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.
My Lords, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester on securing this important debate.
There was a time when debates about pornography could be characterised as being a matter of moral sensibility versus free choice. In that context, the public policy response tended to be: we must protect children but, where adults are concerned, this is a matter of choice so long as the pornography in question is legal. The debate has now become more complicated as a result of an increasing recognition of some of the practical effects of pornography use, one of which relates to health. I am speaking in today’s debate as a doctor and will focus my comments on the growing health concerns surrounding pornography addiction in adults.
There is now increasing evidence to suggest that the brain activity of individuals who consume large volumes of pornography is similar to the brain activity of those with other addictions—notably, an addiction to drugs. Research conducted by Dr Valerie Voon and colleagues at the University of Cambridge highlighted this point. The study examined, using functional MRI scans, the brain activity of 19 individuals with compulsive sexual behaviours, known as CSBs, and 19 individuals without CSBs while watching both sexually explicit and non-sexually explicit videos. An additional 25 volunteers without CSBs viewed the videos without being scanned. The research revealed that individuals with CSBs showed a greater desire or “wanting” to view the sexually explicit content but not necessarily a corresponding enjoyment or “liking” of the material. The researchers concluded that the dissociation of wanting and liking is similar to incentive motivation theories which can be found in those with drug addictions. They also reported that the research revealed:
“There are clear differences in brain activity between patients who have compulsive sexual behaviour and healthy volunteers”,
and that these differences are like those of drug addicts.
Similarly, a study conducted jointly by the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and the Psychiatric University Hospital Charité at St Hedwig Hospital used scans to examine the brain activity of 64 healthy men as they viewed sexually explicit and non-sexually explicit videos. The results were published last year in the journal JAMA Psychiatry and revealed that constant pornography consumption can reduce the size of the parts of the brain that relate to reward. One of the authors of the research stated:
“We therefore assume that subjects with high pornography consumption require ever stronger stimuli to reach the same reward level”.
At this point, I should say that in preparing for today’s debate a case was drawn to my attention that I found rather disturbing. The suggestion is made that there is an absolute divide between adult pornography and child pornography, the latter always being completely and utterly unacceptable. That divide, however, is not as clear as we might think. I know of at least one case of someone who was drawn into adult pornography use but who, as he was sucked into it, found that it provided less and less of a stimulus, and he ultimately ended up using child pornography and was prosecuted.
When considered together, these studies highlight the physiological effects of excessive pornography consumption on the brain, but what of the other effects? In 2012, the University of Sydney conducted an online survey of 800 people who used internet pornography. Of these, 30% acknowledged that their work performance suffered due to excessive viewing. The University of Cambridge research, to which I referred earlier, also reported that participants had acknowledged negative consequences to their pornography use, including an impact on relationships, sexual dysfunction and suicidal ideation, as the right reverend Prelate mentioned.
The charity Naked Truth exists to help people wrestling with pornography addictions and can provide numerous testimonies from recovering porn addicts, to whom public policymakers need to listen. These highlight very powerfully the destructive nature of pornography addiction. As the right reverend Prelate said, similar stories have also been published in recent months on the websites of the BBC and the Times. I am not suggesting that sexual addiction is always driven by pornography, nor am I saying that everyone who uses pornography has an addiction, just as I would not say that everyone who gambles becomes a problem gambler. However, for some individuals using pornography or gambling, their behaviour becomes a problem for themselves and those around them. We need to face up to this fact, as it relates to pornography use, and consider the appropriate public policy response.
I conclude by asking the Minister two questions. First, what are the Government currently doing to engage with public policy challenges emanating from pornography addiction? Problem gamblers are assisted by various provisions including, for example, self-exclusion, which mean that they can, on a strong day, limit their access to gambling opportunities for a period of their choice and get help during this time. It is not 100% foolproof, but the provision is helpful and appreciated. We now need to seriously consider this kind of provision in relation to pornography addiction. Secondly, would the Minister be willing to meet with recovering pornography addicts, to hear what public policy changes they believe would help? I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I also congratulate the right reverend Prelate, the Bishop of Chester, on initiating this debate. I do not completely agree with some of the things he said, but he wanted debate and this is the platform for it. We are living through the greatest period of technological change ever, in terms of pace, depth and global scope. The dominant force is the digital revolution. We cannot understand pornography today, or discuss how it should be regulated, without realising that sexuality is being transformed at the same dramatic rate as some areas of business. Think of the rise of Uber from nothing to a capital value of some £50 billion—the same as General Motors —in less than six years, and apply the same principle to everyday life and emotions.
As the right reverend Prelate said, what we now define as pornography has been around for centuries, and, indeed, millennia. However, we are the first society ever in which pornography is available to everyone who has access to global communications, and the first for which much of it is self-produced and free to the consumer. Pornography today is still an industry, but it is also something far more complex, which intersects with changes affecting human sexuality at all levels of the life cycle. In some ways, cybersex has become simply part and parcel of everyday sexuality and it is crucial to recognise this.
The complete range of human inventiveness is there. The very nature of sexuality is being transformed by all of this. One example among many is the emergence of complex forms of transgender experimentation. There is, however, as we all know, a very dark side, some of it carried on the deep net, which is inaccessible to most users by definition, where violence and the most extreme forms of sexual degradation are the driving forces.
Pornography has always been driven largely by male desire, and this remains the case today. However, just as sexuality is changing rapidly, so is interest in pornography on the part of women. Some studies in the US indicate that as many as 40% of women now watch internet pornography on a regular basis. Many of both sexes participate in the making of pornographic materials, at least in the broad sense of that term, as the use of visual images via smartphones and mobile devices has become so common. Since much of this is historically unprecedented and is moving so rapidly, we cannot say with any confidence where it will lead. The regulatory issues are huge; they are, I think, far more complex than the right reverend Prelate indicated, as are those of drawing the boundaries between what is acceptable sexual experimentation and innovation, and what is not. There is a wholly new world out there which no generation of human beings has ever experienced before in the same way.
