Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/07/08/onscenity/

Academics challenge moral consensus on sex and the net

Censorship does more harm than good

By Jane Fae Ozimek

Posted in Law, 8th July 2010 10:35 GMT

A moral panic around childhood sexualisation and the dangers of the internet is closing down important channels of debate and making the internet a more dangerous place for adults and young people alike.

That was the consensus view taken by Onscenity, an international network launched this week, which draws together experts to respond to the new visibility or 'onscenity' of sex in commerce, culture and everyday life.

In the very first full session of this network, academics and researchers heard presentations from four opinion leaders in this field.

Susanna Paasonen spoke of how the fragmentation of pornography caused problems for the authorities, who had problems nowadays determining what was sexual and what was not. She observed: "If you can imagine a fetish, there probably exists a group out there that is in to it – and if there isn’t, there soon will be." As example she cited "the ultimate snow bondage and shivering website" - she is from Finland after all.

David Buckingham, Professor of Education at the Institute of Education, London University, and Director of the Centre for the Study of Children, Youth and Media, complained about the current media panic over the "sexualisation" of childhood. While some issues went away with the last government, David Cameron also appears to believe this is a problem.

The real problem, though, is that no one knows what "sexualisation" is: it is a convenient label used to position the child as always the victim, and then to pile every problem imaginable on top, including paedophilia, body image, sex trafficking and self-esteem. Once that particular juggernaut gets rolling, it is almost impossible to have a sensible debate about what's really going on.

Too many so-called experts – most famously, Dr Linda Papadopoulos - were speaking well outside their field of expertise. Eating disorders get ascribed to "sexualisation", despite the fact that most dietary experts would question that conclusion. Worse is the way in which this debate is almost always framed in moralising terms, and a key question must be what political motive lies behind such framing.

Equally of concern was the way in which "healthy sexuality" is so often equated to "non-commercial" – as though sex alone can be an activity free from all commercial influence.

Buckingham’s contribution was echoed closely by Professor Catharine Lumby, Director of the Journalism and Media Research Centre at the University of New South Wales. She warned that a key driver to debate in this area is a parental view that "it must be possible to stop information getting out". The current panic in Australia has its roots in a report – Corporate Paedophilia – which set the ball rolling in terms of claiming that children were being "sexualised".

However, the report lacked all scholarship, being based on an inadequate sample, and contained no definition of sexualisation – or even what was meant by "child". It was dominated by vox pop submissions from the Christian right, feminists and high-profile social commentators.

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. ®