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New porn legislation is unclear and unwarranted – Dr Helen McCabe

On the day that hundreds of people are due to protest outside Parliament about new porn legislation introduced earlier this month, Dr Helen McCabe, from the Department of Politics and International Studies at The University of Warwick, said: “One of the most worrying things about the recent Audiovisual Media Services Regulations 2014 is the extent to which it involves the government ruling on what consenting adults may do with each other, in private.

"Classical, liberal arguments about the justification for state coercion and censorship, such as John Stuart Mill’s ‘harm principle’, clearly state that the state may only prohibit acts which are harmful to others. The government appears to be arguing that these particular sexual acts are harmful, but it is not at all clear that this is the case. Merely the fact that pain is being inflicted does not necessarily make something harmful, in this case (most obviously) because the performers have consented. Having an injection can be pretty painful, but I am not being harmed if I experience some discomfort when I have a flu-jab, because I consented (and also – again like these performers – because I think the pain worth the gain).

“It may well be that broadcasting these kinds of acts in public would cause harm (particularly, we might think, to children). But although (online) pornography by its essence involves people watching other people having performing sexual acts, this is not the same as them performing such acts in public. Instead, this is regulation concerning something which is going to be consumed in private; where the performers have consented to the actions they perform or which are performed on them; and where the viewer has also consented to view the content. (There are obviously problems if these conditions do not hold, but these are not the problems tackled by this more recent piece of legislation.) It does not seem at all clear that this is a case where we can legitimately claim harm is being caused. The government is claiming that the prescribed acts are ‘life-threatening’ and therefore harmful. The essence of today’s protest is that none of the proscribed acts is by any means ‘life-threatening’, but we could go further and say that, even if they were, this would be good grounds for (better) health and safety regulations, not banning of the content completely: consenting adults have a right to take risks if they wish to (where those risks are to themselves and do not involve risking harms to other, non-consenting, people), and it is unwarranted to try to prevent them.

“The government has also said this is about protecting children from pornographic content on the internet (which is, indeed, harmful). But children can still potentially access this kind of content, because non-British pornographers are still able to produce it and upload it to the web. The real problem, one might argue, is that of access to pornography, and it is this which ought to be being more strictly regulated than the content – after all, we have not banned alcohol (over-consumption of which, of course, can indeed be life-threatening) because it is dangerous for children to drink it, though we do insist on proof of age being provided before it can be bought.”

Note to Editors:

Issued by Lee Page, Communications Manager, Press and Policy Office, The University of Warwick. Tel: +44 (0)2476 574 255, Mob: +44 (0)7920 531 221. Email:


Lee Page, Communications Manager

Tel: +44 (0)2476 574 255

Mob: +44 (0)7920 531 221