How The Religious Right Censored The UK Media

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Although the Internet’s roots lie in defence and academic research projects in the 50s and 60s, it only exploded into the public consciousness in the mid-90s, after Tim Berners-Lee created the technologies behind the Worldwide Web.This was, not only in hindsight but widely recognised at the time, a hugely significant moment in human development; a point at which anyone, with a little technical skill and a little cash, could share their thoughts, beliefs, ideas, or products with a global audience. The control of publishing and broadcasting had always been concentrated in the hands of an elite. These few had a stranglehold on deciding what constituted acceptable culture, and what ideas should be kept away from the masses. They defined the consensus.

Now, ideas deemed “dangerous”, “immoral”, “obscene” or otherwise previously unacceptable could be publicly aired. Publishers could choose, if they wished, to remain anonymous. The implications were enormous – and given the benefit of hindsight, the predictions of the day weren’t overblown; the effect of the new communication medium has been social dynamite.

Given that the peoples of the developed world could, for the first time, choose exactly what content to consume, the Internet could be seen as a measure of repression; people would naturally use it to fill vacuums previously unoccupied by other, censored, media. How would people use the Net?

We quickly found the answer; although there was of course a true explosion of creativity, bringing us services from Amazon to Hotmail, the overwhelming majority of network bandwidth was used by people downloading pornographic imagery. There was a simultaneous exponential rise in the use of anonymous “dating” services to find sexual partners, either to engage in cybersex or to meet “in real life”. The Internet had provided the first unbiased survey of what the world was thinking; and what the world had on its mind was Sex. Few had realised how ruthlessly sex had been censored from human discourse in the preceding decades and centuries; only when all censorship was removed did we find out just how controlled our lives had been prior to the Web.

From day one, it was inevitable that the authorities would catch up with this turn of events and try to crush it; surely, our rulers hadn’t spent centuries pushing sexuality underground, only to have the whole project die in a few short years. The American religious right was quickly on the case; it had been funding academic research since the 1980s trying to prove that porn in some way caused harm to people and society. The religious right was joined in its efforts to stigmatise porn (and other open expression of sexuality) by a new strand of feminism; this time, instead of fighting for the rights of women to enjoy their sexuality without stigma, these new feminists were insistent that free sexuality was harmful to women. Collectively, I refer to the religious right and neo-feminists as the New Puritans.

With no academic research to back up their claims, the New Puritans took to establishing myths in the public consciousness. The Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels is famous for his observation that a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth. There are many “facts” about porn and sexual imagery that many liberal-minded people have accepted as true with little thought: sexual imagery “objectifies” women; the free expression of sexuality somehow benefits men and subjugates women; porn is “linked to” misogynistic thinking; porn is “linked to” sexual violence; sexual freedom is “damaging to” relationships.

It may come as a surprise to many people who have heard these ideas that none of these “facts” is backed by any research whatsoever. Indeed, attempts by the New Puritans to find “smoking guns” have failed dismally, after more than two decades of trying. The research that does exist suggests the opposite to what is claimed by the New Puritans. Most remarkably, in those societies that have embraced sexual freedom in its many forms, rates of sexual violence have fallen massively. Porn video first became widely available in the United States with the widespread adoption of VHS in the late-1970s. In 2006, the Washington Post reported that the incidence of rape in America had fallen by 85% from 1979 to 2004. Of course, availability of porn was one of many social changes taking place in the US during this period, but the conclusion seems to be that greater sexual freedom in society makes women (and almost certainly children) safer from sexual violence.

Scientific research has firmly dismissed the “porn causes harm” myths, with the publication Scientific American recently reporting on a number of studies that seemed to show the opposite – that porn use is correlated with positive outcomes. In the UK, researcher Clarissa Smith has studied the effects of porn over 20 years and has come to similar conclusions (her research is soon to be published).

So, game over for the puritans? Of course not; freeing sexuality means less money for religions that reap the benefits of sexual guilt; there’s also money in selling “cures” to the (probably imaginary) ailment of porn addiction and writing books about the evils of pornography.

