Wanting to protect children from online porn has nothing to do with social conservatism

Too many people have fallen for the myth that any attempt to control the internet is bad.

To people of a certain age the word “pornography” conjures up images of Playboy centrefolds. However, a great deal of porn now easily accessible on the internet is about as close to a Playboy centrefold as Famous Five stories are to War and Peace.

I have a vivid memory of the mother of a 10-year-old girl who approached me after a school’s parents’ evening. She became quite upset as she described the nature of a video she had found her daughter watching. The child’s friend had sent a link. I am not going to provide the same level of details about what was going on - let’s just say it appeared to involve one woman, three adult males and a range of electro mechanical devices. The focus of attention at the denouement was the woman’s mouth and face. Mum’s tearful question to me was "how do you explain that to a young girl who has still not had her first kiss?".

Even now I am not sure how I would approach such a challenge but what is truly outrageous is that this mother had to confront it at all. Yet if you deconstruct the monotonous, never changing outpourings of a collection of so-called free speech campaigners at root it was really Mum’s fault. She had failed to learn about, understand and act upon the need to install filters that might have prevented any porn reaching the child’s screen. She had failed to find a way to convince her daughter not to click on such links or maybe the feckless parent was simply providing an inadequate degree of supervision of her child’s online behaviour.

The kind of stuff this 10-year-old child saw was never intended to be viewed by children. It may be illegal anyway as some would never receive a BBFC classification for public display, or possibly even an R18 which would allow it to be sold in licensed sex shops.

Yet it is found on the homepages of websites where anyone and everyone can see it, whether by accident or design. It is usually presented as a “teaser” to get you to pay for other material which is “even better”. 

There is simply no question that the practice I have just described is illegal in the UK. In R v Perrin in 2002 the Court of Appeal said gross pornographic material must be put behind a barrier of some kind, eg a paywall, so as to ensure only adults who positively want to see it can do so. Yet we’ve got millions of webpages where that just does not happen and search engines provide immediate access for all UK residents.

The problem, of course, is that the images are published from overseas. In recent years the police have shown little enough interest in prosecuting UK residents under the Obscene Publications Act and as far I know they have never made any effort to extradite anyone for such offences. It is usually at this point people throw up their hands and say it is all too complicated, nothing can be done or that the price of doing anything would present intolerable challenges to adults’ rights. That is self-serving codswallop: look how the gambling industry has effectively eliminated kids from their sites.

Much of the evidence cited to “prove” porn does no harm predates the immersive internet and did not involve a study of its longer-term effects on children. Thus I am astonished that more people are not willing to accept that the point at least is moot. That being so shouldn’t the precautionary principle kick in? Shouldn’t the search engines, for example, not return links to sites that do not attempt to restrict children’s access? Should the banks and the credit card companies refuse to process payments to such sites?

Ultimately the question turns on how highly we value our children and what risks we are willing to take with their futures. It has nothing to do with social conservatism or moral panics. We need to call a halt to this rash experiment. If adults want to watch porn that’s their business, not mine. But we really out to be able to do more for our kids. The UK’s internet service providers have said they are going to do more in this direction. We shall see. Yes, there may be privacy concerns for the rest of us, but where there’s a will there’s a way.

Too many people who ought to know better have fallen for the heavily-promoted, convenient West Coast money-spinning myth that all attempts to control content on the internet are bad and will lead swiftly but inevitably to perdition. Iran does it so it must be bad. That’s the beginning and end of their argument. It won’t do.

Shouldn’t the precautionary principle kick in? Photograph: Getty Images
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Why gender became the ultimate forum for self-expression

Gender identity is now embedded in many people’s self-perception, as well as in day-to-day bureaucracy.

In November, the British high-street bank Metro announced that it was expanding its gender and title options. Customers could now register as “non-binary” rather than male or female, and as “Mx” rather than Miss, Ms, Mrs or Mr. In some ways, this development parallels the rise of Ms in the 1970s, which was popularised by feminists who wanted a title that didn’t identify women by their marital status. In practice, Ms marks women by their political affiliation instead (if you’re talking to a Ms, you’re probably talking to a feminist) but, even so, its first intention was to conceal rather than reveal information.

Mx does something different. To declare yourself a Mx is to disclose something about yourself: that your identity is outside what has become known as “the gender binary”, and you are neither man nor woman but something either in between or entirely other. This is a statement about who you are, and it comes with an implicit understanding that not being able to make that statement – or not having it recognised – is damaging. As the father of one gender-non-binary teenager told BuzzFeed UK: “When . . . you don’t identify as male or female and you only see those two boxes, then you don’t see yourself there . . . You are absent. That must hurt, and that’s what makes me angry.”

