Comment: It’s time to regulate porn

By Diana Johnson MP, Dan Jarvis MP and Helen Jones MP

It is fair to say that governments around the world struggle with technological change. The debates about privacy, personal information and privacy are testament to this. But there is one form of media that is largely absent from these debates: porn. It is not something we can continue to ignore.

The internet has made porn almost ubiquitous. In the UK porn sites get more clicks that social media or news sites and viewing is not limited to adults. One study found that one-third of ten-year olds had viewed explicit pornography and 81% of 14- to 16-year-olds regularly access explicit photographs and footage on their home computers. Last year, in a comprehensive study, the deputy children's commissioner concluded there was "a high correlation between exposure to pornography and it influencing children's behaviour and attitudes". Such a conclusion was thrown into sharp relief this month when it emerged a 12-year-old boy had raped his nine-year-old sister after watching porn on the internet.

Last year the prime minister, rightly, attempted to take on the taboo around regulating porn. He promised a range of measures including internet filters to help parents keep their children off porn sites and legislation to ensure "that [pornographic] videos streamed online in the UK are subject to the same rules as those sold in shops".

This is important. Previous attempts to limit what it available on the internet have tended to focus – quite rightly – on child abuse. This battle is by no means won. In fact online viewing of child abuse is increasing with the police describing 'more extreme, sadistic and violent' content. But internet companies have started to act to restrict access to sites showing child abuse.

Increasingly, child abuse is either shared peer-to-peer or via the dark web. But that doesn't mean that what is still easily accessed from a simple Google search shouldn't concern us. The web still contains thousands of legal extreme porn sites depicting rape, gratuitous violence against women and actresses who clearly look underage.

None of this is allowed in hard-copy pornography obtained through licensed sex shops. This type of pornography is regulated by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). They take out material deemed to be 'harmful' including 'material likely to encourage an interest in sexually abusive activity which may include adults role-playing as non-adults' and 'the portrayal of sexual activity which involves real or apparent lack of consent'. This was the material the prime minister promised to ban last year.

The campaign to clamp down on extreme porn has been a long one. Much of the credit must go to Liz Longhurst who began her campaign after her daughter, Jane, was murdered by a man obsessed with pornography containing asphyxiation. This led, in 2008, to a ban on pornography containing realistic depictions of life-threatening injury, serious injury to anus/breasts/genitals, bestiality or necrophilia. While this was a good first step, it is now clear this doesn't cover all violent and abusive porn. Research from Rape Crisis South London, of the top 50 porn sites accessed from a Google search for 'rape porn' showed that 78% advertise simulated rape of under-18-year-olds; 59% rape content involving the woman bleeding; and 44% rape involving incest.

All this content is depicting criminal acts for sexual gratification. This can be dangerous – there is an increasing body of evidence that this type of pornography normalises sexual violence. Cameron's intervention came after it emerged that both Stuart Hazell and Mark Bridger had been viewing extreme pornography before murdering April Jones and Tia Sharp respectively.

A year after the prime minister's announcement we have Clause 16 of the criminal justice and courts bill which will add 'realistic' depictions of rape to the list of banned forms of pornography. While this is a welcome step, we need to be clear that this falls a long way short of equating offline and online restrictions. The government's proposal will not ban violent pornography that doesn't include penetration (and it's important to remember we're only talking about hardcore porn, not normal films, documentaries, or art). Nor will the government's plans ban videos where the actress is portrayed as being a child or even depictions of rape which a normal, non-aroused, individual would not find realistic.

This means that hardcore porn showing a woman being raped at gunpoint –crying and protesting throughout – could avoid the ban if it was badly acted (and, let's face it, isn’t all porn badly acted?). It would also mean that a video of a woman bound and gagged while being assaulted would not be banned unless it also showed penetration, regardless of how realistic it seemed. Nor would it do anything about the increasing number of videos portraying underage sex. These are pornographic videos featuring women over-18 who look far younger.

Normally these women will be very small, totally flat-chested and have all traces of pubic hair removed. Their immaturity is emphasised by clothes associated with pre-teens and childlike behaviour and speech. These girls are intended to look pre-pubescent. This is often highlighted by pairing them with male actors in their 50s or 60s who they will have sex with. It looks just like child abuse but it's perfectly legal and readily accessible from Google.

Banning such content would not be about criminalising porn-viewers, but it would be about preventing easy access to material which normalises sexual violence and abuse. Just as internet companies have acted to make it harder to access child abuse, they need to do the same for extreme porn. Politicians can set the agenda on this.

Regulating what people can watch will always be controversial. But the facts are startling. Pornography depicting porn and abuse for sexual gratification is readily available. It is being widely viewed, including by children. It has been linked to a string of heinous crimes and sexual violence within gangs is becoming normalised by reference to pornography. As the children's commissioner, Maggie Atkinson, has said: "We are living at a time when violent and sadistic imagery is readily available to very young children."

There is no easy answer to this problem. Building up resilience amongst children through up-to-date, age-appropriate sex and relationship education (SRE) is certainly part of the solution and it is incompressible why Michael Gove continues to refuse to make this compulsory. But SRE is not enough, and this is not just about children. There is a wider cultural question to be addressed about a society that tolerates the easy dissemination of pornography depicting extreme violence and abuse, usually against women.

Politicians of all parties need to stop being squeamish and step up to the task of addressing this. Equating online and offline restrictions would be a good place to start. The prime minister was right to promise this last year and he needs to have the courage to introduce it now.

Diana Johnson MP and Helen Jones MP are shadow Home Office ministers. Dan Jarvis MP is a shadow justice minister

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