The Iceland model: banning pornography or banning freedom?

Iceland was hailed the most feminist country in the world, after the country banned strip clubs in 2010. Image from Shutterstock

Iceland has taken a critical step to ban online pornography – and if successful it will be the first Western industrial nation to do so.

According to Icelandic interior minister Ogmundur Jonasson, the ban will include prohibiting access to violent and degrading content in order to protect children. Opponents say that it will encourage authoritarianism, undermine free speech and inadvertently capture innocent sites.

The feminist movement in Iceland is leading the move. This debate, fostered by women in high office, has been one where rights and freedoms are being challenged and exposed.

Advocates argue that violent pornography degrades women; that its accessibility further disempowers vulnerable women and encourages violence, sexual slavery and trafficking; that it is creating false expectations and pressures on young people; and that it has led to the normalisation of practices such as female genital waxing and anal sex.

The inevitable online discussion that followed the ban announcement came from those who are outraged at “the attack on free speech” (dominant tone being derision, contempt, angst), and suggested that the raised eyebrow brigade had immediately entered the debate.

The tone is simplistic. It is almost like these champions of freedom have to dumb down to get the point across to people with inadequate intelligence to understand why porn is good and healthy. Defenders of online pornography argue that it is creative, and because it supposedly clears your mind, it enables new ideas.

Reading this material brings to mind two other issues that carry the same type of commentary. The first is the current gun lobby debate in the United States, where the appalling vote to protect gun ownership rights, or as Ted Nugent claimed at the recent NRA convention – our “fight for freedom”, was engineered through the US Senate despite approximately 90% of Americans supporting the new controls.

The tone and the language appears similar – simplistic counter arguments followed by a resort to rational explanations of rights and freedoms and, in this case, photos of men in hunting gear, or little children holding massive guns.

The second issue with similar overtones is the online gaming industry, a massive terrain populated aggressively by young males. Girls who enter disguise their identity or are subjected to extreme trolling. Then there’s Elise Andrews, the founder of the “I f—ing love science” Facebook page, who finally revealed she was a woman. Shock, horror? How could that be? “I thought you were a dude – your page is superb” is one of the kinder comments that followed.

There is now a massive gendering of online content, the more bizarre of which is defended using arguments of freedoms and rights. The conversation is not about human rights, motivations and gender. It is not about women being trafficked into sexual slavery – some of it to online porn, not about why women are degraded on porn sites, why violence is condoned, and why we should all accept that the rights and freedoms of some cross the line on the rights and freedoms of others.

Iceland’s former prime minister Johanna Sigurdardottir led the way in banning strip clubs and paid nudity in restaurants. EPA/Ómar Óskarsson

Lizzi Patch, a mother of an 11 year old boy, wrote in The Independent this year on the damage done following the ease with which her son stumbled onto a violent porn site. His comment that he wished he could “unsee it” is poignant.

The average age that young people find online porn websites is 11. Changes in the behaviour of Lizzi Patch’s son were dramatic, and the perception children come to is that this is somehow normal sexual behaviour and this leads to expectations in adolescents about sexual acts, and to dramatic pressures on young women.

The first step in reigning in this massive distortion is to “unsee”. Making online pornography inaccessible is the first step, a step Australia and other Westernised countries should follow. We can do this with filters and the banning of Australian credit cards on these sites. We can reduce the exposure.

But this would only be the first step in a much-needed process that challenges the dominant voices on the internet, and the actions of those who view their rights as paramount - or who disguise counter-social opinions as freedoms. Pornography afficionados, gun lobby extremists and gamer trolls deserve to have their views aired, but as part of a wider public discussion of human rights for all.