Bishop of Chester leads Lords debate on the impact of pornography on society

On the 5th November 2015 the Rt Revd Peter Forster, the Bishop of Chester, hosted a debate in the House of Lords “That this House takes note of the impact of pornography on society.” The full text of his speeches opening and closing the debate are below, as is the speech from the Government Minister in reply. The Bishops’ speech can also be watched online here. The Bishop of Bristol also spoke in the debate and his remarks can be seen here.

The Lord Bishop of Chester:
My Lords, your Lordships may feel that they have sometimes listened to a speech from these Benches and thought that the speaker is not entirely familiar with the subject. There is, of course, an old adage that generally the Bishop speaks and generally the Bishop speaks generally. I shall avoid an echo of the confessional, but I can say that my first-hand knowledge of pornography is very limited. Of the range of vices available to me, I have been tempted by most, but not in any significant way by pornography. If the statistics are to be believed, that makes me a rather unusual, if not exotic, creature.

Pornography is a very widespread feature of western society, especially since the advent of the internet age. In my ministry I have come across addiction to pornography as a factor in individual marriage breakdown. As a Bishop, I have had two of my clergy prosecuted for downloading child sexual abuse images, usually called child pornography. Both these priests were given custodial sentences and both are unlikely ever again to exercise the Christian ministry for which they were trained.

As I understand it, the sheer volume of cases of downloading child pornography has overwhelmed the police to the point that prosecutions are no longer routinely brought. Will the Minister comment specifically on this point and let the House know if and why possession of child pornography is now taken less seriously by the criminal justice system?

Beyond this direct contact in my ministry with the consequences of pornography, I have been struck by a whole series of warnings that I have read about. Earlier this year the BBC reported a survey of 700 children aged 12 or 13. Some 20% said that they had already seen pornographic images that had shocked or upset them. More than 10% said that they had taken part in or had made a sexually explicit video. Half of those contacted were not yet teenagers. The director of Childline was reported as saying:

 “Children of all ages today have easy access to a wide range of pornography. If we as a society shy away from talking about this issue, we are failing the thousands of young people it is affecting … they also tell Childline that watching porn is making them feel depressed, giving them body image issues, making them feel pressured to engage in sexual acts they’re not ready for”.

Also earlier this year the Timesreported a study by the University of Bristol School for Policy Studies across a range of European countries, including the UK. It found that 40% of the children surveyed, this time between the ages of 13 and 17, had suffered sexual coercion of some sort ranging from rape to being pressurised into unwanted sexual activity, often with elements of physical violence. A television programme in the past week rather vividly brought out the situation reflected in that survey.

Last week the Prime Minister told the other place that he had negotiated an opt-out to protect the UK from the new net neutrality provisions for the European Union, which would make the current voluntary adult content filtering arrangements in the UK by the main internet service providers illegal. We should all be grateful to the Prime Minister for his commitment to keep children safe, but can the Minister confirm whether this will require legislation which, I assume, will take up the main provisions of the Online Safety Bill in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, which had its Second Reading in this House in July? I pay tribute to the noble Baroness for her persistence in raising these issues over the years. Will this protection extend to all ISP providers and not just the big five, which cover 90% of the market? Furthermore, in the Conservative manifesto there was a commitment to stop,

“children’s exposure to harmful sexualised content online, by requiring age verification for access to all sites containing pornographic material”.

Can the Minister say when the Government will deliver on this important manifesto commitment?

I turn to the wider impact of pornography on our society. I will begin by making some remarks which have been supplied by the judiciary. Earlier this year the Lord Chief Justice gave evidence to the Justice Committee in the other place and referred to deeply disturbing criminal cases which had been influenced and intensified by pornography. These were not only sexual offences against children, although that was a major concern, but offences against adults, and especially women. Many other judges have referred to the influence of pornography on criminals in relation to particular cases.

