I want to write about online porn this month, and this is why. A few days ago I was writing a post for My Tonight From Shrewsbury on the subject of punishments meted out in our town in the fourteenth century for ‘scolds’ – ie cantankerous women [always women] who refused to shut up, back down or desist from loudly and frequently expressing their opinions. By a slightly circuitous route this led me to Google Images looking for appropriate engravings to go on my post. Plenty came up, and a few I’ve used. Amusingly, a photo came up, too, of a flame-haired Rebecca Brookes, whom I guess somebody must have seen as the modern incarnation of the medieval scold. But also, and not amusingly at all - in fact unbidden, unwanted, unasked for and completely unexpectedly - up came two photographs in black and white. One was of the anal rape of a young woman with others looking on. The other was of what I can only describe from the equipment it included as the torture of child.
I was shocked rigid by this experience. Google Images is supposed to contain innocuous photos of mountains and fine buildings, tennis players and Olympic glory. I’ve used it to find pics of everything from straight roads in Canada to my own books and even my own face. Of course I haven’t followed the ghastly link to this ghastly site. I’ll report it to Google, and I may even report it to the police – though my hunch is that the police will shrug their shoulders and say this is an international problem and what can anybody do?
Well, we all know it’s an international problem. We read about it in the papers, hear about it on the news. This is our world. It’s the dark side of internet life. But it’s always ‘out there’, isn’t it? Always somewhere else. Never ‘in here’ in our offices, studies and sitting-rooms. It’s in another place that some of us still haven’t seen, though increasing numbers apparently have. And for those of us who haven’t, it’s not quite real. Which makes stumbling across it inadvertently a real wake-up call.
Interestingly, two days later on Sunday I found a front page piece on this subject in the Observer. Pornogrophy was definitely the theme of my weekend. ‘UK will follow Iceland’s lead over ban on internet porn’ the headline ran. Reading down, I found that worried over the impact of online porn on children [as well as women and their relationships with men], Iceland’s Ministry of the Interior is drawing up anti-porn legislation after consultations with police, education and health officials. This follows considerable research, the results of which are backed up by what charities in the UK, including the NSPCC, have to say, linking the rise of child abuse with the ready availability of online porn.
‘The stuff children are coming across is hardcore and upsetting,’ said Claire Lilley of the NSPCC. And last week in Parliament,
debating the global One Billion Rising campaign demanding an end to violence against women. David Cameron adviser, Claire Perry, picked on the not-that distant subject of sexting, which she described as ‘a huge, growing and endemic problem.’
The stats are alarming. In Iceland, the average age of children looking at porn is eleven, and the concern there is that what they’re looking at as mainstream porn has become extremely brutal. ‘Prohibition has its problems,’ says the Observer in its Comments section, ‘but at least it fuels a public debate.’
So this is what I’m doing here. Having a bit of a public debate. The Observer calls for much more teaching in schools on relationships, not just sex. And that sounds great, but surely it’s not the answer on its own. There has, it seems to me, to be a massive cultural shift [It’s the Culture, Stupid, to parody Bill Clinton.] But with a problem as big, and growing, as this, can even the culture make a difference? And if it can, as authors what part can we play? Is it the role of an author, anyway, to be an instrument of social change? And if it’s not, what’s our writing all about? Isn’t it our job to expose what’s harmful in society and celebrate the good? Or is the shadow of the straight-jacket in all of this going to make us run a mile?
I think it’s really interesting that Iceland sees itself as a progressive government dedicated to gender equality, more willing than most world governments to pursue a radical agenda, and that they don’t see what they’re doing as a restriction – more a matter of civil rights. The way they see it, hard core pornography [and their narrowed-down definition of porn doesn’t include all sexually explicit material, only whatever portrays sexual activity as violent and hateful] undermines the equality of women and their right, and the rights of their children, to live free of violence.
Iceland is so keen to effect change that they say they’ll have their ban on porn on their statute books within the year. Those who oppose them say their bill is fascist, unworkable and unfeasible. I’m guessing that some of you who read this might agree with them. However, this is what the Observer reports Gail Dines, Professor of Sociology at Wheelock College, Boston as having to say:
‘A lot of people really don’t realize what porn looks like online. If a twelve year old searches for porn on Google he doesn’t get some Playboy pictures, he gets graphic, brutal, hardcore imagines of women being choked, with tears running down their faces, and of the kind of anal sex that has female porn stars in America suffering from prolapses. Children are traumatized by what they see. You develop your sexual template around puberty and if you see brutal porn on an industrialized scale, then can anyone really suggest that exposure has no effect?’
What she describes there is what I saw myself. And I was traumatized. Not just for the children or adults who might find this stuff, but for the tragic victims of these crimes. In fact, I still am. The images keep running through my head.
What would Professor Dines’ twelve year olds have made of them? And what about you? This is a tricky subject, I know. Is yet another nail being banged into the coffin of free expression? Or are human rights being upheld? And your part in all this? Or do you even feel you have a play a part? I really want to know. What do you have to say?
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