Unasked, Unexpected And Most Definitely Unwanted: Online Porn, by Pauline Fisk

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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Anonymous said…
I'm willing to give up some of my personal freedom if it truly means the horrible stuff won't happen, and won't be available. It sickens me.

The amount of it, worldwide, is astounding. I just don't understand it - the problem is that control is in the details, and the details are tricky and fuzzy and non-specific.

Just didn't want you to have thrown an important discussion, and nobody came.

Don't have any solutions.
Dan Holloway said…
Well, I think it's certainly our place as writers to say the hard things others won't say - I know others don't agree with that, and we all have our view of what it means to be a writer, but that's part of mine. I probably differ from you on what that means practically - many of my good friends write erotica, and there was a lot of hair-tearing out and garment-rending when Smashwords declared that certain types of content would no longer be permitted on their site. Many writers took the "that doesn't affect me, I don't write that kind of thing" line. Others took the "but they're not banning anything that anyone could defend" line. A lot of people lot a lot of friends over it when colours were nailed to masts.

I don't know that I have answers. I do have opinions - I think that anyone who is agaist censorship should be consistently so - I object in the strongest terms to people who advocate freedom of speaech but then qualify it with "but of course I don't mean..."; I think that if we advocate freedom of expression we *have* to defend people's right to express things we find utterly repugnant, otherwise our values mean nothing - it's the same as anything in politics, defending or advocating that which benefits you or costs you nothing might not be an empty gesture but it's a pretty easy and not particularly worthy one - the truly brave stance is that which costs you and those you love everything; I don't think we should separate porn out as a special case, just as I don't think we should have "bad sex in literature awards" or "advice on writing sex" that somehow treats sex as something qualitatively different - that's too simplistic. The aspects of culture that form patriarchal-violent attitudes consist of way more than porn and there is a real danger with banning something that we can easily consider a problem solved and not address more subtle factors. And racism, religious hatred, homophobia - we have to tackle everything if we are going to set our stalls out against one thing.

madwippitt said…
Yes, it's worrying when innocent searches throw something horrid and unwanted at you: equally as worrying as a writer is when doing some research on what was available on Kindle by way of children's books on horses. A search on Amazon Kindle for 'horse and pony stories' threw up some grim stuff on pony stories of an entirely different kind than I was thinking of. I even found some lobbed in with children's titles. And children, being curious, are likely to look such things up - especially when they are free rather than purchased titles which adults will need to pay for and this be able to veto.
So much as I love being able to self publish with such ease, there is a definite darker side to it all.
You've raised some interesting points here Pauline!
madwippitt said…
sorry. please excuse typos and tenses! too much fury and not enough accuracy!
Susan Price said…
Should writers try to change society? - Dickens? Steinbeck?

It's equally easy to say: I am for free speech, I will ban nothing. It's the cry you hear in the Guardian comments whenever violent porn is questioned.

One person's freedom is always, in every case, balanced against another's freedom in a different direction. 'The greatest good of the greatest number?'
Those who want violent porn - where usually women and children are degraded and tortured - are always very loud in their protests about freedom and the wickedness of censorship. They are always much, much quieter on how those images they enjoy were created, and the rights of the people involved - and the harm done to people like Pauline, and children, who come across them by accident.

So, considering the greatest good of the greatest number, and the greater need for protection of the weaker among us - and don't say that's patronising, because most women and children are physically weaker than most men - is banning sexual images that include violence such a bad thing?

After all, many people would like the freedom to own slaves without tiresome criticism. Some people want the freedom to murder others for their own sexual gratification. Some people want the freedom to execute gay people.

If freedom, and freedom of expression is all important, why don't we just say: Okay, go ahead, be yourself?

We constantly limit our freedoms, in consideration of others. We try to arrive at a balance, where the limits and freedoms offer 'the greatest good to the greatest number.'

The sex industry, legal and illegal, has a harmful impact on the lives of women and children - and men - even if they aren't involved in it.

I've yet to see a convincing argument of why the 'freedom of expression' and/or sexual gratification of some is more important and sacrosanct that the experience of most women and children. (I expect to be called a prude for saying so: it's the usual reply.)

