David Cameron’s Crusade Against Porn: The REAL News Story out of England This Week

I’m sure none of you missed the important news story coming out of England earlier this week.  No, not the one where British sweetheart Kate Middleton delivered a royal baby.  The other important story.  The one where British Prime Minister David Cameron delivered a speech about cracking down on internet pornography.

On Monday, Conservative PM Cameron announced his new plans to take action against “vile images of abuse that pollute minds and cause crime” in order to “protect our children and their innocence”.  His concerns, as he outlined, are two-fold:

  1. The proliferation, via the internet, of illegal images of child pornography.
  2. That children have easier access to pornography these days, thanks to the internet, some of which is “so extreme that it is distorting their view of sex and relationships”.

You can read the full transcript of his speech here, in which he outlines some plans of action he has taken/is taking in order to combat these problems.

The man himself.  (Photo copyright World Economic Forum.)

The man himself. (Photo copyright World Economic Forum.)

Firstly, he is working closely with  the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) to track down illegal and abusive images of child pornography and block access to them.  This is a daunting task, as the current known list of images (yes, they keep lists) are scattered across various databases.  Therefore, the first step is to merge these multiple lists into one master database overseen by law enforcement.

But the next stumbling block is the little matter that there is no easy way to find and identify these images without relying on individuals to simply report them when and if they come across them.  Since I’m guessing the pedophiles aren’t tripping over themselves to reveal their secrets, Cameron has called upon the ISPs themselves to assist with the effort to find and identify this content to preemptively block it from web searches.  (Once this is done, Cameron also puts forth the quaint idea of providing helpful splash pages with a warning that the content that used to be located there is illegal, and even providing contact information for charities that can provide anonymous support for overcoming a porn addiction.)

Before I go on, let me pause here to emphasize that I absolutely support the effort to take action against this inexcusably despicable practice of child abuse.

However.  I’m not convinced that Cameron’s efforts are the only or even the best way to tackle this problem, and something really makes my skin crawl about the way he bullies, guilts, and threatens (my emphasis below):

So I have a very clear message for Google, Bing, Yahoo! and the rest: you have a duty to act on this, and it is a moral duty. I simply don’t accept the argument that some of these companies have used to say that these searches should be allowed because of freedom of speech.  …  If CEOP give you a blacklist of internet search terms, will you commit to stop offering up any returns on these searches? If the answer is yes, good. If the answer is no and the progress is slow or non-existent, I can tell you we’re already looking at legislative options so that we can force action in this area.

There has been a rash of criticism of Cameron’s announcement over the last few days, and nearly all of it is wary of his methods here.  There is something frighteningly authoritarian about a political leader who refused to support a ban on topless “Page 3” models which are easily accessible in the widely circulated tabloid The Sun, but who demands that ISPs abide by a necessary moral duty to restrict access to content (that they do not directly produce, by the way, unlike The Sun).

However, as the second half of Cameron’s plan reveals, he is less concerned with the fact that young teenagers can easily see The Sun’s Page 3 on a public bus or in the schoolyard, and more concerned with the fact that they may be using their mobile phone to access pornographic images (of any and all kinds, I suppose).

She could be accessing porn! In broad daylight! On her phone! And her parents would never even know!!! (Photo copyright Jeffrey Pott.)

She could be accessing porn! In broad daylight! On her phone! And her parents would never even know!!! (Photo copyright Jeffrey Pott.)

Cameron does express the valid issue that the internet is still very new and feels very ungovernable, and all of us are still figuring out exactly how (and even if) we ought to impose restrictions on its use.  More than once, he reminds his listeners that he is not just a politician, but also a father, and that he feels a responsibility as a parent to protect children from the overwhelming amount of pornographic material that is easily accessible outside of mom and dad’s watchful eyes.

Therefore, he has joined together with the ISPs to impose “family-friendly” filters on all public Wi-Fi networks.  Also, going forward, family-friendly filters will be automatically on for all new internet subscribers, and the account holders will need to deliberately opt-out if they wish to have the option to access to whatever Mr. Cameron and his team deem pornographic.  In addition, within the next year, all 19 million current internet subscribers in the UK will be contacted by their respective ISPs and will have to make a deliberate decision to opt-in or out of the filters.  Cameron also hopes to instate lessons on internet safety into the national educational curriculum.