With some reservations, I support what the Government are doing, with the Minister at the forefront. I congratulate her on having been at the forefront of the digital revolution—this ocean of change, which is breaking through our society in an unprecedented way. The Government wish, above all, to protect the most vulnerable children—a necessary objective. It is crucial, as in the #We Protect strategy, to work directly with the major digital providers here. I know the speeches on this that the Minister has given in different parts of the world. I admire the dedication of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, on this issue and her persistence with her Bill. Yet, speaking as a social scientist, I have to say that we must be systematic about these issues, not just draw things out of the air and draw extreme conclusions from them. Looking at some of the assertions that are commonly made, I was shocked to see how thin the evidence base actually is. When you look in detail at the research studies across the world, you see how superficial the materials are that support them. What in-depth evidence we have—there is not much and it is all moving so fast—points to a lot of complexity. I do not doubt that the phenomenon described by the noble Lord, Lord McColl, exists, but we have no clue about how general it is because the data are simply not there.
As a social scientist, I want work on these issues to be systematic, but we do not know how far regular exposure to pornography on the part of minors affects their sexual behaviour, how far it damages relationships, leads to addictive behaviour and so forth or, crucially, on what scale. We just do not know. Some have argued the contrary to what the right reverend Prelate has said, including full-time researchers in the field. They have said that pornography can substitute for impulses which otherwise might be expressed in more harmful ways.
My main point is that a great deal more research is needed, especially if intrusive policy is being considered —as indeed it is. Again, speaking as a practising social scientist, I hope that the Government will provide some funding for such work, as otherwise well-intended policies could simply rebound.
Childhood itself is changing in the digital age, perhaps radically. As Philippe Ariès famously argued, childhood barely existed historically. In the past, even young children dressed like adults, worked on the farm at a very early age and were constantly in direct contact with adult sexuality. They had no option, because they almost always slept in the same room, and quite often in the same bed, as adults. The notion of the “innocent child”, which we have come to see as universal, was in fact an 18th-century invention. In the digital age, some have argued—and I think there is some force to this—that childhood is again disappearing, because it is simply not possible to separate the younger generation from the adult world. Children are becoming what are called “kidults”, and kidults are quite a mixture of the child and the adult. My main point is that the subtleties and the unknowns in all this simply must be borne in mind by policy makers.
I am strongly in favour of empowering parents as far as possible, and providing the technology for them to supervise what their children watch. They must work in direct conjunction with schools. The role of the state should be confined very largely to areas of directly illegal activity. However, I stress strongly that there is a very fine line to tread. If children are shielded too much, and for too long, they may not be able to cope when plunged into the maelstrom that is sexuality today. We must confront the uncomfortable truth that, as the first truly digital generation, children today might know more about the temptations, and even the threats, of the online world than their parents do.
Not at all, because, as I said, I support the #We Protect strategy. I said strongly that I backed that strategy and that we must protect children. The difficulty is knowing where the boundaries are, how far things that are said very commonly really are the case, because we do not have enough research on those issues. We must have that research, and we must not plunge into policies that are based on inadequate information and research. We must realise that this is a world undergoing gigantic change such that we have never experienced before, at least in my view. We have to protect children, but we have to do so against the background of a world that is just swirling away from our control at the same time.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the right reverend Prelate on securing this important debate. Before I move to the main focus of my speech, I want to say that I very much welcome the opportunity provided by this debate to stand back and look at the impact of pornography not just on adults, but on society as a whole—adults and children. However, there is a growing recognition that pornography, rather like gambling, can have profoundly negative implications for some adult users as well as for children. The challenges faced by problem gamblers are very similar to those experienced by people who are addicted to pornography. In the same way that, while we do not ban gambling, the gambling industry is called to account for the very significant economic costs arising from legal, adult use of the services it provides, the time has come for the Government, similarly, to call pornographers to account.
In coming to child protection and children, I begin by congratulating the Prime Minister, ably assisted by the Minister in this House, for the leadership he has shown on this issue in relation to filtering. I do, however, have some very real concerns about the progress made, which I will set out today in the form of a number of questions to the Minister. First, I would like to echo the question that has already been asked about the implication of last week's “net neutrality” vote in the European Parliament, and the statement by the Prime Minister that he has negotiated an opt-out. Assuming that legislation is still necessary to resolve the problem, I ask the Minister to use the opportunity presented by this development to address two problems with the current voluntary arrangement.
First, approximately 10% of households are not covered by the adult content filtering agreement, which pertains only to the big four ISPs. I appreciate that some of the providers that are not subject to that arrangement have put in place similar provisions, but that is not the case across the board. When I raised the matter previously, the Minister said:
“It is important to note that … providers state at installation and on their marketing materials that they do not have child safety credentials”.—[Hansard, 17/6/15; col. 860.]
I do not find this approach very satisfactory. It rather begs the question why the other providers cannot simply do the same. If we are moving to a statutory approach, it would seem very odd to allow some providers not to be subject to the law as long as they tell customers that they are not subject to it. What kind of precedent would that set?
The second issue is the fundamental design fault with the current voluntary approach: that it is possible for anyone to elect to disable adult content filters and to opt in to adult content without any kind of prior age verification. The only safety mechanism provided is applied after the person concerned has lifted the filters, in the form of an email sent to the account holder informing them that the filters are no longer in place. This arrangement is, however, very weak. In the first instance, even if the account holder opened his or her email quickly and took immediate action, the chances are that their children would have been able to access adult content for some hours. ComRes polling for the charity CARE, however, has demonstrated that a total of 34% of British adults—some 16.3 million people—said that they would not read an email from their ISP immediately, of which a staggering 14% said that they were unlikely to read any email from their ISP at all. This would leave a significant number of children exposed to adult content, some permanently.
When I raised this point previously, the Minister suggested that she was content with this back-to-front age verification system, simply stating that,
“three-quarters of parents in the UK are confident that children are unable to bypass these tools. But to mitigate any further risk … ISPs email the main accountholder when filter settings are set or changed”.—[ Official Report , 17/6/15; col. 860.]
Today, I gently press her again and say that surely she and the Government cannot be content with such a blatantly feeble approach. Even if only 25% of children seek to disable the adult content filters, this can be no justification for exchanging credible age verification procedures for a half-hearted retrospective warning mechanism that we know will not be picked up by parents in a significant number of cases.
I very much hope that the Minister will today confirm that the Government, if they have to introduce legislation to deal with the net neutrality challenge, will also use it to address these two shortcomings. If legislation is not necessary, I ask her to acknowledge that these are none the less problems that need to be addressed. Filtering requirements must apply to all ISPs servicing households with children, and anyone seeking to disable the filters must be age verified before they are lifted.