Looking beyond the influence of pornography on serious crime, there is a growing body of evidence that regular interaction with pornography often has an adverse effect upon the close family and intimate relationships that are such a crucial part of human flourishing. Human beings are characterised by a high degree of what I might call intersubjectivity. Through the acquisition of language and in other ways we have a great disposition and aptitude towards communicating with each other and developing deep interpersonal relationships. David Attenborough brought this out with typical brilliance in the last episode of his series “Life on Earth”, looking at human beings from a biological perspective.

The underlying problem with pornography is that in particularly significant and sensitive areas of human life it encourages people to view other people simply or primarily as objects to be used and discarded. The danger is that in tacitly or openly accepting the pervasive presence of adult pornography in people’s lives, we are choosing to make the attitudes which lie behind and in pornography seem normal: objectification, exploitation, and, very often, abuse.

As a society we have recognised the need to have vigorous procedures to protect children from abuse and harm, and have begun to realise how endemic and deep-seated abusive attitudes have been. This new awareness is entirely to be welcomed, and needs to be pursued with vigour. I hope that the new inquiry under Justice Lowell Goddard will do this and try to unravel the causes of this disastrous feature of recent history, including the growing and easy availability of pornographic material as one underlying cause.

However, this leaves young people still exposed to much damaging material which presents them with distorted images of life. If this is true of both boys and girls, it is girls who arguably suffer the worst consequences, with poor perceptions of their own bodies and the damage that flows from that. The sharing of sexually explicit images via the internet and mobile phones is another dimension of the potential harm, especially when they are shared with other people. In adults, of course, this can produce so-called revenge porn, which I am glad to say has recently been recognised as a criminal offence.

The damage which is inflicted, especially but not only on young people, should not be seen as only psychological. Indeed, we should not think that psychological damage is in itself less important than physical damage. There is growing evidence of a direct and potentially permanent impact upon the brain itself, which provides a biological aspect to the phenomenon of addiction to pornography. In preparation for this debate I contacted an experienced judge, who commented:

 “I have seen a good number of cases where curiosities have become fused into compulsions because of this very dimension. Porn evidently produces something of an addictive neurochemical trap. The brain is affected biologically and a ‘new normal’ emerges. There is then (exactly as with drugs) often a quest for increased exposure, for increased stimulation and for more extreme images to arouse interest and retain attention. The pursuit of pleasure and release from sexual tension delivers only addiction and an actual decrease in pleasure unless fuelled by more extreme material”.

That is the comment of an experienced judge in our country.

I am grateful to the charity, Naked Truth, which attempts to help such addicts to recover from their addiction, for access to the academic studies that have been undertaken in this area. This is the UK equivalent to the American charity, Fight the New Drug, which is mentioned in the Library note. I believe that one day such charities will receive the recognition that has been given to Alcoholics Anonymous and anti-smoking charities. It took a long time for the serious health hazards associated with smoking or excessive alcohol consumption and addiction to be recognised. We recall how for years the tobacco industry disputed the causal link with harm. We have yet to face the damaging effect of the widespread availability and use of pornography, and in that case too there is a powerful industry that discourages us from doing so.

I should acknowledge, as the Library note sets out, that there is a significant problem of formulating a tight definition of what is pornographic and I did not want to spend a lot of my limited time attempting a definition: I acknowledge that issue. Yet neither can we use the difficulty of establishing a precise definition as an excuse for ignoring the very obviously problematic character of pornography at all levels in our society. My hope today in bringing this debate to your Lordships’ House is simply that: to engage in a debate and recognise how important the various issues raised by it are, perplexing though they may be in various ways.

As I understand it, to date the Government are content to try to draw a sharp distinction between children and adults as far as access to pornography is concerned. I can understand this attempt to protect the free choices that adults may make and I acknowledge the dangers of trying in some way to ban pornography. In the internet age this is unlikely to be successful, even if attempted, and such attempted curbs can easily be counterproductive in other ways. It is sometimes said that if something is banned in the Old Testament it was going on quite widely, so there are real issues about how we respond. Today, I want to draw to our attention an issue we are not very happy describing and talking about. Doing nothing does not seem right either, given the evidence that pornography clearly harms adults as well as children—men and women, but especially women. My question to the Government, and to us all, is whether it is right to strike a post of neutrality in the face of the obvious damage and dangers of the adult use of pornography.

