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My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, for securing this debate, and I would like to concentrate on a subject that I know she has worked hard on—the harmful effects of pornography on young girls and women, not just in the UK but across the world.
This country is leading the fight on safeguarding, and other countries are watching what we do to combat this invasion of every part of our global society. Some might say that porn has been around for a long time but the rise of the internet has turned it into a global industry with a multi-billion pound turnover each year, exploiting women in order to make profits.
Pornography is having a major impact on a large number of young girls here in the UK who say that it has negative effect on their lives and on how they are perceived and treated in society. It encourages the use of derogatory language about girls and young women. Many believe that pornography influences how women are portrayed in the media and online, as it shows harmful views and far too often shows women as sex objects. However, it also affects mental health and causes depression, anxieties and self-harm. It contributes to women being treated less fairly and creates unrealistic expectations of women’s bodies. It normalises aggressive or violent behaviour towards women and sends out confusing messages about sexual consent. It puts pressure on girls to have sex before they are ready and to perform sex acts, because boys copy what they see in pornography. Worst of all, as reported by the NSPCC, there have been more incidents of child-on-child sex abuse. The thought of all this pressure on girls makes me weep.
I recently received correspondence from Girlguiding on why we need less porn and more education in our schools. One girl said, “Imagine sitting happily in a lesson, concentrating on whatever subject is before you, only to be jolted into shock as you see an explicit image being passed around the classroom under the desks by boys”. This sort of thing is happening to girls as young as 11 in classrooms, corridors and playgrounds all across the UK.
According to Girlguiding, 60% of girls aged 11 to 16 report having seen boys of their age viewing porn on their phones, and all too often boys are using it to make girls feel uncomfortable or pressured, passing it off as a “bit of banter”. However, we need to identify this behaviour for what it is—sexual harassment, used as a weapon to bully, hurt and intimidate others. It gives boys the impression that it is normal to be violent or dominant and to act in a forceful way around girls, both during sex and in their wider relationships. But young people cannot escape these images.
One way to tackle this scourge is through legislation, and thankfully that will happen through the Digital Economy Bill, which will introduce age verification for access to online pornography. This will go some way to protect children and young people from the ability to easily access pornography. It will reduce the exposure to pornography and the harm it can cause on a global scale. I fully support this policy, which I have been advocating for several years. I have longed for this to happen. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for her relentless campaign, and I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, for her sterling work in this area and in helping to make this legislation possible, especially as she has a global influence on this type of policy. She made a promise to me and to this House that it would happen, so I thank her for keeping that promise.
I also pay tribute to the lead that the Prime Minister, Theresa May, has taken in tackling violence against women, especially in the Digital Economy Bill. The Bill will provide a means of enforcing the strong standards in this country concerning violence towards women in an online as well as offline environment so that prohibited material, which includes extremely violent pornography, will be blocked. It would be good to hear the Minister confirm this. Any suggestion that we wanted to make space in an online environment for violence against women as entertainment would clearly send quite the wrong message, fostering a world in which this violence could become more and more normal and acceptable. That will not do.
I also strongly believe that social media and search engines should play a role in ensuring children are not exposed to pornographic content by blocking or closing down offending sites, as many of them come from outside the UK. There should be an expectation for all internet platforms to address violations and companies should take responsibility for how their platforms are used. A recent report about Facebook not taking down child pornography groups is an example of how this irresponsible attitude exists right now.
Alongside this responsibility comes quality personal, social and health education and age-appropriate sex and relationship education, which should be taught in all schools to teach young people about the benefits and risks of using the internet and how to stay safe online. The scale of pornography that children and young people are having to cope with is becoming an epidemic and needs to be counterbalanced with education. Girls have to understand how they can be in control in any situation they find themselves in; to have the courage to stand up and say no; to develop high self-esteem and to feel worthy. All this comes through education and inspirational role models.
It was wonderful to hear Justine Greening, Secretary of State for Education, at last announce that sex and relationship education will become compulsory in all schools. It should, of course, be age appropriate and I hope that the lessons that most young people attend will cover things like consent, sexting, sexual harassment, domestic violence, sexually-transmitted diseases, healthy relationships and gender equality. These are issues that can build a well-rounded attitude of how to cope with life.
Although the subject of today’s debate is about women and girls, it is the effect of porn on boys and young men, and their attitudes to women which is deeply concerning because it is women who bear the brunt of emotional, sexual and domestic violence. Unless we get a grip and wake up to the dangers facing society we will leave behind a terrible legacy which will echo across generations to come. Therefore, we must be bold global leaders in the field of helping to protect, inspire and motivate girls and women to have the courage to stand up for themselves and not be forced into doing things they are uncomfortable with—never. That should be our legacy to girls and women everywhere across the world.