We can’t ban pornography – but we do need to stop children accessing it

However inconvenient it may be for adults, we need to protect children from hurtful representations of sex and sexuality

Today the Authority for Television on Demand (Atvod) published research telling us children as young as six are accessing hardcore pornography. If we were to apply their study of 45,000 households nationally, that is 44,000 primary school children and 200,000 under-16s accessing adult sexual material; 112,000 boys aged 12-17 had visited one site alone, Pornhub. These figures aren’t even a realistic assessment as mobiles and tablets do not feature in the research. We should be shocked by the scale of the problem before us and galvanised into action. This is not about banning pornography, but protecting children from harmful and often degrading representations of sex and desire.

Atvod suggest forcing porn sites to complete age checks – failure to do so would result in an inability to process payments from UK consumers. So critical is the situation before us that Atvod has stressed the urgency of enacting legislation “during this parliament”. A spokeperson for the company said: “The material that appears on the free services is placed there by the paid services to attract customers to sign up to subscriptions. As long as the paid service placed content on a free service without age verification it would be in breach of its licensing conditions and so would not be able to access funds from the UK.”

Many of those commenting on these figures have suggested that it is not the job of official bodies like Atvod or even the government to take action. Instead, they point the finger of blame at parents, accusing them of failing in their duty to protect their childen, and instituting a moral panic. Time and again it is this beleaguered group that is pushed forward when considering how to best protect children from an industry which, even nearly a decade ago, already had an annual worth of $96bn. The implication is that slack parenting is jeopardising the right of adult men and women to easily access porn. If parents were to sort their own homes and children out, then the issue of widely available porn would disappear. Yet we all know that such content is only an accidental click or misspelt Google search away.

Watching pornography does have real consequences for young people. In 2013, the children’s commissioner set academics from Middlesex University the task of reviewing research on how pornography affected adolescents. More than 276 submitted papers showed that: “Pornography has been linked to unrealistic attitudes about sex, beliefs that women are sex objects, more frequent thoughts about sex, and [that] children and young people who view pornography tend to hold less progressive gender role attitudes.”

Part of the persistent failure to mount a coherent and decisive action against porn’s encroachment on young people’s lives has been a serpia-hued construction of it as a key element of young male sexuality. The research clearly debunks any notion that pornography is merely harmless fun, the type that young boys, in particular, have always used as a sexual rite of passage. A few years ago, teaching a group of sixth-form students a unit on gender and language provided an insight into the ways in which porn was having an impact of young people’s lives. I asked the mixed class to list all words, both taboo and formal, used to name girls and boys. One boy sheepishly stated that “pussy potential” was used to describe girls who they might be interested in seeing on a regular basis. This is the visual language of pornography. However unlikely the scenarios, all women in the world of porn exist because they are pussy potential.

More recently, in preparation for a panel discussion with, among others, Katie Price on whether the world needed Page 3, young men once again showed me how porn colours their view of women. These teenage boys were surprisingly unanimous: they all agreed that bare breasts in a newspaper is inappropriate – but many added that, in an age of readily available online pornography, it was dated in a very different sense from that spoken of by feminists. Crucially, they talked of “smashing and dashing”, “banging and ditching” such women.

While adults should remain free to exercise their right to consume pornography, children should not be made to carry the burden of that desire. There is no doubt that the Pandora’s box of online pornography has been left open for far too long to ever allow children childhoods free from explicit sexual material. What we can however agree upon is the necessity and value of small steps. However inconvenient it may prove for adults, we need to try to salvage children from a lifetime of unrealistic and potentially damaging representations of sex and sexuality.