2 Dec 2016

Protecting under-18s from porn: who's really being harmed?

*** [CONTENT WARNING: THIS POST DISCUSSES SELF HARM] ***

So much of adult control over media is justified in the name of protecting children. The concept is inextricable from British obscenity law; one of the principle factors (not additional) for finding a work obscene under current guidelines is whether under-18s might have access to it. The acts that are currently banned from any UK-produced porn are forbidden under the justification of "preventing non-trivial harm risks to potential viewers;" by the same token, OfCom demands that porn producers take steps to keep under-18s away from their work in case it "seriously impairs the physical, mental or moral development of persons under the age of eighteen." 

Yet in the same document in which it makes that statement, OfCom also reports that "no country has found conclusive evidence that sexually explicit material harms children," and that "research does not provide conclusive evidence that R18 material "might seriously impair" minors' development." You might wonder, then, why the UK government is quietly pushing through a bill that penalises any porn provider who does not adopt burdensome, costly and privacy-invading age verification processes, when there is no damn proof that a) it would work and b) that children seeing explicit material will do them any damage anyway. Yet as Pandora Blake, a porn producer who has already had her business shut down once by UK censors and is fighting to stop it happening again, writes, this is exactly what is happening.

It seems particularly ironic and misguided that the government is putting so much energy into forcing businesses to make ineffective and totally tokenistic gestures at keeping children away from explicit material, when it is denying them the one thing they are loudly crying out for - decent sex education. At present, British schools are obliged to provide no more than purely biological education about sex. Even in the face of reports that sexual harassment of girls in schools is on the increase, the UK government ignores adequate evidence that a comprehensive curriculum that deals with sex, relationships, porn, consent and respect is what teenagers want and need, and instead goes after the oh-so-easily-demonised porn industry. 

Last night, I was watching a Channel 4 documentary, Kids on the Edge, which showed teenagers self-harming as well as looking at self-harm images online - for inspriation, if you like. The programme was prefaced with a warning that it contained scenes that viewers may find disturbing, and although there wasn't any major gore as such, I think what frightened me the most was how easy it was for teenagers with severe mental health issues to find social media accounts that supported or encouraged self-harm. I've just gone into Instagram and found a video of a young woman with blood gushing out of a vein in her arm, with the hashtags #suicide, #selfharm, and the caption "I want to die," within seconds. Although Instagram clearly deletes harmful hashtags (you get zero results for #selfharm if you do a search, but the results are clearly out there), there are obviously plenty of users getting around the restrictions. 

Now, I generally believe that trying to censor the internet is like trying to catch gas in a butterfly net. You might catch some of the perpetrators, but you won't know just how many others you haven't managed to catch, and you won't have a snowball's chance in hell of getting them all. Short of an operation like China's Great Firewall - which also needs the terrifying machinery of totalitarian state repression behind it to really have any teeth - you simply cannot censor every instance of objectionable content. Nor do I think it's an answer; much as it troubled me to see seriously vulnerable teens getting inspiration for how to hurt themselves from social media, I don't think it's that different to how fans of the Manic Street Preachers used to mimic Richey Edwards' self-mutilation (and yes I know many fans empathised with Edwards because they were already self-harmers, but speaking as a Manics fan of two decades, I can tell you for sure there were also copycats - whether they did it to be "cool" or because the pictures they saw had genuinely given them ideas, only they would be able tell you). I'm not going to link to it, but you can Google "Richey Edwards self harm" and see some seriously disturbing pictures of the things the man did to his own body. And before the internet, that supposed source of all social problems? Well, you could go out and buy the NME, or Melody Maker, or Select or Vox or Q magazine, or a Manics biography, and have your very own full-colour, glossy pictures of Edwards' self-harm to stick on your bedroom walls. My point is, this shit didn't start when the world got online. It's been going on as long as time itself. And I don't believe that a picture in a music magazine "made" anyone self-harm, any more than I believe that the Instagram account which one of last night's interviewee was looking at made her cut herself; she was clearly already on that path, and was looking for affirmation of her actions from others. There is community, however, fucked up, in finding those who are damaged in the exact same way you feel damaged.

Yet, if the government insists on going after any online targets--and with the current ruling party, it seems a great, cheap vote-winner that appeases those fond of hand-wringing headlines about the future of our youth--it does seem like it would be more justifiable to deal with targets that actually encourage literal harm, such as sites or social media accounts that encourage self-harm or anorexia, than to go after those showing consensually produced adult material. I'd certainly be a lot more worried about a child of mine actively seeking out self-harm images, than a child exhibiting natural curiosity about sex. Either way, I ultimately don't think censorship is ever the answer. I don't know what is, but off the top of my head, offering children safe spaces to talk about both issues would be a good start. This government's failure to do so, and its habit of constantly scapegoating sex and porn instead, shows how far we still have to go in pulling this country's head out of its repressed backside. And yes, I know that kind of image is exactly the type that could get a website shut down by the UK censors, but I'd laugh more if public money wasn't actually being spent on legislating censorship that doesn't work and doesn't help anyone. 

Resources for those concerned about self-harm:

http://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/self-harm/
http://www.harmless.org.uk/
https://www.selfharm.co.uk/
http://www.selfinjurysupport.org.uk/

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