I would like to end in a way that may surprise some Members of the House, so as to indicate the nature of the underlying problem as I have come to see it. I find myself to some degree at least with an unexpected bedfellow, if I may put it that way, in DH Lawrence. I am not sure whether bishops have defended DH Lawrence in your Lordships’ House before. He has certainly had a long time to wait for it happen.

As I understand Lawrence, a central concern in his writings was a conviction that in European civilisation the relationship between mind and body has become seriously dislocated. The relatively innocent understanding of sex that one sees in Chaucer or Renaissance art—in Botticelli for example—declined over the years into the brutality of modern pornography. I would like to quote Lawrence, from a famous but neglected essay, Pornography and Obscenity.

He said:

“Pornography is the attempt to insult sex, to do dirt on it”.

He referred to this as,

“the catastrophe of our civilisation”.

He went on to say:

“I am sure no other civilisation, not even the Roman, has showed such a vast proportion of ignominious and degraded nudity, and ugly, squalid, dirty sex”.

This is not the Bishop of Chester saying this but DH Lawrence, who wrote these prophetic words in 1929. What would he make of contemporary society? His vision was, I think, too idealistic, not least in how he saw human sexuality, but he did identify the problem that underlies the floodtide of unhealthy, objectifying, sexual pornography that we now confront. At its heart it is a spiritual problem, the problem of identifying and upholding a healthy view of human life in the context of the contemporary world’s attempt to reduce us to an undignified bundle of unfulfilled appetites.

I look forward to this debate and to the range of views that I am sure will be expressed on this difficult and, as I have said, perplexing subject.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Baroness Shields) (Con): My Lords, I am most grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester for introducing this most important and timely debate on the impact of pornography on both children and adults. Before I begin, I should say that the Government’s focus is of course on children because of the obvious need to protect them from exploitation, abuse and violence. However, what has been said today regarding the impact of pornography on sexual relationships, with a potential increase in violence and addiction, will be taken into consideration, and by no means do I want to minimise that in my comments.

As is abundantly clear from the debate, these are issues that we all care deeply about. I thank all participants for their valued contributions, bringing to bear the wealth of expertise and knowledge for which this House is renowned.

I shall start with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, which I thought were particularly prescient. He spoke about the ocean of technological change breaking through society. I think that that is the best way to put it, as the very nature of sexuality is evolving at an unprecedented pace. My noble friend Lord Cormack, rightly, said that this is an old problem but it is one that has been transformed by technology.

Many noble Lords have made it clear that an evidence-based approach is essential. That highlights the need to seek out more conversations like the one that we have had today. I therefore recommend that noble Lords bring forward any additional evidence that they come across in their research.

My noble friend Lord McColl spoke very eloquently about the brain activity of healthy people when exposed to prolonged incidents of pornography. It is very important that, in addition to the study he cited, we get evidence to add to the debate so that we understand the impact perfectly well and can make informed policy decisions.

The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, has been a pioneer in this area and I thank her for her counsel. I have worked very closely with her and appreciate all the work that she has done in this area. Rightly, she pointed out that the filter regime often leaves children able to access unsuitable content. In the last couple of weeks we have seen evidence that young people know a lot more about technology than we do. The TalkTalk hacking incident and the arrest and questioning of young people illustrates just how behind the curve many adults are and the fact that children are way ahead of us. Before we say that one solution or the other is going to solve a problem, it is important that we recognise that, whatever solutions are in place, they will fail at times. Young people are smarter with technology than we are. They will find a way around filters, and they will find their way to this material. Therefore, we must be realistic and put together a policy package that makes sense and can achieve the aims in the best possible way in most cases, although we will never be able to solve this problem completely.

