Access denied sign on laptop screen

Should teenagers have the right to access pornography?

Jerry Barnett

Jerry Barnett

Jerry is an author, technologist and anti-censorship campaigner.

Anti-pornography campaigners and legislators have repeatedly tried to prevent teenagers from accessing pornography, arguing that it is harmful. And yet the evidence suggests the reverse: it appears that porn access reduces the prevalence of sexual violence among young people. Rather than preventing young people from watching porn, they should have the right to watch it.
 
Despite Britain’s generally liberal attitudes, it has always been subject to tighter media controls than many other European countries, as well as the United States. That difference has been most obvious when it comes to depictions of sex. While it was normal to see nudity and pornography on TV across much of western Europe before the internet, in Britain the censors retained the tightest levels of control on such content. In fact, hardcore pornography was outlawed entirely until the start of the 21st century, even on adult TV channels and on DVD. As a result, many sex shops in Amsterdam and Hamburg did a roaring trade selling porn videos to British tourists, many of which were brought home, copied and sold illegally.

The responsibility for broadcast censorship in the UK is granted to the media regulator Ofcom. Ofcom has the power to impose large fines on TV companies for even the smallest breach in broadcast standards; and these standards themselves are not set by Parliament, but created by Ofcom themselves. The organisation is therefore very powerful – almost above the law. Unsurprisingly, it has seen the internet as a threat to its power, and has lobbied for many years to have its remit extended to include internet content.

Much of this lobbying activity has focused on the “harms” caused by pornography. But there is a lack of evidence to show that pornography causes widespread harm. The primary accusation made against pornography (by religious and feminist anti-porn campaigners) is that porn usage leads to an increase in sexual violence. And yet even Ofcom’s own studies, carried out on behalf of the UK government, have come to the conclusion that pornography may bring more good than harm, stating “There seems to be no relationship between the availability of pornography and an increase in sex crimes…; in comparison there is more evidence for the opposite effect”. This finding appears to have embarrassed Ofcom, who have chosen to ignore it and continue to claim that porn is harmful.

Faced with the reality that the British public is generally comfortable with pornography, and that evidence of harm is hard to find, anti-porn campaigners have instead chosen to focus on the effects of porn viewing on children. But their definition of children is broad, and includes all teenagers under 18. In a country where the age of consent is 16, classing 16- and 17-year-olds as children is deeply and deliberately misleading. Over the past decade there has been a series of PR campaigns, often backed by Ofcom or other pro-censorship bodies, claiming that large numbers of children are watching pornography. This claim is clearly designed to be emotive, to create fear among parents and other citizens, and to drive support for censorship.

One such campaign took place in May 2021, with a number of headlines warning that four-fifths of 16- and 17-year-olds had viewed porn. These reports resulted from a study by Neil Thurman and Fabian Obster (3). And yet one wonders how anybody could find this result either surprising or worrying: my own instinctive reaction was “Really, only four-fifths?”. The study did not attempt to claim that porn was harmful, simply to make the point that under-18s do indeed look at pornography.

The timing of this study’s release was not coincidental: it came on the eve of the government’s publication of the Online Safety Bill, a piece of legislation that had been in development for some years. Anti-pornography campaigners had been hoping for a clause that would enforce age verification on pornography users, and the study was designed to put pressure on the government to introduce such a measure. In fact, mandatory age verification of porn users had already been put into UK law previously, in the Digital Economy Act (2017), following fierce lobbying by Ofcom. In practise however, the measure was never implemented for a number of reasons: it was hideously expensive, and in any case would not prevent teenagers from accessing pornography. Additionally, there had been no evidence presented that teenagers were being harmed by porn. Instead, Ofcom had weakly suggested that porn might encourage young people to try anal sex (a claim that I mocked in a press release at the time entitled “Government Launches Attempt to End Anal Sex”).

For those of us that campaign against censorship, these repeated and unfounded attempts to claim teenagers are harmed by porn have become tiresome. Even more tiresome is the tendency of the media to repeat these claims without question. It is to the British government’s credit that it has – for now, anyway – abandoned attempts to verify the ages of porn consumers.

But the debate should not be conducted in this way. It is the duty of those claiming harm to prove their case, rather than for defenders of free expression to be continually forced to rebut false claims. This is, after all, the basis of the Harm Principle, an essential underpinning of liberal thought. Not only is there a lack of evidence suggesting that porn leads to an increase in sexual violence, but the reverse is true.

