Debate about pornography must be realistic to be effective

Blunt instruments to censor porn won’t work, writes Caroline West.

Debate about pornography must be realistic to be effective

Blunt instruments to censor porn won’t work, writes Caroline West. Instead, we should focus on educating young people about sex, misogyny, and safe internet usage

We appear to be entering the third round of Ireland’s national conversation on pornography. The first one occurred when former Taoiseach Enda Kenny called for one in 2016, which resulted in scaremongering and screaming headlines about porn panic.

The second round was in September 2018, when I published a study on how the first conversation turned out. This conversation was calmer — a little bit more ready to listen to reason, a bit more willingness to have experts outline how we can support parents and children, and more calls for modern sex education.

This time and in the wake of the horrific murder of Ana Kriegel has produced the third wave of this conversation. However, it is difficult to hold a rational conversation when emotions are running high. It is hard to find nuance when we are traumatised.

But it is important to remember that conversations about pornography need to be nuanced.

Pornography made by adults for adults is a different conversation than pornography for adults being consumed by young people, images of animals is its own conversation, and, in turn, images of the filmed sexual abuse of children being consumed by children is another conversation on its own.

Revenge pornography, where images of intimate moments are shared without consent, is another seperate conversation. While some elements may be similar, a solution to one is not a solution to all.

This current conversation does not give hope that calm conversations will transpire.

However, this time we have two major changes in the background. On the positive side, we have seen recommendations by the Oireactas for quality, inclusive modern and objective sex education to be rolled out across schools. Updates on this process are urgently needed.

On the negative side, we have seen the Government state that it would consider copying the UK porn block. This approach may sound like a good idea in theory, as children accessing adult content is concerning, but it has several flaws in reality.

The regulators of the verification checks are companies such as Mindgeek (owner of the Pornhub site), a massive conglomerate that has a near monopoly on free tube sites that has leaked customers data previously.

Do we really want companies like this to have our legal documents? Do we know how secure this data really is? Some readers may remember the Ashley Madison hack in 2015, where personal data of this site for extramarital affairs was hacked by a group morally opposed to infidelity.

Some members paid ransoms, others had their details publicly leaked — leading to divorces and suicides in some cases. Who is to say an anti-porn group won’t target Pornhub in the same way?

Hackers aside, do we want the risk of the Government knowing what kind of adult content we watch as consenting adults, and what will they do with this level of personal detail?

Adults should have a right to have their sexual fantasies kept private and shared only on their terms; this is at risk in this bill that will prove to be mostly unworkable.

We know from history that censorship does not work and people find ways around it (alcohol, drugs, smoking, young people accessing video games/Hollywood movies rated 18+) and porn is no different. Young people are tech savvy, much more so than their parents.

They know how to use VPNs to access the internet, and to find what they want. This bill also does not stop porn being shared on social media such as Twitter or through private communications such as Whatsapp.

We also know that porn studies, in general, is an area of academic research where ideology is rampant and many studies are not methodologically sound. Simply put, we do not have a concrete body of objective academic studies than can conclusively point to specific harms caused by pornography.

For each study that points to a harm, another one will discount it, and it can be hard to figure out what is really going on. Some studies claim that 88% of porn features violent content, others argue this figure is closer to 2%.

That gap should give you an idea of how porn research produces differ results, due to methodological issues such as bias, sample sizes, and the type of content they use in their studies.

Porn research is outdated very quickly, and the reality is we don’t have enough modern research that adequately captures how young people access, use, and feel about porn, especially in Ireland.

I could list lots of different studies around porn, but the key issue here is: Young people are watching porn. What do we do while academia tries to figure out the impact?

What is one way to protect children when it comes to porn? Education. It is proven that when we teach children about sex, in an open honest and calm way, they have lower rates of STI transmission, and will have sex for the first time at an older age.

When children don’t have quality sex education, they have higher rates of teen pregnancies and have sex at a younger age. One research study looked at young peoples use of porn over 23 months. These participants viewed porn as unrealistic the more they watched.

Thanks to a study from Kate Dawson in NUIG, we know that some Irish young people are watching porn at age 13. Thus it is crucial to have systems in place to help them (and teachers and parents) to have these conversations while we wait impatiently for schools to implement 21st-century sex education.

If politicans are truly concerned about young people, they will throw their weight and funding behind extensive education, not only on sex and porn, but on topics such as violence, misogyny, bullying, gender, domestic violence, safe internet usage, and healthy relationships.

Parents and young people should

be supported and provided with educational tools to help make choices that are right for them. Porn isn’t going anywhere, lets stop failing young people trying to navigate it. Let’s turn the catchy soundbites into quality education that empowers young people.

- Caroline West is a Doctoral Scholar in Sexuality Studies at Dublin City University. She also holds a masters degree in sexuality studies and has more than 20 years experience working in social care.

More in this section

Lunchtime News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up