Opt-in for porn? Then why not for religion?

Leslie Green, a distinguished legal philosopher who has written extensively about issues of obscenity and pornography, challenges our case study on online porn filters.

Here is Leslie Green’s response to Sarah Glatte’s case study on Britain’s proposed online porn filters.

“I have three reservations about Sarah’s thoughtful comments:

1. I’m not sure if I count as an ‘expert’ but, as far as I know, there is no valid and reliable empirical evidence that shows that: “mainstream online pornography has become both physically and verbally more extreme, violent, and abusive.” More than what baseline? Remember that there has been a massive change in the *selection* effect: now lots of people can *see* what lots of other people find sexually interesting, and it horrifies them. In 1983, most people had no idea at all what most other people actually viewed, let alone what they would have viewed if they could. A valid measure of the sort Sarah needs must give a plausible and consistent index for ‘extreme’ and ‘violent’. We do not have have one. A reliable measure must get the same result when applied in different contexts, by different researchers. We do not have that either. (Indeed, most of the empirical studies about the *character* of online pornography have not had even one replication.) We just do not know whether the pornography actually consumed by people online is, now, worse, or better, or just different than it was pre-internet. (We do know that *more* is consumed. This is not surprising: when the price of a normal good falls, more of it tends to be consumed.)

2. Over-blocking is not the only relevant issue. What do we think about the motivation for, and likely effects of, the requirement that families (adult men, typically) will need *expressly to ask* for access to pornography? I think that part of the motivation for that policy is to *shame* men who use pornography, to *humiliate* them in front of their families, to *expose* them to the likelihood that the ‘smut list’ that will be retained by each ISP will eventually become public–all in order to frighten them from viewing any pornographic material at all, even in the privacy of their homes, even when it is perfectly lawful. I think it is wrong for governments to act with the motivation of shaming, humiliating, and frightening men in this way.

Would we be willing to endorse similar opt-in requirements for access to other online material where there is at least as good evidence that use of that material tends to produce behavioural changes that many regard as malign? Plausibly, viewing material from various fundamentalist religions tends to make its viewers: less tolerant of others, more sexist, more homophobic, and in some case also more violent. (Indeed, mainstream religions–not just fundamentalist ones–are among the *most* reliable vectors of sexist socialisation in the modern world. Strong religious conviction is positively correlated with just about all traits that feminists and liberals deplore. ) Would we endorse an opt-in scheme to protect people from unwilling, or easy, exposure to religious materials online? I would not. Against the speculative social benefits we need to set religious freedom. Everyone sees that. The case of pornography is similar.”

***
Plug:

I explore some of the issues about online obscenity in:
‘Obscenity Without Borders,’ in Rethinking Criminal Law Theory (Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2012), 75-93.

And this article also takes up other key issues:
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-9760.00091/abstract

See Sarah’s case study here. We welcome your comments on this topic.

Read more:


Comments (3)

Automated machine translations are provided by Google Translate. They should give you a rough idea of what the contributor has said, but cannot be relied on to give an accurate, nuanced translation. Please read them with this in mind.

  1. Dear Leslie,

    Thank you so much for your comments! Please let me try to address some of the issues you raised.

    1. You are correct in saying that there is no scientifically robust research to back up the claim that pornography has become more violent and abusive. I cite Peter Johnson here, formerly head of policy at the British Board of Film Classification (the link to the original BBC article is imbedded). I think it is worth reflecting on a point made by Gail Dines in her book Pornland. She argues that we should not assume that online pornography is simply demand driven and that pornography producers only provide the material that viewers want to watch. Like many businesses, the porn industry is trying to create demand, to shape customer preferences and so on. The argument is that competition in the industry as well as consumer desensitisation have pushed porn toward hard core extremes. Like any other business, the porn industry should be scrutinised with view to its effects on consumers (and its employees). I think this scrutiny is currently missing.

    2. Your second point of forcing consumers to opt out/in as a way of naming and shaming is only an assumption, albeit one which should be considered carefully. In the first place, the proposal to introduce porn filters aims (at least officially) at making it more difficult for under-age internet users to access pornographic content, which is not deemed suitable for their age. In theory, ‘opting-in’ to be able to access online pornography is comparable to being asked for your ID when purchasing any product (be it pornography, alcohol, other legal drugs, or weapons) in high street shops. I agree, however, that in practice, the current proposal of how to opt in or out of these porn filters is problematic and that better solutions must be found. A recent Guardian article (http://gu.com/p/3yh8a/tw) warns that many categories included in UK’s porn filters appear to be neither pornographic nor directly related to young children. This I am equally critical of.

    The other issue which you mention is whether or not the government or internet providers are – or should be allowed to – retain records of those who opt in to access pornography. I agree that this would be highly problematic and detrimental to the protection of citizens’ privacy rights. It would be important to have legislation in place to assure that those records are not being kept or made accessible in future. The underlying question for me was whether the same pornography regulations should apply online as offline.

    3. I think it is easy to forget that many governments already restrict what their citizens can view online – often of course to the detriment of free speech. For example, if I am not mistaken, Western governments already put a great amount of effort into monitoring the activities on religious fundamentalist websites. Initially, the aim of the proposed policy was not to ban pornography outright, but to make it inaccessible to children for whom this content is deemed unsuitable. Again, offline, we already have age restrictions for viewing, reading, or consuming pornography or violent content that is considered harmful to minors. It is true that the current technical implementation of the policy is far from ideal. More generally however, the question for me is not whether we should ban material for all internet users (this I would equally reject), but if and how we should enforce ‘offline rules’ online.

  2. “Opt in for porn? Then why not for religion?”
    If it is possible to condition the comprehension of an individual, such that they interpret whatever they encounter in a predetermined manner, without the process of personal evaluation intervening. Is not that in itself a form of perversion? If so then by educating our young to perceive in a particular way (rote), in contrast to instilling a capacity for cogent rationality (reason), are we not pre-emptively corrupting youth with our own previously received delusions? In addition to exposing them to mental manipulation, by whatever malevolent misanthropes may materialise.
    As many disparate classifications exist as to what constitutes porn, as there are delineating what the nature of religion might be. Even the acknowledged antithesis of that latter concept exhibits a marked resemblance to its presumed nemesis, when examined dispassionately. Honouring theory as if it were incontestable fact, is a form of hamartia our kind can no longer afford to indulge in, if pursuing continuity of existence. Had the solution to these challenges not been suppressed, when identified two and a half millennia ago, we might not be in the state of confusion we are now. Forsaking the realisation that all human interpretations can be brought to naught by a few simple queries, cannot bestow merit upon idiocy. But with free and open debate as part of humanity’s tool-kit, we have received a second chance. To strip our ‘understandings’ down to their component parts, and check their tolerance against the few truths we can actually confirm as certainties. Provided today’s establishment guardians, ever keen to preserve their own non-testable ideology, don’t seek to replicate the folly engaged in previously. It is simply not smart nor clever, rather the reverse, to perpetuate pretence as a paradigm. One possessing no presentable provenance, in terms of that actual reality in which we are all constrained to coexist.

  3. Hooray for porn. Hooray for religion. Hooray for speech. Here’s a filter for you–don’t open a web browser.

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