I turn to the Conservative Party’s very welcome manifesto commitment to introduce age verification checks specifically on websites carrying pornographic material. ATVOD is clear that the vast majority of the R18 material accessed in the UK comes from sites based outside the country. Some 23 of the 25 sites most accessed are located beyond the UK. Indeed, when one realises that the two sites based in the UK are already caught by our Audiovisual Media Service Regulations, it is clear that the primary function of the Government’s new age verification provision must relate to sites located outside the UK if the proposed measure is to make a significant difference. The Government are very well placed to rise to this challenge, because they have just inaugurated a means of regulating all online gambling websites that are accessed in the UK regardless of where in the world the sites are located. Indeed, my own Bill addresses this issue by drawing on the precedent of the Gambling (Licensing and Advertising) Act 2014.
I very much hope that the Minister will confirm today that, central to the Government's proposals, as the plain words of their manifesto commitment suggest, will be the requirement that all websites accessed in the UK—regardless of whether they are based in the UK—must put in place robust age verification. I look forward to hearing how the Minister will respond to these questions. In closing, I note that my own Bill provides a means of dealing with all the problems I have highlighted and any EU requirement to make adult content filter provision statutory. If the Government wanted to adopt it as their own, I should be delighted.
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.
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.
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
“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—
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.
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.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester for securing this debate and I fully support his opening contribution to it.
I believe that the impact pornography is having on society is, almost bizarrely, something of a no-go area for polite conversation, yet it is imposing considerable harm, particularly on young people and particularly on their perception of how healthy relationships should look and feel. Unless there is some basic honesty in this area, we are in danger of sleep-walking our way through deeply concerning changes to norms of decency and acceptability in our society and neglecting the young on a massive scale.
Today’s young people are the parents of tomorrow. We must also look ahead, further up the age range, and not ignore what is already happening in older generations. Others may consider that the viewing habits of consenting adults belong beyond the bounds of public comment, but I believe this approach is ostrich-like and naive in the extreme, for reasons I hope I will make clear to your Lordships.
Yesterday, the Children’s Society published a report suggesting almost 10% of 16 and 17 year-old girls have been victims of a sexual offence, but fewer than one in 10 of those offences were reported. Half of those not reporting sexual abuse to the police feel it is not worth their while to do so, hinting at a pervasive acceptance that this just comes with the territory of growing up in Britain today.
“Pornography has changed the landscape of adolescence beyond all recognition”.
Research shows that more than four in 10 girls between the ages of 13 and 17 in England have been coerced into sex acts and a fifth of girls have suffered violence or intimidation from their teenage boyfriends, a high proportion of whom are on a steady diet of pornography.
There is a clear and strong link between viewing violent pornography and perpetrating sexual violence. Despite the high premium we place on equality in this country, one in five boys harbour extremely negative attitudes towards women.
My Lords, there have been a number of interruptions. I ask noble Lords to remember that this is a timed debate and we are very close to time, so please keep interruptions to a minimum.
As the majority of online porn is created for men and is often aggressive, if not violent, the premature sexualisation of young minds is re-embedding constructs we have battled to eradicate: that women are primarily sex objects, there to provide men’s sexual gratification, and their significance is dependent on them being desirable and attractive to men.
The consequences are grim for young women’s physical and emotional health. Internal injuries can be caused by sex acts inspired by young men’s access to porn. I have read about one family doctor working in a leafy suburb in the Home Counties—not a concrete jungle in an inner city—treating growing numbers of teenage girls suffering from the after-effects of frequent anal sex, such as incontinence.
I cannot imagine that this GP is unique in having this in her case load and would be grateful if the Minister could ask the Department of Health whether there are data on the prevalence of such injuries. As the GP said:
“these girls are very young and slight and their bodies are simply not designed for that”.
Far from them enjoying it, considerable pain is frequently involved. She found that young women simply did not feel able to say no. Boys expected anal sex and it was treated as standard. Young women are under considerable pressure to act like porn artists.
There are also profound emotional effects of what has been termed the heterosexual meat market. The Journal of Adolescent Health reported a 7% increase over the last five years in the number of young girls aged 11 to 13 reporting emotional problems. Researchers ascribed the increase to pressures to achieve an unrealistic body shape, driven by social media and the increasing sexualisation of young women. It has gone way beyond whether they look good in the latest fashions to whether their naked or almost-naked bodies measure up to the remorseless scrutiny of people who neither know nor care about them.
The objectification of vast swathes of our young people is gathering pace: according to CEOP sexting—or sending self-generated nude or nearly-nude images and videos—is becoming quite normal for teenagers, due to the proliferation of smartphones, tablets, and apps. Two-thirds of 12 to 15 year-olds have smartphones, which are the biggest source of porn. Even vigilant parents have shockingly little control over what their children are seeing on their, or their friends’, mobile internet-enabled devices.
Tragically, 45% of boys treat porn as sex education, but that education can be violent, as I have mentioned. We must ensure that our young people receive clear and unapologetic messages in schools about the importance of respect and commitment in relationships which will, I hope, be backing up what parents are saying. The effects of pornography should be made crystal clear. Some may say that the case against it has not yet been proven but I would strongly disagree.
We know that the well-being of children, young people and adults depends on them having safe, stable and nurturing relationships with people who love them unconditionally, not on the basis of their physical appearance. Can the Minister inform the House about how schools are educating young people about relationships and warning them about the dangers to their physical and emotional health from consumption of porn?
As I said at the outset, it is not just young people whose relationships are at risk from pornography. Several studies have demonstrated that an adult’s use can undermine his or her partner’s sexual and relationship satisfaction and self-esteem. Many feel insecure, less desirable and unattractive since discovering their partner’s usage. There is also the concern that adults who want to view porn will not use protective internet filters or block viewing channels, thereby leaving any minors in the home at risk.
We know that relationships are already under considerable strain in this country. The price tag for family breakdown is around £47 billion per year, as we have already heard, yet national government funding for relationship support is a scant £7.5 million. A couple of months ago, I was one of more than 70 signatories to a letter published in the Telegraph calling for a tripling of this amount in the forthcoming comprehensive spending review. Can the Minister please add her voice to others in government making a strong case to the Treasury for this essential help?
