Published:

Sophia Worringer is a parliamentary researcher for Iain Duncan Smith, and was formerly a researcher at the Centre for Social Justice.

It is right that there has been an outcry against the now former Conservative Member of Parliament, Neil Parish, who was found to be viewing pornography on two separate occasions whilst in the House of Commons chamber.

However, there is something about the ferocity of the distain – especially from women – which has exposed our hypocrisy about pornography.

Some declare that pornography has no lasting impact on either the male or female psyche, and that when it is viewed by informed consenting adults then no harm can be done. Were this true, however, the Parish incident would not have sparked such an outpouring of apologies to women for the misogyny of Westminster, or caused women in Parliament to share their own stories of sexual abuse and harassment.

Many women feel threatened when hearing that pornography has been viewed in their presence because they know the degrading and damaging nature of its essence. While both men and women watch pornography, it is overwhelmingly still women who are degraded, abused and damaged by the industry.

The outcry is more than just about a taxpayer-funded Member of Parliament, who was sent to the green benches by his constituents to represent their views and scrutinise legislation, not being attentive to his job. When Nigel Mills played candy crush for two hours during a Work and Pensions Select Committee hearing, he apologised and the story was soon forgotten. So although MPs are not sent to Parliament to scroll on their phones, there is something inherent about the content of Parish’s viewing choices – not just the context – that was so offensive.

The depth of distress that the incident has provoked shows that we need to talk about the public health harms of pornography. Viewing it is so commonplace that many have been duped into accepting its neutrality. But those who use it need to understand its far-reaching consequences and its grip on our society. It is not prudish to want a public health approach to pornography.

It is also difficult to separate the expansion of the multi-billion dollar pornography industry from the trafficking of young women and children around the world to meet the demand. There is huge cross-party consensus on the need to tackle modern slavery, but less political will given to making clear the connection between the trafficking of people and the ‘work’ for which they are trafficked.

When viewing pornographic videos online, it is almost entirely impossible to guarantee that exploitation and abuse do not follow closely behind. Many who may be very concerned about their groceries being fair trade have no qualms about the sexual abuse in the supply chain of their porn.

Soma Sara, who set up Everyone’s Invited to expose the sexual abuse of young women in some of Britain’s top schools, has warned against the dangers of online pornography. Young women feeding into the Everyone’s Invited site reported being asked to recreate scenes from violent and degrading pornography in their first sexual encounters. Some even reported physical injuries from the acts that their boyfriends expected them to replicate.

There are very tangible dangers when online fantasies break into the real world. Few commentators made the link between the actions of the murderer of Sarah Everard and his frequent use of pornography: Wayne Couzens replicated the violent scenes he had watched online with devastating consequences.

Pornography is not passive. It changes expectations of sex, removes sex from consenting loving relationships, and rewires your brain meaning you are always wanting more. ‘Vanilla’ pornography doesn’t satisfy for long and sophisticated algorithms manipulate users into harder and darker content.

If any other activity came with such a health risk, it would have a forensic public health analysis. Users of pornography should be warned of its impact in the same way that there is a requirement to warn consumers of other goods with potential harms such as alcohol or tobacco.

Pornography users need to be aware of the potential damage even as they click on the next video. Restricting the choice of over-18s to access pornography is impossible, but ensuring that people make an informed decision is not.