Forget porn filters, let's talk about sex

Automatic filters are being rolled out to protect children online, but Carrie Lyell thinks they're doing more harm than good.


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We talked about a lot of things in our family, but sex wasn't really one of them. My mum sat me down once to talk about periods - she drew a very informative diagram with ovaries and all sorts, and always made a point of telling me to come to her about anything, but I never really felt comfortable talking to her or my dad about things of a sexual nature. When my period did start, it was my brother I told because the thought of having that conversation with either of my parents filled me with absolute horror. But he never was very good at keeping a secret and within an hour my mum was sitting at the end of my bed explaining the pros and cons of different sanitary products. I felt so awkward I was dying inside.  

 

No wonder - I was a hot mess of hormones. I'd always been a tomboy and was struggling to get on board with things like breasts and being a woman. It was hard trying to figure myself out with very little in the way of help. I didn't have the words to tell my parents how I was feeling - I didn't even really know what I was feeling - and I could hardly crack open the Encyclopaedia Britannica to find out why I wasn't as enamoured with boys as the rest of my friends. This was before the internet was even a thing - we had a computer in the house but it was only used for solitaire and MS paint - and when I did use the world wide web, it was to Ask Jeeves things like "What is the meaning of life?" It would be a few years still before I really understood the purpose of a "search engine".

 

I was 13 when Queer as Folk first aired. I waited until my parents were in bed before sneaking into the living room to watch the first episode. We were barely past the rimming scene (not that I had any idea what rimming was) before I turned around to see dad standing in the doorway with a face like thunder. He grabbed the remote and turned off the TV. "What did you do that for?" I asked incredulously. "You shouldn't be watching that kind of thing," he fumed. "You're homophobic!" I spat, storming out of the room. "No, you're 13" he said, and that was that. It wasn't up for discussion. I watched the rest of the series at my friend's house.

 

I would describe my parents as liberal, but my dad had his own ideas about what was appropriate and inappropriate. When he found out my older brother had been browsing a website called Rotten, he sat us down for a very serious chat, and he hit the roof when he found out my younger brother had been playing Grand Theft Auto aged nine. He definitely wasn't a tyrant - he's the kindest, fairest, most gentle man I've ever met - and I know it came from a good place, but there is no way he would have been happy if he knew how I spent my time online back then.

 

How could I explain to him that pornography was the closest thing I'd ever had to a sex education? How could he possibly understand that I was watching Queer as Folk not just for the salacious sex scenes, but for Romey Sullivan (probably the first lesbian I'd ever seen on TV) when I didn't really understand it myself? It would be another two years and several awkward fumbles with boyfriends I convinced myself I fancied before I realised that I was gay, but without things like Queer as Folk, it might have been much longer. Things he considered inappropriate were a lifeline for me.

 

If I was a teenager now, he - like many parents - would probably be utilising online blocking and filtering that internet service providers are being forced to introduce to make sure me and my brothers weren't looking at anything "adult". If I hadn't been able to explore my own identity from the comfort of a computer, I would have spent a lot longer behind bike sheds, kissing boys I didn't like because everyone else was doing it and hating myself afterwards. I might still think there was something wrong with me, and I might never have found other queers or the words to explain what I was.

 

Thankfully, that's hypothetical, and I've turned out fairly well adjusted. But many thousands of people today might not be as lucky because of David Cameron's moral crusade. In his attempt to "protect the children" from images of anal fisting with so-called porn filters (which, ironically, are probably blocking this article), sites providing support for LGBT young people have become collateral damage, along with others like ChildLine which was blocked by some internet service providers, and Edinburgh's Women's Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre which was deemed pornographic by TalkTalk's filter. Parental controls, once turned on, can prevent access to sites like Refuge, Stonewall and the Samaritans, meaning that the most vulnerable people in society can easily be cut off from vital support from a homophobic parent or an abusive partner.

 

Fundamentally, the very idea of filtering is flawed because it infringes free expression, and one person's idea of "objectionable content" is another's sexy party. I don't want Cameron or a technology company in China telling me or anyone else what is or isn't an appropriate way to pass the time. Sadly, without proper sex education in schools, the internet is sometimes the only way for many to find out about who they are, and if much of that is blocked because BT says it's inappropriate, who knows the damage that might have.

 

In an article for the New Statesman, Martin Robbins says: "There remains, despite a wave of public hysteria, no good evidence that porn has any detrimental effect on children," and the Sexualization Report points out that the risk of stumbling across adult content by accident is actually very small.

 

It also says: "Little work has been carried about on the nature of young people's experiences and their understanding of pornography and its place in their lives. What research exists suggests that young people seek out sexual material for a variety of reasons: curiosity, entertainment, facilitating masturbation, relieving boredom, increasing sexual knowledge, skills and confidence, to be transgressive, for the 'yuck' factor, and to develop opinions and capabilities."

 

Some will maintain that young people's access to pornography is linked to participation in risky behaviour, but the report continues: "This view relies heavily on studies that have been criticised, and on a tradition of research that suggests a correlation between young people's consumption of pornography and a series of 'negative' effects around sexual permissiveness. This tradition is underpinned by a moralistic view of sex that suggests that acceptance of premarital sex, casual sex and being sexually experimental is a problem, despite the fact that none of these activities are illegal or necessarily undesirable."

 

Robbins says: "What clearly does have an impact on children though is denying them sex education, suppressing their sexual identity, and shutting off access to child protection or mental health charities. In all this talk of porn filters, the rights of the children campaigners supposedly want to protect have been ignored or trampled. Children should have a right to good quality sex education, access to support hotlines and websites, and information about their sexuality."

 

And it's not just children who suffer. Laurie Penny says: "Policies designed for controlling adults have long been implemented in the name of protecting children.

 

"But if we really want to give children their best chance, we can start by denying private companies and conservative politicians the power to determine the minutiae of what they may and may not know. Instant access to centuries of information and learning is a provision without peer in the history of human civilisation. For the sake of the generations to come, we must protect it."

 

The time, energy and money spent implementing ineffective filters to police the internet would be put to far better use providing adequate sex education in schools, making sure charities like ChildLine have the resources they need, and giving support to parents who might need guidance on how to talk to their children about sex and relationships. No piece of technology, however well meaning, can ever be a substitute for that. Forget the filters, and let's talk about sex. An awkward conversation is better than no conversation.  

 

@Seej

 

 

Only reading DIVA online? You're missing out. For more news, reviews and commentary, check out the latest issue. It's pretty badass, if we do say so ourselves.

 

divadigital.co.uk // divadirect.co.uk

 

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