The UK Government has announced an ambitious and much-needed review of pornography regulation. I welcomed this review in the Guardian, noting this is a ‘real opportunity’ to transform and modernise this area of law. I commented that change is urgent because:
“The laws on pornography are a patchwork of confusing, outdated and often contradictory provisions. The last substantive review was over 45 years ago and the world of pornography has since transformed.”
The current law is focussed on obscenity and doing moral harm, rather than the real harms of violent and extreme pornography and its pernicious effects across society.
Having first called for a wholesale review of pornography regulation in 2009, with Erika Rackley, when the extreme pornography laws were first adopted, and again in 2019 when my colleague Hannah Bows and I investigated the extent and nature of prosecutions under the extreme pornography laws, it is positive news that a more coherent, harm-based regulatory framework may be on its way.
Read more here about my research and expertise on criminal pornography laws, platform regulation and the nature of online porn content.
What do I see as the priorities?
Recognising easy accessibility of sexually violent porn online
The review must start by recognising the easy availability online of sexually violent porn. Together with my colleague Fiona Vera-Gray and others, we have undertaken the largest study to date of online porn, finding that 1 in 8 titles on the most popular websites describe sexually violent porn.
This research has helped inform many of the Online Safety Bill debates calling for change – including this review.
Harm-based legal regulation
The conceptual foundations of the law must be revisited, with a harm-based approach replacing the focus on obscenity. My research with Ian Ward arguing that John Stuart Mill would have been surprisingly keen on many forms of pornography regulation may be of interest here. Many people use Mill’s harm principle as a basis to reject any regulation, but we argue otherwise.
Cultural harm of extreme pornography
In thinking about what is the nature of the harms of pornography, in my work with Erika Rackley on extreme pornography, we argue that rape pornography is a form of cultural harm that justifies regulation. Our blog explains our argument.
Parliament’s Human Rights committee agreed, stating in 2014 that the extreme porn laws were ‘human rights enhancing’, as we had argued, and that the ‘cultural harm’ of such material justified regulation.
Reviewing laws on extreme pornography
Over the years, I’ve worked closely with organisations including Rape Crisis and the End Violence Against Women coalition to introduce and reform laws on extreme pornography, including ensuring that the law included rape pornography in 2015 following a successful campaign. For more on the rape porn campaign, read my comments in The Guardian, the Observer, the Independent and the BBC.
Extending extreme porn laws to include incest porn
During the debates over the Online Safety Bill, my oral and written evidence to various Parliamentary committees included a recommendation to extend the extreme pornography laws to include incest porn. This would help ensure such material is removed by platforms.
Online Safety Bill and platform regulation
The reality is that the extent of unlawful and harmful pornography online will only be reduced if platforms are effectively regulated. The Online Safety Bill will be one way this is achieved.
I gave oral and written evidence to the Parliamentary committees reviewing the Online Safety Bill, sharing my analysis and recommendations on pornography regulation, as well as measures to remove online content.