I will end on the implications of disturbing evidence of a link between violent pornographic use and recidivism in child sex offenders, especially those already at high risk of reoffending. This means that we can predict which individuals who have been imprisoned for deeply harming young lives are most likely to go on to destroy the happiness of yet more children if they access violent porn. Given the promise of a rehabilitation revolution from the Secretary of State for Justice, can the Minister confirm that this knowledge will be acted on? If we ignore these evidence-based insights, we do perpetrators no favours.
To conclude, pornography is shredding the social and relational fabric of our society. Soft-peddling its harms grossly neglects the welfare of young people, and as they will found the families of tomorrow, we ignore the pressures they are under at our peril.
My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester and congratulate him on securing this debate. He introduced it with great clarity and compassion. He presented a general picture of malaise in our society and did so very movingly. While I agree with the general malaise in our society and the way in which sexuality has become such a dominant part of our life, I am not entirely persuaded that unease can be best articulated in the language of pornography. I think there was a tendency in the right reverend Prelate’s view and that of other noble Lords who followed him to blame pornography for all sorts of things that go on our society and to forget the deeper causes, the deeper roots, of what goes on. I want briefly to talk about those deeper roots.
I think it is widely recognised, and the right reverend Prelate pointed it out, that sexuality is embedded in a structure of social relationships. Ideally, it should be enjoyed within a relationship and be motivated by mutual love and respect. Pornography comes into the picture when these two elements are missing, when sexuality is divorced or detached from a sustained relationship or not motivated by love and mutual respect. Then it takes all kinds of vulgar forms that have been mentioned. Individuals in that relationship might be treated with violence, their body parts might be mutilated and some people might get pleasure out of it or they might be degraded. In other words, it is a case of mutual exploitation not just exploitation by man of woman because, as the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, pointed out, women also enjoy pornography. It is a question of both parties seeing each other as sexual objects and in the process looking on the whole thing as an exercise in mutual exploitation.
We know the consequences. The right reverend Prelate rightly pointed them out. However, it is not just a question of consequences; there is also our own attitude to what goes on. When you watch degradation in a pornographic movie it certainly has consequences but before they are evaluated we also find that it is offensive, so one should not be evaluating things entirely in terms of consequences. In other words, one can make a deontological as opposed to a teleological or a utilitarian judgment on what goes on.
All this is a matter of concern. What do we do about it? This is where I am more inclined to agree with my noble friend Lord Giddens. In a consequentialist argument, what evidence can one show that, for example, addiction to pornography can lead to extramarital relations or lots of other things that have been mentioned? The evidence is difficult to show and to demonstrate. It is the question of positive correlation between undesirable consequences and the practice of pornography. The second, far more important, difficulty has to do with the fact that we live in a liberal society where we cherish individual liberty and personal autonomy. In that kind of society people prefer to regulate their sex lives themselves. If some of them say that they enjoy sadomasochistic violence, who are we to say that sexuality should not be mixed up with violence—that it is not to be allowed? If they say they prefer a relationship in which some kind of consensual mutual degradation is a part of their enjoyment, who are we to say they cannot? The question is thus twofold. What is the evidence that it has certain kinds of consequences and, more importantly, in a liberal society are we in a position to tell people how they should live their lives, especially an area of life as intimate as this?
That does not mean that we cannot lay down certain broad limits. We could say, for example, that sadomasochistic violence should be based on consensual acts or the harm should not be irreparable or whatever. Likewise, we might be able to say, as one of the government documents points out, that you cannot have sexual intercourse with a corpse or an animal. One can impose those sorts of limits on this, but beyond that, it is difficult to go and therefore some form of pornography is bound to remain a part of our life.
While this is so, the difficulty arises—here I part company with my noble friend Lord Giddens—with respect to children. Children are not in a position to exercise personal autonomy. They cannot be entrusted with the liberty we would entrust to adults. They are not grown-up enough. They are not able to distinguish between real life and fantasy, and they can easily be persuaded to do all kinds of things that ought not to be done. As future citizens, the problem has to be tackled at that level. They need to be protected against certain kinds of manipulation and exploitation, some kind of collective guidance has to be given to them, and certain attitudes have to be developed in them so they know how to conduct their relations when they grow up. Mediawatch-UK says that one in three children around the age of 10 has seen pornography online. Only 3% of pornographic websites require proof of age before granting access to sexually explicit material. This simply cannot be tolerated, and my strong plea is that online or in easily accessible media no sexually explicit material or pornography should be allowed unless the viewer’s age is identified and permission is given only to those who are of a certain age.
My Lords, I have to admit that I am not an expert on pornography. I took the liberty of putting my name down for this debate because I am very deeply concerned about the extent to which disadvantage is being passed down from generation to generation in our society today.
Judging from two reports on pornography which I have read recently, pornography is a growing problem in our society. It can seriously damage families, sometimes making healthy sexual relationships difficult to sustain and sometimes damaging parents’ relationships to one another and to their children. In our society today, family breakdown is an ever-increasing problem. To give an idea of the importance of this problem, I shall give one statistic and not bother your Lordships with more. It is now generally agreed by experts that the cost to this nation of family breakdown and dysfunction exceeds £40 billion a year—more than the entire defence budget.
Pornography can stand in the way of healthy sexual relationships and interfere with parents’ ability to care for their child. I believe that parental commitment and support are so important that we should be doing much than we are today to prepare our young people and teenagers as they move through school, secondary school and their teens for the responsibilities of parenthood when that comes along. In talking about preparation for parenthood, I am talking not about technical details about the care of a child, such as putting on a nappy and making the drink, but about helping prospective parents to grow up as confident individuals committed to doing their best for their child or children and believing that they can do so. I believe that pornography could be extremely damaging to that objective.
Why is it that today we teach our adolescent children in school about the importance of passing exams and getting a job—of course, that is very important—but scarcely a word is ever said by schools or government about preparing children in our secondary schools for the responsibilities and challenges of being good parents in the future? To this, again, pornography is relevant. Today we have a large and increasing number of chaotic families. Social services do their best to pick up the pieces, but better preparation for the responsibilities of parents could prevent so many of these problems.
I want to ask the Government to do two things for me. Would the Government consider the possibility of a clear statement in law that each parent is responsible for each of their children, as the law in Scotland provides? Will the Government legislate to prevent as far as possible these issues relating to pornography of which the noble Lords have been speaking this afternoon? That is all I plan to say this afternoon.