I see some good parts and some bad parts with this second half of Cameron’s plan.  A primary concern this week has been a question as to how it will be determined which phrases will be blacklisted from search engines (because it is associated with child pornography), and what content will be blocked by the new internet filters (because it is generally pornographic).  Cameron does, however, address these concerns in his speech, suggesting that “If someone is typing in ‘child’ and ‘sex’ there should come up a list of options: do you mean child sex education? Do you mean child gender?”  Furthermore, he acknowledges that

there are lots of charities and other organisations which provide vital online advice and support that many young people depend on, and we need to make sure that the filters do not, even unintentionally, restrict this helpful and often educational content. So I’ll be asking the UK Council for Child Internet Safety to set up a working group to ensure this doesn’t happen, as well as talking to parents about how effective they think that these filter products we’re talking about really are.

Just doing a little research to see what the search engines think of Cameron.  Yahoo! seems to be particularly responsive to political bullying.

Just doing a little research to see what the search engines think of Cameron. Yahoo! seems to be particularly responsive to political bullying.

Cameron concluded his speech with a brief statement about adjusting a loophole in the law so that it will now be illegal to possess “extreme” pornography that “is violent and that depicts simulated rape”.  (Producing such pornography already is illegal in the UK, but until now its possession was only illegal in Scotland.)

On the surface, these may seem like good measures.  As a feminist, I absolutely agree that the world would be a better place if there were less circulation of images that contribute to “[normalizing] sexual violence against women”.  But, I am also wary of anti-pornography legislation that refuses to engage with the thorny question of what precisely “pornography” is in their eyes.  They may “know it when they see it”, but I may see something different, and we must make greater efforts to have the difficult conversations about where exactly, as a society, we all agree to draw those lines.  In addition, I am also skeptical of giving so much power to a few select individuals who may or may not be qualified to make those discernments, and who may or may not be able to represent the interests of a diverse population.

This Film is Not Yet RatedA great example of  how something like this could go wrong is, on our side of the pond, the MPAA.  This is an organization which was allegedly established in order to protect our poor innocent youth from unsavory images on movie screens, and who have decided that horrific violence is okay (earning a R rating), but seeing some female pubic hair gets an NC-17 (which effectively bars your film from being seen, because corporate-run movie theaters dare not screen films with that rating).  I highly recommend This Film Is Not Yet Rated for more about that.

Other questions we want to ask Mr. Cameron this week include how will the government use the lists of internet subscribers who choose to opt-out of the family-friendly filters, why are we cracking down on “simulated rape” but not “simulated murder”, is there potential for these restrictions to have a negative impact on other genres of art, and, perhaps most importantly, what are the specific problems that Cameron is trying to address and are these methods really the best means of attacking the root of those problems?

As many of Cameron’s critics have pointed out this week, the fear that viewing pornography (even if it depicts simulated rape) directly influences men to commit sexual crimes dates back to the radical feminist anti-pornography movement championed by Andrea Dworkin in the 1980s.  However, there is little to no conclusive evidence that this is true.  Furthermore, although it’s absolutely true that some porn depicts violent, abusive, and misogynistic practices, it is also true that not all porn is bad porn.  In fact, many feminists argue that the best way to combat bad porn, is not to censor it, but to look at it, see what it does, reclaim the genre, and make new and better porn that displays new narratives and teaches better lessons.

I will conclude with a quote from ground-breaking film theorist Linda Williams.  Her book Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible”, now over 20 years old but in no way less relevant today, was the first book to write seriously about pornographic film as a legitimate subject of scholarly interest (my emphasis below):

While I would agree with anti-pornography feminists that pornography … offers exemplary symbolic representations of patriarchal power in heterosexual pleasure, and while I believe that a feminist critique of this power is crucial, I side with the anti-censorship feminists who hold that censorship of these pleasures offers no real solution to patriarchal violence and abuse.

Emma Waldron (Staff Writer, Rutgers University)
Emma WaldronEmma Waldron is a Rutgers alumna and currently works with first-year students as an academic advisor.  She spent her formative years in Boulder CO before relocating to the Garden State, and recently spent a year living in Bristol, England where she completed her MA in Performance Research.  Her research focuses on the concept of authentic identity, and her dissertation addressed issues of gender and musical performativity in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.  Emma has recently become vegan, and documents the transformation on her blog “I Am What I Eat”.  Emma spends a lot of time thinking about Judith Butler, iambic pentameter, vegan cookies, Ralph Waldo Emerson, sunshine, drag queens, Nordic larp, and tea.

2 responses to “David Cameron’s Crusade Against Porn: The REAL News Story out of England This Week

  1. Pingback: David Cameron’s Crusade Against Porn: The REAL News Story out of England… | Scotland4me Internet Magazine·

  2. Pingback: Tendentious Art and Political Games: The Olympics of Sochi & Berlin | Applied Sentience·

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