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Is the anti-porn filter only a band-aid?

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online pornographyEducation, not filters, should be the focus of the government’s actions.

On 24 July, Prime Minister David Cameron made a speech on ‘internet and pornography’ outlining a series of new policies.

One of these new policies in particular has elicited debate and no small amount of controversy: the decision to make porn filters opt-out rather than opt-in.

Currently, those wishing to apply a filter on their systems so that pornographic content cannot be accessed have to opt in to apply this filter.

Under Cameron’s new policy, the filter will be on by default; Internet Service Providers will contact their customers asking them if they want the filters turned off.

The rationale behind this move is that it will prevent children from accessing pornographic material.

According to Cameron, it will solve one of the cultural challenges thrown up by the internet which is ‘the fact that many children are viewing online pornography and other damaging material at a very early age and that the nature of that pornography is so extreme it is distorting their view of sex and relationships’.

There is a huge, and often divisive, debate about pornography and its effects within the feminist movement.

Leaving that debate temporarily aside, as well as the censorship and technology issues that others have written about, Cameron’s policy remains problematic.

The crux of the problem is that the filter does little to address the stated problem, which is that children are exposed, or given access, to materials which give them unrealistic and sometimes dangerous information and ideas about sex, relationships and sexuality.

In fact, it seems that the filter would change little at all. It isn’t a new, more sophisticated filter that children and teenagers would struggle to circumvent. It doesn’t create an extra layer of protection for children whose families already have the filter switched on.

It’s a way of doing little while seemingly taking action.

The Observer’s editorial described it as ‘a no-lose mini crusade’.

This interpretation is strengthened by a leaked letter from the department of education to internet service providers. The letter reveals that, ‘Without changing what you will be offering (ie active-choice +), the prime minister would like to be able to refer to your solutions are “default-on”’. In short, it’s a semantic rather than seismic shift.

If the government were indeed serious about the negative messages being sent to children about sex and sexuality, why does Cameron continue to support the Sun’s page 3?

Page 3 sends and reinforces the message that women are objects rather than human beings, and that our boobs matter more than our brains. The argument that it is a ‘consumer choice’ is spurious – children are exposed to it on public transport, in the newsagents and elsewhere.

Why isn’t the government focussing on providing decent sex education?

Let’s not forget that Conservative MP Nadine Dorries tabled a bill for teenage girls to be given compulsory lessons in sexual abstinence. In June 2013, Tory MPs voted against a bill to make sex and relationship education compulsory in schools.

A tangential issue is the way that Cameron couched this question in terms of the ‘corrosion of children’s innocence’.

While the sexualisation of children is a problem for our society, hammering home the idea of the ‘innocence’ of children and linking it to sexuality is problematic.

Children who display sexual behaviour or sexual curiosity do not lose their innocence, they are innocent because they are too young to make informed decisions.

This dichotomy between ‘innocent’ and ‘sexualised’ is as false as it is dangerous, and contributes to a climate where a judge can describe a thirteen-year-old girl a ‘sexual predator’ and let the man who had sex with her walk free.

Children and teenagers are negotiating their sexual awakening in a difficult environment.

If we are serious about changing the messages we send to children and teenagers about sex, it needs to be done across the board and not just online.

After all, there’s no better protection than knowledge and education.

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