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Bath Literature Festival: Protect young women with a ban on pornography, panel hears

Panellists debate right to free speech and moral obligation to protect the vulnerable

A ban on pornogaphy is the only way to protect vulnerable children – because our modern media teaches them that sexual abuse is acceptable, the Bath Literature Festival heard today.

Ali Morris, a local authority domestic abuse adviser from Swansea, said that concerns about freedom of speech were misguided. "Whose rights are we talking about?" she asked during a debate on the ethics of pornography. "The right of pornographers to exploit women, children – and men – in a multimillion-pound industry?"

Fellow panellist Jan Macvarish, a child welfare researcher at Kent University, said she also regarded porn – even of the Fifty Shades of Grey variety – as "degrading", but described the suggested ban as dangerous and an attempt to "institutionalise feminism". It suggests "an incredibly pessimistic view of childhood and parenting," she added.

The debate, chaired by Labyrinth and Citadel author Kate Mosse, founder of the Women's Prize for Fiction, evoked honest and moving contributions from the 150-strong audience. One mother was distressed that teenagers see anal sex as normal.

Mosse said her daughter simply laughed when asked whether she could avoid seeing these sorts of image in her day to day life. "We can cope because we have good role models," her daughter had said. "But friends who don't are damaged by it."

In her work at a South Wales police station, Morris said she heard daily that women were being forced to perform sex acts their partners had seen on the internet – or handed over to more dominant males in their peer group if they would not.

Passing a sex shop recently, she said, she'd seen a disturbing sign. "Read Fifty Shades?" it said. "Get your equipment here!" An outright ban, she said, would send "a strong message" that "this rubbish is sullying".

Macvarish's view was that it was also dangerous to inculcate in children the idea that sex is itself "somehow toxic". "How can we show them they can have proper intimate relationships in this sort of atmosphere? It's very blinkered to think of porn as the cause of all our problems in this area."

"There's absolutely nothing wrong with sex," Morris countered. "Young people should be having it. But pornography has nothing to do with sex, it's all about power and control.

"Women are vulnerable. They are abused by their partners. A ban would be dangerous? What's dangerous is the lives that many of these women and children lead. And many young men misinterpret their role in sex because of what they see on their screens, in lads' mags and even in TV ads."

Mosse felt that the debaters were talking about the same thing, but from two different points of view. "The difficult question was, is free speech the Holy Grail? Whose civil liberties are we talking about protecting?"

Some of the most disturbing images she had seen were from people campaigning against porn, Macvarish said. But their effect could be exaggerated. "Surely the most likely outcome if most young men stumble upon them is that they will be repulsed?"

Morris, who presses her case in an interview for Ken Loach's new documentary The Spirit of '45, felt the real danger was that "people become desensitised to increasingly hard-core porn. Young boys see acts of gang-rape, whipping, violation. These become normalised."

What's on: Monday 4 March

11.15am: AN Wilson on the Wedgwoods. The celebrated novelist and biographer introduces his new novel about Josiah Wedgwood, the master craftsman, and his nephew Tom.

1pm: Environment, Resources and Economy. The Monday Independent Voices debate explores whether business and capital can save the planet. Chaired by The Independent's environment writer, Michael McCarthy.

6.15pm: Sandy Toksvig. Radio 4's funny woman and writer discusses her novel Valentine Grey.

8pm: James Runcie on Keats. The festival director looks at the great Romantic poet's attitude to friendship, love and death.