My Lords, I am sure we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for his extremely concise speech and the very relevant questions that he asked at the end of it.
We are all very much in debt to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester, not only for bringing this somewhat awkward and emotive subject to our attention, but also for the very moderate, balanced and thoughtful way in which he approached it. We have already seen certain divergence of opinion, although I think there is one strand that unites everyone who has spoken so far: a concern for children and their exposure. I am glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, nodding vigorously at that point.
We have to recognise that this is an old problem that has been totally transformed by technology. We also have to acknowledge that, to a degree, pornography is in the eye of the beholder and how the beholder is taught to look at things. I do not think that there is anyone in your Lordships’ House who would say that the Warren Cup in the British Museum is pornographic. Only last year, or maybe it was the year before, the British Museum had an extraordinary exhibition of Japanese erotic prints, which were held up as being great examples of the art of their time—many of them dating back to the 17thcentury. There are many other examples that one could give: Rowlandson, who is well known for his vigorous cartoons certainly strayed into the realms of what today we would call pornography. Even that absolute model of Victorian rectitude, Archdeacon Grantly had books that he looked at only when he had locked the key of his study.
What we are dealing with today is something remarkably different. It is for the reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, has indicated. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, has also sought to tackle this. How glad we are to see her back in her place and speaking with her accustomed vigour. We hope that she will be able to do so for a very long time.
I am very exercised, as a grandparent with four grandchildren, about the uninhibited and unlimited effect that pornography on the internet has. I believe that there is an absolute moral duty resting upon all of us to seek to come up with a solution that will indeed protect the young—protect them, as much as anything else, from their own curiosity and desires in an age which is so different from that in which any of us in this Chamber grew up. When I was elected to the other place—I make no value judgement but merely state a fact—the vast majority of children lived with two parents who were married to each other and were of opposite sex and who conformed to certain norms, as they were then regarded. Now some people will greatly regret—I do myself in many ways—the passage of that stable society. It is no longer what we can regard as something we can take for granted. We have to recognise that society has changed. For those of us who believe in the value of the sort of norm that used to be taken for granted, and to which I have just referred, there is a real obligation to recognise the changes that have taken place. How do we do that? How do we tackle the problem which has been created by the fact that countless young people, by the use of a mobile device, or by locking themselves in their bedrooms for hours on end, could indulge not only in questionable, socially isolating video games but in an uninhibited way indulge in things of which they cannot have a proper knowledge, and for which they have no moral compass. When the moral compass of society itself has to a degree been eroded, that problem is compounded.
I am not one of those who believes in severe censorship and prohibition. I am not a libertarian Tory, but I am sufficient of one to recognise that as much freedom of choice that is possible should be encouraged, but—and there is a very big but here—those who purvey sadistic images, sex without love for commercial gain, caring not whom they damage in the process should be regarded as pariahs. We need to devise a proper structure and scheme to ensure that the penalties that those people face are enormous and potentially deterrent. To pollute the minds of the young is as damaging and despicable as to pollute the oceans. If some company by design or inadvertently does the latter, we expect them to bear a very heavy responsibility and price.
We have to devise a scheme, and I look to my noble friend the Minister to give some encouragement, to translate the Prime Minister’s pledges into action, by making it a very severe offence—the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, touched on this in his speech—to purvey pornography. It is not just a question of locks and checks and balances and voluntary agreements. It is a case of dealing with those who are guilty of a very real offence. I hope we can progress from this debate not only to define the offence in more detail but to come up with punishments that really punish.
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cormack—especially with regard to his comments on the impact on children. The pornography industry is a lucrative and thriving business with a staggering estimated worth of $97 billion, according to an NBC report. It sacrifices at its altar our many vulnerable children and families. This begs the question about how we define freedom of expression and what cost we are prepared to pay to protect our children.
I wish to express my gratitude to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester for calling our attention to this and his profoundly thoughtful contribution. I echo the voice of many when I say that pornography is one of the most detrimental factors eroding the integrity of childhood, specifically with the rise of access over the net, yet we find that the terminology in law remains contested. How explicit does the content have to be for us to consider material as pornographic and criminal? I am not an expert but my contribution today is based on my long-standing professional experience of caring for children and families forced to deal with sexual violence and abuse, where as social workers we were at the cruel end of helping families come to term with the damage caused to children by being sexually assaulted. Even the most socially liberated society has to be deeply disturbed by the NSPCC survey of 2,000 young people speaking of watching porn comfortably as a normalised behaviour, and its consequences as detailed by the noble Lord, Lord Farmer.
The Authority for Television On Demand’s 2014 report, For Adults Only?, found that 200,000 children aged between six and 15 had visited a pornographic website in December 2013. This is supported by the results in the IPPR report, Young People, Sex and Relationships, which showed that, out of 500 18 year-olds, eight out of 10 believed that it was easy to accidentally view porn on the internet.
The shift of pornography from sex shops to smartphones can now impact on children and young people directly, thereby making it difficult to manage and control access even if you are the most vigilant of parents. I do not accept that there is no link between what consenting adults choose to do in private and the availability of porn. No matter how much our society advances, we must have unequivocal standards about exposing children and young people to the danger of porn. Steadily we have seen and heard of the thousands of children and young people being groomed and raped while only some of the perpetrators have been caught and put to justice.
Seven men belonging to what was described as the worst ever paedophile ring were jailed recently for a total of 107 years for raping babies and toddlers. They shared indecent images and videos of children being abused, communicating via their smartphones. The evidence shows that their targets and victims were babies and infants. The sentence cannot begin to reflect what those babies and infants will suffer for the entirety of their lives. In September 2014 a man pleaded guilty to arranging and facilitating the commission of child sex offences and making and possessing indecent images of children. In a Norwich court, a woman that the court described as depraved was convicted on 23 accounts, including rape and inciting a child to engage in sexual activity.
The effects of pornography passes the effects that it has on the individual on to their families, thereby impacting all of us as a society, something more eloquently depicted by the right reverend Prelate the
Bishop of Chester. The Naked Truth research on family impact has already been noted by noble Lords, with family breakdown services costing the UK £47 billion and more each year. What preventive measures are in place to address this as part of our social services response and empower women’s organisations to equip them to deal with the issue of pornography?
