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Laurie Penny: More sex education, please, and less censorship

Pornography is often used as an excuse to enact a wider scale clampdown.

Those who seek to win easy votes by legislating to protect children from pornography often fail to envisage the creativity of kids looking to get their hands on any smut at all. When I was in Year 8, if you went to a certain field behind the school and shouted a certain code-word halfway up a certain tree, a pulley would be lowered, at the end of which you would be allowed to glimpse, for a few wicked seconds, a picture of Anna Kournikova's bottom.

I know this because my superior spatial reasoning skills were enlisted in the design of the pulley system, in return for which I didn't get orange juice poured into my rucksack for a whole month. Kids will always find ways to get hold of dirty pictures - and politicians will invariably pitch for votes by trying to stop them.

On 11 October, David Cameron unveiled plans to rescue Britain's children from the swamp of filth seeping out of every node of the web by forcing internet service providers (ISPs) to offer an opt-in system for access to adult content. There isn't much new about these proposals - the main broadband providers already have opt-in services; the only change is that these will now be signalled more effectively.

The official line is that it is all for the sake of the children, but the government is being oddly slow to protect them from more material threats to their health and happiness. Child poverty numbers will rise by 400,000 as a result of present Conservative welfare policies, but the party prefers to embark on symbolic moral crusades that make for tub-thumping tabloid headlines and don't require any real investment. Promising to stop the scary internet from turning our children into depraved little filthwizards is a cheap and easy vote-winner - but the cost of such censorship may be very dear indeed, and not just to those of us who experience our erotic lives bathed in the loving glow of a computer screen.

The Conservatives' faith in filter systems to censor all morally unacceptable websites, and only those websites, approaches the superstitious. There is no magic purity net that can be dragged through cyberspace, and if there was I wouldn't trust Cameron to wield it. Instead, what does and does not constitute adult material will be entirely up to ISPs, angry parents, politicians and private interest groups.

If parents wish to stop their children seeing sphincters do things that sphincters shouldn't, they can easily instal personal filtering software. The imposition of a universal censorship system, however, invariably comes with an agenda.

Unbridled moil

When an Australian government blacklist of adult sites was released by activists, it was found to include many unsmutty sites that someone or other simply didn't want seen, including the website of a tour operator and that of a Queensland dentist. With no oversight, the authorities can, in theory, put any site they like on a banned list.

Pornography is often used as an excuse to enact censorship on a wider scale. This does not mean that pornography is not a problem; nor does it prove that an uncensored internet would be a happy pornotopia of unbridled erotic freedom. Most of the pornography available online, like most of the pornography available offline, is boring, depressing and sexist. With a few exceptions, the pornography production line is managed by a homogeneous, human-hating, profit-hungry industry that chews up the young and vulnerable and disgorges a spiritless procession of carved, shaved, deodorised bodies brutalising one another in pursuit of what the feminist writer Nina Power calls the "grim orgasm of unsmiling physical moil".

The porn industry, with its sterile trade in violent misogyny, is the problem - not pornography. Children will always look for information about sex, and it discredits our culture that sexual hypocrisy has made the porn industry the default place that young people go to learn about what goes where. This is why I am a defender of decent, unbiased, properly funded sex education, and will continue to fight for a world in which we speak honestly to children and adults about sexuality, contraception and sexual violence.

If we want children to grow up in a world in which they can love, learn and experiment without fear of abuse, more education, not more censorship, is the answer.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things .

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, This is plan B

Photo: Getty Images/AFP
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Is Yvette Cooper surging?

The bookmakers and Westminster are in a flurry. Is Yvette Cooper going to win after all? I'm not convinced. 

Is Yvette Cooper surging? The bookmakers have cut her odds, making her the second favourite after Jeremy Corbyn, and Westminster – and Labour more generally – is abuzz with chatter that it will be her, not Corbyn, who becomes leader on September 12. Are they right? A couple of thoughts:

I wouldn’t trust the bookmakers’ odds as far as I could throw them

When Jeremy Corbyn first entered the race his odds were at 100 to 1. When he secured the endorsement of Unite, Britain’s trade union, his odds were tied with Liz Kendall, who nobody – not even her closest allies – now believes will win the Labour leadership. When I first tipped the Islington North MP for the top job, his odds were still at 3 to 1.

