New porn laws won't work – but they might help

Hardcore porn use has become a new normal. Young people access it freely and regularly, older people do the same but pretend not to, and many Christians wrestle with it as a 'secret struggle'. Now law-makers in the UK are aiming to restrict its use among under 18s with an ambitious new Act of Parliament. But will it really work?

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The way that young people consume pornography has changed to a terrifying extent over the last two decades. Since the dawn of widespread Internet access in the mid 1990s, we've moved from secret viewing of so-called 'hardcore' images, to easy and unlimited access to highly explicit video, to near-normalisation of both. Estimates on the average age of first exposure range from about 8-12. Young people discuss their favourite sites, and swap links to videos, as if they were talking about football transfer rumours or trading Pokemon cards. Porn isn't just mainstream in youth culture, it's everyday.

Part of the reason for this is that porn use is also widespread among adults, although not so publicly. Most 30 and 40-somethings don't discuss their favourite porn actresses over the table at a dinner party, in fact in general their interest in such things are kept secret. That in turn is doubly true within the church, where surveys point to a silent epidemic of porn use and addiction, even among leaders. It's one of the massive hidden issues within church culture that no-one seems able to fix.

Before we buy the gentle indifference that normalisation tends to bring, let's just remember what we actually mean by Internet pornography: misogynistic, videos which reduce sex to a series of bodily functions and semi-violent acts. Films which teach a twisted, loveless, functional and generally woman-shaming view and style of sex. This is what adults view in secret, satisfying base urges with a lowest-common-denominator solution; this is what our children and young people are growing up with as a style-guide to sex. The NSPCC now believe that exposure to pornography has an adverse effect on a child's development, and it's not hard to see why.

The UK government has just announced tough new measures in the fight against under-age pornography use. And as a parent with two children currently in the 8-12 age bracket, I'm obviously fully on board with that idea. The question is, will what they're proposing actually make any difference?

The Digital Economy Act, which was commenced this week, contains an April 2018 deadline for pornographic websites to introduce age verification checks. The requirement, which may involve taking credit card details, will mean that in theory, under 18s are prevented from accessing porn websites which offer content 'on a commercial basis' to UK web users. The deadline has been labelled unrealistic by experts, including those who advised on the Act, while the exact details of how the requirements will work or be enforced are yet to be announced.

Some critics have already attacked the proposals as well-intentioned nonsense. Dr Joss Wright from the Oxford Internet Institute – who was part of the advisory group for the Act – told the BBC 'this is one of the worst proposals I have seen on digital strategy... There are hundreds of thousands of websites where this material can be accessed and you are not going to catch all of those.' Others have suggested that the Act offers little more than virtue-signalling from a Government that does not really know how to fix the problem.

Personally, I agree that the proposals won't stop young people from watching or sharing pornography. Banning something in youth culture is a pretty surefire way to drive it underground, rather than stop it, and teenage web users love the challenge of having to get past the digital walls that are put up to try to 'protect' them. And as Dr Victoria Nash, lead author of a report commissioned in the run-up to the Act, told the BBC, the move won't require age verification checks to be applied to sites like Twitter and Tumblr, both of which allow hardcore pornographic content to be posted. Young people (and adults too scared to verify themselves) won't be able to access some pornography, but there will still be a whole world of it available all over the Internet.

Yet before we completely decry the move, I think there are a couple of glimmers of light to be found. While the new measures won't stop determined users – young and old – from accessing pornography, they do at least have the potential to prevent children from innocently stumbling upon explicit material. And like recent claims that one day users' porn search histories could be leaked online, it's another major disincentive to those people – and perhaps many Christians – who can't quite seem to stop watching, but want to. If you're ashamed of your porn use, will you really want to attach your credit card details to it?

Most significantly though, I think the measures do address the wider issue of normalisation. At last we have a strong, clear message from the government that viewing porn as a child or young person isn't just a regular part of growing up; that it isn't 'just something kids do these days'. That message has been transmitted unchecked for the past decade, and those of us who work with young people are starting to see the devastating effects in how they view sex. If these new measures at least replace that idea with the message that porn – like alcohol and cigarettes – is age-restricted because it isn't good for you, then I cautiously welcome the effort, even if I can't quite believe in the method.

Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. Follow him on Twitter @martinsaunders.

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