While users of Ms hoped that their title would supersede the ranking of spinsters and matrons, Mx relies for its meaning on the persistence of alternatives. You can only be non-binary if there’s a binary against which to define yourself. It is now recommended practice at some US universities for students to declare their preferred pronouns, and mandatory that these should be observed by others. Failure to do so is considered more than a breach of etiquette: “misgendering” is looked on as an act of bigotry, even a kind of verbal violence. This use of gender as self-assertion has an obvious appeal to teenagers and young adults as a parent-baffling subculture, but it starts much younger, too, with a small but growing number of primary-age children announcing that they are trans.

On one of its covers in 2014, Time magazine famously described transgender activism as “America’s next civil rights frontier”, but the proliferation of gender identity is at least as much a consumer choice issue. This was also the year that Facebook introduced its “custom” gender options, though it would perhaps be more accurate to describe them as “expansive presets”. Users can choose anything from “agender” to “two-spirit” via “bigender”, “gender questioning” and “transmasculine”, but what they can’t do is subvert the system by selecting an unapproved option. A feminist wishing to register her objections to the class structure of gender by typing in the word “oppressive”, for example, would be stymied here. However diversified gender identity becomes, it is a precept that everyone has one (if your identity and your body “agree”, you are said to be cisgender).

For some, asserting their identity is enough. For others, aligning their presentation with their sense of self will involve altering their appearance. At the least invasive level, that might demand cross-dressing. A natal female might choose to “bind” her breasts, flattening them to achieve a more masculine silhouette. Many seek prescriptions for opposite-sex hormones. At the most extreme, a trans individual will opt for surgical removal of their secondary sexual characteristics and gonads (more rarely, for surgical construction of opposite-sex genitalia), coupled with a lifetime of hormone replacement therapy.

Hormonal and surgical treatments have been possible only since the mid-to-late 20th century, and for many who choose them, these alterations prove life-changing in a positive way. But beyond the confines of the National Health Service, a consumerist edge to treatment becomes more obvious. There are doctors specialising in private transition medicine whose websites include statements such as “the only person that can actually diagnose [gender dysphoria] is the person living with the feelings”. In other words, the prescription is based not on a doctor’s medical judgement of the patient’s needs but on what the patient asks for (and is willing to pay for).

Plastic surgeons promise to transform transgender patients from “caterpillars” into “beautiful butterflies”, holding out the prospect of becoming one’s “true self”, in the same way they have long sold boob jobs and liposuction to women.

Not everyone accepts this brave new world. For conservatives in the United States, trans issues have become the next battle in the culture wars, and Republican politicians have introduced “bathroom laws” that would legally compel trans men and women to use toilets or changing rooms in line with their birth sex. Gender identity was an issue in last year’s US presidential election; a Tea Party-supporting talk-radio host tweeted: “If you want a country with 63 different genders, vote Hillary. If you want a country where men are men and women are women, vote Trump.” This vehement rejection of gender self-identification creates its own kind of identity politics.

That Donald Trump said that Caitlyn Jenner (the former Olympic decathlete whose transition became public in 2015) would be free to use “any bathroom she wanted” at Trump Towers did little to stop the perception that a vote for Trump was a vote against gender nonconformity. And, in some ways, Trump’s acceptance of Jenner’s right to use the ladies’ lavatories is not wholly at odds with the idea of a world where “men are men and women are women”: it’s just that some of the feminine people were born male and some of the masculine ones were born female. It is unclear what Trump’s presidency will mean for trans rights, but whatever happens in America will influence gender ideology worldwide.

Threats to legal abortion and equal marriage could strain some of the alliances within the trans, LGBT and feminist movements. A trans woman who has undergone surgery is in a very different situation from a male who identifies as a woman but does not want any treatment. A gay, lesbian or bisexual person who is discriminated against for their sexuality does not experience the same oppressions as a trans person (it is an article of faith that gender identity and sexuality are separate things, although in practice the division is not that neat). The political priorities of women who are victimised because they are female will not overlap perfectly with the priorities of transgender women – some of whom complained that the “pussy hats” and signs referring to female genitalia on the anti-Trump women’s marches in January were “exclusionary”.

Gender identity is now embedded in many people’s self-perception, as well as in day-to-day bureaucracy. But the messy relationship between sex and self is not going to be settled imminently.

Sarah Ditum is a frequent contributor to the New Statesman

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times