Wednesday 4 May 2011

Whose agenda is it anyway?

The availability of adult material, especially via the internet, is widely thought to be morally wrong and socially damaging. Last year, Conservative MPs started to pressure internet service providers into filtering porn: the so-called "opt-in" system. And unlike many proposals, this was one that attracted a lot of cross-party support.

On the surface it might have looked like Ed Vaizey and Claire Perry were bravely spearheading the campaign, boldly taking on big business, speaking for the little people. The truth is, it wasn't their idea. The real architects of "opt-in" are people you've probably never heard of before, but also probably should.

But first, let's consider something even more recent than the Perry and Vaizey suggestions for censoring the internet.

Yesterday, a sex ed bill proposed by MP Nadine Dorries passed its first reading in the Commons. To sum up, she thinks girls (and girls only) between the ages of 13 and 16 should be given lessons specifically on the benefits of abstinence.

Now, putting aside the vileness of suggesting girls exclusively hold the key to sexual morality, let's think about this. Abstinence is fine and even good. I myself happily waited until the age of 16 and not very many moments longer before having sex. The problem is, not everyone ends up abstaining, so good quality sex ed - which is not mandatory in this country - is ideal. And let's not forget sex ed has a lot it can offer besides just pregnancy and STI avoidance. Ideas like relationship preparedness, exploring issues around sexuality, self-confidence, and loads more can and should be part of comprehensive, well-designed SRE (sex and relationships education).

While there was a considerable amount of outrage from people concerned about SRE, more than a few counselled that we shoudn't worry - after all, the anti-sex, anti-abortion stance endorsed by Dorries has more in common with far-right American fanaticism than with British sensibilities. Such a 'daft' bill couldn't possibly pass, surely? The kind of rabid conservative agenda that plays so well on the other side of the Atlantic couldn't possibly last here, could it?

Actually, the rabid right-wing agenda is already here. And if the life cycle of the internet 'opt-in' proposal is any indication, the transplant of American hyperconservatism to UK shores seems to be doing just fine.

On 23 November 2010, Claire Perry, MP for Devizes, brought up the issue of internet porn, its purported effects on young people, and how the government should address it in Commons. Within a couple of weeks, the Sunday Times devoted several pages and an enormous magazine feature to the  same topic.

What is interesting about Perry's contribution to the Commons debate, and the Times feature, are certain similarities in what information was supplied and the conclusions made. But then, that's not altogether surprising. They were getting their information from the same source.

What did Perry claim? Loads of misleading statistics, for starters. One was that 60% of nine- to 19-year-olds had found porn online. ‘Ages 9 to 19’? That’s an arbitrary and very wide range, and instantly suspicious. It includes people who are over the age of consent (16+) as well as those old enough to appear in pornography (18+). But the way the number is presented gives the impression that the majority of 9-year-old children are looking at these things. If Perry’s vague statistic were broken down by age, it would skew - heavily - towards the older side.

Perry also claimed: “A third of our British 10-year-olds have viewed pornography on the internet,” which would certainly be worrying if it were true. The figure is from Psychologies Magazine’s 'Put Porn In Its Place' campaign. The name alone suggests the conclusion was probably written long before the data were collected. Despite its name, Psychologies is not a peer reviewed academic journal, but a mass market magazine rather like GQ or Cosmo. The summary articles were written by Decca Aitkenhead, a travel writer and lifestyle commentator, not a researcher. Comprehensive critcism of the data is available here. In short, it's not a credible or reliable figure.

Claire Perry’s comments came one day after an event she attended at the Houses of Parliament, “The Harm that Pornography Does; Its Effects on Adults and Children and the Need for Regulatory Reform”. The event was organised by Safermedia, whose co-chair, Miranda Suit, quotes a particular report also prominently mentioned in the Sunday Times Magazine feature, with article citing "new research into the social costs of pornography from the Witherspoon Institute in America".

That report was written by an American group called the Witherspoon Institute.

But who are the Witherspoon Institute, anyway? The website makes much of the group's namesake, a Scottish Calvinist minister and signer of the Declaration of Independence. However, the Institute does not obviously appear to be either directly endorsed or funded by Witherspoon's family, but rather trading on the name.

Looking deeper, the 'research' turns out to be The Social Costs of Pornography: A Collection of Papers. It includes contributions from such notables as Patrick Fagan from the Family Research Council, a far-right American lobbying organisation. Fagan also works with the Heritage Foundation, once considered the architects of the Reagan administration's covert Cold War operations, and active supporters of George W Bush's international policy. Fagan's other recent papers include "Virgins Make the Best Valentines" and "Why Congress Should Ignore Radical Feminist Opposition to Marriage".

The Social Costs of Pornography has an entire section devoted to the conclusion that "Today’s consumption of internet pornography can harm children in particular." Having decided the outcome before assessing the evidence – a research no-no in responsible circles - they admit that the evidence as such is thin on the ground. "The few statistics available about the use of pornography by children and adolescents are even more difficult to assess than those concerning adults ... Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that children and adolescents are far more exposed to pornography via the internet than they ever have been before." How is it possible to make such sweeping conclusions when there are no data?

What the section does offer is a hotchpotch of statistics, some of which are at least 10 years old. It then reflects again: "But is there evidence that this exposure is harmful to children? For some people, no more evidence is needed." In spite of failing to show or imply the existence of a single study showing a cause-and-effect relationship between viewing pornography and harm. It continues, "However, even skeptics could not deny the evidence of harmfulness that is emerging in clinical settings. " Actually, yes they would. A skeptic would point out that unless you have presented any evidence, you cannot subsequently claim the evidence exists. You can’t admit the evidence doesn’t exist and then claim no more evidence is needed.

One must ask whether any of the material from the Witherspoon report is, as claimed in the Times, "new". It isn’t. For instance, "many people first encounter pornography on television in a hotel room," is one observation. Which the eagle-eyed will note is neither an internet phenomenon, nor a recent one, not likely to be true for young people born after, say, the 1970s. In terms of pop culture, it's about as relevant as citing Calvin Klein adverts (which the Times piece does on its very first page).

The aim of the Witherspoon Institute is clear: "political leaders should use the bully pulpit," they advise. Celebrities, too, are urged to apply pressure. And finally, the Witherspoon report returns to the necessary admission that the data do not support their cause: "Some of the most important parts of our laws could not be justified if they had to hinge on a proof of material injuries."

Like many think-tanks, Witherspoon has a strong bias. They also admit – repeatedly – that the evidence is insubstantial. Are they a good source of information for journalists? For policy makers? Are the people who hope Perry and Vaizey will do right by young people at all concerned how this looks - like UK policy is being spoon-fed to the current government by some of America's most extreme social conservatives?