Many powerful and emotive examples of the potential harms from pornography have been raised today. The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, said that human relationships are redefined by technology. The very nature of adolescence is changing beyond recognition. Some of the more extreme examples were raised by my noble friend Lord Farmer, who asked about causal linkages between the use of violent porn and sexual crime. We are of course aware of tragic cases where an individual’s use of extreme pornography has been linked to them committing serious offences. The Ministry of Justice introduced provisions in the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 making it an offence to possess pornography depicting rape or sexual assault. However, we are not aware of robust and conclusive evidence showing a causal link between increased access to pornography and sexual/violent crime. End Violence Against Women has noted:

 “Neither research nor practice-based evidence can effectively demonstrate a causal connection between pornography and violence against women”.

That, again, illustrates the importance of gathering more information and creating an evidence base with which to move forward. However, pornography and an increasingly sexualised culture more generally are noted as a “conducive context”, perpetrating certain stereotypes, particularly about men dominating women. The Government are committed to challenging stereotypes around sexual violence to ensure that people properly understand consent and to encourage the reporting of abuse. Since 2010, the Home Office has been running a successful relationship abuse and rape prevention campaign called This is Abuse.

I confirm that around the time we publish the consultation on age verification—it is upcoming and I will speak about it a bit more—we will publish independent research in this area. We look forward to noble Lords’ comments on that.

My noble friend Lord Farmer asked about injuries related to certain types of sexual activity. I confirm that I will take up this matter with the Department of Health and get back to him. He also talked about the amount dedicated to relationship support and asked whether it was enough. The Government will shortly be publishing their spending review and will go into detail in this area.

Regarding questions on porn addiction, the relationship counselling service Relate considers that porn addiction is a form of sex addiction. Support is available. It may not be enough but anyone who is concerned that they may be suffering from addiction to pornography can speak to their GP.

In response to the request from my noble friend Lord McColl, I will speak to colleagues at the Department of Health about meeting recovering addicts so that we can learn from their experiences.

I thank my noble friend Lord Farmer for his question on the objectification of women. Clearly, none of wants a society in which women in particular may be objectified or subject to negative stereotypes. The Government have, this year, published guidance for teachers on teaching about body image and consent, and they have produced the PSHE Association guidelines.

While it is not for the Government to dictate to consenting adults what sort of content they may legally access, we must remain mindful of the potential harms that pornography can exert on society, and particularly on the young and the vulnerable. In that context, we have learned about offences from the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, who has been unable to take part in today’s debate. We would like to explore the matter further and will come back to her on that. It is important that this issue has been put on the record today and, having consulted the Department of Health, I can confirm that the Care Act statutory guidance is very clear that exposing or subjecting vulnerable people to pornography, whether online or offline, is sexual abuse. It must not be tolerated and it must be dealt with. The Government are committed to preventing and reducing the risk of abuse of vulnerable adults and the example which was given clearly illustrates the importance of protecting the handicapped and vulnerable in our society.

Long-term, extensive use of pornography has been shown, in some studies, to have damaging effects, particularly in terms of addiction. We must therefore harness our collective talents and expertise, here and in the other place, to ensure the best outcomes for UK citizens. We agree with noble Lords who have spoken today that pornography should be considered as another category of potential addiction. As with other addictions to activities and products such as smoking, alcohol and gambling, we must ensure that people are supported and that children especially are protected. In response to the question from my noble friend Lord Farmer, many schools choose to teach about the impact of pornography as part of their PSHE curriculum. The non-statutory PSHE programme of study, produced by the PSHE Association, includes teaching about the role of sex in the media and its impact on sexuality, including pornography and related sexual ethics such as consent, negotiation, boundaries, respect, gender norms, and sexual norms. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol said, depictions of sexuality in porn are often aggressive and we need to help teachers educate young people to understand that these depictions do not reflect reality or healthy sexual relationships.

