Web of Porn: Adult pornography - the debate rages

Far from being immoral, dangerous or any of the other epithets the anti-porn lobby may give it, Internet porn is playing a positive role in changing attitudes to sexuality and should not be seen as "harmful" according to leading UK feminist Avedon Caroll.Caroll believes the Internet has forced the male dominated porn industry to change its attitude to customers, opening doors to a wider spectrum of opinions and expression.

Far from being immoral, dangerous or any of the other epithets the anti-porn lobby may give it, Internet porn is playing a positive role in changing attitudes to sexuality and should not be seen as "harmful" according to leading UK feminist Avedon Caroll.

Caroll believes the Internet has forced the male dominated porn industry to change its attitude to customers, opening doors to a wider spectrum of opinions and expression. "There is a visible shift in the kind of material available and a greater acknowledgement that both men and women are looking for porn," which is she says, largely due to the populist nature of the Internet. "There is now for example, lesbian porn being made by lesbians, whereas before the stuff available had probably never been near a lesbian."

Such views clash with myriad anti-porn organisations who deem censorship of unsavoury material necessary -- something Caroll believes is an ignorant and dangerous reaction to pornography leading to repression, which in turn leads to sex crimes: "There is no evidence to show porn harms people and the tendency to believe it is harmful is more worrying in itself," she says.

While Caroll's statement is difficult to disprove, one study suggests children who gain access to pornographic material are instilled with a sense of shame. In December the research group NOP undertook a survey to look at what children were searching for on the Net and how they reacted to what they found. The study, `Family's Kids.Net', revealed that 20 percent of children had found content that upset, embarrassed or frightened them. Two-fifths said they found something `rude'.

Rob Lawson, a researcher with the NOP says the findings represent a case for more careful monitoring of the Net. "The need to police young people's usage of the Internet more effectively and to restrict access to pornographic and other unsuitable material should be carefully considered by parents, teachers and those developing online content for kids," he says.

The NOP's findings have been quickly adopted by the National Viewers and Listeners Association, the old stomping ground of censorship queen Mary Whitehouse. "Pornography is immoral and exploits people," says director of the organisation John Beyer. "It presents a distorted view of sexuality and creates unnatural desires in people. Pornography undermines marriage."

Whether unnatural desires are roused or not remains open to debate, but Beyer believes the government should provide effective legislation, regardless. "Governments around the world should have powers to make material illegal and take action against those who distribute it," he says.

For Beyer the bottom line lies with service providers who, he says, should not allow offensive material to be published on the Net. But Beyer's broad definition of offensive material -- any image which depicts human sexual activity, acts of force or restraint, human genital organs, and violent sexual acts -- enrages Caroll who sees Beyer's position as untenable. "It's outrageous that someone with such a negative view of sex should be telling the rest of us what we shouldn't be looking at or doing."