When a president or prime minister personally announces a new moral crackdown, rather than leaving it to the justice or home affairs secretary to announce a law proposal or action plan, you know something is afoot: either there is an election not far away, or a need to divert public attention from intractable economic problems, or perhaps a runaway media-stoked moral panic is making it imperative for whoever is in charge to look like a leader not a follower.
While British Prime Minister David Cameron need not face the electorate until early 2015, it has been speculated that his recent declaration of a triple-pronged attack on internet pornography was an attempt to bolster his flagging appeal to women voters; if so, he will need to worry about antagonising male ones, as this is an issue deeply split on gender lines. And, as the likely impact of Cameron’s policies on children and heretics alike will be significant, we too will need to pay attention to gender.
Cameron’s proposals, announced in a speech to the NSPCC, one of the most aggressive lobby organisations against “child sexual abuse” in the UK, were as follows:
- Opting-in: By 2014, all UK Internet users would be required to register, or “opt-in”, for access to porn sites. Failure to comply would mean being automatically blocked from such sites by filters which would have to be installed.
- Search terms aimed at finding child pornography online would be blacklisted by the police with a view to Google and other search engines blocking them.
- Possessing depictions of simulated rape would be made illegal. This would include online access to them.
The easiest of these three prongs to sell politically was of course the one avowedly aimed at curbing paedophilia by blocking access to child porn. Technically, as many were quick to point out, it is not so easy. In addition to requiring the reluctant cooperation of the big internet corporations, the search terms themselves would be a challenge: while an expression like “hardcore Lolita” or “xxx Lolita” might be thought unambiguously to indicate a search for one thing only, what about plain “Lolita”? Would even Cameron want to ban access to literary critiques of Nabokov’s classic novel? It was also noted that most child porn is accessed through peer-to-peer networking rather than through ordinary searches. Nevertheless, I do not doubt that search-term blocking of this kind would have a tremendously oppressive impact on younger minor-attracted people in particular. An easy prediction is that it would have the effect of making any juvenile eye-candy, no matter how mild and legal, appear be out of bounds, a message that would be reinforced, we were told, by “splash screens” sternly warning searchers they were trying to find illegal material and, by implication, letting it be known Big Brother was watching them. This would only succeed in promoting anxiety, fear and depression in those targeted, while doing absolutely nothing to stop any real child abuse.
As for the simulated rape measure, this would extend recent legislation against “extreme pornography” (sections 63 to 67 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008) and appears to be in response to concern over an alleged explosion of rape porn recently. I have no idea whether this really is a rapidly expanding phenomenon, but the possibility is not to be dismissed lightly. In recent weeks, and possibly as a “backlash” against steadily growing female power in society, there have been some disturbing signs of truly vicious misogyny in Britain. One woman was subjected to a torrent of graphic rape and death threats for the heinous crime of campaigning to have a female face – that of novelist Jane Austen – featured on the £10 bank note. A female member of parliament who supported her came in for similarly vicious trolling. This is horrible, totally inexcusable, behaviour perpetrated by a minority of extremists, but I suspect it reflects a much more widespread feeling among men that feminism in general has gone far enough and that the specifically anti-sexual agenda of a powerful strand within feminism has gone much too far.
Against this background, let us now consider the remaining prong of Cameron’s proposals, the opt-in measure. This was far and away the most controversial idea, prompting a storm of debate, with a great many men, especially, in fierce opposition. In one newspaper’s online poll voting against the measure was running at treble the strength of support for it when I looked. While freedom of expression was always going to be the salient rhetorical trope in this, the fact that men rather than women are keenest on such freedom where porn is concerned suggests that the underlying battle is over male sexuality per se, not just over who is allowed to see what.