We also support and invest in schools to develop qualities such as confidence, leadership, self-discipline and motivation in their pupils; in other words, to ensure that young people are prepared for adult life. Furthermore, we should not ignore the important resources made available to schools and families through partnerships between government, industry and charities, which I will mention in greater detail in due course. As the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, reminded us, we must never forget the crucial role of parents and education in preparing children for life in modern Britain.

Invariably, any debate about pornography and its impact on society must address the internet. As UK digital citizens, we enjoy vital freedoms, particularly freedom of speech and freedom of expression, and access to all the information and opportunities the internet offers. However, it is equally clear that such freedoms bring with them risks, many of which have been outlined today, as well as responsibilities.

The younger generation is far more technologically aware than we are: they are connected to each other, and the wider world, through devices which did not even exist five years ago. We must always ensure that the safety, health and well-being of our children and young people are sacrosanct, and be mindful of the potential harms to impressionable, still developing minds. I trust that noble Lords here today will rest assured that these matters are taken extremely seriously by this Government, and will join me in recognising the huge progress that has been made to protect children online. The UK is leading the world in the fight to address the most heinous crimes against children online, as well as being at the bridge-head of ensuring that a child’s experience on the internet can be safe and positive. Internet service providers and mobile operators have taken important steps by introducing parental control filters to their internet services, and industry and charity partners continue to develop new, creative campaigns that educate and support parents, teachers, and children themselves, to safely navigate online risks. We need only look at the examples of recent initiatives to see how much has been achieved through working together: Parent Info, provided by CEOP and Parent Zone, is a free source of expert information for schools on how children can stay safe online; Internet Matters is aimed at parents and corrals the considerable heft of the four main ISPs—BT, Virgin, TalkTalk and Sky—to provide parents with valuable insight on online safety; Google’s Good to Know school roadshows, which are now taking place across the country, are taking digital citizenship lessons for teenagers straight into school assemblies; and the exemplary partnership between the NSPCC and O2 also delivers workshops, staff training, and online support.

I must inform the House that, following the telecoms single market negotiations in Europe, filters on home broadband, mobiles and public wi-fi have recently been called into question and last week the Prime Minister said in the other place that this may necessitate legislative action. We must be absolutely clear: the Government would never accept a position which diminished our ability to protect children online, and family-friendly filters are a key pillar of our efforts. As such, we can legislate in order to safeguard the existing arrangements with the UK’s main internet service providers and mobile network operators. The UK leads the world in the protection of children online and, should it be necessary to do so, we will enshrine in law the ability to provide family-friendly filters, which are a vital tool for parents. We recognise the excellent progress made by industry on this and the concerns raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, about age verification and smaller providers. We will consider these points and develop an approach in consultation with her and others.

However, the global nature of the internet means that the UK cannot solve these problems on our own. My work with the #We Protect global alliance, which was established by the UK Government, demonstrates that progress is achievable. For instance, working closely with government, Google and Microsoft have recently made significant progress in removing and eliminating pathways to child sexual abuse images and videos in their search results. As a result of these changes, Google has seen an eightfold reduction in people searching for this material. Both companies have also introduced technology to find and remove images of child abuse online, working in partnership with the Internet Watch Foundation. I will be using my experience to tackle further the issue that we have been discussing today: the effects of pornography on society.

There is deep concern about the ease with which minors can access online pornography and the effect it can have on their sexual development and overall health and well-being. The teenage brain has become a subject of much research recently. The University of Pennsylvania neurologist Francis Jensen says that teenage brains are hungry for stimulation yet the development of the frontal lobes is not yet complete. The repeated viewing of pornography can result in neuro-adaptation: literally rewiring the brain. The recent meta-analysis by Gert Martin Hald et al strongly supports the correlation with regard to pornography inducing violent attitudes against women and young people. The teenage brain adapts to pornography and changes occur in its internal circuitry, particularly in the pleasure and reward pathways. As my noble friend said, in time, the brain seeks more and more extreme pornography to get the same effect, with terrifying implications, potentially including the normalisation of sexual violence.

