UK: It’s time for a public health campaign about harmful online porn

UK: It’s time for a public health campaign about harmful online porn

The Women And Equalities select committee has published its report on sexual harassment towards girls and women.

The committee found that “sexual harassment pervades the lives of women and girls and is deeply ingrained in our culture”. Roughly two-thirds of women have experienced sexual harassment in public places, and that number rose to 85 per cent of women aged 18-24.

The report argues that, because sexual harassment often starts when girls are still in their school uniform, it “becomes “normalised” as girls move through life: it shapes the messages boys and girls receive about what is acceptable [...] and restricts [women’s] freedoms in public spaces”.

The committee also makes specific recommendations to tackle the problem. This morning on BBC News, chair Maria Miller stated that “one law alone can’t stop this” and so a multi-faceted approach is needed if women and girls are to live in a safer, more equal world.

Potentially the most controversial recommendations involves recognising and highlighting the harmful impact of pornography on gender equality, and sexual harassment.

The report finds that “there is significant research suggesting there is a relationship between the consumption of pornography and sexist attitudes and sexually aggressive behaviours – including violence”. Quoted in the report, Dr Maddy Coy told the committee how a meta-analysis of research found that “there is a relationship between pornography consumption, attitudes that support sexual violence and the likelihood of committing sexual violence”.

The committee goes on to recommend a ban on watching pornography in public places such as on trains or buses, as well as taking an “evidence-based approach to addressing the harms of pornography along the lines of road safety or anti-smoking campaigns.”

Discussions of the potential harmful impact of pornography on attitudes towards sex and sexual violence have been raging for a long time. No one is saying that everyone who watches porn is going to walk outside and harass a woman on the street – or do worse.

But it cannot be ignored that we are no longer in the generation where accessing porn meant finding an abandoned copy of Razzle in a bush. Deeply misogynistic and violent pornography is now readily available online, and is watched by children as young as eleven.

While provision of sex and relationships education still patchy, teenagers are understandably turning to pornography to learn about sex. However, with much of even mainstream porn featuring sexual aggression, coercion, and a lack of interest in female pleasure, young people are early on exposed to very stereotypical and degrading images of sexuality which can feed into their attitudes towards women and sex.