Erotic Review Magazine

Porn and the Lords: A Great Parliamentary Spectacle

by Ian Dunt / 5th November 2015

"They are shocked to discover how many women watch or read porn…"

There is arguably no greater parliamentary spectacle than watching lords debate pornography.

It’s a rare treat. I’ve never seen the matter come up in the chamber before. But we must hope it comes again soon, because this afternoon’s debate, launched by famed pornography expert the Bishop of Chester, was far more enjoyable than anything in the cinema.

The Bishop began by admitting that his “first-hand knowledge of pornography is very limited”, but – as you may guess – this did not stop him from holding very firm convictions on the ’ugly squalid dirty sex’ he had been told it contained.

‘Porn creates an addictive neuro-chemical trap,’ he insisted. ‘There is then, exactly as with drugs, a need for increased exposure.’

These are just words. They do not have any meaning. There is certainly no ‘neuro-chemical trap’  to video images of any sort, although it is possible a future society will one day invent it. If the Bishop can last until then he may eventually be right.

The Bishop spent some time describing how pleasure-activating parts of the brain shrunk in response to pornography and repeatedly referred to ‘the evidence that pornography clearly harms adults as well as children’.

To be clear, this evidence does not exist.

It’s hard to test for the impact of porn. You can take a country and see what happened with sexual crimes when pornography became more widespread. The US or Japan, for instance, both saw significant decline in rates of sexual assault as pornography became more available. But it would be childish to say that was because of pornography. The variables in looking at a country over a decade are so extensive it’s just not a meaningful statement. Any number of things could have caused those rates to fall.

Alternately you can take individuals, but this is also very difficult. Most tests are self-selecting, but we know that the kind of person who agrees to take part in a survey on porn is very different to a normal member of the public. But if you take normal subjects – like people filling out a social attitudes survey – they will often lie about their porn use.

Finally, you can do lab tests, but these are very bizarre. As the eminently sensible Baroness Murphy pointed out in today’s debate ’pornography is there to aid masturbation’ but ‘much of the [research] literature is about watching pornography without masturbating’. Which makes it rather odd and disconnected from the reality of the thing it is investigating.

So anti-porn crusaders would be right if they said the data was complex and that it was difficult to draw conclusions. But they cannot say that it shows that porn causes an increase in sexual assault. There is no data to suggest that.

The Bishop of Chester wasn’t even the weirdest speaker in the debate. Lord Cormack started his contribution by celebrating the ‘extraordinary exhibition of erotic Japanese prints’ at the British museum. He then veered off into a strange rambling speech about ’the internet world’ of ‘flickering images… where we adults cannot get involved’. He was particularly concerned, of course, by ’socially-isolating video games’, which at least allowed us to fit everyone’s half-understood prejudices into one debate.

Cormack wanted ’those who portray… sex without love for commercial gain [to] be regarded as pariahs’. Shortly afterwards, he demanded a law against it. At no point did he seem to understand why such a law would be impossible to formulate. ‘The penalties those people face [should be] enormous,’ he said, warming to his theme. By this stage he appeared visibly quite excited. It would be a ‘very severe offence indeed’ with – you guessed it - ’punishments which really punish’. He did not seem to comprehend that what he was suggesting would involve a ban on hundreds of millions of plays, songs, novels, magazines and movies.

Lord Farmer wanted data from the Department on Health on anal sex and the damage its popularity did to young women. He was keen to assure these young women that they did not enjoy it. Lord Northbourne wanted a ‘clear statement in law’ that each parent is responsible for their children, which would surely compete in any top ten list of the most pointless laws in English legal history. Baroness Howe spoke for a long time about age verification checks. She seemed to be completely unaware that most porn websites are based abroad or that they are free to use.

One frequently finds this level of ignorance in anti-porn crusaders. I did a panel debate the other day next to a Cambridge professor who had written extensively on porn but had no idea what the Authority for Television on Demand (Atvod) was, despite the fact that it was until recently the UK’s main regulatory body for porn. It was like talking to an energy analyst who didn’t know what Ofgem was.

This is partly because so-called porn experts often find the thing they are discussing so distasteful that they do not wish to actually investigate it. They are shocked to discover how many women watch or read porn. They are surprised to discover that when women search for porn, they are more likely than men to search for the terms ‘rough’ or ‘bondage’. They also appear to be more aesthetically conservative, whereas men’s desires – at least according to search terms – are far more diverse in terms of age and body type.

This goes for evidence of harm as well. It does not take much time to dismantle the supposed evidence that porn causes sexual assault or relationship breakdowns. They are always small study groups, usually employing self-selecting online polls. And that is in the context of a massive confirmation-bias culture. After all, no-one is interested in a story about how porn has no effect, but everyone – from academic journals to newspapers – is interested in the idea that it does. Anti-porn campaigners are usually loath to get into a conversation about the data. They have rarely bothered to approach it rigorously.

Ultimately, it is not up to those saying there’s no link to prove that there is no evidence. It is up to those saying there is a link to prove that it exists. They are the ones positing causation, so they must demonstrate it. The fact that porn has expanded so frantically since the 70′s – and especially since the late 90′s – with no corresponding rise in sexual assaults suggests they are gravely mistaken.

So anti porn campaigners typically retreat into two ideas. The first is that personal experience trumps data and that all the time they’ve been groped by some Neanderthal scumbag of an evening means porn is having an effect. This is a very popular view, especially on campus, where experience now trumps all argument. It is anecdotal detritus and not worthy of consideration.

Secondly, they argue that because there is no evidence yet, it doesn’t mean we should stick our head in the sand until it arrives. We are told that we must take action now because the evidence will be here any moment. They have been making this argument for 40 years. It is the argument of someone who does not understand the difference between the objective world and the inside of their head. Their suspicions are reality and we must all accept draconian infringements on our freedoms until this becomes fully evident.

Mercifully, there were some sane voices in the debate. Lord Giddens was ‘shocked to see how thin the evidence base is… the data is simply not there’. Lord Scriven asked the very fine question: ‘What’s our role as legislators if there’s no harm?’ His answer, also very fine, was that it was ‘very limited indeed’.

But the best performance came from Baroness Murphy, who stood up and told the Lords that ’the debate has made me feel slightly mischievous’. She is well known for that. In 2009 she revealed she’d written a hoax letter about ‘Cello scrotum’ which was printed by the British Medical Journal.

‘We have not got any evidence there is a rise in violent or sexually aggressive crime,’ she pointed out, calmly, to peers. Japan, where most porn has at least the suggestion of rape, has some of the lowest rates of rape in the world.

‘These things are complicated,’ she concluded. ’Fantasies do not translate into behaviours. Sexual fantasies are no different.’ After hours of unjustified assertions I felt like making a small shrine to her. She was quite brilliant.

People love to say the House of Lords is out of touch. In actual fact it usually does a far better job than the Commons. One doesn’t have to work in Westminster very long to conclude that there’s plenty of parts of it which require more urgent reform than the Lords. But today it was not at its best. It was a caricature of itself, acting exactly as people suspect it does.

A disappointing spectacle, but peers were not really being any more inane than the public at large about this issue. So much of what is said about porn is based on little experience and a total lack of interest in evidence. As with everything else about sex, we have to talk about it – especially to our children. But that is too great an emotional demand to place on Brits, who remain incapable of broaching sensitive or awkward subjects, even now.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk and political editor of the Erotic Review. He specialises in issues around immigration, free speech, drugs and party politics for a variety of magazines, newspapers, TV shows and radio stations.

illustration by Michael Ffolkes

"They are shocked to discover how many women watch or read porn…"

Discussion

Leave a Reply