On the 5th November 2015 the Bishop of Chester led a Lords debate “That this House takes note of the impact of pornography on society.” Rt Revd Mike Hill, Bishop of Bristol, spoke in the debate on how pornography impacted on the way adults and children formed relationships. The Bishop of Chester’s opening speech can also be read here.
The Lord Bishop of Bristol: My Lords, I join those congratulating my noble friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester on bringing this debate into your Lordships’ House. I also commend his detailed knowledge of DH Lawrence. I recall that when I was in school there were merely three pages of his book that captured our attention.
Despite what my noble fiend Lord Giddens has said—and there is much sense in what he said—there is a general anxiety in our society about pornography and its impact, not just on our children and young adults but also on adult behaviour.
Lord Giddens: I thank the right reverend Prelate for giving way, because I do not want be misunderstood. We need controls, and these controls have to be solid; but at the same time, one must realise that this is such a rapidly changing world that we do not have a lot of information about how we are going to deal with this in many policy areas which are much more fuzzy.
The Lord Bishop of Bristol: I agree entirely with what my noble friend has just said. I am searching for a bit more meaning because, as I was about to say, a number of issues seem to require further thought and research before we seek to change the law. When we see the kind of rapid change that my noble friend has clearly outlined, there is a responsibility on society, and indeed on government, to make an early assessment of where this kind of change is leading society. That is all I would say to my noble friend. That said, we not should be complacent and do nothing. There is enough evidence, although I agree that we need more, for concern. I look forward to hearing how the Minister will respond to this important debate.
I recently spoke with a woman in my diocese who is responsible for teaching about relationships and sex education in secondary schools across the city of Bristol. She told me that she was completely unprepared for the apparent normality of children and young adults using pornography to learn about how human beings ought to relate to each other sexually. The problem with this unofficial pathway for youngsters to learn appropriate sexual relationships and activity is that it uses sex undertaken purely for the camera and beyond the scope of any relationship. Without sinking into graphic detail, it portrays sexual techniques that are designed to be watched. Most human sexual activity —though I agree not all—is neither watched nor undertaken for the camera. The point is that young people’s minds are being formed at this stage and for this stuff to be seen as normal is both bizarre and potentially damaging.
I am sure that something needs to be done; the issue is: what? We tried to frighten people off the use of classified drugs but it had minimal success. It is difficult to believe that seeking a similar strategy to scare people off the use of pornography will have anything but minimal impact.
At the same time, there seems to be an unwritten assumption, reinforced in the media, that although it is fine to take action to protect children, adult use of pornography is not a legitimate public policy concern, unless, of course, the material viewed is illegal. This position would be logical and defensible if pornography threatened adults with no harm, but I am not yet clear whether that is the case. I want to look particularly at the impact of pornography use on couples’ relationships. I am especially concerned about the evidence that pornography is potentially affecting adult relationships. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester noted in his speech of 17 July that pornography can be,
“a huge factor in relationship breakdown”.—[Official Report, 17/7/15; col. 844.]
This is something that the Government, with their emphasis on family-friendly policy, must at least take notice of.
It has to be said and conceded, however, that some couples claim—I am not sure that I understand this—that pornography has improved their relationship. In its 2015 report The Way We Are Now: The State of the UK’s Relationships, Relate reported that 19% of people in its survey said that pornography had a positive impact on their relationship. It also needs to be said that the very same report said that 23% of 16 to 34 year-olds reported that it had had a negative impact on their relationship. The report said that pornography use,
“is an increasingly common topic in the counselling room”.
I suspect it is also a concern for others who do not make it to counselling and help.
Last year, in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues, the results of an analysis of a large set of data collected annually in the USA since 1973 showed that adults who had watched an X-rated movie in the past year were more likely to be divorced and more likely to have had an extramarital affair when married. They were 12% less likely to report having a very happy marriage if they were still married, and 7% less likely to report being happy overall. The authors conclude that their research adds to the,
“negative consequences of pornography use”
documented by other researchers,
“who found that pornography use was negatively correlated with sexual satisfaction and positively correlated with infidelity”.
NetDoctor, meanwhile, has reported:
“Various experts from Relate and the College of Sexual and Relationship Therapy (COSRT), have reported that solitary use of porn is a huge factor in relationship breakdown and that it is ‘spiralling out of control’”.
Dr Kevin Skinner, writing in Psychology Today, has also stated:
“My heart hurts for individuals caught in the web of pornography. When you see grown men crying in your office because they can’t quit and when they tell you that porn is costing them everything, you quickly realize that pornography is not just a leisurely activity. Then, when you meet a woman who feels rejected, not good enough, and unloved by her partner because of porn, you want to change something about the way things are being done”.
He also refers to Dr Jill Manning’s testimony to the US Senate which stated that,
“56 percent of divorce cases involved one party having an obsessive interest in pornographic websites”.
The link between pornography and relationship breakdown should be—
Lord Giddens: I am sorry to keep interrupting the right reverend Prelate but for that to be proper research you would have to have analysis of people who were not in that sample and who were acting differently—the opposite. You do not have that. I am making a social science point.
The Lord Bishop of Bristol: I would not argue, as they are arguing, that it is the sole cause, but I think that they are saying that there is enough of a correlation. It was a reasonably large sample and that was their conclusion. My noble friend is free to disagree: I am just quoting what I have read and has concerned me.
It is assessed that the cost of family breakdown per annum is £47 billion. Other noble Lords have drawn parallels with the gambling industry. Both pornographers and the purveyors of gambling services provide a product that comes, for some, with a very real social price tag. A judgment has been made not to ban either product because others utilise the services without a problem, but the scale of the problem posed by these services in some contexts is such that the providers should be called to account. It seems to me that at present the Government calls the gambling industry to account to some degree. The industry has the threat of a levy over it in the Gambling Act, and, on the basis of that, it provides £6 million per annum. What are the Government doing to call pornographers to account for the negative effect of pornography on our social environment and, specifically, for the fact that these activities undermine government policies to counter family breakdown by promoting commitment and stable two-parent families? I look forward to the Minister’s response.