The New Effort to Modernize Porn Laws

British Prime Minister David Cameron announced an opt-in porn policy for the UK recently.

British Prime Minister David Cameron announced an opt-in porn policy for the UK recently.

Two weeks ago British Prime Minister David Cameron made an unexpected announcement. Beginning shortly, he said, online pornography in the United Kingdom would be an opt-in service. Internet providers would be instructed to block lewd content by default. While Cameron’s rationale that the filtering would slow down child pornography is probably mistaken (offenders could simply opt in), he is correct in noting that internet porn is something unique in its destructive power. Compared to older sorts of smut, it is infinitely accessible and endlessly novel. It was almost impossible to be a porn addict a hundred years ago. Now there are millions of families affected by porn use. This is a radical shift in social habits, and it only makes sense that public policy should be re-examined in its light.

Cameron’s proposed policy on its face is not earth-shaking—it will still be legal to access pornography. But there has been an outcry among porn users who want it to be more than legal. On social news site Reddit, amidst the cries of tyranny, there was a chillingly common sentiment by commenters: “does this mean my wife (or parents, or family) will have to know if I want to opt in?” Cameron became the internet’s new villain. The swift, hostile reaction to the policy across the new media reveals the real implication of the policy for British indulgers: porn use will no longer be in secret.

There is a point to be made about the moral nature of the pornographic vice, which I will come to shortly. The more direct question for Britain at the moment is regarding the freedom of porn users and creators. It is true that Cameron’s policy is a form of censorship, and that it restricts in some degree the liberty of the individual. To the civil libertarian, this sort of mandate is anathema—to the fundamentalist, there is scarcely a good reason to make decisions on behalf of the individual. But while liberty is essential to a healthy society, there are other virtues worth considering.

Pornography, while a private indulgence, is not limited in its effects only to the user. In economics, when the negative effects of an activity spill over to uninvolved third parties, the cost they bear is called an externality. Think of the neighbor of a polluting plant. The problem with externalities is that the third party never agreed to the cost, and has no means of forcing the polluter to pay up. The result is over-pollution. The responsible approach of a modern society to an externality, when the parties do not resolve the issue themselves, is to accept a collective regulation. This is why governments restrict pollution and tax tobacco use, correcting externalities in ways that the voluntary market cannot ordinarily do. In a manner very similar to that of economic externalities, porn use tends to create moral externalities—social costs that fall on others, never automatically priced into the market of individual behavior, so to speak. The effect is exaggerated because the family members of the porn user are often not aware of the behavior.

What does porn do to families? There has been little quantitative study on the question. Of the research that has been done, including metastudies, there is a balance of evidence suggesting that porn use among males leads to increased aggression, less aversion to rape and a disconnection of sex from affection. In addition, there is stunning anecdotal data from divorce lawyers that internet pornography is a factor in around half of divorces. In the absence of a clear scientific consensus, however, it might be as useful to ask as a matter of imagination whether the spouses of porn users are normally aware of their partner’s porn use. If they are not aware, would they like to be aware? Does the fact of the secrecy imply that they would not approve of their partner’s porn use? Why would they not approve? What would it mean to a woman to know her husband spent most nights indulging in pornography?

I am admittedly unable to give definitive answers to any of these questions. However, I can offer my best guesses, and the honest reader will admit their plausibility. Porn is largely a secret vice, indulged in with infrequent exception for only selfish reasons. It is hidden because it would be emotionally scarring to loved ones if it were revealed. Despite its secrecy its effects on the user bleed into regular life. Porn use is often addictive, and the inability of men (and most of the hours spent watching porn are spent by men) to stop weakens sexual and emotional relationships, including marriage. So the question of how to approach porn laws must consider the family as well as the individual.

It is probably the case that Cameron is in over his head when it comes to the technical methods that will be needed to enforce his law. The internet is notoriously difficult to control. It may turn out that, in the effort to avoid blocking clean content, the filters will miss some of the offensive material on the internet. However, this is a small problem. The success of the system will not be that it prevents people from watching the stuff, as they can always opt in. The success of the system will be that in order to watch porn freely without going to the trouble of bypassing filters, users will have to admit to the other members of their household that they want to watch it. This is a check on behavior far healthier than a government ban. It will enable parents and spouses to be aware of what is going on in their own house. It is a modern response to a modern problem. This is no grave threat to liberty. It is in fact a victory—for familial transparency, honesty, and certainly decency.

This article first appeared in the Prince Arthur Herald on August 6, 2013.

One thought on “The New Effort to Modernize Porn Laws

  1. I small amount of lawyers decide what is right and wrong we the people should vote on pornography
    2016 john zambesi jack

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s