Academics challenge moral consensus on sex and the net

Censorship does more harm than good

The entire debate was a trap, since as soon as someone declares an image erotic, it is then analysed in that context, as opposed to being viewed for whatever it is. In fact, Lumby suggested, it is arguable that analysing images by imposing an adult viewpoint on childhood activity is itself abusive.

Like Buckingham, Lumby felt that it was necessary to look at the political motives and context of the current panics. Buckingham suggested a concern with female working class sexuality, which was viewed as dangerous and in need of control. Absent from most debate was any view of boys or their sexuality, other than as a threat.

Lumby went further, expressing her utter surprise that some of the main proponents in this arena claimed the title of feminist, since in practice the whole debate was about policing how femininity should be performed. Moral critiques of imagery are highly normative – and therefore not in the interests of most women

Finally, Clarissa Smith, programme leader of the MA media and cultural studies at the University of Sunderland, took issue with terms such as "pornification" and "pornographication" which, like sexualisation, are rarely defined, but assumed to be universally understood.

She, too, argued that a major issue was the way in which childhood activity was being viewed through the looking glass of adult eroticism. "Showing your bum" is not a sexual activity for most eight-year-olds and should not be treated as such. "Sexting" is nothing new, but merely a modern manifestation of habits as old as dating and courtship.

That was not to ignore the real danger of what happens when an image taken from one context (childhood play) becomes taken up in another (adult sexual interest).

Overall concerns were expressed that in "saving us" from the internet, real harm was being done to adults and children. A moralising attitude makes it very dangerous for young people to discuss sexuality on the net – and certainly to discuss sexual issues with older people - closing off an important channel for exploration and seeking knowledge to teenagers. Other individuals involved in what may be seen as more "transgressive" sexualities such as BDSM or sex work also found it difficult to discuss issues pertaining to health and safety openly on the net.

Despite this, the conference was clear that it would be wrong to dismiss all concern as mere moral panic. But equally it is clear that there is a visceral element to this debate that does no service to anyone.

Onscenity was created as a response to public concerns about a range of issues including the new accessibility of pornography, the mainstreaming and normalization of sexually explicit representation, the commercialization of sex, the role of the internet in circulating 'extreme' images, and the use of communication technologies, often by young people, for sexual purposes. It is supported by leading academics in the field and will draw together scholars from Europe, the US, Hong Kong and Australia at a series of workshops, seminars and symposiums. ®

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