With the election of a Conservative government in the UK in May 2010, the New Puritans saw new opportunities. Claire Perry, a right-wing MP, began a parliamentary enquiry into “protecting children online”. Simultaneously, a Christian lobby group known as the Mothers’ Union began a media campaign to convince people that children were being “sexualised”. This was a good, old-fashioned attack on “permissive media”, packaged into a fancy new term. Pretty soon, even level-headed people were believing that children were being “sexualised”, without any clear idea of what that meant. So far, so predictable.

Then it gets weird; David Cameron appoints an “expert” to carry out a review into sexualisation; this expert is none other than Reg Bailey, Chief Executive of the Mothers’ Union. So without public consultation, representatives of the religious right are writing policy proposals at the request of the British Government. In response to this absurd coup, the media outcry was… non-existent. An incident which should be treated as a political scandal has been ignored or even applauded. The very notion that children are being “sexualised” or that something should be done about it has been passed on without question in the mainstream press.

Reg Bailey published a report which was swallowed without comment by the government (I wrote about this in June). It stated, without being backed by research, that children were being sexualised, and that widespread media censorship should take place, from billboards to music videos to the sale of children’s clothing. Having now established religious prejudice as fact in the mind of the British government and media, a raft of censorship measures is beginning to be implemented.

The latest measure was announced this week when the government came to an agreement with large ISPs that consumers would be asked whether they want the ability to see porn when they sign up for a home Internet connection. This is done in the name of “protecting children”, although filtering solutions for children already exist (and have done for many years), and the effect of blocking an entire household can only be to prevent adults from watching porn. Although the measure is voluntary, there have already been attempts to stigmatise parents who are too “permissive” with their children; Clarissa Smith (mentioned above) says that parliamentary committees are already talking about “bad parents” who choose not to block porn to their household. Undoubtedly the next step will come when religious lobbyists report to MPs that parents are (shock, horror) choosing to remove the ISP block and watch porn in their own homes. Homes that have children in them!!!

The UK government has taken its first, definitive step into Internet censorship – something it has castigated other governments for in the past. It has been unclear about exactly what content is considered “unsuitable for children”; undoubtedly this definition will become ever broader with time. Undoubtedly too, the voluntary block will be under review, and the New Puritans will be demanding more sites to be blocked, and measures to make it harder (or impossible) for adults to access certain types of content via their home connections.

The response of the mainstream media has been almost non-existent. Most disappointingly, The Guardian writes in Daily Mail-esque terms about “the destructive effects of pornography on relationships and values, harming not just children but also adults” while blissfully ignoring that the claims of harm exist nowhere but in right-wing propaganda, and are not backed anywhere by research. In any other field of interest, The Guardian would undoubtedly investigate such claims, something that in the areas of laws related to sex and drugs, it repeatedly fails to do.

It was clear even 15 years ago that governments and corporations would never allow the Internet to continue as an uncensored medium; too many powerful vested interested are harmed by an open network. The US at least has the first amendment, making it harder to introduce censorship. But there’s little doubt that the Mothers’ Union, fresh from its success at turning the UK into a flagship for its “sexualisation” idea, will use us as a case study to campaign for similar measure elsewhere.

31 thoughts on “How The Religious Right Censored The UK Media”

  1. Thank you once again MW for a superbly
    researched and well written piece. The rise of the ‘New Puritans’ as you so aptly name them, has indeed, been on a scale I have not witnessed before. To me, it seems to have really begun in the latter period of Reagans’ presidency.
    Rapidly gathering wealth and power under both the Bush regimes. It is now I believe, the deciding factor in the forthcoming US presidential election, and I fear it will be so for many years to come. We are, and have, sleepwalked our way into the very fate Orwell warned us about so long ago. We have entered the ‘Age of thought Police’ meekly, mildly, and yes, moronically!

  2. I don’t know where to start. I think we all saw this sort of thing coming when Cameron first mooted the idea of so-called Free Schools — which are, essentially, a way for religious charities to opt out of National Curriculum Science and teach creationism in the Religious Studies class, because in faith schools this is the only subject taught which isn’t subject to Ofsted inspection.

    It’s the steady drip-drip of encroaching, American-style conservatism taking over the rightwing of UK politics which I find hardest to swallow. The even scarier part is how deeply unaware of it the majority of (small ‘c’) conservative MP’s seem to be about it.

