Iceland is set to become the first Western country to ban online pornography. The country is planning a step that other Western democracies are either too frightened or intellectually lazy to take. That exposure to pornography harms young minds is not in doubt, but many countries have lulled themselves into the misguided belief that access to porn is a human right, part and parcel of the freedoms they are constitutionally sworn to uphold.
Supporters of pornography dismiss those who want to ban it as ‘prudes’. But Iceland is run by a lesbian prime minister and its attitude towards sexuality is liberal and relaxed. The country’s reason for considering a ban is the fear that children are being exposed to harmful images right from a very young age—as early as 11 in many cases. Icelanders want to shield their young from material that depicts sex in a hateful or violent fashion. More and more studies indicate that watching pornography can affect men’s attitudes towards women by fuelling crazy fantasies that seek real-life outlets. Internet-porn addiction is also on the rise. Women are reporting more relationship problems caused by their partners’ bad porn habits.
Gender harmony and the sexual health of future generations, Iceland has decided, cannot be left to the depredations of the porn industry. As a gender specialist at Iceland University said recently, if society fails to decide what is permissible and what is not, it would let “the porn industry define our sexuality” and “why would we want to do that?”
In the context of Iceland’s proposed ban, Dr Gail Dines, a professor of sociology at Wheelock College in Boston and the author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, was quoted in The Guardian as saying: “We are not saying you see porn and go out and rape, but we are saying it shifts the way people think about sexual relationships, about intimacy, about women. A lot of people really don’t realise what porn looks like online. If a 12-year-old searches for porn on Google, he doesn’t get some Playboy pictures, he gets graphic brutal hardcore images 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 anal prolapses… Children are traumatised by what they see. You develop your sexual template around puberty, and if you see brutal porn on an industrial scale, then can anyone really suggest that exposure has no effect? Because, if so, then we will have to totally rethink an awful lot of branches of science and psychology.”
According to BBC research published this month, the number of detected crimes of people in England and Wales accessing illegal images of children has gone up by 48 per cent over 2007–11. An average of 35,000 indecent images of children are found everyday by the British police. It is mysterious how this activity deemed beyond the pale by all cultures, illegal and banned, remains freely available online.
The lack of debate on pornography is equally strange. Can you recall the last time you read an editorial or column on internet pornography? Famous feminists have written classic tracts on pornography (calling it ‘the last refuge of patriarchy’), exposing how it eroticises the subjugation of women, but their arguments have not passed into popular consciousness.
In India, the Hindu right, which froths hysterical about the moral turpitude of jeans and Valentine’s Day, blunders around comically disrupting exhibitions of nude paintings, and thunders against sex education in schools for corrupting the morals of the young, remains silent on monstrous indecencies online. In the West, the conservative right has traditionally taken an anti-porn stance to protect young people from being irredeemably warped by it; to prevent women being portrayed as receptacles for male organs and fluids; and to preserve the institution of marriage and traditional values. You may not agree with them, but at least they have a viewpoint.
As a society, we have turned things on their head. Why should parents have to buy special software to block pornographic websites? It is the porn consumer who should have to go out and get a licence to access it. Why do opponents of online pornography have to justify themselves? It is the men who watch acts of depravity involving children who should explain why they do it. How did we reach a stage where online pornography is a given—without the industry ever having had to explain or justify this position—while an effort to eliminate or limit it now would require an intensely mobilised campaign?
Admittedly, it is not clear how a ban would work technically. Iceland is considering web filters, the blocking of certain addresses and/or making it a crime to use credit cards to access pay-per-view pornography. But I am sure an effective method can be found. When it is, it will be a relief to see privacy and intimacy restored to sex, and children spared the sight of scenes they were never meant to see.