If 'Freedom of Expression' is so sacred and more important than another creature's pain, then surely bull-baiting, dog-fighting and fox-hunting should be legalised again? After all, they were very popular sports. Thousands enjoyed expressing themselves through them.
julia jones said…
I'm with Iceland, Pauline and Sue. And I hope you did report it Pauline because that sort of thing must surely be criminal - someone is profiting from it, others are suffering from it. I see no good purpose AT ALL to be served by such images - let alone the acts which created them
frances thomas said…
Freedom of expression is important - but you can't have that freedom at the expense of somebody else's . And women and children being coerced into violent sex infringes their human rights. The effect those images have on children who see tham is another issue - though related. I believe that it must do harm to young minds. 'Erotica' is one thing, and there is space for it in our society - violent porn is another and I can't see that it is anything but degrading for thos ewho take part and those who watch it.
Stroppy Author said…
I think there's a bit of a misunderstanding here: "Google Images is supposed to contain innocuous photos ..." Google Images doesn't 'contain' anything. It's a search engine and it will throw up whatever matches the search terms entered. If the site that posts a pornographic photo includes innocuous words as keywords in the metadata for that photo, it will be found by the search - it's njust a machine and not a container of anything.

In one sense, we could say that it should be illegal to portray images of anything that is illegal as an act. But then that would put an end to TV cop programmes, wouldn't it? I think as writers many of us have had the experience of coming across ridiculous limits on expression - American publishers refusing to take children's books that feature the statue of David because it shows genitals, for instance. Where is the line to be drawn? Do you ban Google Images from showing Titian's Rape of Lucrece?

I think most people would fall somewhere between banning Titian and allowing photos of anal rape. But where? Who draws the line? Do we let Saudi Arabia ban us seeing adverts for swimwear because they find that offensive? I'm not saying they are comparable - and of course Saudi Arabia would also ban pictures of anal rape.

Ideally, no one would post photos of anal rape and no one would commit it. But we don't live in an ideal world. The way to deal with this is filters at the consumer's end. If you don't want to see ugly pornographic images, you should create a walled garden that protects your computer from receiving them. Filters for parents to prevent children seeing such things are not at all hard to get, and there are legal moves to have them enabled by default on computers old in the UK. Adults could then turn them off if they wanted to access porn. This seems to me to be the most sensible way forward as (a) it's not a cloud-cuckoo-land solution and (b) it allows each individual control of what they see (as long as they can be bothered).

Personally, I don't and won't filter because I want there to be some chance that I see from a search what a child will see from a search. And if I make a decision that could lead a child to a dodgy search - such as including Jack the Ripper in a book - I know that I have seen the first page of things that will come up. Then I have at least made an informed choice.

I must say, though, that I am absolutely astonished that it has taken this long for you to come across such images. I'm sorry you were upset - but I'm baffled that you weren't upset 5 years ago.
Susan Price said…
TV cop shows may not carry the message 'No actual actors were harmed during the filming of this programme,' but we can safely assume it's so. The images Pauline talks of may also be merely play-acting, but it can be less certainly assumed.
And yes, we can make our computers nice, safe little gardens - until some adult forgets to reset the guard, or until a child learns how to by-pass it.
Our nice, safe little walled gardens don't stop the exploitation going on outside - and as that market is fed, it will increase, and probably become more vicious in an attempt to be novel.
The world is a wicked place where lots of nasty things happen - so we shouldn't try to change anything? We just shut ourselves up in nice cosy little gardens.
And those of us who weren't shocked five years ago, shouldn't be shocked at all? We should try harder to keep up?
C.J.Busby said…
I think a lot of the 'freedom of speech' merchants miss a fundamental point about power. Freedom of speech is all very well in a society where everyone is equal and we are all just talking - but how can you really argue that it is a fundamental right under any circumstances and also take 'speech' to include actions? Is it freedom of speech for a rich man to beat his slave to death? Obviously not. So what makes it 'freedom of speech' for a billion dollar industry exploiting poor/powerless women and children (for the most part, despite the odd woman who claims to be empowered by sex work) to produce images which encourage others to further exploit and degrade other women and children? It makes no sense to champion freedom of speech and not ask about whose voice gets heard most loudly. In practice, we don't allow anyone to just do what they want - we live in societies where there are laws to mitigate the damage of a complete free for all - so why is it so impossible to agree to mitigate the damage of violent pornography? And why does everyone insist that if we take any step towards this, we risk burning Titians? It's the most ridiculous reductio ad absurdam argument. The police already draw lines between 'legal' and 'illegal' porn in terms of physical items - (videos/magazine pictures) - so why can't we happily accept this being done for online porn?

