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Wednesday, November 11, 2015 

Pornageddon: nope, still isn't upon us.

As alluded to on Friday, last Thursday saw the House of Lords discuss pornography.  Generally, the near cliche that the Lords is a more urbane place with a higher standard of debate is mostly correct.  Party politics rears its ugly head far less often, and the fact some members of the other place have been appointed due to their expertise in one field or another does mean those debates at least are often more evidence based.

Obviously there are exceptions, and last Thursday was one.  It couldn't really be otherwise when the venerable Bishop of Chester opened the debate and confessed that tempted as he has been on occasion, he was not especially familiar with pornography.  Two of his clergy have in the past been prosecuted for downloading images of child sexual abuse, he felt it necessary to admit, but rest assured they won't be practising their Christian faith again.  Despite this lack of hands-on experience with porn, he nevertheless knew that it was bad for the soul, as indeed did the majority of other participants in the debate.  Both he and Baroness Uddin (best known for being suspended from the Lords for 18 months over her "made wrongly and in bad faith" expenses claims) quoted the charity Naked Truth, which helps those who have become "addicted" to pornography.  Evidence you really can become addicted to porn isn't easy to come by, but Naked Truth, predictably enough run by God-botherers (or more pertinently by the God-bothering son of a child abuse image downloading God-bothering charity boss), know better.

Indeed, anyone looking for evidence in the debate beyond the anecdotal for all the evils ascribed to pornography would do so in vain, but when those anecdotes are so colourful and so potentially worrying it's difficult to get beyond them.  Lord Farmer woke anyone who might still have been snoozing up with his insistence that teenage girls, from the Home Counties no less, not some "inner city urban jungle", were presenting to at least one GP with incontinence as a consequence of being unable to say no to demands for anal sex.  It was pretty much left to Baroness Murphy (and Lord Scriven, to give him credit also), a cross-bencher and academic psychiatrist, to point out that definitive proof of harm caused by violent pornography, let alone the humble garden soft or hard varieties remains lacking.  The studies that have been carried out were often the equivalent of cold laboratory tests, not involving the raison d'etre of pornography, masturbation.  A recent meta-analysis of not always very good data suggested some young men already predisposed to violence would watch correspondingly violent porn, but that in itself was not evidence of causality.

Those, as they say, are the facts.  We know very little about any negative effects porn has, and even less about the impact post the internet making it available to everyone, the vast majority of it free.  At the same time, it's a reasonable conclusion to draw that the effects of violent pornography, and other violent media in general for that matter have been fairly minimal, considering how violent crime has fallen across the Western world in the past 20 years, criminologists having failed to reach any overarching reason as to why.

When newspapers then attempt to draw a link between hard cases involving both children and adults on the basis that the perpetrators all used violent pornography and/or child abuse images, they ought at the very least be highly cautious.  First that they are mixing up the viewing of material that is illegal with that which might not be, and second that it is all but impossible to quantify the true role, if any, the material had on the perpetrator.  Both the criminal and the police often look for something to blame or explain, when the more prosaic truth might be they were always inclined to such acts.  Jamie Reynolds, the killer of Georgia Williams, had clearly long had a strangulation fetish.  Whether his use of pornography that depicted similar encouraged or drove his desire to turn fantasy into reality only he can answer, and it is not always wise to trust the word of a killer.  What we do know is that others with similar fetishes, which include women just as much as it does men, view the same material and do not ever want to turn a fantasy into consensual reality, let alone go further.  Just as important in Reynolds' case would be that he repeatedly wrote short stories about killing and then violating women, and that he had also written a script which to a certain extent he followed when murdering Georgia.  Rather than just consuming extreme images, he had been actively projecting himself as someone who could commit such a crime by putting it down on paper.

The same caution must be urged when it comes to claims of a "dramatic proliferation of online images of abuse and violent sexual acts" and "the huge increase in individuals who are accessing it".  Unlike with drugs, where there have long been reliable surveys alongside statistics on arrests and convictions, we don't have any real baseline figure of those accessing images of abuse, and so nothing solid on which to compare the numbers now being presented as showing a huge increase.  Even the merest scratching of the surface of online paedophilia necessitates visiting the dark web, and beyond that outright illegality lies.  The suggestion there are 50,000 to 60,000 individuals in the UK sharing abuse images online sounds as though it could be right, but there is no reason to believe that is any more or less than the number that have been involved for years.  More creditable is there has been a proliferation of images of abuse, but this is understandable when digital cameras and smartphones have made capturing abuse all the easier.  We should be equally critical about the alarm over "sexting" among teenagers, but the sharing of those images and the rise of "revenge porn" adds another possible explanation to the reported increase.

It would of course be lovely if we could, in the words of Baroness Murphy, not be so "virulent about an issue that we hardly know anything about".  We could also quote Myles Jackman, as Lord Scriven did, that “Pornography is the canary in the coalmine of free speech: it is the first freedom to die".  That has more than a ring of truth to it, but it's also the case that bad as the current law against "extreme" pornography is, it would be futile if not impossible for the government to follow through on its pledge during the election campaign to block porn sites that refuse to put in place age verification.  Pornageddon, whether it be in the form of good middle class teenage girls from Tunbridge Wells becoming incontinent from anal sex, or the construction of a great filth firewall, is not about to descend on us.  What we could do with is more in the way of evidence, but then as a nation we've always preferred to have a panic rather than take a step back.  Video nasty, anyone?

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