The availability of adult material, especially via the internet, is widely thought to be morally wrong and socially damaging. Last year, Conservative MPs started to pressure internet service providers into filtering porn: the so-called "opt-in" system. And unlike many proposals, this was one that attracted a lot of cross-party support.
On the surface it might have looked like Ed Vaizey and Claire Perry were
bravely spearheading the campaign, boldly taking on big business,
speaking for the little people. The truth is, it wasn't their idea. The
real architects of "opt-in" are people you've probably never heard of
before, but also probably should.
But first, let's consider something even more recent than the Perry and Vaizey suggestions for censoring the internet.
Yesterday, a sex ed bill proposed by MP Nadine Dorries
passed its first reading in the Commons. To sum up, she thinks girls
(and girls only) between the ages of 13 and 16 should be given lessons
specifically on the benefits of abstinence.
Now, putting aside the vileness of suggesting girls exclusively hold the
key to sexual morality, let's think about this. Abstinence is fine and
even good. I myself happily waited until the age of 16 and not very many
moments longer before having sex. The problem is, not everyone ends up abstaining,
so good quality sex ed - which is not mandatory in this country - is
ideal. And let's not forget sex ed has a lot it can offer besides just
pregnancy and STI avoidance. Ideas like relationship preparedness,
exploring issues around sexuality, self-confidence, and loads more can
and should be part of comprehensive, well-designed SRE (sex and
While there was a considerable amount of outrage from people concerned
about SRE, more than a few counselled that we shoudn't worry - after
all, the anti-sex, anti-abortion stance endorsed by Dorries has more in
common with far-right American fanaticism than with British
sensibilities. Such a 'daft' bill couldn't possibly pass, surely? The
kind of rabid conservative agenda that plays so well on the other side
of the Atlantic couldn't possibly last here, could it?
Actually, the rabid right-wing agenda is already here. And if the life
cycle of the internet 'opt-in' proposal is any indication, the
transplant of American hyperconservatism to UK shores seems to be doing
On 23 November 2010, Claire Perry, MP for Devizes, brought up the issue
of internet porn, its purported effects on young people, and how the
government should address it in Commons. Within a couple of weeks, the Sunday Times devoted several pages and an enormous magazine feature to the same topic.
What is interesting about Perry's contribution to the Commons debate, and the Times
feature, are certain similarities in what information was supplied and
the conclusions made. But then, that's not altogether surprising. They
were getting their information from the same source.
What did Perry claim? Loads of misleading statistics, for starters. One
was that 60% of nine- to 19-year-olds had found porn online. ‘Ages 9 to
19’? That’s an arbitrary and very wide range, and instantly suspicious.
It includes people who are over the age of consent (16+) as well as
those old enough to appear in pornography (18+). But the way the number
is presented gives the impression that the majority of 9-year-old
children are looking at these things. If Perry’s vague statistic were
broken down by age, it would skew - heavily - towards the older side.
Perry also claimed: “A third of our British 10-year-olds have viewed
pornography on the internet,” which would certainly be worrying if it
were true. The figure is from Psychologies Magazine’s 'Put Porn
In Its Place' campaign. The name alone suggests the conclusion was
probably written long before the data were collected. Despite its name, Psychologies is not a peer reviewed academic journal, but a mass market magazine rather like GQ or Cosmo. The summary articles
were written by Decca Aitkenhead, a travel writer and lifestyle
commentator, not a researcher. Comprehensive critcism of the data is available here. In short, it's not a credible or reliable figure.
Claire Perry’s comments came one day after an event
she attended at the Houses of Parliament, “The Harm that Pornography
Does; Its Effects on Adults and Children and the Need for Regulatory
Reform”. The event was organised by Safermedia, whose co-chair, Miranda Suit, quotes a particular report also prominently mentioned in the Sunday Times Magazine feature, with article citing "new research into the social costs of pornography from the Witherspoon Institute in America".
That report was written by an American group called the Witherspoon Institute.
But who are the Witherspoon Institute, anyway? The website makes
much of the group's namesake, a Scottish Calvinist minister and signer
of the Declaration of Independence. However, the Institute does not
obviously appear to be either directly endorsed or funded by
Witherspoon's family, but rather trading on the name.
Looking deeper, the 'research' turns out to be The Social Costs of Pornography: A Collection of Papers. It includes contributions from such notables as Patrick Fagan from the Family Research Council, a far-right American lobbying organisation. Fagan also works with the Heritage Foundation,
once considered the architects of the Reagan administration's covert
Cold War operations, and active supporters of George W Bush's
international policy. Fagan's other recent papers include "Virgins Make
the Best Valentines" and "Why Congress Should Ignore Radical Feminist
Opposition to Marriage".
The Social Costs of Pornography has an entire section devoted to
the conclusion that "Today’s consumption of internet pornography can
harm children in particular." Having decided the outcome before
assessing the evidence – a research no-no in responsible circles - they
admit that the evidence as such is thin on the ground. "The few
statistics available about the use of pornography by children and
adolescents are even more difficult to assess than those concerning
adults ... Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that children and
adolescents are far more exposed to pornography via the internet than
they ever have been before." How is it possible to make such sweeping
conclusions when there are no data?
What the section does offer is a hotchpotch of statistics, some of which
are at least 10 years old. It then reflects again: "But is there
evidence that this exposure is harmful to children? For some people, no
more evidence is needed." In spite of failing to show or imply the
existence of a single study showing a cause-and-effect relationship
between viewing pornography and harm. It continues, "However, even
skeptics could not deny the evidence of harmfulness that is emerging in
clinical settings. " Actually, yes they would. A skeptic would point out
that unless you have presented any evidence, you cannot subsequently
claim the evidence exists. You can’t admit the evidence doesn’t exist
and then claim no more evidence is needed.
One must ask whether any of the material from the Witherspoon report is,
as claimed in the Times, "new". It isn’t. For instance, "many people
first encounter pornography on television in a hotel room," is one
observation. Which the eagle-eyed will note is neither an internet
phenomenon, nor a recent one, not likely to be true for young people
born after, say, the 1970s. In terms of pop culture, it's about as
relevant as citing Calvin Klein adverts (which the Times piece does on its very first page).
The aim of the Witherspoon Institute is clear: "political leaders should
use the bully pulpit," they advise. Celebrities, too, are urged to
apply pressure. And finally, the Witherspoon report returns to the
necessary admission that the data do not support their cause: "Some of
the most important parts of our laws could not be justified if they had
to hinge on a proof of material injuries."
Like many think-tanks, Witherspoon has a strong bias. They also admit –
repeatedly – that the evidence is insubstantial. Are they a good source
of information for journalists? For policy makers? Are the people who
hope Perry and Vaizey will do right by young people at all concerned how
this looks - like UK policy is being spoon-fed to the current
government by some of America's most extreme social conservatives?