Remember bookmakers aren’t trying to predict the future, they’re trying to turn a profit. (As are experienced betters – when Cooper’s odds were long, it was good sense to chuck some money on there, just to secure a win-win scenario. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnham’s odds improve a bit as some people hedge for a surprise win for the shadow health secretary, too.)

I still don’t think that there is a plausible path to victory for Yvette Cooper

There is a lively debate playing out – much of it in on The Staggers – about which one of Cooper or Burnham is best-placed to stop Corbyn. Team Cooper say that their data shows that their candidate is the one to stop Corbyn. Team Burnham, unsurprisingly, say the reverse. But Team Kendall, the mayoral campaigns, and the Corbyn team also believe that it is Burnham, not Cooper, who can stop Corbyn.

They think that the shadow health secretary is a “bad bank”: full of second preferences for Corbyn. One senior Blairite, who loathes Burnham with a passion, told me that “only Andy can stop Corbyn, it’s as simple as that”.

I haven’t seen a complete breakdown of every CLP nomination – but I have seen around 40, and they support that argument. Luke Akehurst, a cheerleader for Cooper, published figures that support the “bad bank” theory as well.   Both YouGov polls show a larger pool of Corbyn second preferences among Burnham’s votes than Cooper’s.

But it doesn’t matter, because Andy Burnham can’t make the final round anyway

The “bad bank” row, while souring relations between Burnhamettes and Cooperinos even further, is interesting but academic.  Either Jeremy Corbyn will win outright or he will face Cooper in the final round. If Liz Kendall is eliminated, her second preferences will go to Cooper by an overwhelming margin.

Yes, large numbers of Kendall-supporting MPs are throwing their weight behind Burnham. But Kendall’s supporters are overwhelmingly giving their second preferences to Cooper regardless. My estimate, from both looking at CLP nominations and speaking to party members, is that around 80 to 90 per cent of Kendall’s second preferences will go to Cooper. Burnham’s gaffes – his “when it’s time” remark about Labour having a woman leader, that he appears to have a clapometer instead of a moral compass – have discredited him in him the eyes of many. While Burnham has shrunk, Cooper has grown. And for others, who can’t distinguish between Burnham and Cooper, they’d prefer to have “a crap woman rather than another crap man” in the words of one.

This holds even for Kendall backers who believe that Burnham is a bad bank. A repeated refrain from her supporters is that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to give Burnham their 2nd preference over Cooper. One senior insider, who has been telling his friends that they have to opt for Burnham over Cooper, told me that “faced with my own paper, I can’t vote for that man”.

Interventions from past leaders fall on deaf ears

A lot has happened to change the Labour party in recent years, but one often neglected aspect is this: the Labour right has lost two elections on the bounce. Yes, Ed Miliband may have rejected most of New Labour’s legacy and approach, but he was still a protégé of Gordon Brown and included figures like Rachel Reeves, Ed Balls and Jim Murphy in his shadow cabinet.  Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were senior figures during both defeats. And the same MPs who are now warning that Corbyn will doom the Labour Party to defeat were, just months ago, saying that Miliband was destined for Downing Street and only five years ago were saying that Gordon Brown was going to stay there.

Labour members don’t trust the press

A sizeable number of Labour party activists believe that the media is against them and will always have it in for them. They are not listening to articles about Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations or reading analyses of why Labour lost. Those big, gamechanging moments in the last month? Didn’t change anything.

100,000 people didn’t join the Labour party on deadline day to vote against Jeremy Corbyn

On the last day of registration, so many people tried to register to vote in the Labour leadership election that they broke the website. They weren’t doing so on the off-chance that the day after, Yvette Cooper would deliver the speech of her life. Yes, some of those sign-ups were duplicates, and 3,000 of them have been “purged”.  That still leaves an overwhelmingly large number of sign-ups who are going to go for Corbyn.

It doesn’t look as if anyone is turning off Corbyn

Yes, Sky News’ self-selecting poll is not representative of anything other than enthusiasm. But, equally, if Yvette Cooper is really going to beat Jeremy Corbyn, surely, surely, she wouldn’t be in third place behind Liz Kendall according to Sky’s post-debate poll. Surely she wouldn’t have been the winner according to just 6.1 per cent of viewers against Corbyn’s 80.7 per cent. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.