Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Burnside Writes

John Burnside on pornography and the Internet.

With elections approaching, there has been much talk about morality. By morality, I mean the peculiarly British fascination with sex, from Virginia Bottomley's attempts to prevent satellite stations broadcasting explicit sexual material, to a renewed interest in the views of Mary Whitehouse. In one sense a concern with the commodification of sex is A Good Thing - though I, for one, would worry if the power to decide what we may or may not view resided in the hands of a government minister or a self-appointed censor with her own, rather peculiar agenda.

Recently, because I am something of a sceptic, I tested the generally accepted view that explicit sexual material can easily be accessed via the Web. Unfortunately, the accepted view is true, and I soon found myself visiting a site which offered 'live girls' (sic), 'thousands' of explicit pictures, and a whole host of links to similar pages. It was an ugly experience and, on a single viewing, I would count myself amongst those who say something must be done, (though not, I would stress, on the side of the Whitehouse faction).

Many people will object that there is no proven link between pornography and sexual violence. If I remember correctly, the same claims were made about the question of incitement to racial hatred and actual violence against racial minorities. There may be grey areas but, as in the case of combat knives, we could find a working definition of what is harmful, if the political will was there.

The problem lies in the fact that, so often, the only people who care enough to exert pressure in this area are those who would deny sexuality, (except within a very narrow compass) altogether. Anyone who recalls the 'successes' of the Whitehouse brigade, when fine plays and interesting television programmes were banned or forced to close because of an aesthetically-challenged right-wing minority, will not wish to return to those days. On the other hand, we must recognise the role of pornography in sexual violence, and start working to eradicate it, on the Web and elsewhere, for everyone's sake.

Responses to this article

Reply received Monday, 23rd November 1998:

There is no question that pornography and sexual content is easily accessible in the internet. However, to think that we have the right to shut it down is wrong. What I mean by this is that instead of trying to shut down porn sites, we must instead educate our children about morality. If we teach our children that these porn sites are places where women and men degrade themselves for the purpose of sexual freedom and money, than our children will learn the value of morality. I also think that we should not try to shut down these pron sites because our great country gives these people the right to express themselves in any way shape or form. Lets stop worrying about how much porn sites there are in the internet and lets talk to our children about righteousness and integrity.

Luis Osejo, LOsejo25@aol.com

Reply received Wednesday 26th February 1997:

I read John Burnside's article with interest, as the issue of porn on the 'Net is something which I have kept an interested, and at times amused, eye on over the last few years. During that time there has been a remarkable change in what is "out there" on the web.

When the web was young (and we are only talking 3 or 4 years ago here) it was pretty much a free-for-all. If you knew where to look, there was porn out there and it was unregulated. Individuals could put up whatever data they wanted and porn was one of the things that they had an interest in "sharing for the greater good"

As time went on, the number of people using the web increased by several orders of magnitude. Free porn on the 'Net is something which a lot of people search out and find quite quickly. As a result, any such sites started getting more and more hits which caused their downfall when service providers started asking questions.

Up until 1996 or so, during which most of the hype about porn on the 'Net came up, things were relatively stable. There was porn out there, for free and easily accessible, but only from sites which could either sustain the high hit rate or smaller sites which would come and go of their own accord.

Over the last year the amount of free porn put up by amateurs on the web has reduced to almost untraceable levels while the companies selling access to their archives of (and I quote Johns article) "'thousands' of explicit images" tend to dominate. This is a very significant change. While these sites often offer very limited collections of "preview" images, to gain access to what they have to offer, you have to pay.

Suddenly porn on the 'Net is just as accessible, or on the other hand, just as restricted, as porn on the high street. If you want it, you can get it - if you have the money and can prove your age.

So, while porn on the 'Net may have been a "problem" in the past, it is considerably reduced now and has found it's proper place. I move on then to wonder exactly what the "problem" is with porn on the 'Net? If it is something along the lines of parents being worried that their kids will "accidentally" be exposed to it, then this is just a misunderstanding of the web. As most people with any experience of the web know, you have to search long and hard to find whatever you want on the web, be it porn or the reference you need for a paper!

If the problem is that parents don't want their kids to go out looking for this stuff and then find it, I can offer no solution. While it may be the case that the web makes it easier for underage people to find porn, there are others.

Lastly, there is the point John raised in the last line of his article; I quote:
"On the other hand, we must recognise the role of pornography in sexual violence, and start working to eradicate it, on the web and elsewhere, for everyone's sake"

I fundamentally disagree with Johns implications (which he admits are unproved) of such a link and the simple assumption that porn is bad. However, a discussion of the social effects and uses of porn are beyond the scope of this publication.

I think that this moralistic statement is out of place, both in Ariadne and in an article which begins by saying about how morality is currently a political football and which tried to show both sides.

Glen Monks
Network Systems Officer