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"Leather Jockstrap" by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1971. Queer erotica like Mapplethorpe's work has often been at the center of censorship debates. (16 Miles of String/Flickr/Creative Commons)

When XXX Doesn’t Mark the Spot

What censoring online porn means for queer youth (and everyone else)

BY Yasmin Nair

Blocking sex-ed websites is especially problematic for queer youth in the UK, for whom the Internet is often a crucial source of information about their sexuality. The UK’s state-sponsored school system does not require sex education. The little that occurs is arguably inadequate for the general student population, and much worse for LGBTQ youth.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced this summer that by the end of the year, Internet Service Providers in Britain will have to automatically block access to porn sites unless account holders “opt in.” More recently, the UK also instituted a ban on “rape porn,” also to come into effect by the end of this year.

Cameron claims that the opt-in measure will prevent what he calls the “corroding of childhood.”

It’s not entirely surprising that a proposal to monitor and effectively censor porn should be made in a country where state intrusion is arguably a part of daily life. But porn is porn, no matter which country you’re in, and trying to regulate it raises hackles because it intimately connects public policy with issues of privacy.

The vast majority of British wireless and Internet providers “have agreed to put adult-content filters on phones, public Wi-Fi networks and home computers in the coming months,” according to a CNN report. These will become the default setting for home Internet users. Deactivation requires users to call the companies and prove they are 18 or older. This is potentially an embarrassment for most consumers who are presumably unlikely to want to reveal that they want access to porn.

But it’s not the issue of embarrassment that has civil-rights activists protesting the ban. Open Rights Group (ORG), an organization devoted to issues of freedom of expression and privacy, has noted that consumers would be “sleep-walking into censorship” because an ISP can choose to include a host of topics in its automatic blocking, including alcohol, smoking, anorexia and suicide. Unblocking requires consumers to understand what they’re getting into and uncheck specific boxes on their screens.

A sex-ed wasteland

Nor are citizens’ recreational pursuits the only thing at stake. As the free-speech advocacy group Index on Censorship points out, the ban may apply to educational sites providing necessary sexual information, particularly for youth. This isn't only because sex-ed sites may be accidentally caught in porn filters. News also broke last week that as part of its compliance with the new law, the UK’s largest Internet provider, BT, lists “sexual education” among its blocking parameters.

Simon Blake of the UK-based youth sexual-health charity Brook says that the new rules can and do result in sites like those of his organization being blocked. “One Wi-Fi provider blocked our website because it was listed under ‘sex education,’” he writes in Pink News. “Despite reassurance from the Prime Minister that there will be a ‘white list’ of sites to prevent this happening, we and our colleagues at online charity YouthNet are mindful that this will be tricky to get right.”

Blocking sex-ed websites is especially problematic for queer youth in the UK, for whom the Internet is often a crucial source of information about their sexuality. The UK’s state-sponsored school system does not require sex education. The little that occurs is arguably inadequate for the general student population, and much worse for LGBTQ youth.

Joseph Davison Duddles, a 16-year-old student at the Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College in Darlington, confirms that the extent of sex education in UK state schools is dismal. In his 11 years of schooling thus far, he has had four hours total of sex ed.

Duddles says his lessons included “how reproduction works and how to put on a condom, but pretty much nothing about the practices of my own homosexuality.” If sex education remains hetero-specific, it will leave out potentially life-saving resources for queer and trans youth. Thus, with government-supported education overwhelmingly absent, relatively few resources spent on queer sex-ed resources, and the fact that much of what they receive is likely to be straight-centered, queer youth are left to glean information from the Internet.

Given this, Duddles is also concerned about censorship of other queer sites. His first thought when the news of the porn ban broke was, “This will have an effect not only on the freedom of people to watch online porn, but also their freedom to access and watch queer art websites.” It’s worth noting that queer images like the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe have been at the center of some of the most intense censorship debates.

“However much a government may claim to be accepting of the queer community, it will still discriminate in an arbitrary way,” Duddles says.

Across the pond

In the United States, where free speech is constitutionally protected, the prospect of banning certain types of porn via Internet Service Providers is less likely. But public schools are subject to the Children’s Internet Protection Act, passed in 2001. Under the CIPA, schools or libraries that receive government discounts for Internet access through the E-rate program have to install filtering technology. The measure is ostensibly to protect minors from exposure to pornographic and other material deemed harmful.

What that means for students like Seth Eisenstein, 18, a student at Lower Merion High School in Philadelphia's Main Line suburbs, is that Internet access on school computers, including laptops that students are allowed to take home, is censored based on search terms alone. The result ranges from the absurd to the problematic: At one point, he says, students at his school were unable to access The Guardian, and words like “bisexual” were blocked—as was, mysteriously, the name “Mona Lisa.” The word “sex” itself is blocked, which makes it impossible to access sex education resources and porn alike. Like his counterparts in the UK, Eisenstein says his school has a disheartening lack of queer-friendly sex ed, making the Internet an important resource. Though student protests in his school prompted changes to the policy, Eisenstein says it largely remains obscure and unwieldy.

Blocking can have particularly damaging effects on trans students, Eisenstein points out, given the paucity of information available to them through channels that may try to address gay and lesbian teens. More youth are coming out as trans at younger ages, he says, and sexual education hasn’t evolved to accommodate them.

Searah Deysach, the proprietor of Early To Bed, a Chicago-based feminist sex toy store that takes queer sexual pleasure and resources into account, says she’s received complaints about her store’s website being blocked for young trans consumers who may be seeking information in a safe space. “We serve a significant transmasculine population and a lot of them can’t access information at home. So we developed a second site with no sex words on it, no dildos, so that we can circumvent the blocking,” she says.

There’s also the simple question of agency as a queer youth: “I very much valued my ability to do research independently,” says Eisenstein, along with the ability to acquire the vocabulary he needed to express his own needs. He asks, “Who gets to decide what’s harmful? It’s not that we had a say, but some bureaucrat thought of which terms to block—that does not sit well with me.” He insists “information should be freely available so that you can see the issues for what they are.”

Porn: the elephant in the room

To Eisenstein, this freedom means access not just to educational materials, but to, yes, porn. And this is where it starts to get sticky, as it were, for those of us thinking about the role of porn in sex ed. No one who is serious about the need for sex education thinks that porn can be a substitute for it. As Deysach puts it, “99 percent of porn is the worst sex ed—with so much emphasis on how big your penis is in gay porn, for instance. “

Both Eisenstein and Duddles, engaged queer radicals, recognize the problems with tropes that govern mainstream porn, gay and straight. As Duddles says, “I’m not a great lover of porn—it is potentially dangerous and a way to sustain patriarchy and heteronormativity.” Eisenstein, meanwhile, wishes there were more queer porn, more realistic porn, and more films geared to the requirements of a younger and growing population.

But both students point out that in a world where sex ed is spotty at best, porn remains one of the few ways for queer young people in particular to learn about their sexuality. Deysach agrees. “We need sex ed, but we also need”—she pauses for emphasis—“better mainstream porn.”

Which raises the question: If sex education could be revitalized and made more meaningful rather than the boring, perfunctory exercise it has become, could porn, queer and straight, play a role in it?

That may seem like a wildly rhetorical question that gestures towards an impossible utopian future. But there’s a radical argument to be made about the power of porn as an educational tool. It’s not always enough to have a well-meaning authority figure lecture youth—or adults—about things such as sexual self-knowledge, health and safety. It can be much more effective to have issues of consent and health modeled in porn, which, for better or for worse, determines our society’s sexual script, as well as helping people viscerally understand their desires and boundaries.

While we on the Left fight the depletion of sex ed, we’re losing the battle on the relevance and even necessity of porn. The porn debates, such as they are, assume that legislation, rather than thoughtful public discourse, is the only way to resolve the issues of “pleasure and danger” in porn (to borrow a phrase from Carol Vance).

That legislation should enter the picture so quickly whenever porn becomes an issue is not, as one might assume, a sign of how conservative our times have become, but rather of the extent to which neoliberal machinery works quickly to tighten its grip by restricting technology and criminalizing behavior. This is a point that’s missed even in the criticisms of the bans. While many critics are concerned with issues of expression and personal freedom, few note that such bans also effectively increase the range of the expanding prison industrial complex—another neoliberal project. The rape porn ban means that possession of such material can result in a jail sentence of up to three years.

To combat this, we must reconsider porn not simply in the framework of permissible or impermissible, as we are apt to do, but by challenging whether the state should be the one to determine what constitutes “acceptable” porn. This is where the Left inevitably caves in by acceding to the idea of “reasonable” restrictions, or by simply arguing for the making of “better” porn—women producers, less sexism, and so on. As important as much of that can be, it’s also important to realize that, for neoliberals and anti-porn advocates (who fall on all sides of the ideological spectrum, not just the Right), there is no “good” porn, only the ability to control and determine who gets to partake in an expression of sexuality.

Ultimately, neoliberal controls will make access limitless for the affluent and miserly for the rest. When the UK ban goes fully into effect, it’s likely that the scion of a well-off family in a well-off suburb or urban enclave will still find a way to access porn. It’s also likely that well-off students in private schools, whether queer or straight, will have access to respectful and culturally sensitive sex ed that is at least somewhat reflective of their realities—unlike students in public schools, where the very notion of sexuality-specific sex ed continues to set off tremors of public indignation.

In other words, something as ostensibly simple as limiting access to porn has ramifications that go beyond questions of personal freedom. Queer youth constitute one of the most vulnerable populations in terms of declining access to sex ed. One step toward solving that problem is to improve sex ed in schools; another is to make more queer-specific porn that responsibly models sexual health and consent issues. But neither of those is enough. We must also ensure that both porn and sexual-education resources can actually be accessed online. Of course, removing online restrictions isn’t going to magically solve the problem of access for every queer young person: There is a still-prevalent digital divide, even for youth, along race and class lines. But it will at least be a step forward and will provide potentially lifesaving information to at least some of those in need of it.

As Eisenstein puts it, “This is the kind of thing that isn’t best approached with a rule of any sort. A really good way to navigate this issue would be the opposite of what they are doing now: Put more resources into health and counseling resources, especially relationship counseling services for young people.”

He argues, “If you focus on those things, a lot of the issues that people associate with porn and explicit content online will be addressed in their own right by the young people themselves, which is one of the goals education should [have]: to prepare young people to take on the problems they see in the world.”

Yasmin Nair is a writer and activist based in Uptown, Chicago. She's a co-founder of the radical queer editorial collective Against Equality and the Volunteer Policy Director of Gender JUST. Her writing can be found at www.yasminnair.net.

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