The UK government wants all adult sites to use age verification and Britain is once again hysterical. Everyone watches it, so let's have a nuanced debate.

The UK government wants all adult sites to use age verification and Britain is once again hysterical. Everyone watches it, so let's have a nuanced debate, argues Abi Wilkinson.

Like most 20-somethings, I’m pretty relaxed about the idea of internet porn. In general, when it comes to other people’s sex lives, as long as it’s safe and between consenting adults I don’t consider it my place to judge. While I do question the extent to which anything people do for money in a capitalist system is truly a free choice, it’s not clear to me that fucking on camera is a special case.

The porn industry as it actually exists has widespread issues, of course, many of which reflect problematic gender dynamics at a wider societal level. And it should go without saying that coercion and abuse are abhorrent in any context. However, in theory, at least, ethical porn is totally possible – and some companies do make an effort to maintain higher standards. It would be better if viewers insisted on this across the board, the same way it would be better if we all refused to purchase sweatshop-produced clothing and smartphones.

Let’s be real though: genuinely improving the conditions of workers tends to require government intervention: properly enforced regulations and a welfare safety net that ensures people always have another option, and aren’t obliged to do things they hate just to pay the bills.

Regulating porn is a pretty polarising issue. On one side of the debate are swathes of people who bristle at the very suggestion such a thing is possible or desirable. It’s strange to hear even committed socialists sound like libertarians when talking about one particular type of work, but it makes sense when you consider the long history of state interventions in the sex industry causing more harm than good – even when protecting workers has been offered as the justification.

Critics are also reasonably suspicious of censorship that seems to be motivated by puritanical instincts, like the UK government’s decision to ban adult films featuring “non-conventional sexual acts” such as facesitting and urination.

In the opposing camp are people so keen on regulation they come across like modern-day Mary Whitehouses. Many are either religious traditionalists or radical feminists, who’ve formed something of an uneasy alliance in recent years – united by a shared desire to stamp out commercial sex altogether. It’s easy to dismiss all proponents of regulation as prigs and authoritarians, but looking at the widespread exploitation associated with the porn industry I find it hard not to be somewhat sympathetic. Some tightening of controls wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, but legislation can often have unintended consequences.

The UK government’s plan to introduce age checks on porn websites seems to have split people along the usual lines, with communication across the divide being all but impossible. Opponents of the measure argue that forcing people to hand over credit card details is a major privacy risk. They point to the Ashley Madison hack, in which the details of thousands of individuals seeking extra-marital affairs was leaked on line, as evidence of what could go wrong.

Supporters dismiss this concern as trivial compared with the harm of allowing under 18s to view hardcore pornography. They stress the prevalence of violent material in particular, and argue that teenagers are not equipped to differentiate between fantasy and reality. In some cases it’s even suggested that people viewing porn deserve to be publicly embarrassed. Or at least, that it’s a risk they should be willing to take.

It’s frustrating that as a society, we seem unable to have a more nuanced debate about these issues. It’s quite possible to believe teenagers having access to hardcore, violent pornography has negative psychological and social consequences, and also that forcing people to hand over credit card details to view adult material is an unacceptable privacy risk and breech of individual liberty.

Maybe there’s a way to address the issue without the downsides of the government’s current plan. Currently, mobile phone operators require customers to opt out of adult content blocks. The filters used are imprecise and sometimes ban sexual health websites and other harmless content, but it’s hard to see why a similar system couldn’t be designed that only restricts porn.

Internet service providers could block hardcore pornography as default, and require users to verify their age to have access. No doubt some privacy campaigners would still object to this collection of data – but porn is so commonplace nowadays the potential for embarrassment seems more limited. The database wouldn’t distinguish between people watching gentle, missionary lovemaking and unusual fetish material. Besides, ISPs already do hold more detailed information about our browsing habits. These companies can keep track of the pages we scroll through and see.

Perhaps there are issues with this plan that I’ve not properly considered, but at the very least it shows there are more than two possible options to explore. Regulation is far more likely to be successful if it’s approached as a collaborative process – with both performers and privacy experts being consulted as part of the legislative process – rather than the current polarised debate. You’re all watching pornography (well, most of you), so stop flapping and let’s have a mature and nuanced debate.

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