Claire Prentice: We have to face up to the scale of online sex

TEETERING on vertiginous heels, Anna Friel was photographed peering into the window of a Soho sex shop last week. She was in character as the long-suffering wife of porn mogul Paul Raymond, who dominated London’s square mile of sleaze in the 1960s and 70s.

Raymond, a mucky King Midas, turned tableaux of naked women and girly magazines into brass. When he died in 2008 his estate was conservatively valued at £650 million.

Now Raymond is the subject of a British biopic, The King Of Soho. It will be a period piece in more ways than one. The smoky fug of Soho, with its seedy warrens of sex shops and signs advertising “French Models”, is almost entirely gone. There’s no need to go to the red light district when, thanks to technology, the red light district can come to you.

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Online porn and the access children and young teenagers have to it has been the subject of much recent debate. Last week teachers called on parents to take greater responsibility for the material their children access on computers and smartphones, and the UK government announced that it was consulting with internet service providers to protect children from online pornography.

One proposal being considered by the government would require parents to “opt in” to receiving adult content when they buy their broadband package. Other suggestions from campaigners include the introduction of “blocking technology” to prevent minors accessing online porn.

It’s a dilemma with which many parents will identify. No-one wants their children to be exposed to the torrent of disturbing images a cursory search of the net can uncover. Type the word “sex” into Google and it pulls up 3,810,000,000 sites.

Teenagers, whose emotional and intellectual maturity lags behind their sexual curiosity, have dominated the discussion, but younger children are at risk too, with millions of disturbingly explicit films and images just a keystroke away.

It’s parental instinct to want to restrict access to things that might hurt children but the proposals, though driven by reasonable concern, are an analogue solution to a digital problem.

One of the ideas the UK government is considering is filtering key words. But even if that worked, it would bring unwelcome problems. A filter on the word “sex” for example would catch a lot of pornography but it could also prevent a teenager searching for advice on contraception.

Some of the most disturbing porn sites on the web involve rape fantasies. No-one would want a child to see them. But a ban on searching for the word “rape” would filter out rape crisis centres too.

The solutions debated last week also fail to acknowledge the fact that children are the most tech-savvy members of most households. Many nine-year-olds could disable an internet filter in minutes.

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But the biggest flaw with the proposals is the assumption that porn is something you have to look for, and restricting search terms will stop you seeing it.

When I was a child, pornographic magazines were things you found hidden under bushes on wasteground and on the top shelf at newsagents. Now it seeks you out. Anyone who uses Twitter or instant messaging knows that random porn links and explicit pop-ups appear even when you are just trying to think of something witty to say in 140 characters. The home page on my smartphone offers porn alongside Facebook and the BBC. Your digital set-top box comes with free previews of porn films and real-time sex chat lines.

Restricting access to pornography on the computer at home might make parents feel secure, but it won’t prevent children from accessing it elsewhere, whether round at their pal’s house or on their smartphone.

And restricting access to porn sites won’t prevent teenagers from being propositioned on Chatroulette or Facebook. It won’t prevent sexting, where teenagers send naked photos of themselves to each other on their mobile phones and then sometimes discover that the photos have been forwarded to the entire school.

Though the problem may be technological the solution has to be social, and in particular familial.

Internet use has to become something parents routinely speak to their children about, like drinking, smoking and sex. And as well as talking about acceptable and unacceptable internet use, parents can do a fair amount themselves to protect their children. Not from being exposed to sexual images in the first place – that’s beyond anyone’s power – but by talking about how to deal with it when they are.

Rather than leaving our teenagers alone in their bedrooms for hours, unmonitored, as parents we should encourage them to have a wide range of friends, interests and hobbies and a healthy attitude to themselves and their sexuality.

And for young children, sensible protections such as putting the computer in a shared space in the house, limiting use and checking up on browsing history should provide a way of keeping at least some of this at bay.

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There’s no way back to the time of Paul Raymond, the Lord Chamberlain and the Obscene Publications Act when porn was a restricted commodity, sold in a small number of outlets. Ultimately the only way to combat this tsunami of sexual images is to bolster the self-esteem of the individual child and open a dialogue about sexual images. Clicking “Parental Control” on the computer might make us feel better but it doesn’t mean you really have control over what your child is up to.

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