    Even more frightening, is that in the short term measures like this will probably yield enough positive results as to keep the majority of the press happy. But the long lasting effects will fundamentally change the way we do politics in the UK forever — and not for the better. They’re seeding control over what we’re allowed to see and hear to private corporations, who are only accountable to their shareholders. Meanwhile public services are being bombed from 35 thousand feet on a near daily basis. The BBC, for example, are cutting jobs and output left right and centre, and the welfare system is being privatised one front-line service at a time. And because the spineless bastards in the party formerly known as the Liberal Democrats are too weak to do anything to stop them, once the Bullingdon Boys have destroyed the NHS they’ll start on the police and the military, and they’ll be so indebted to the new private owners of everything once owned by the British people, they’ll be nothing anyone can do to prevent it.

    This is nothing short of the beginning of the end for British democracy as we know it — I don’t mean that in a “wear your tinfoil hats now”, paranoid, deluded kind of way, I mean it in a “why have Sky News, BBC, ITV and Channel 4 said ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about #occupywallstreet” kind of way.

  3. I remember writing my own blog post about the current UK government’s desire to introduce this ISP block earlier this year. The fact that it has been introduced is incredibly worrying.

  4. Just a quick point – I am an anti-porn feminist. I am anti-porn because I am an anti-capitalist and also strongly disagree with the way women are treated and portrayed by mainstream pornographers. I have no problem with the depiction of fucking as it were, but I detest the industry around it. I am not a pearl-clutching prude, I think everyone’s lives would be improved by honest discussion about our sexuality, and how we like to fuck.

    I am yet to meet a single feminist who is anti-porn and believes that the answer to the problems lies in censorship. I have never heard of a modern feminist who wanted anything to do with the religious right. Just because we don’t like pornography, it doesn’t mean we’re idiots. Please don’t conflate these issues. I’m going to repeat myself and do it in capitals:


    There’s two posts from the same blogger (Sianushka) here – one which explains the position with regards to censorship, and one which talks about the Scientific American study you endorse (which found that as internet use went up, rape went down. Not as porn use went up, rape went down.):

    Here’s some things I wrote about opposing the porn industry and people blaming feminism for censorship:

  5. Hi FortyShadesOfGrey, your response is confusing; you don’t mind porn but you oppose it because you don’t like the industry? So I assume you oppose clothes (because of the clothing industry), food (because of the food industry), books because of the publishing industry, etc…?

    There is nothing inherent in feminism against porn – you may be aware of the existence of feminist porn directors such as Anna Arrowsmith in the UK, and even the existence of a feminist porn awards:

    There is also a pro-porn group, Feminists Against Censorship

    Of course I agree that exploitation of anyone for any reason is wrong. I know women who have left lowly paid work in other industries to earn good money and work the hours they choose as sex workers of various kinds. Sex isn’t exploitation: low pay and long hours are exploitation, and neither of these are a problem for porn performers.

    1. I find your response slightly facetious. Yes, I do oppose the fashion/clothing industry – I pay no attention to it (by reading about it) and only shop at charity shops or on the rare occasions I buy something new, I make sure it uses Fairtrade/organic cotton. As for food, I’m vegan and try to always use organic vegetables. If I wanted to use pornography, I’d go equally un-mainstream, since that’s what I oppose. So, if you’re trying to paint me as some kind of hypocrite, sorry about that.

      I’m going to guess you didn’t click the links, otherwise I wouldn’t have had to say what I said above. Also, the last one was a piece about Anna Arrowsmith. Why don’t you consider why there is seen to be a need for feminist/’female-friendly’ porn (which still uses boring, heteronormative, patriarchal views of womanhood and only depicts very narrow body types as ‘normal’)?

      Shockingly, I am aware that to be a feminist does not necessarily mean to oppose pornography! And – gasp! – I know that feminism is not monolithic and we don’t all have to agree.

      No – sex isn’t exploitation. However, being pressured into doing more extreme things than you want because you need to pay the rent, being forced to have unsafe sex and being raped on camera probably are*.

      (*Before you start telling me about this porn star that totally loves everything she does, and you know because she wrote about it, bear in mind that she has the privilege of having this voice, of being able to talk about her experience. Someone who had a negative experience is unlikely to be as able to discuss her experiences – to try draw an analogy – fashion designers v sweatshop workers – who’s voice are you more likely to hear?)

      1. I wouldn’t base anything on hearsay. I have friends who are sex workers. Sometimes they enjoy their jobs, other times not. Generally, they enjoy their work more than the average person does. And they get far better paid than the average person does. Is there exploitation and abuse? Yes, doubtless. Have porn actresses ever been raped? Yes, doubtless. Have factory workers ever been raped? Yes. The confusion here is that your objections to porn could be applied to any other line of work.
        Porn actresses, prostitutes, strippers, etc. should be able to work legally and be protected by the law. They should be protected by unions. Those points apply to them as much as to any other workers. The only difference between porn actresses and the average worker is 1) They’re better paid, and 2) They have sex for a living. Since I doubt you have a problem with the first, it seems you have a problem with the second.

  6. You may be interested to know that contrary to the claims made in this post there is plenty of academic research on links between porn and misogyny, sexist attitudes and violence against women and girls. Notably from the American psychological association, but also at the centre of gender based violence research at bristol university, even in Auckland university psych dept.

    So it isn’t a right wing or new puritan fantasy or invention, It’s very real and researched.

    I have yet to meet a feminist who supports this move or the bailey review. The fact that you have chosen to conflate the two suggests that you haven’t really engaged with or listened to the anti porn feminist argument.

    Which is a shame as there is a lot of great work being done by feminists who are fighting to end vawg in all its forms, within and outside the sex industry.

  7. Do factory workers get raped as part of their job? Is it an expectation when they go to work?

    You don’t know what I want to propose as a solution, you’re putting words in my mouth.

    I think prostitution should be decriminalised, and more support given to women who want to get out of that line of work. I think paying for sex should be the offence – thereby reducing demand and making the workers safer.

    You seem to think I’m quite stupid, or I don’t actually know what I’m talking about. I’m not the one conflating a desire to reduce violence against women and girls with Victorian prudishness.

    Actually, I have a problem with women being told that the way they can make the best money is by fucking people on camera, instead of using their ideas, opinions and intelligence to make money. When they’re reduced to three holes and a pair of tits instead of people, yes, I have a problem with that. I really, honestly, don’t have a problem with sex that is done because the participants want to stick their various bits in each other. I’m quite fond of it actually, and frequently talk/write about the need for openness, honesty, and more sex.

    1. Factory workers don’t get raped as part of their job; neither do sex workers. Contrary to your apparent belief, most sex workers are happy in their work, and don’t need patronising morons “supporting” them to quit. Nor do they need puritanical morons trying to criminalise their clients. How the hell does it “help” sex workers when you starve them of income? In advocating this, you show your agenda: not to help women but to stop them doing something you clearly disapprove of. I suggest you propose these ideas to some actual sex workers – they’ll laugh in your face.

      1. Believe it or not, I know sex workers too! You honestly think that prostitutes are never raped? Wow. Here’s a suggestion – you see the first link I posted? Go read the comments. Plenty of sex workers there. As for your argument about starving people of income, I can only imagine you support sweatshops for the same logic? And how about actually reading something I have written before deciding you know all about me? Your unwillingness to read anything or even think about imagining anything other than “I like porn, therefore porn is good” belies the fact that you don’t give a shit about anything other than wanking. It’s like someone saying “I like eating burgers”, then trying to claim that no animals are ever killed to make them. I think anyone reading these comments will be able to see who the real moron is.

        1. Would you fight sweatshops by making it an offence to pay for clothes?

          There’s abuse (including trafficking) in the food industry, so how about leaving restaurants legal but arresting the people who eat in them?

          Of course that kind of blanket criminalisation targets everyone involved in the industry, not just people who are exploited or abused. Even if a worker enjoys their job they’re treated like a victim, needing someone to save them by taking away their customers. I’ve often seen sex workers comment on how infantilising it is to be treated as if they’re incapable of giving consent and making their own choices.

          That’s just a small part of the Swedish model lunacy that many feminists are pushing. For example, it also classes anyone benefiting from the sex worker’s income as their pimp. That may sound logical, until you realise that it turns sex workers into each other’s pimps if they work together, and also makes adult children pimps if they live rent free with a sex working parent.

