TV series ‘Father Ted’ where Fathers Ted and Dougal are required to protest against a ‘blasphemous film’ (the clip for which is here, wonderful).

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