Children clearly do not necessarily have the tools required, or the life experience, that an adult would have, to deal with the same circumstance, so we must deal with the context. Although we are not aware of robust evidence suggesting there are causal links between sexual abuse of young people and pornography, I can confirm that we are taking action on a range of fronts to tackle the viewing, downloading and sharing of abuse imagery online. The Government have established the Child Abuse Image Database, or CAID, which became operational in December 2014. All UK police forces and the NCA will connect to it by the end of this year. This database provides tools to search seized devices for indecent images of children. It helps increase our ability to identify images and prosecute perpetrators.

The noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, mentioned revenge porn and her valuable work in this area. In the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, the Government created a new offence to tackle this. Alongside this, the Government Equalities Office launched a dedicated helpline in February. Since then, it has taken over 2,300 calls and supported over 370 victims. As my noble friend Lord Cormack said, we must consider the relative ease with which young people can access hardcore pornographic content online, as opposed to the offline world. We would not expect a minor to be able to wander into a sex shop on the high street and buy a DVD containing such material. However, the Government’s contention is that the online world needs to be brought into line with the physical world. The potential harms to children and young people of online pornography mean that the most responsible approach is to ensure that, while online freedoms should be protected, they should not jeopardise or come at the expense of the rights of children to a safe internet experience. Children should be able to enjoy the huge benefits the online world has to offer, but they must have the right to experience a happy and healthy childhood.

The noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, made some very valuable points, and I welcome her considered and questioning contribution. I assure her that the Government are determined to base their approach on evidence. We are engaging academics to ensure that what we do has the impact that we intend it to have.

Turning to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, we believe it is critical to maintain the balance between individual rights and protections for the young and vulnerable. We are persuaded of the harms for children and young people, hence our focus on under-18s.

Finally, even in the face of some of the horrific examples that we have heard today, I contend that there is great cause for optimism here. We can address the harms caused by pornography, and we can have rational, reasoned debate and discussion about what we can do and how society, and the lives of young people, can be improved. As always, noble Lords have been invaluable in supporting and challenging the Government to do more, and I will continue to seek your thoughts going forward.

The Lord Bishop of Chester: I thank the Minister for her comprehensive reply. There were a few questions that she did not cover; no doubt she will write to those concerned. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, mentioned Archdeacon Grantly from the Barchester chronicles. Unlike the Bishops, the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, referred to hell at one point. Archdeacon Grantly had his own definition of hell, which was an eternity of having to listen to his own sermons. Whether that applies to Members of your Lordships’ House having to listen to contributions here, I shall leave open.

The debate certainly demonstrated what a complex subject this is in a society that is developing so rapidly. I have said before that the internet age—the digital revolution—is like steam power in the 18th century and its impact on the 19th, or the internal combustion engine in the 19th and its impact on the 20th. Now we are doing the same for the 20th and the 21st. It is even more powerful than those earlier revolutions. It was very easy then to drift into problems without seeing them. We drifted into the First World War without realising that the whole nature of warfare had changed by industrialisation.

I hope that this debate has usefully aired a range of views on this subject, which we find difficult to talk about. In that respect, it has been very helpful. I am very pleased, if I may say so, that the two very distinguished social scientists spoke in the debate; I am enormously grateful for their contributions. Evidence is very important. We seem to agree pretty much that the evidence is there in relation to protecting children. Broadly speaking, there is agreement on that. There is less agreement on the question of harm to adults: that is an open question. The noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, who took a different line from me to some degree, said it was an issue that we hardly knew anything about. I agree with her on that, in many ways. She asked, “Does the chicken or the egg come first?”. When you are looking at a chicken omelette, that question becomes a bit academic. We will have to at least try to answer it.

I thank everyone who has taken part. The future must lie with research and education, and, I hope, digesting the lessons that we all learned in this debate.

Motion agreed.

(Via Parliament.UK)

%d bloggers like this: