Have you p-p-picked up a porn pass? In April the UK government plans to introduce – or at least plans to announce a definite date for the introduction of – the world’s first ‘porn ban’, which will block all access to porn websites nationwide unless the user can prove they’re 18 or older. One such proof will be a ‘porn pass’, available at your local newsagent for £4.99 per card, one for each device, your age checked by the seller. Though that will only be necessary, apparently, if you don’t feel comfortable submitting your name and driving licence or passport details online. I say ‘apparently’ because as well as not knowing precisely when it’s due to come in, no one is completely sure how the porn ban is going to work. Most people – 76 per cent of the population, according to YouGov – have never heard of the ban, and this despite the fact that the UK is the second largest consumer of porn in the world after the United States, according to the website PornHub (which gets more than 100 billion views per annum). Per capita, we’re the largest. That’s an awful lot of people about to be caught with their pants down.
Presumably part of the reason the government has been so quiet about its world-leading initiative – which derives from the 2017 Digital Economy Act – is that it’s feeling shy. A policy which, though framed to prevent children from accessing inappropriate material, will predominantly affect adults presents particular difficulties, compounded by the fact that it’s still not really admitted in public that watching porn is something lots of adults like to do. (It’s hard to imagine Theresa May gearing up to speak on the matter. Or Philip Hammond. Boris Johnson perhaps, but he’s off the pitch.) And yet the craftier Tories, if any still exist, may see this as an advantage: the party can adopt its traditional, electorally friendly posture in defence of the sanctity of childhood – the same YouGov poll found that 67 per cent approved of the basic principle underlying the ban – while stifling by embarrassment any dissenting grown-ups, who will effectively be challenged to make a public stand on their right to masturbate anonymously over child-polluting videos in the privacy of their own homes. This is a brand of British hypocrisy practised with peculiar efficiency by the tabloids, and so it’s no surprise to find the Sun helpfully referring to porn users as ‘randy internet lurkers’, while explaining to its readers how to navigate the ban.
This same bind may also allow the Tories to escape serious criticism of the policy itself, which seems doomed to fail, while remaining on the statute book for want of anyone brave enough to repeal it. Teenagers will find the ban easy enough to dodge, simply by tricking the web into thinking they’re accessing it from outside the UK, or by switching to social media channels, which the government isn’t proposing to submit to the same strictures. It’s in any case not clear that the appointed regulator, the British Board of Film Classification, experienced as it is in distinguishing an 18 from a PG, has the capacity to ensure compliance across thousands of websites. The darker, wilder corners of the internet might become more populated as a result, which can hardly have been the intention. And all this before we even consider the risks posed by asking millions of adults to register themselves as porn users: an unreassuring precedent is the 2015 data hack of Ashley Madison, a website facilitating extra-marital affairs, which released the details of 35 million clients into the public domain. The government has left the task of constructing and managing the age verification processes at the heart of its strategy to the porn industry itself. MindGeek, the monopoly behind PornHub, RedTube and YouPorn, among others (free sites that between them make around $500 million a year), has devised a system called AgeID – a log-in requiring the input of passport or driving licence details just once as proof of age – which will apparently (that word again) be rolled out across the web. They say they are anticipating 25 million UK sign-ups. Jim Killock, of the campaign group Open Rights, has said that it’s like ‘giving all your data to the pornographic equivalent of Mark Zuckerberg’. (The Zuckerberg in question is a German called Fabian Thylmann. MindGeek, naturally, is based in Luxembourg.) The AgeID people say there’ll be no record of viewing habits attached to an individual’s account, and that they won’t share the data they gather, but the government isn’t mandating that they or any other rival verification system sign up to an agreed set of privacy standards, to vouch for the security of the information they hold about users’ identities – only that they abide by the GDPR. So the system’s good to go, backed by a porn baron’s word. Fingers crossed.
There’s a bigger question here, which is why the government is doing what it’s doing, or rather what it thinks porn is doing to children (which in its definition includes 16 and 17-year-olds, who are over the age of consent). It describes pornography when used by children as a ‘demerit good’ (a product or service that negatively affects the consumer): ‘evidence suggests that accessing porn can be detrimental to children’s development and children are likely to be not sufficiently informed to make optimal consumption decisions.’ It’s hard to know what to make of arguments like these (one report notes in passing that the Netherlands ‘takes the view that evidence definitively proving the harmful effect of sexualised content on minors is not available’, and that this opinion is shared by the UK Children’s Commissioner, whom the government is ignoring). What does seem pretty clear is that porn can have a corrosive effect on adults and their relationships; in his uncategorisable book Tunnel Vision (Faber, £12.99), Kevin Breathnach describes his internet porn addiction in highly non-arousing terms: ‘I had been presiding over the destruction of my own sexuality’ is his final conclusion. Equally, it doesn’t seem especially desirable for young children to be watching porn – in May 2015, 13 per cent of all children aged 6-14 who spent time online watched some, according to the government – and we know quite a bit about its effect on boys, or young men, who watch more of it, and the consequent expectations created for girls, or young women, who watch less of it. But how do we get from that to the principle of a porn ban?