The rationale for the opting-in measure was child protection, of course. Forced to declare themselves as porn users if they wanted to access porn online, many might be deterred from opting in; and if fewer people allow access to porn on their computers, fewer children will be exposed to it. A key part of the theory is the belief that children are “innocent” and have no interest of their own in online sex – or, if they do, it is a sign of their “corruption” and must be stopped. As might be expected, such views were implicit in a recent report by the NSPCC on juvenile “sexting”, but some of the findings from focus group studies commissioned for the report were interesting nevertheless.
Up to a point, the researchers did the right thing for a change: they actually spoke to kids, rather than their parents or teachers. They went into schools and asked youngsters aged 13-14 directly about their experience of sexting. There was also some focus group work with younger kids aged 10-11 but this was less revealing as the researchers lost their bottle: they did not dare, or thought it “inappropriate”, to ask them directly about sexual issues, preferring to stick to “aspects of digital life”. As for what sexting means, the researchers said it “describes the use of technology to share personal sexual content”, which might mean text, or still photos showing partial nudity, or explicit video of full-on sex. The most common means of sharing were said to be mobile phones, Skype and social network sites.
A key finding, in the words of the report, was that “sexting is part of young people’s lives and it is not something that is shocking or surprising to them. All of the attendees in the groups were aware [of] instances of sexting among their peers…” When prompted by a guess that 50% of 14-year-olds had seen pornography most boys felt this was a massive underestimation, with one boy declaring “there is no boy in this year that doesn’t look at porn”. And the boys did not think they had been harmed by it. The only thing that really worried them was being caught using it by disapproving adults. As for how they used sexting, boys described it as a tactic in the dating game: they would ask a girl for a sexy photo of herself as part of establishing their interest and getting a relationship going. The researchers judged that boys seemed not to view practices around sexting as predatory and malicious: they were just “trying their luck”.
None of this need surprise us. The picture is a far cry from innocence in need of protection. As regards the younger kids, the researchers failed to uncover any scandal needing to be addressed by censorious measures: their “digital life” apparently did not include being exposed accidentally to porn or to unwanted sexual propositions.
As I said, though, we need to pay attention to gender. In the words of the report, “Girls, in general, had a negative impression of pornography and felt it influenced boys in terms of both expectations of how females looked and also what they viewed as ‘normal’ sexual activity.” However, that does not mean they are uninterested in sex and the erotic. The report also said, “an interesting discussion with girls that showed a gender difference was to explore whether they had read ‘erotica’ such as 50 Shades of Grey. While those admitting reading such books were in a minority, it was certainly something that had touched these girls’ lives and it was something they were happy to talk about.”
So, what should we make of this? Feminists tend to scream blue murder over men who ask their partners to shave their genitals (making them look more like little girls!), try a bit of ass-fucking and generally do it like porn stars. And they resent the fact that men are less keen on women who are fat, ugly and frigid. But is it so unreasonable for men (or boys!) to “try their luck”? In modern society, thanks not least to feminism, refusal is always an option, as proven by the fact that few boys, or even men, get anything like as lucky as they might wish!
We have to distinguish, do we not, between the feminazis who want to impose their own man-hatred on all girls and women, on the one hand, and more reasonable concerns on the other. Misogyny and cyber-bullying are unpleasant realities, as noted above. Sexting by teenagers can and has resulted in tragic cases of suicide after sexual images have been re-posted on social media sites along with abusive comments. The question then becomes, what do we do about it? Cyber-bullying seems at first sight the perfect argument for repressive policies such as those proposed by Cameron, which would have us sweep all public expression of sexual interest under the carpet, and repress all sexuality outside of “loving and committed relationships” in adulthood, giving no scope whatever for youngsters to have any kind of sex life, even with their peers. Indeed, any form of sexual activity between two 15-year-olds or younger peers was explicitly made illegal in 2003 in the UK.
There is a better way than Cameron’s, though, starting (so far as public policy is concerned) not with teenagers but with kindergarten kids, and not with sexual repression but with learning the socially acceptable expression of sexuality. That, however, must be for another day.