Sorry - the sort of subject that induces ranting... Basically, I'm with Sue, and Iceland.

Enid Richemont said…
I have posted two comments on this blog, one lengthy and time consuming. Neither appeared. Will this?
Dan Holloway said…
What an articulate debate this has turned into. I was making fundamentally the same point as Sue (maybe I was misread?) and CJ, that there is no such thing as absolute free speech, and that free speech advocates have to be prepared to advocate it for all, which they really won't like.

Given that, we have to choose. CJ makes the incredibly good point about power, which is similar to Sue's point about the most needy and vulnerable - that is something which makes the question of expressive freedom incredibly relative, because power and vulnerability are shifting categories (this is always my fundamental objection to conservatism with a small "c") and so our protection of the weak and the powerless must shift with it - that's why I think "greatest happiness for the greatest number is fundamentally flawed, and that toxic Star Trek nonsense about the "needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few" is just that, toxic. The needs of the few, or even the one, where the one is vulnerable and unspoken for, outweigh, in terms of our concern, the needs of all others.

That raises some very difficult questions about what we do at a concrete level - just who are the weak and the vulnerable? And I think here some commenters are conflating two very different things. Sex workers are amongst the most vulnerable in our society - largely, sadly, because not only are they often exploited in many ways through the industry but because their voices are so often appropriated by those claiming to speak on their behalf - or to make them somehow representative of wider groups within society. I don't think I could argue against reasoning that their voices above all others need to be heard. In regard to the particular pictures, I'm 100% with Stroppy - where a crime has been committed in taking the picture, deal with the crime. Where a crime has been consensually depicted, a whole other debate needs to happen, and that's what I mean about the conflation. Yes, children are vulnerable where they are involved in teh creation fo horrific images and where that is the case, it is always a crime, so deal with that as such. But that's not the vulnerability people are talking about here - people are talking about "vulnerability to influence" in other words impressionability or suggestibility - and that is a completely different issue, and again I'm totally with Stroppy - why is a portrayal of one kind of crime singled out as more heinous than others? I don't think we can claim that in speaking up for regulation we are protecting teh weak directly. Rather, by stopping the 12 year old boy accessing rape porn we are protecting those women with wom he will later come into contact, which is a very valid and important goal to have but is indirect in exactly the same way as his future relations with the disabled he will meet and treat with contempt because of government-driven hate campaigns, and immigrants he will meet and brutalise because of the Daily Mail - I don't see how we can call for regulation in one area and not teh other. And most of all, it strikes me as so important that a desire to say "the right thing" doesn't stop us from debating to a point of crystal clarity exactly what we mean and what the separate issues at stake are
Stroppy Author said…
You are putting words into my mouth, Sue. I didn't suggest it was like burning Titians - I said that allowing one depiction of rape on Google Images and not another leaves someone with a job of distinguishing between them.

If a photo is a representation of an actual, rather than mimicked, criminal act, and if it is not itself criminal (if it is, we already have laws to cover it) there is always a subjective judgment to be made about whether it is offensive.

Free speech does not give anyone the right to abuse other people, obviously - that's not speech, it's action! Any crime behind images must be prosecuted, clearly. If images are illegal, they should be removed. But in practical terms, it is very difficult to do so. In the meantime, or regarding images that are not illegal but unpleasant, people who don't want to stumble across them can use filtering software.

As for 'if an adult doesn't remember to re-enable it' - well, an adult will likely get burgled if they don't remember to lock their house! The adult had better take responsibility and stop being flaky if it matters to them. And children won't work round the software if adults set it up sensibly with (a) an unguessable password and (b) no other accounts on the same computer that are not filtered.

Just as you don't let your three-year-old play on the motorway, you don't let your six-your-old wander unsupervised around the internet. We can sell computers with filtering enabled, like we sell highchairs with straps fitted. It's up the parent to use them, and much as we might like to protect other people's children, sometimes we just can't.

There are mechanisms for protection. We can't stop all internet crime or depictions any more than we can stop all other crime.