Implicit in a lot of commentary on this issue is the idea that we live in radically new times; that a halcyon period of childhood innocence is over and that major action must be taken to reverse the rot. But Breathnach also writes about buying copies of the Sun aged 12 or 13 in Ireland, in the summer of 2000, storing them in a secret place on a bit of scrubland he would visit with a friend at the weekends, the two of them poring over the musty page 3 girls. ‘One day that summer,’ he writes, ‘bored of our ritualised looking, we improvised a way of rehearsing intercourse.’ They dug a hole, laid down some perforated cardboard over it, and ‘selected a favourite picture’. ‘Peter turned around. I got down on the ground, checked to see if he was looking, took my dick out of my trousers, and fucked the wet black hole.’ Around the same age I also bought copies of the Sun with my friends, as well as the Star and the People. It may have been the same summer. There was nothing to stop us making our purchases. We too had a secret place to keep them. When we became too ashamed they were burned. I didn’t fuck a hole in the ground, but only because I didn’t think to.
Children aren’t innocent, only more or less alert. They live in an adult world, and adults are careless of that fact. My sex education, if you could call it one, was a mixture of hints and half-truths, whispers and wayward glances, intended and accidental – at porn mags on the top shelf, or in a friend’s dad’s magazine rack, at porn videos lined up in rental stores, or in a relative’s TV cabinet drawer. It was an education defined by absences and guesswork, as much as by obtrusions and illicit knowledge. The formal teaching I received was shoddy. I remember conceiving of blow jobs as the purposeful application of air to the genitals. The first time I masturbated, I had to look up in the dictionary ‘wanking’ (the word I’d overheard), ‘masturbation’, ‘orgasm’, ‘ejaculation’ and ‘semen’ before I knew how to go about it and what to expect. Then I felt guilty about it for years. The first time I saw footage of people actually having sex – it was on TV, not online, and my friend switched the channel without warning – I remember thinking: Oh, so that’s what it looks like. Previously I’d had the impression that it was very top-down, something like laying a sausage in a hot dog bun. The most misogynistic (and homophobic) environment I’ve ever inhabited was my school – and I don’t think online porn bore much of the responsibility. Simpler if it did.
I’ve recently been reading You Always Remember the First Time, a collection of essays about losing one’s virginity and the build-up to it, edited by B.S. Johnson and published in 1975. The scary thing isn’t how different everything is, but how familiar: people fumbling their way to some kind of awareness, thwarted, misdirected, uselessly anguished. This in turn tallies with the accounts given by the contributors to Simon Szreter and Kate Fisher’s endlessly fascinating oral history, Sex before the Sexual Revolution: Intimate Life in England, 1918-63 (2010), who testified to an opaque regime of sexual knowledge, structured by gender and class distinctions, with men, equipped with a muddle of information, expected to take the initiative with women, who had less information, or thought they did. If, after roughly a century, we can still see clear lines of continuity running down to the present, in spite of the sexual revolution and the institution of sex education in schools nearly eighty years ago (in 1942), then we’ve been doing a consistently poor job of getting people to adulthood in full possession of the facts of life.
Rather than instituting an unworkable porn ban, then, it might be worth asking why children don’t understand sex, or understand it in the wrong ways. Parents are still reluctant to talk to their children about it: in the most recent National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, carried out over 2010-12 and known as Natsal-3, only 27 per cent of young men and 43 per cent of young women aged 16-24 cited their parents as a source of information about sex. This has pushed responsibility onto schools, which haven’t been up to the task. Natsal-3 found that 68 per cent of young men and 70 per cent of young women felt they had their first sexual encounters not knowing enough about what they were doing. A year later, in 2013, Ofsted inspectors concluded that sex education required improvement in more than a third of UK schools. Successive surveys of schoolchildren over the years have supported this verdict. One conducted in 2018 reported that 52 per cent of students wanted more time to be spent on sex education and 34 per cent wanted it to be taken more seriously; 30 per cent had been given no instruction on sexual pleasure; 25 per cent had been taught nothing about porn; 23 per cent had been given no guidelines on healthy relationships; 22 per cent nothing about LGBT issues; 12 per cent nothing about HIV.
To give the government some credit, it knows this. In 2017 it made it compulsory for all secondary schools – not just state secondaries – to teach sex education, and for primary school children to be taught about ‘relationships’, if not sex, from the age of four. It has talked about the need to put consent, porn and LGBT issues in prominent place. But there is something truly perverse about stressing the complexity of human sexuality and promising deeper engagement with it while at the same time placing a ban on the images and footage which should form part of the discussion. Something perverse, too, about the government’s continued insistence on a parental ‘right’ to withdraw children from sex education – though it has also stipulated that from the age of 15 children can opt in against their parents’ wishes. This month six hundred children were taken out of Parkfield Primary School in Birmingham by their parents after they were taught about the existence of gay people. There have been angry demonstrations outside the building, with placards attacking ‘indoctrination’. Andrea Leadsom said charmingly by way of response that parents should decide when their children are ‘exposed to that information’, delusions of control being central to her political philosophy. It makes me think that porn might well provide some welcome and enjoyable instruction for all those kids kept out of sex education, especially the gay ones. But if they are fucked up by it, it won’t just be the porn that’s to blame.