End Violence Against Women and many other charities have drawn clear links between pornography and negative attitudes towards women, and state that it depicts allowing groping, touching and exposing as acceptable and fun, resulting in sexual violence against women. The IPPR report found that 70% of respondents believed that pornography had a damaging effect on how people view sex. As has been said, the report also found that 72% of respondents believed that it raised unrealistic expectations of sex, which can have damaging effects on their sexual experiences.
In the summer I attended a seminar on revenge porn, again mostly affecting women. I take the opportunity to commend the efforts of the lawyer Dr Ann Olivarius, who is leading a team that is deeply committed to using civil law to bring an end to revenge pornography. In representing YouTube presenter Chrissy Chambers in the first civil case against a perpetrator of revenge pornography, they hope to pioneer a new civil law framework that will permit victims to seek redress for the harm they have experienced when prosecutors are too overburdened to pursue criminal charges. They have also identified ways to improve the law so that it can be a more meaningful deterrent. Now the law requires that anyone charged must “intend to cause distress” to the specific person depicted, which means that the hundreds of people who spread these images on the internet and social media for money or just for kicks get away with it. Allowing victims to get injunctions against perpetrators would mean that the images could be taken down before they circulated widely. This is very important to victims. It is clear that a robust civil law can act as a deterrent while also enabling victims to receive financial compensation to help them to rebuild their lives.
I welcome the suggestion to change the main focus of the law from the victim’s distress and the perpetrator’s intent to whether the victim gave consent. That way, all the other people who contribute to the harm by sharing the images via social media, or upload them to additional websites, could also be prosecuted. Since April 2015 more than 200 incidents of revenge porn have been reported to the police, with some victims as young as 12. However, the actual number may be much higher as many cases go unreported. Can Her Majesty’s Government disclose the number of revenge porn incidents reported to the Metropolitan Police? What more does the Minister believe the Government can do so that the police take these reports seriously? Would the Minister be willing to meet Dr Ann Olivarius and her team to discuss these matters?
I very much hope that we can begin to arrest any further development of the porn industry itself and put the safeguarding of children and young people before the profits and lusts of those who are willing to overlook and question its impact of rape and torture on children.
My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester for obtaining this debate and introducing it so well. It was an absolute masterclass and, as far as I am concerned, comprehensive. I am delighted that the church is taking a stance on this issue. Its authority will lend considerable weight to the discussion and at the same time—I hope I do not sound patronising or pompous—this really shows the church fulfilling its natural role in the best possible way.
I will speak about our children and the dreadful effect that pornography—particularly what is loosely termed “adult pornography”—is having on them. I agree entirely with the remarks of the noble Lords, Lord Farmer and Lord Cormack, and I do not plan to go over all those remarks again. Life in the internet world, a world of flickering images where we grown-ups cannot join them, can be a strange place for children, sometimes seemingly with no limits. Children need limits; they feel happy and secure within sound frameworks. They enjoy and thrive on routine and predictability.
We are constantly hearing the phrase, “The welfare of the child is paramount”. We hear and read it in speeches, reports and policy documents, but do we as a nation really mean it? Divorce always hits children hard, regardless of the measures that are put in place, and divorce is now commonplace. Single motherhood is becoming commonplace too but I am not sure that it always gives a child the best start in life. Is the welfare of the child well and truly paramount?
Yesterday, by chance, while I was glancing through the Hansard report of the Statement on the draft investigative powers Bill, a sentence caught my eye in the context of cyberattacks:
Reports of child abuse, both historic and recent, appear with depressing regularity.
We bring children into the world and we should care for them, and by “we” I respectfully include your Lordships’ House. I make no apology for repeating some statistics that I used in an earlier debate. In the space of just one month, at least 44,000 primary school children and 200,000 under-16 year-olds accessed adult content online, including hardcore pornography. Who can possibly know what they have seen and what deep and lasting damage it has inflicted on them?
We must stop this happening. It can be done; the remedy is available. A secure system of age verification must be introduced as soon as possible so that nobody under the age of 18 can gain access to this kind of material. It has been claimed that this is too difficult and complicated, but that is not so. I understand that just such a system has been introduced by the online gambling industry. It works well and takes only a matter of seconds to administer. However distasteful it may seem to be regularising such an industry, not to regulate it in this way will simply condemn our children to continued exposure to this appalling material. We have no choice but to act and to act now. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I end by once again sincerely thanking the right reverend Prelate for obtaining today’s debate on this crucial issue, and I hope we can all keep debating it.
My Lords, I, too, thank the right reverend Prelate for initiating the debate, but I come at it from a rather different angle—from the point of view of an academic psychiatrist. I work in an area where we are used to looking at evidence from all sides, some of it often not very clear, and making judgments on the evidence we have.
So far, the debate has made me feel a little mischievous. If I go slightly over the top, I hope colleagues will forgive me for once. I feel that what I might call the “Giddens school” of approaching the problem has not been strongly supported, except, I think, by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh.
I am going to ignore for the moment the pornography which is so prevalent in society that hardly anybody worries about it any more. I am talking about the stuff available in hotel rooms that can be subscribed to, the top-shelf magazines, and the sex videos on sale in R18 shops, only for adults. Much of it is pretty silly stuff. It is highly enjoyable for those who like watching ordinary heterosexual pornography. It is used by a huge proportion of the population. Some 40% of women now read erotic literature, which is more or less pornographic. Look at the success of Fifty Shades of Grey. Heavens—that is a horrible piece of literature! For those who have not looked at it, it isbasically a bit of sado-masochism and really rather nasty, but it is popular and has been read and, I think, enjoyed. Let us understand how widespread the issue is.
I think noble Lords are more concerned with the possible effects of watching explicit sexual violence and the degradation of women on screen, and the effect that might have on children and wider society. Pornography is broadly available, but I remind your Lordships that it is still illegal to manufacture and put this stuff on the internet. We already have quite draconian legislation to stop certain sorts of material becoming available. Noble Lords might say, “We are not very good at implementing it”. That might be the debate we should be having. We should be asking the Minister why controls on children’s access to pornography are not more effective. The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, mentioned bestiality. Well, making a video of bestiality is illegal. We should think about what we are going to do to implement existing legislation.
