It’s time for a public health campaign about harmful online porn

A committee of MPs says sexual harassment is ingrained in our culture, and pornography is partly to blame.  

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The Women And Equalities select committee has published its report on sexual harassment towards girls and women. The committee found that “sexual harassment pervades the lives of women and girls and is deeply ingrained in our culture”. Roughly two-thirds of women have experienced sexual harassment in public places, and that number rose to 85 per cent of women aged 18-24.

The report argues that, because sexual harassment often starts when girls are still in their school uniform, it “becomes “normalised” as girls move through life: it shapes the messages boys and girls receive about what is acceptable [...] and restricts [women’s] freedoms in public spaces”.

The committee also makes specific recommendations to tackle the problem. This morning on BBC News, chair Maria Miller stated that “one law alone can’t stop this” and so a multi-faceted approach is needed if women and girls are to live in a safer, more equal world.

Potentially the most controversial recommendations involves recognising and highlighting the harmful impact of pornography on gender equality, and sexual harassment.

The report finds that “there is significant research suggesting there is a relationship between the consumption of pornography and sexist attitudes and sexually aggressive behaviours – including violence”. Quoted in the report, Dr Maddy Coy told the committee how a meta-analysis of research found that “there is a relationship between pornography consumption, attitudes that support sexual violence and the likelihood of committing sexual violence”.

The committee goes on to recommend a ban on watching pornography in public places such as on trains or buses, as well as taking an “evidence-based approach to addressing the harms of pornography along the lines of road safety or anti-smoking campaigns.”

Discussions of the potential harmful impact of pornography on attitudes towards sex and sexual violence have been raging for a long time. No one is saying that everyone who watches porn is going to walk outside and harass a woman on the street – or do worse.

But it cannot be ignored that we are no longer in the generation where accessing porn meant finding an abandoned copy of Razzle in a bush. Deeply misogynistic and violent pornography is now readily available online, and is watched by children as young as eleven.

While provision of sex and relationships education still patchy, teenagers are understandably turning to pornography to learn about sex. However, with much of even mainstream porn featuring sexual aggression, coercion, and a lack of interest in female pleasure, young people are early on exposed to very stereotypical and degrading images of sexuality which can feed into their attitudes towards women and sex.

This was evidenced by a 2013 report by the Children’s Commissioner and Middlesex University. The researchers found that exposure to pornography from a young age was leading to teenagers having “unrealistic attitudes about sex, the belief that women are sex objects and less progressive gender roles attitudes”.

Again, no one is suggesting that watching porn as a teenager turns you into a sexual predator. What is of concern, however, is that young people’s very normal and valid sexual curiosity is being fed by scenes of violence, simulated rape, and acts that centre on aggression and degradation, all before they’ve had a chance to explore and develop their own sexuality.

This risks young people growing up to view women as the sex objects they are in porn, which in turn normalises sexual harassment. There is also evidence to suggest girls feel coerced by their boyfriends into sexual acts they don’t want to partake in, citing “pornography as the explanation” for being pressured into, for example, anal sex.

Further, a report by Rape Crisis South London found that pornography was a tool used in grooming – “specifically with young boys”.

The Women And Equalities Committee states that “there are examples of lawful behaviours which the government regards as harmful, such as smoking, which are addressed through public health campaigns and huge investment designed to reduce and prevent those harms.” It’s now time, they believe, to do the same with pornography.

Of course, this recommendation will not be free from criticism. There are many people keen to defend pornography – painting any questions about its impact as either coming from “pearl-clutching” prudery or an anti-freedom of speech agenda.

It’s important to remember that no one is proposing a ban on online porn, or even trying to restrict the types of pornography available. Instead, these recommendations ask that we stop pretending mainstream porn which sexualises violence and non-consent exists in a vacuum, free from any impact on the viewer and their attitudes towards women and girls.

There’s an epidemic of sexual violence, and girls are bearing the brunt when they grow up in a world where being treated by men as an object to harass is their “normal”. If a campaign to highlight porn’s potential harms can start to tackle this issue, and give viewers of all ages some context about what they’re watching, then this could finally lead to positive change around society’s attitudes to porn, sex, harassment, and women’s equality.

Sian Norris is a writer and journalist. She is the Founder and Director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival. She is currently the Ben Pimlott writer-in-residence at Birkbeck University's politics department.