Groping for something dark

Ian Dunt detects a whiff of puritanism from one MP and authoritarianism from another: take your pick between the two new Mary Whitehouses in Parliament

Two women insisted they weren’t the new Mary Whitehouse this week. That’s two too many. If two women insist they’re not Mary Whitehouse, they’ve been saying things which made people think: ‘She sounds like the new Mary Whitehouse.’ And we can’t have that.

In parliamentary terms, they could not be further apart. Outside the Westminster bubble, they would both be viewed as politicians and therefore only worth mentioning in a conversation about forced sterilisation and humane slaughter. But inside the bubble they would barely be able to see each other across the political aisle.

The women in question are Claire Perry, Tory MP for Devizes and David Cameron’s advisor on childhood (yeah, I know, don’t even go there, if you start complaining about job titles in Westminster you’ll end up eating your own ears) and Dianne Abbott, Labour MP for  Hackney North and Stoke Newington and shadow public health minister.

Perry is one of the young 2010 Tory intake, who have the faces of promising new employees at an accountancy firm and the values of a human skeleton found in an attic in Victorian London. She’s attractive and reassuring to Middle England. She talks politics as if preparing a rudimentary cake and appears to exert about as much effort in both activities.

Abbott is a woman of mixed abilities. On the one hand, she was parliament’s first black female MP, she is famed for her diligent casework with vulnerable constituents and is a proud campaigner for social justice and civil liberties. On the other hand, she once turned me down for an interview, so I have learned to despise her.

Both women, in their own cack-handed way, have been groping about for something in the dark, something which troubles them – and ought to trouble us, despite the character of the people who currently recognise it. The thing that is troubling them is porn and its effect on young people.

Perry triggered her association with Mary Whitehouse by telling parents to check out their children’s mobile phones and emails. She’s an official prime ministerial adviser, so that’s equivalent of the government telling you to snoop on your children. It’s a continuation of her campaign for a nationwide opt-in internet service where adult content (probably including this site) would be blocked from home computers unless people actively say they want them. Obviously there’s something prurient and judgemental about making people actively choose to be unblocked. ‘Unblocked’ should be the default position, thank you very much, in much the same way that everything is legal unless a law is specifically passed against it.

Of course, what Perry and her fellow travellers do not understand is that they are dealing with science fiction. Put simply: We do not have the technology to block pornography. We can block some sites, but others will always get through. Much innocent content will get blocked. Blocking via keywords, categories and blacklists always ends up removing access to non-pornographic material, such as sexual health advice pages and innocuous blogs.

The solution is a rather tiresome and old-fashioned one. Parents must accept their children are going to come across pornographic images. Before that happens, they must cultivate a trusting and mature relationship with their children in which they can explain the difference between real and fantasy sex. Of course, the relationship Perry wants to cultivate – of spying – is the precise opposite of that trusting relationship.

Abbott, meanwhile, warned of the “hyper-sexualisation” of youth. She specifically cited ‘sexting’, sending sexually explicit text messages, and internet ‘slut shaming’, where young women are attacked by peers for their promiscuity. “For so long, it’s been argued that overt, public displays of sexuality are an enlightened liberation,” she told Radio 4. “But I believe that for many, the pressure of conforming to hyper-sexualisation and its pitfalls is a prison. And the permanence of social media and technology can be a life sentence.”

There’s an unmistakeable element of puritanism in Abbott’s quote. There’s a germ of that modern effort to negate the gains of the last forty years by slipping them into a counter-intuitive Daily Mail/politically correct/let’s-all-wear-hijabs narrative of sexual openness as a constraint. But Abbott, while another advocate of an opt-in porn block, does come to more sensible conclusions than Perry when she calls for parents to have open, frank conversations with their children about sex, porn and technology.

She is right in highlighting a trend in sexual behaviour as we respond to the prevalence of harder and harder porn from a younger and younger age. This issue is typically treated as the property of the conservative right, which is just a polite phrase for the large minority of people who are certain someone somewhere is having a better time than them. It cannot be left to them alone, not least because we know what they’re really after (the death of fun) and we know how they’ll get it (inaccurate summaries of scientific research cited to belligerent and dim-witted MPs).

Many respectable anti-porn campaigners cite Jennings Bryant, of the University of Houston, who noted that after sustained exposure to non-violent pornography, men quickly began to seek increasingly extreme material. Also popular are Canadian psychologists James Check and Ted Guloien, who found that men with sustained exposure to imagery depicting rape lost some of their internal inhibitions against committing rape and were more likely to trivialise or condone it.

These studies are worth reading, but they compete against extremely convincing data which shows the opposite phenomenon. Take Japan, where there was a dramatic increase in the availability of porn since the 1970s. Much of this material toyed with rape and that which didn’t generally abided by the Japanese preference for unenthusiastic women. And yet from 1972 to 1995 there was a two-thirds reduction in reported rape, from 4,677 to 1,500. A similar trend can be found across numerous countries.

Current statistics on sexual assault fail to show a trend in either direction. There was a 17% decrease in recorded sexual assault in England and Wales between 2005 and 2009, but a seven per cent increase between 2008 and 2011. The trouble is, sexual assault is such a mess we can’t tell which factors are causal and which simply correlate. The rate of reporting these crimes is so pathetic (just 15%) that we can’t tell if the figures are even an accurate assessment of what’s really happening out there.

When we deal with the effect of pornography on personal lives, it doesn’t even have to be as serious as encouraging rape. It can be more nuanced. The recent Steve McQueen film Shame powerfully portrayed a young man unable to enjoy sex if it was with someone he felt an emotional connection to. Without some pornographic element, he couldn’t see it through.

It is perfectly sensible to be concerned about what a generation of children sexualised by porn would be like. Their first experience of sex is likely to be a degrading, rough five minute gonzo porn video released for free online. To them, it wouldn’t necessarily be fantasy. It would just be sex. Maybe they’ll grow up sexually broken, like the protagonist in Shame. Maybe they’ll grow up to be rapists. Maybe it will have no effect at all.

The only solution, as Abbott, to her credit, seemed to realise, is that tiresome and old-fashioned conversation between parent and child about what porn and sex really are.

Porn is a fantasy world which sometimes, but not always, translates into what people want to do in real life. Because visual porn is commonly viewed by men, it has a strong element of subjugation to it. There’s nothing wrong with that, just as there’s nothing wrong with custard or hammers. It’s just that one must know what something is meant to do before one uses it. Porn is for fantasy and sex is for real life. The twain shall sometimes meet but it’s important not to get them confused.

Perry can only grasp for the most obvious, authoritarian solutions to these problems. Abbott is a slight improvement, but she suffers from the same knee-jerk disapproval. We cannot leave the debate to them.