The paucity of research needs to be brought home to us. One of the problems is that no evidence of harm is not the same as evidence of no harm—that is so with all such research. Some would say that we should not hang around waiting for evidence to emerge. However, I suggest that we have no evidence that, for example, there is a rise in violent or sexually aggressive crime. In fact, violent crimes have dropped dramatically over the last 15 years in this country. In the United States, where internet porn is even more readily available, there has been a dramatic decrease in aggressive and violent crime over the last 25 years; indeed, recorded sexually aggressive crime against children has actually gone down.
Noble Lords who have looked at the evidence from Japan will know that the Japanese watch much more violent, difficult and horrible porn than people do here, and they have one of the lowest rape rates. Other misogynist societies—I include Japan as marginally misogynist—have much lower rates of rape. These issues are very complicated and require a lot more looking at from the social point of view and many multifactorial points of view. We cannot say that it is simply pornography that is creating some of these ills in society.
One of the great problems over the last 30 years is that the systematic evidence has been laboratory-based. It has focused on the theoretical impact—on people reporting the impact of pornography. Forgive me for using this language, but pornography is there to aid masturbation. Much of the literature is about the impact of watching pornography without masturbating. People may say, “By looking at some of this research, we are creating completely spurious behaviours which people never engage in”. In the same way, much of what children are exposed to—particularly very young children—they experience before they have any understanding of the broader context. Noble Lords may say that that is a cause for huge anxiety, and it probably is, but I do not think we should leap to conclusions about the impact of the research.
Neil Malamuth, an American whose research over 30 years has probably added more to the good literature than anyone, has recently done several meta-analyses of available data, not all of it very good. He suggests that there are good correlations—that does not mean causality—between the use of very violent and sexual-aggressive porn and a small number of violent young men who are already predisposed to violence and will use that porn. However, there is very poor evidence of wider usage.
Let us think for moment about how we use our fantasies. Have your Lordships ever fantasied about murdering somebody? Some may fantasise about murdering their party Whip, from time to time. The reality is that noble Lords go away, have a fantasy about killing somebody and the very fantasy itself is helpful and allows them to come back and vote, having missed the opera, football or whatever it is they were going to watch. Fantasies do not translate into behaviours, and that is the core problem. Sexual fantasies are no different; they do not translate into behaviours.
An overwhelming number of viewers do not report problems with pornography. As for relationship problems that people experience when their marriages are failing, is it surprising that people who are not getting sex at home go away and use pornography? No, it is not. These things probably reflect difficulties, not the other way round. We do not know if it is the proverbial chicken or the egg, so we do not know whether this accessibility to porn is a difficulty.
My time is up. Noble Lords get my gist: let us be cautious about this. By all means let us protect children—I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that—but let us not be too virulent about an issue that we hardly know anything about.
I too thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester for raising this issue. As one of the issues around pornography and its use is that we as a society do not talk about it a lot, this debate is part of the solution to addressing some of those issues. As pornography is ultimately a moral issue, discussion of it becomes very subjective. The noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, explained quite clearly why people’s interpretations of what is pornographic can differ. There is also more than one view on whether pornography is harmful. The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, and the noble Baroness both addressed the point regarding confusion about the evidence.
There has been a lot of debate about children and safeguards but a common theme—that we have to protect those who are underage. In this technological sphere, however, a technological solution cannot be a solution in itself. Humans interact with technology, so both a human and a technological response will be needed to address technological issues affecting children. We should not assume that filtering generally or age filtering will be enough. Young people use Instagram and Snapchat on their smartphones, so filtering will not prevent their distributing porn and seeing sexual images. We need to be much more clever. Parents and other adults need to be involved in socialising young children, talking openly with them about sexuality and issues around pornography. We cannot assume that a blank filter will solve the problem because it will not. The latest research on web-camming, the Emerging Patterns and Trends Report, shows that in young people’s world, the use of smartphone apps, such as Instagram, Snapchat and Whatsapp, is far more prevalent than sitting at a laptop or using a mobile device simply to go on the web. We have to be clear that porn is here to stay; it will not go away. It is the same debate as we face in discussing drugs.
If it is a moral issue and here to stay, then, as the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, and the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, said, we will need to prove the harm before setting out our exact response. If consenting adults decide to watch or make porn, and if there is no harm, what should be the role of legislators and government? Clearly, as we have talked about, there is harm when it involves a corpse or bestiality or issues to do with children, but if consenting adults decide to use porn to live out fantasies or even to spice up their own sex life, what role is there for legislators? I would say that it is very limited indeed.
As Clarissa Smith, Professor of Sexual Cultures at the University of Sunderland, has said, pornography is about fantasy, and in no other area is the use of the imagination regulated. That is what we are talking about in this debate—putting in place the safeguards we have described while dealing with something that, for most people, is fantasy. As has been suggested, the evidence is not one-sided or conclusive. I would suggest that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, said, for most people who watch pornography, it is a matter of fantasy. Once the watching is done, they do not go out into the real world to try to live out their fantasy. A small proportion will because of personality issues—they are predisposed to violence—not because of the pornography itself. That is what we have to think about in this debate.
If we are to clamp down or take similar action we will need to prove harm beyond doubt, not simply use vague and self-selecting online surveys, as some noble Lords have done today. That is not evidence. Surveys are very different from evidence. Is harm being caused? I will cite two studies that might offer a different view from that offered earlier in the debate.
In 2010, the European Commission conducted a survey across a number of European countries which concluded that there is no evidence of a causal link between watching pornography and sexual violence or crime apart from in a small sample of males who were already disposed to violence. That exactly mirrors what the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, said. In 2011, Milton Diamond conducted an interesting study of the Czech Republic, where pornography had been forbidden but then was allowed. The sexual habits, behaviours and interactions of adults were observed over a period of time. The report concluded that there was no change at all in the levels of sexual violence or relationship violence between individuals apart from in a small number of people who were predisposed to violence. So when we are talking about the impact of pornography on society, we have to talk about personality disorder rather than pornography itself. It would seem that some people are predisposed to do harm to others. We need to look at that a lot more rather than make blanket statements. Most people who watch porn use it as a fantasy but do not live it out. They live successful, useful and what would be seen as normal lives with their families.
