Why We Should be Opting Out of Opt-In Porn

This week in “get yer filthy paws offof our interwebs”…

Here is a thing I literally do not understand: how are people who do not understand the internet allowed to control legislation about the internet? HOW IS THIS A THING THAT HAS HAPPENED?!  Internet users aren’t exactly a niche gathering anymore: gone are the days of IRC and hamsterdance, Facebook is the biggest country in the world, and the INFORMATION SUPER HIGHWAY isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Is it too much to ask to have someone in charge of this stuff who has at least a vague grounding in internet technology, terminology and memes?


The old issue of whether we should block porn on the internet is rearing its ugly, engorged head again this month.

A group of 60 MPs has published a report saying that internet users in the UK should have to opt-in in order to access pornography online.  The campaign’s being spearheaded by Conservative MP Claire Perry – witness my lack of surprise – who has been going on about this for yonks now. Since 2010, in fact, if you’re the sort of dull, over-zealous person like me who followed the original parliamentary debate. It’s always nice to have a chance to dig these things out again and view them through the rosy tint of nostalgia.

The report found that “freedom from prying eyes, human imagination and zero barriers to entry have led to an explosion of pornographic creativity with every possible sexual act represented online including many that are deeply degrading, disturbing and violent”, and that the current system of parental filters is failing because “only a minority of parents use these filters and this number is falling.”

Let’s leave aside for now the frankly miserable implication that freedom, human imagination, zero barriers and creativity are a bad thing, and look at the reasons why porn blocking as a default is A VERY SILLY AND TERRIBLE IDEA.

We’ll start with the most bleeding obvious.

No one’s going to want to opt in!

Perhaps you, as an adult, have decided that you do want to receive adult content. That’s cool, it’s a personal choice! All you need to do first is phone up your ISP, spend half an hour in a telephone queue, and then have an awkward conversation with a member of their staff wherein you essentially beg them for access to porn. Perhaps you share your internet connection with some other adults; a spouse, flatmates? Ok, well the ISP will need to talk to the account holder, and if that isn’t you, you’re going to have to get someone else to phone up and beg for porn on your behalf. After that, your names going to be on the ISPs porn register. The Big List of People Who Are Considered Sexually Dubious, 2012.


If parents are so concerned about their precious little darlings, why aren’t they already using the filters offered by ISPs?!

I’m not a parent, so I can’t answer this. It sometimes seems like the moment you spew out a baby or two, you lose all rational decision-making ability. The technology is already available, should people want to use it.

Opening the door to further censorship

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I think censorship is a bad thing, generally speaking, no matter how “moral” your motives may be. (We’ll leave aside for now the thorny problem of a small bunch of conservative-led MPs deciding what constitutes morality and what we should and shouldn’t be allowed to access freely). It’s all very well Western politicians outwardly condemning China (etc) for their internet censorship, but at the same time we’re seeing massive erosion of our online freedoms; from this week’s blocking of the Pirate Bay, to the numerous arrests because of activities on social media sites.


The most difficult – what constitutes pornography?

Is it art, or is it porn? What is porn, anyway?

Is this porn

Germaine Greer with her catflap out

Is this porn

The dirty pillows of Madonna

Is this porn

All the better to see you with my dear

Is this porn


Personally, I’m going to answer “no” to all of the above; your mileage may vary, YKINMK, etc.

Any filtering system would have to be semantically filtered according to keywords and image searches. Semantic filtering just isn’t doesn’t work that well yet; in the end, whether something is deemed “pornography” or not has to be a human decision – not to mention that the definition will differ wildly from one person to the next, depending on their levels of prudity.

Charlie (@sonniesedge) wrote a brilliant piece just over a year ago on why “pornblocking” ruling would have had devastating effect on her, growing up as a trans person. You can read it here. It’s one of a thousand “legitimate” reasons that a teenager or young person would have for accessing explicit content online; and that’s only if we assume that “exploring and coming to understand their sexuality” isn’t a legitimate reason, which, personally, I…kind of think it is?!

I’ll explain how a ruling like this would have affected me personally, growing up as a teenager. It won’t be as chilling or as vital a read as Charlie’s piece; a bit of censorship certainly wouldn’t have been fatal to me, but I would have turned out a very different person, and definitely not one as happy or comfortable with my own sexuality as I am.

One word: fanfiction.

I’ll let that sink in for a moment, whilst you judge me and leap to all the usual conclusions.  At least half of them will be reasonably correct.