The evidence is overwhelming that widespread access to pornography correlates with a reduction in sexual violence. And this effect is even stronger among teenagers: a 2006 study (5) found that rape had fallen markedly among teenagers as internet access became more prevalent:

“I find that the effect of the internet on rape is concentrated among those for whom the internet-induced fall in the non-pecuniary price of pornography was the largest – men ages 15-19, who typically live with their parents…”.

The introduction of the internet to American homes probably brought sexual violence in America to historic lows, something that should be cause for celebration, though is widely ignored. I have written a short e-book (1) examining the evidence relating to pornography and sexual violence.
 

Anti-pornography protest on Oxford Street, London
Anti-pornography protest on Oxford Street, London @Wikimedia Commons

Regulators like Ofcom are well aware of this fact – as mentioned previously, this is the finding of their own studies. Furthermore, this has been pointed out to them repeatedly when they have carried out their own consultations. In a response to Ofcom’s 2016 consultation on porn, I made the point that restricting teenagers’ access to pornography could well increase sexual violence:

“To put this simply: the government’s own research suggests that restricting sexual imagery to teenagers may result in a rise in sexual violence among that age group. We call on the government to abandon these plans until strong evidence can be presented that they will not increase harm”.

Religious morality campaigners, radical feminists and pro-censorship authoritarians often try to claim the moral high ground by claiming to be concerned about sexual violence. And yet their solution to the problem of rape is likely to reverse the gains of recent decades, and make the problem worse. One current example is the British journalist and campaigner Louise Perry, who openly campaigns to restrict or ban pornography and sex work, but refers to herself as a “campaigner against sexual violence”. And yet both pornography and legal prostitution are clearly linked to declines in sexual violence rather than increases. 

There is little doubt that pornography changes sexual attitudes and behaviours, and there has been plenty of research into this question. Nobody could claim that porn is wholly beneficial to all viewers in all circumstances, any more than they should claim it is wholly detrimental. Some users do view porn compulsively, which can be distressing and cause problems in their lives. But such compulsive behaviour also appears in many contexts, from shopping and having sex to social media use and over-eating. The fact that porn might be used in harmful ways is not evidence that porn itself causes harm. The truth, as ever, is complex and nuanced, and does not provide anti-pornography advocates the evidence they need to support their case for censorship.

Where attitude studies have been conducted, they tend to find that pornography viewing correlates with more progressive attitudes. A 2015 study of American users (2) found that: 

“Pornography users held more egalitarian attitudes – toward women in positions of power, toward women working outside the home, and toward abortion – than nonusers of pornography. Further, pornography users and pornography nonusers did not differ significantly in their attitudes toward the traditional family and in their self-identification as feminist. The results of this study suggest that pornography use may not be associated with gender nonegalitarian attitudes in a manner that is consistent with radical feminist theory”.

Another 2014 study found that pornography consumption was correlated positively (in straight men) with support for gay marriage (3). Such studies do not necessarily show that porn viewing causes liberal attitudes, but they do demonstrate that the claims of radical feminists, who attempt to link pornography with harmful attitudes, are not supported by evidence. 

It is time to turn the tables on such people and their dangerous claims. While the evidence continues to show that porn has the effect of reducing sexual violence, teenagers should have the right to access explicit sexual content, to protect against future censorship attempts. This right should be enshrined in law as part of a broader protection of free expression.

Anti-pornography campaigners also should have the right to free speech, of course. But until they can provide evidence to back their claims rather than moral panics, they should continue to be treated sceptically. And the media should begin to ask these people why they are proposing a measure that is likely to increase sexual violence against teenage girls, rather than simply accept and amplify their claims without question.

 

Jerry Barnett

 

References:

  1. Barnett, J: “Porn, What’s the Harm?”, 2020.
  2. Kohut, T., Baer, J.L. and Watts, B., “Is Pornography Really about “Making Hate to Women”? Pornography Users Hold More Gender Egalitarian Attitudes Than Nonusers in a Representative American Sample”, The Journal of Sex Research, 2016.
  3. Wright, P.J., Randall, A.K., “Pornography Consumption, Education, and Support for Same-Sex Marriage Among Adult U.S. Males”, Communication Research. 2014.
  4. Thurman, N., Oster, F., “The regulation of internet pornography: What a survey of under-18s tells us about the necessity for and potential efficacy of emerging legislative approaches”, Policy and Internet, 2021.
  5. Kendall, T.D., “Pornography, Rape and the Internet”, 2006
Received: 14.06.21, Ready: 12.07.21. Editors: Celeste Varisco, Robert Ganley

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