How porn blunts moral boundaries

The popular attitude to pornography is that it’s fine as long as the kids don’t see it. But this mis

This is my Mary Whitehouse moment. I have just seen, in order to bar them, the adult channels available through Sky. There they are - Playboy TV, Tease Me TV 2, Red Hot Amateur, Red Hot Mums, Babestation, 40 n Naughty, Tease Me, Red Hot Fetish, Dirty Talk, Filth, Cream, Xplicit Nightly, and so on. I count 66 channels. Some are pin-encrypted, but the descriptions are clear as day, despite the partly censored words, as are the teaser images:

Big blonde Anny up for some filthy slap and tickle with her randy lover Mark.

She keeps her boots on as he rams his rod into her vintage p***y . . .

A visual treat for perverts, with water sports, suspensions and an** . . .

Pornographers frequently defend what they do with reference to freedom of expression. Most of the human rights community, particularly in the US, agrees. Women's rights activists have found pornography to be a trickier issue. Few feminists, apart from a small number of contrarians, like pornography. On the other hand, being in favour of the empowerment of (all) women means that telling women in the sex industry that they are exploited and degraded is problematic. Obscenity and morality laws have been used in several countries to restrict information about sexual health and sexuality. Feminists who do campaign against pornography, and the sexualisation of women and girls, may find themselves in an unholy alliance with conservative and/or religious groups that are otherwise unsupportive of gender equality. As a result, effective anti-pornography campaigns are rare in Britain; Object and Anti-Porn London, small organisations both, are notable exceptions.

The BBC campaigned for the creation of Ofcom to regulate independent providers. Ofcom, regulated by the freedom of expression article in the UK's Human Rights Act, requires Sky and other providers to be open platforms, giving access to all licensed channels. As a result, providers have no control over which channels are on their platforms, provided that they have an Ofcom licence. A licence cannot be refused unless there are strong public-interest grounds.

Ofcom monitors the content of channels, following complaints from the public. It regularly finds broadcasters in breach of their guidelines. Bang Channels and Bang Media were fined £157,250 this year for broadcasting "inappropriate explicit material", with "manifest recklessness". The Ofcom website describes the offending material in somewhat surreal detail, ending with this passage: "While in these positions the presenter repeatedly stroked and touched her body including her crotch area, legs, buttocks and breasts; moved and gyrated her hips sometimes high in the air in a sexually provocative way; pulled sexualised facial expressions and lightly spanked her buttocks."

Despite the wealth of observational detail and thoughtful comments on the Ofcom website (and the by now mandatory statement about "taking extremely seriously" the breaches it investigates), the guidelines themselves are slightly odd, focusing on a combination of physical, mental and moral effects of adult material on children. The code states that:

Material that might seriously impair the physical, mental or moral development of people under 18 must not be broadcast.

In the provision of services, broadcasters must take all reasonable steps to protect people under 18. Children must also be protected by appropriate scheduling from material that is unsuitable for them.

However, the sole emphasis on the harm that pornography may cause to children who are exposed to it misses a more important point. Pornography is dangerous to children because it creates an artificially sexualised atmosphere for adults, potentially undermining ordinary boundaries of sexual conduct. If you add excessive drinking, you create an atmosphere where children may be at risk of sexual abuse.

Sexuality is a powerful force. It is both a theatre and an expression of our most authentic selves. It is in every sense an act, and therefore deeply culturally imitative. It is also an expression of love and desire between people. Pornography denies the relationship between sexuality and love. For pornographers, sexual arousal is about images and language, and the sordid reality that those images, and ultimately the very people (women), can be bought and sold. Regulation has nudged television pornography into a pretence of mutual desire, so that even when the context is essentially one of humiliation, the tone is matey rather than sadistic, the women always keen participants.

The darker stuff is online. In 2006 the UK government criminalised the possession of violent pornography following a campaign by Liz Longhurst, whose daughter Jane was strangled by Graham Coutts. He was said to have an addiction to violent pornography and particularly to images of strangulation.

Vanessa George, a nursery worker in Plymouth, was jailed in December last year for abusing children in her care and sending sexual images of the children to paedophile friends. She had hardcore adult pornography on her mobile phone, which she showed to other staff. Though no other members of staff were involved in the abuse, there was an Ann Summers catalogue in the staffroom and George talked freely about her sex life even in the presence of children.

Pornographers have always denied the link between pornography and sexual abuse. The case of George shows that children can be at risk from people - women and men - whose moral boundaries have been blunted by pornography, and the sexualised kind of environment that Little Ted's nursery had become.

Sigrid Rausing is the publisher of Granta.