Let me first clear up some myths: fanfiction isn’t about porn. Or, at least, it isn’t all about porn. And I have a lot more to say on this particular subject, which I’ll probably cover in a follow up post. For the purpose of this post, though, we will concentrate on the more sexually explicit side of things (Or “erotica”, if you prefer. I personally don’t, it reminds me too much of this sort of thing) since it’s the bit that’s relevant.

I think I started reading fanfiction when I was about 13 or 14, and nowhere near sexually active. My first ever ship was Rupert Giles/Jenny Calendar. It was a while until I discovered slash (fandom history! The term “ship” was first coined in X Files fandom; the term “slash” was first coined in Star Trek fandom. Anyway, I digress). Fanfiction was (and still is!) a safe space to explore my own sexuality, and discover the kaleidoscope of sexualities, genders and identities that are out there. It was many years before I’d hear the name Judith Butler, or even hear mention of ‘queer theory’, but when I did, it felt like coming home.

It also taught me some pretty good tips – the sort that the other, more popular girls in my year were picking up from More! magazine etc. I chose to avoid those types of magazines in favour of fictional pornography, and I’m glad; the negative body-image and degradation of women that these “officially sanctioned” items teach to young teenagers is far more destructive than the occasional glimpse of cock.

‘Guess Who’s Gone Under the Knife’: my favourite Hasbro boardgame

The thing that people all-too-often forget, whilst they’re trying to protect their children from sex, is that children need to learn to understand sex. They have willy-wagglers and front-bottoms just like the rest of us, and the minute they hit puberty they’re going to want to start finding out what they can do with them. That shouldn’t be a verboten or disgusting or evil subject. Specifically banning things only makes them seem more tempting.

I’m not saying there isn’t stuff out there that isn’t dark and disturbing, stuff that I don’t want to see myself, let alone expose my (potential) kids to. But there’s stuff on the streets that is dark and disturbing, too. We should exercise the same precautions with the internet as we do out on the high street; keep a close eye on them, teach them them to be wary of strangers,  and hold their hands if they need it.


A Digital Fairytale: Marble Hornets & The Slender Man

I suspect I’m a bit late to the party on this one, but that means that other people must be too, so I’m going to write about it anyway and spread the word as I think it’s quite exciting. One suggestion, though: don’t watch this alone, late at night, in the dark. I had to sleep with the lights on last night, and even that didn’t stop the bad dreams.

Marble Hornets is difficult to describe. Part Youtube series, part ARG, it documents the story of Alex, a student filmmaker who suddenly and mysteriously abandons his film, entitled Marble Hornets, once he comes up against “unworkable conditions”. Despite his initial plans to burn the tapes, he is persuaded to instead give them to Jay, our protagonist, who chucks them in the back of his closet. A few years later, and after Alex’s disappearance, Jay is inspired to sift through the footage in the hopes of discovering what happened. As he does so, he uploads any clues he finds onto Youtube.

The resulting clips chronicle Alex’s slow slide into paranoia and madness as he is tormented by a shadowy figure; The Slender Man. The Slender Man was already known online as an internet-born myth, created on The Something Awful Forums; he is tall, he lives in the woods, and he wears a business suit. He appears across the internet in the background of old photographs, always lurking on the edge of sight as children play unawares in the foreground, or striding almost invisibly through forests as twisted and spindly as he. Things get even more disturbing when Jay’s behaviour begins to mimic Alex’s, obsessively filming and uploading his every own move and blacking out for periods at a time, unsure of where he has been or what has happened.

In a sinister turn of events, Jay is soon contacted by a second party, another Youtube user called TotheArk, who begins sending cryptic video responses with veiled messages and hidden codes. We are unsure whether TotheArc is friend or foe; he seems to be toying with us, egging us on.

What is so interesting about the series is its interactive aspect and web 2.0 narrative. Not only do we follow Jay’s encounters on Youtube, but he also has a twitter account, further blurring the lines between the real and the unreal. The series has a dedicated team of followers over on Unfiction and Something Awful trying to unlock its mysteries, and as Jay investigates what happened to Alex, we too turn detective, tracking events as they unfold across the internet and seeking out as much information as we can find. We become another layer of the story. We feel we are part of the narrative. We start looking over our shoulder and behind doors, convinced that the Slender Man is lurking there.

The story is as yet unfinished, leaving us with a host of questions to puzzle over in the meantime. Who (or what) is TotheArc? What happened to Alex? Is Jay destined to go the same way?

Are we?

For fans of: House of Leaves, The Blair Witch Project, The Rake, Hush (Buffy the Vampire Slayer).