Others see pornography as emancipating. About a month ago, there was a very interesting programme on Radio 4 called “Can Porn Be Ethical?” in which feminist pornographers said that they used pornography as a positive way of showing relationships. They talked about how it emancipates them and gives them power in an area where they were not seen as powerful. Not all porn is the same, as has already been said. Some feminists use pornography as a way of showing an alternative. As a feminist, Petra Joy, said, it is a “political thing” allowing her to change the model of sexuality and show it in a more realistic way. She said that she is able to develop the relationship as well as the sexual part of pornography and gives her some control as a woman.
I finish with a quote from Myles Jackman, a lawyer who specialises in this area. He said:
“Pornography is the canary in the coalmine of free speech: it is the first freedom to die”.
I want noble Lords to think about that. Without proving harm and showing that it is pornography itself that is causing it, we are in an area of legislating unnecessarily. I accept, as everybody who has spoken in your Lordships’ House today has said, that there are certain laws about protecting minors and certain issues about technology that we must address. As humans, we also have to be clear that it is the human relationship with the technology that will solve the problem.
There is no justification to say that, outside this House, the fires of hell will be burning because society is degrading into a pornographic cauldron of disrepute. That is not the case. I believe that more research is needed and that we must understand that most humans who interact with pornography do so in fantasy and do not live it out. As there is such a paucity of evidence, I ask the Minister whether we could do here what we do or have started to do on drugs: to have an evidence-based solution rather than a kneejerk reaction to online surveys or one based on assumptions about what is happening in society.
My Lords, I, too, thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester for initiating this debate. As we have heard, many have genuine concerns about the use of pornography, and its effect on individuals and society. While I would like to see, as many have said, more evidence on this, I share the right reverend Prelate’s sentiments, which I read about in his local newspaper, against activities that demean and exploit other human beings.
“There is an illuminating parallel between addiction to pornography and addiction to gambling”.
That is another debate in which we have both participated. He argued that,
“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”.
The right reverend Prelate also referred to the following:
“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”.—[Hansard, 17/7/15; col. 844.]
However, I totally agree with my noble friend Lord Giddens that, as with gambling in the debates that we have had, we must ensure that any response to potential harm is evidence based. Simply prohibiting something does not necessarily address the problem; often it can exacerbate it, as in the case of gambling, by driving it underground. While the right reverend Prelate and other noble Lords have referred to research studies, I, too, ask the Minister what assessment the Government has made of current research findings. Have the Government any plans to commission their own independent research to assess the issues raised by the right reverend Prelate?
In the recent debate on the advertising of prostitution, initiated by the noble Lord, Lord McColl, my noble friend Lord Davies of Stamford referred to a fundamental principle, which is that the state should not restrict the freedom of any citizen, except to the extent required to protect the freedom of others. He argued that it flows directly from that that acts in private between consenting adults are no concern of the state or of the law. I also agree with his view that you violate that principle at your peril.
In the same debate my noble friend also recognised that virtuous and respectable people, in the interests of reforming society as they see it, are always trying to encroach on that principle. The worst case of this was the introduction of legislation in the 1880s criminalising homosexuality, which continued on our statute book for over 80 years.
However, as many noble Lords have indicated, we are living in a rapidly changing world, in which pornography is so freely available and widely accessible. It is of major concern to everyone in this debate how that affects children. ChildLine, the NSPCC helpline, receives calls and messages every day of the week from concerned young people who feel that they are being badly impacted on by the way they and their friends can view unlimited online pornography. ChildLine, as we have heard, decided to run a campaign to support children and young people with these concerns, which were corroborated by multiple and other NSPCC and external sources.
On the back of this growing pool of evidence, ChildLine decided to conduct a survey, the findings of which are worth repeating. One in five children between 12 and 13 think that watching porn is normal behaviour. Nearly one in 10 children aged 12 and 13 are worried that they might be addicted to porn. One in five of those surveyed said that they had seen pornographic images that had shocked or upset them. Some 12% admitted to making or being part of a sexually explicit video.
As we have heard, as a consequence of government policy since February of this year, all the major internet providers made the porn filters the default option, to which the noble Baroness referred. Although the vast majority of Britons continue to shun the scheme, data reveal that the change in policy has led to a massive increase in the number of people using porn filters. Last year, an Ofcom survey found only a small number of people had volunteered to use the filter: 4% of Virgin Media customers, 5% of BT subscribers and 8% of Sky users.
As the right reverend Prelate and others in the debate mentioned, the European Parliament voted through legislation that will require all internet providers to treat online traffic without discrimination as part of the broader move by the EU towards net neutrality. Online companies cannot block access to specific content, although exceptions are made for illegal websites. As we have heard, on
The scale of the problem cannot simply be addressed on the supply side; good-quality, age-appropriate sex and relationships education is vital. It is known to equip young people with the language and tools to be clear about personal boundaries, and understand appropriate and inappropriate behaviour, to be able to resist pressure assertively, and to know to whom to talk and when to ask for help if and when they need it. It helps older children resist pressure, make safe choices, and be able to challenge and be critical of misleading and inappropriate messages about sex that we hear in the media. National and international research shows that young people who have had good sex and relationships education are more likely to choose to have sex for the first time later. When they do have sex, they are more likely to use condoms and contraception.
Despite the obvious public health and child rights imperative for SRE, the current situation is that maintained schools do not have to teach any SRE beyond basic information on puberty, anatomy and human reproduction found in the science national curriculum. Maintained secondary schools must also teach pupils about HIV and AIDS. However, academies and free schools do not have to teach any of this. A Commons Education Committee inquiry, launched after Ofsted stated that more than a third of schools were failing to provide age-appropriate SRE, found a mismatch between the priority that Ministers claim that they give to PSHE and the steps taken to improve its delivery in schools. In particular, it said that there was a lack of clarity on the status of the subject and that it should be given statutory status.
There is an overwhelming demand from teachers, parents and young people for SRE to become compulsory. SRE forms an important part of any school’s efforts to safeguard young people from abuse and is particularly needed to protect the most vulnerable children. As the chair of the Commons committee said:
“PSHE builds character and resilience, and will help young people to live happy and healthy lives”.
The Government said that they would consider the committee’s findings carefully and indicated that they had already set up a new expert subject group on PSHE to identify key areas where teachers need further support. Perhaps the Minister can update the House on progress in that regard.
We owe our children good, compulsory sex and relationships education. We owe it to children already experiencing abuse and we owe it to those who might later become adult victims because the key messages are not being ingrained from the very beginning.
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.
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.