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Rachel Wolf is a partner in Public First. She was an education and innovation adviser at Number 10 during David Cameron’s premiership, and was founding director of the New Schools Network.

I asked the editor of this site what I should write about this week, since Brexit is the only subject of interest for many. With unerring journalistic instinct, he responded: “I thought you might be interested in writing about pornography”.

Here goes.

It will soon be harder to watch pornography online. Internet providers will face large fines and consequences if anyone under 18 accesses porn, and will therefore require credit card details, a purchased ‘porn pass’ from a newsagent, or use of a VPN (Virtual Private Network) for access.

Guido Fawkes has endearingly called this the “tossing tax”, and it has various libertarian groups predictably excited. To rehearse a few of their key arguments: this is an infringement on personal liberty; it will create a massive database of porn users with credit cards, which is bound to get hacked at some point; and it will drive people to illegal behaviour.

Nevertheless, when I was first told about this policy idea my instinctive response was “good”. David Willetts has often said to me (and others) that a Conservative is a libertarian with children. I used to find this very irritating in my early 20s, but at least in my case he has been proved right.

When I think about my children, I want to stop bad things happening to them. And it is clear that parents worry about the effect that widespread access to online pornography may have on teenage boys’ view of what normal sex is, and therefore how girls get treated or feel they must behave.

It is part of a wider wrestling with the environment that girls are growing up in. We are in a strange time, in which we are simultaneously chanting “Me Too” and focusing on gender pay gaps while our children are more princess-obsessed than we or our parents were, when lego seems to come in pink and blue categories, and where the youngest “self-made billionaire” is Kylie Jenner, one of the Kardashian-Jenner clan who uses her brand – derived from her family’s fame – to sell makeup.

If we can change this – reverse it – then great. And it doesn’t seem that important if men looking for porn are inconvenienced in the process.

But honestly, the more I think about it, the more exasperated I feel about this policy. I’d love boys to stop watching degrading porn online and changing their attitude to women as a result. It would be great if the Government could do something serious about it.  But does anyone really think this is going to work? Or is the Government simply reaching for the same domestic policy intervention again and again, regardless of impact, because of a paucity of time, and therefore of imagination?

This Government likes to prevent us from doing bad things. Sometimes it bans them – like ivory. Sometimes it taxes them – like plastic. Sometimes it just makes accessing them harder – like porn.

That is unsurprising, given the political fix it is in. The Government can’t pass legislation very easily. It is too distracted to come up with deep and serious policy responses to complex problems. It is deliberately focused on less ‘classic’ Conservative voters, such as former Labour-voting Leavers who tend to be relatively socially authoritarian, and in favour of public sector intervention and funding (it may be about to lose them all over Brexit – but that’s a separate point).

Banning things is easy to announce, relatively easy to implement – and, most helpfully of all, creates an enemy that the Government and the public are united against.  But do we really think that the consequence of this move will be a massive decrease in young boys watching people having sex on the millions of sites available (this isn’t just about the internet – I can’t think of anyone at school who failed to find cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs if they wanted to)? It is likely that the sites they do access will be much less concerned with morality or legality than those who play ball.

And could we please decide what being an adult is, and when? We have the same MPs arguing that smoking should be banned until 21 but that voting should be at 16. We can marry and have children – the ultimate responsible act – at 16, but not drink alcohol or watch other people having sex until 18. At some point, it would be helpful to decide when people become adult.

I know the Government is consumed by a first-order problem. I know it is nine years in, and getting tired and short of ideas. And I know that we are wrestling with serious mental health and social issues which rightly worry us, and where our traditional policy responses seem inadequate. But if we can’t think of anything that’s going to do real good, maybe we could act like true Conservatives for once – and choose to do nothing at all?

101 comments for: Rachel Wolf: The Government’s porn crackdown. It sounds great. But it won’t work.

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