I am not saying there should be internet porn - but it's not a special case. Where things are illegal, they must be stopped if we can stop them. Where they are not, anyone is free to try to get the law changed. But if we want complete control of what anyone can access on their computer, the only route is, like China, to have our own version of the internet with no international material. I for one would NOT want that - it would undo all the good the internet does.

Of course I don't think you shouldn't be shocked because you weren't shocked five years ago! I just mean it's hardly a new problem and I'm surprised it has taken this long for anyone who regularly uses the internet to come across it. If anything, that makes it less ubiquitous than I thought it was.
Enid Richemont said…
I am totally with Sue Price on this issue. There is far too much 'prettiness' and self delusion in this freedom of speech argument, and the kids these images will harm are not the ones whose parents will set up intelligent blocks on the internet.
Yes I know the 'totalitarian governments' argument, and yes, it makes sense, but at LEAST make this stuff extremely difficult to access.
C.J.Busby said…
I agree with Dan about the damaging effects of racism, twisted Daily Mail coverage of asylum seekers, and the general problem of the hate press - it's all related - this is 'speech' with effects and speech that shouts louder than the speech of those it oppresses so 'freedom of speech' arguments as if it were a level playing field just miss the point. I'm afraid the burning Titians was me rather than Sue, probably did get carried away there. But we do have a law about 'incitement to (racial) hatred' which can be used to prosecute, for example, extremist anti-semitic speech/publications. And this seems to be OK with most people - we're not especially worried it will lead to a totalitarian nightmare. The key is that in a democratic system, such laws can be debated and discussed and decided by the majority, in a sensible manner, and if a government tird to push it beyond what most people agreed with, there would be protest. China has censorship because it's a totalitarian regime, it isn't a totalitarian regime because it has censorship.

Pauline Fisk said…
Late at night [at least for me]. Travelling round the country at the minute so lots of things I'd like to say but a bit rushed, I'm afraid. So glad to have such an interesting debate though, and so much more, I'm sure, we all could say.

Three things, though, I do want to pick up on.

1. Erotica, Dan, definitely isn't the same thing as what I was writing about, ie. violent and hateful activities that undermine the equality of women and their right, and the rights of their children, to live free of violence.

2. You may well have reason to be baffled, Stroppy Author, but I'm glad about how shocked I was and would wish that five years down the line [whatever else I've seen] I'd continue to be shocked. It's an appropriate reaction.

3. No, we most definitely shouldn't shut ourselves up in our nice little safe walled gardens. I'm with Sue on doing what we can to change things. Which leads neatly on to...

3. What about our role as writers in all of this? As I said above, '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?' etc. etc.
Pauline Fisk said…
Why listen to me? I can't even count to four. Sorry about that!
Leslie Wilson said…
A few years ago now, I was part of a group from our Quaker meeting who supported a friend, Liz Longhurst, at the retrial of the man who murdered her daughter Jane. The murderer had been consuming online porn, and it had fed fantasies he possessed of strangling a woman and having sex with her dead body. There was a whole community out there, who were co-operating in feeding each others fantasies. I think this is a grey area, in a way, because it shows how crime can be encouraged as well as committed by online porn. You may say that not all who view such images go on to commit crimes like Graham Coutt's - which is true. However, there are a lot of people out there who seem to think it is OK and healthy to nurture such fantasies. I totally agree with Sue about 'liberty.' We don't have liberty to spread racial hatred, and maybe there should be a ban on hate- speech against others in our society - like the disabled. But - especially as the grandmother of three boys - I do think the porn situation should be addressed. There will always be nasty stuff out in the world, but we should consider, maybe, what we should do to limit it?
Nick Green said…
The power of memes is truly terrifying in that it's still effectively unmeasured; no-one truly knows the long-term consequences of a society in which ideas (such as violent sex/porn) can travel so far and wide so swiftly, and with such little deterrence. In the past, society had in-built immune systems to this sort of thing: the disapproval of peers, the social norm that frowned on certain practices.

This 'immune system' has now been circumvented by the internet; memes can now travel freely and unchecked, like antibiotic-resistant bugs. It is impossible to say what the long-term damage might be, in terms of normalising grotesque practices.

As Alain De Botton has said, freedom is not the liberty to do whatever you want; it is being in a position to choose the best course of action.

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