Birtist á 26. febrúar 2013

The Icelandic Minister of the Interior‘s recent initiative to explore ways to address the online circulation of hard-core pornography has received considerable attention from the international media. Many commentators have offered their views on the subject, some to commend the effort, while others have dismissed it as well-intentioned, if misguided, or as an attempt to impose censorship restrictions on internet access in Iceland.

Violent misogyny

The Ministry’s initiative emerges from an extensive consultation process on sexual violence, encompassing police, child protection specialists, lawyers and academic researchers. The experts raised concerns about the effects of porn on the nature – and possibly the scope – of sexual violence in Iceland. Research has also shown that children in Iceland are first exposed to pornography at the average age of 11. In some instances, children have been dramatically affected by it, and symptoms include social isolation and anxiety. There have also been reported cases of teenage boys re-enacting pornographic sexual acts on younger children. Finally, violent pornography is influencing teenagers’ first sexual experiences.

Pornography can reach children in different ways, but it is evident that the probability of a child becoming an adult without seeing porn is close to zero. This is a matter of concern since mainstream internet porn is becoming increasingly violent and brutal. It does not simply consist of images of naked bodies, or of people having sex but of hard-core violence framed within the context of sex.  Young women are usually referred to as sluts, whores, bitches etc. and represented as submissive, while men act in a dominant, degrading and violent way towards them. A fairly typical example could include a mouth-penetration, performed to produce choking, crying or even vomiting. The violent misogyny produced by the porn-industry has become our children’s main resource for learning what sex is about, which is a cause of serious concern.

Legal amendments

In response to the above-mentioned expert concerns, three ministries – the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture and the Ministry of Welfare – called upon a wide range of professionals to discuss and analyse the societal effects of violent pornography and to contribute to the development of a comprehensive, holistic policy. Proposals emerging from this process are now being implemented under the auspices of the three ministries. These include increased emphasis on violence prevention, revision of sex education and the forming of a comprehensive policy on sexual health. The proposals on legal amendments – now under consideration at the Ministry of the Interior – are, however, the ones that have received the most attention.

Firstly, a bill is being prepared with the aim of narrowing the legal definition of pornography – the distribution of which is already illegal – to encompass only violent and degrading sexual material.  The goal is to make the important distinction between sex, on the one hand, and violence, on the other. This approach is based on the Norwegian Penal Code.

Secondly, a committee, headed by the ministry, is now exploring how the law can be implemented. The key question pertains to the possibility of placing restrictions on online distribution of violent and degrading pornography in Iceland. Under discussion are both technical solutions and legal and procedural measures.

Critics of this effort have argued that any such attempt automatically involves censorship and unlawful restrictions on the protected freedom of speech. It is important to emphasise that our freedom of speech and behaviour is limited in many ways, without it being considered in violation of our universal human rights. The obvious example is the general consensus on the illegality of child pornography, which includes material that does not place children directly at risk, e.g. cartoons with child-related sexual material. Similarly, we should be able to discuss the circulation and the harmful effects of violent online pornography. And we need to be careful not to force the debate into the bipolar trenches of complete laissez-faire on the internet, on the one hand, and online censorship, on the other.

Collective approach

Furthermore, it is argued that it should be the parents’ responsibility to protect their children from unwanted material on the internet.  This argument is rooted in the on-going debate on whether society as a whole, or parents alone, should be responsible for children’s welfare. International instruments support the societal approach, most notably the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Such a   collective approach to welfare is also one of the corner stones of the Nordic welfare model.

All parents know that it is impossible – and far from desirable – to keep an eye on their children at all times. Internet filters for home-use provide a degree of protection, but the measure is limited as children access the internet in different places and on different devices.

It has also been maintained that even the best technical solutions to limiting the distribution of violent online pornography can never be fully implemented because the porn industry will always find a way to circumvent restrictions. This might be true, as it is with respect to many issues constituting threats to public health. But what if we managed to create a society where at least 80% of children grow up without their sexuality being shaped by violent porn? What if we only manage to raise the average age of children when they are exposed to porn for the first time from 11 to 16? Would that be worth a try? Our answer is yes. That is why we are debating the topic and willing to consider radical solutions.