Bishop of Chester calls for strengthened regulations to combat addiction to online pornography

On 17th July 2015 the Bishop of Chester, Rt Revd Peter Forster, spoke during the Second Reading debate of Baroness Howe’s Online Safety Bill. The Bishop welcomed the Bill and called for further measures to help adults who are addicted to online pornography.

The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, I follow two Members of the House with very distinguished medical careers who speak with great authority, which I cannot match. However, I want to approach 14.03 Bishop of Chesterthe subject in a slightly different way.

I join noble Lords in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, on introducing her new and improved Bill. Though the Bill has been drafted very properly with children in mind, I want to refer to its potential relevance for adults who are struggling with pornography. I am grateful to the charity Naked Truth, which seeks to support adults caught in the net of pornography addiction, for briefing me for the debate.

Clause 1 would allow any and all households to decide that they did not want to access so-called adult content. I do so dislike the description of pornography as “adult content”, but that seems to be part of our language, sadly.

There is an illuminating parallel between addiction to pornography and addiction to gambling. However, whereas the economic and social costs of gambling are relatively well understood, the equivalent damage caused by adult addiction to pornography is much less appreciated in our society. Research findings across a number of studies suggest that the use of pornography in an addictive way is a significant factor in at least half of all relationship breakdowns. The leading UK health website NetDoctor states:

“Various experts from Relate and the College of Sexual and Relationship Therapy … have reported that solitary use of porn is a huge factor in relationship breakdown and that it is ‘spiralling out of control’”.

Testimony to the US Senate by Dr Jill Manning claimed that in over 50% of divorce cases, one party having an obsessive interest in pornography was a significant contributor to the relationship breakdown. There are many more examples of expert testimony that could indicate that adult addiction to porn has pernicious effects, not only on individuals and their close relationships but on wider society.

This has to be set in the context of the huge cost to the Exchequer, which means to all of us, of relationship breakdown. The latest estimate from the Relationships Foundation is no less than £47 billion a year. Even if that figure can be disputed and it is, say, only half that, it is still a huge amount of money and more than 50 times the amount that will be saved this year by the so-called bedroom tax or spare room subsidy, which has attracted so much attention but is only a fraction of the cost of the effect of pornography in our society. Beyond the direct financial costs there are other impacts on society, not least the effect on women in the workplace who see colleagues misusing equipment to access pornography.

One of the ways in which gambling addiction has been addressed is through the principle of self-exclusion. This is now a well-respected tool to address the problem. Perhaps the Bill could be strengthened by explicitly offering that option in the case of pornography addiction.

The recent gambling legislation has found a way to address the regulation of websites situated outside the UK. This Bill could offer an opportunity to do the same in relation to the very many sites that are dedicated to pornography. Of course, many of them are free, but, as was said earlier, often the free sites are there to entice people and trap them into subscribing to fee-paying sites. I very much hope that we can adopt a similar approach to attempting to regulate pornography on the net as we have done in relation to gambling.

In conclusion, I very much welcome this Bill but would wish to see it strengthened to provide a more explicit benefit to adults who suffer from addiction to pornography, as well as to strengthen child protection. This would also carry huge benefits for wider society.