          Anyone who can’t how this can hurt the sex workers it’s supposedly meant to protect really is a moron.

          1. “No, but it happens to them because of the nature of their job.” – Wow! What a disgusting thing to say… it was that kind of comment that started the slutwalks (which I was very supportive of). You’ve shown your utter disdain for women who choose to do sex work; as I said in the piece, the word “feminist” has been hijacked by women who are nothing of the sort. You really need to talk to real life sex workers – but since you obviously despise them, I doubt you can be persuaded to do so.

          2. We’ve had this discussion on Twitter, but for the benefit of anyone following this, I didn’t respond last night because I was at a meeting planning a fundraiser for a charity that helps street sexworkers. Because, yes, I obviously despise these women so much. It’s for this charity and they’re great:

          3. What I was trying to say, before you twisted my words, is that any sexual encounter carries the possibility of rape. If consent is withdrawn and sex continues, that sex is rape. So if your job is to have sexual encounters, you’re at a much, much, much higher risk of rape – and FYI, I’ve had a lot to do with the Slutwalk movement, so don’t dare presume to tell me that I don’t support it because you’re deliberately misrepresenting what I say so that you don’t have to think about ethics while you’re rubbing one out. You seem to think that I haven’t thought my political views out or that I’m some unique person who doesn’t represent anyone else in feminist circles. By the way, if this weren’t feminism we were talking about, would you act like this? Want to patronise me and misrepresent my anti-capitalist ideals? My anarchist leanings? I hate political parties and religion, want to talk down to me about that? Or is it just my lived experience as a woman that you hate and want to lie about?

          4. Not got the statistics for this, but is there a particularly high conviction rate for sexual assaults on prostitutes? Is it about level with the average? I’d hope so, because I’d imagine that knowing you were very, very unlikely to get arrested would be quite an incentive to rape prostitutes?

            If it turns out it’s the same or higher, then I suppose since their status as prostitutes won’t make it any harder for them to approach the police or affect the outcome of their trial, you’re probably right. Worth looking into!

    2. And by the way FortyShadesOfGrey, I know at least 2 women who have paid for sex with male escorts. Would you criminalise them too? Or is it just men enjoying sex that disgust you?

      1. Yes, of course. You’re right. As a feminist I hate all men and don’t want any of them to enjoy themselves ever. Which obviously explains why I frequently write about BDSM in a heterosexual relationship. BECAUSE I HATE SEX.

  8. I once went to a talk from the manager of our local rape crisis. Few ppl understand the causes and impact of vawg then rape crisis workers. She told me that the vast, vast majority of women she spoke to had had porn used against them as part of the violence. Either as a grooming tool, or being forced into porn inspired acts they didn’t consent too etc, something that also happens to women who have been prostituted.

    Even if every woman working in porn was happy with her job, or working freely (which we know isn’t true) surely part of the problem that we haven’t talked about on this thread is the harm and violence and impact on those outside of the industry, all of which is very real. And attested to both by academic research and the work done by survivor and victim support services.

    Just because some people like watching violence against women on a screen, or because some people like working in porn doesn’t mean we should shrug and write off the experiences of women in and outside of the industry who have had violence committed against them. The only reason ppl do so, as far as I can see, is because they don’t want to face up to the fact that they are supporting and defending an industry where, whether they like it or not, women are routinely raped, trafficked and coerced.

    I would recommend looking at the work of charities like one25 and the poppy project to understand that there is more to the sex industry than the experiences you cite.

  9. Last thing – the research you mention quoted by the scientific American found that placs with higher levels of internet access reported lower rates of sexual assault. Now, unless everything on the internet was porn, and the only cause of sexual violence was porn, then the research may have had a point. But obviously that isn’t the case so I don’t see how the research can make the claims you have attributed to it here. It also ignores the fact of violence against women working in the industry.

    The APA research and the other research I mentioned is more persuasive seeing as it actually looks at association between porn and violence/sexism, not web access and violence.

  10. i dont think its correct to label mu as religious right – if anything they seem normally to be vaguely to the left. im not in favour of their pro censorship position but generally they seem to take relativly progressive positions

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