As Iceland says no to pornography, will the rest of us follow?

Iceland’s interior minister is drafting legislation to stop access of online porn through computers, consoles and smartphones


We live in a pro-pornography age.

Not that anyone much approves of it, or claims to. But the stuff is so much everywhere that society must, in reality, be deeply in favour of it. Even if individual members of society genuinely don’t like it, as opposed to saying they don’t like it, there is nothing they can do about it. Society has decided that opponents of pornography will not be able to suppress it, nor to keep it from the lives of those they care for most.

It’s quite a recent change. I could probably count on the fingers of one hand the times I saw a photograph of a naked person, offered for sexual entertainment, before I was 18. Porn mags were known about, I suppose. Cinemas were in existence which showed porn – probably not of a very sophisticated or explicit variety. Porn was far away, a specialised interest, in Amsterdam or the Scandinavian capitals. Looking back, the 1980s showed a great advance in the availability of porn from the 1880s, but its ubiquity was something still to come.

No young person today would live such a sheltered life. As soon as they are able to use the internet, they must be bombarded with pornographic images and films. A new development, too, is the ease by which individuals can make and distribute obscene images of themselves – it has been said, not with much regret, that this tendency is destroying the previously profitable American porn industry. What is this attitude doing to the minds of those who grow up in it, always knowing that they can access porn or take part in it, given a bored afternoon? What is that doing to their minds, and their capacity to relate to another individual?

One country, not at all dictatorial in other respects, is taking steps to roll back the tide. Iceland already has strict laws that prevent the printing and distribution of pornography. This week, Ogmundur Jonasson, Iceland’s interior minister, announced that he is drafting legislation to stop the access of online pornographic images and videos through computers, games consoles and smartphones. His concern, unlike previous anti-pornography campaigners, is not so much a puritan one, as a commitment to end the humiliation, imposed or self-imposed, of participants and consumers in this trade. Is it, however, humiliating? Those participants and consumers might very well say that if it’s as universal as all that, and there is no shortage of new recruits to their ranks, sometimes prepared to perform for nothing at all, then it can’t really be as harmful or humiliating as all that.

Good luck to Iceland with trying to prevent anything from circulating in the internet age. Nations such as Syria and China have instituted controls on the internet, but a modern democratic nation such as Iceland ought to find an existential crisis about its attempts to control what people can publish, as well as great tidal waves of practical impossibility. The world is out there, and much of it thinks and lives pornographically, and is never far from a pornographic gaze. The ugly demeaning of human beings came in through the enlightened conviction that it was no longer for politicians to control what people could say, write or depict. It is too late for politicians to start saying, “Well, we’ve decided to let you have freedom of speech, so long as you don’t use it to say things that we don’t think you should have freedom of speech for.”

I don’t think it can be done. The world is against it. But it is interesting that this step should, for the first time in a Western democracy, be attempted in Iceland. Iceland has more reason than most to distrust the international systems that shape our local and national lives. The collapse of Icelandic banks in 2008 occurred when its external debt reached 9.553trn Icelandic kronur (£43bn). That was something like six times Iceland’s GDP and, since it was in excess of the central bank’s official reserves, there was no effective lender of last resort. Foreign creditors insisted on payments which could not be made. The country collapsed.

No wonder that Iceland is sceptical about the uncontrolled flow across borders, and is starting to explore ways in which the international network of ideas, of money, of images, of thought, of people can be closed down. Nothing good has come of it in recent times, or so it might be thought. We can expect a good deal more of this – closing the barriers against the world, and talk of “our children’s future”, and ingenious restrictions on what we can say to each other, based on undeniably horrible outcomes in the past. It will take some nerve to go on arguing for liberty and freedom of transfer, rather than just shrugging and saying, “Well, it’s too hard to stop it, so we just have to put up with it.”

Looking back, the 1980s may have been a golden age, where we had unprecedented freedom to speak and write about whatever we chose, but where images of degradation and a culture of humiliation were not yet universal. It could not last. Soon, we will have to make a decision. Is a culture of pornography the price we have to pay for freedom of expression? Or is control exercised by politicians over the free sharing of ideas the price we have to pay for a nation growing up safely, removed from the pornographic mind-set?

Benedict’s flight of Dolce Vita fancy

There was something familiar about Benedict XVI’s departure over Rome in a low-flying helicopter. What was it? Oh, yes, the opening sequence of Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, in which a statue of Jesus is flown by some helicopter pilots over the city, pausing only to admire some sunbathing girls on rooftops. Surely, only a keen student of cinema would have ended his story in a direct homage to the beginning of one of the greatest.

I like to think of Benedict and his handsome friend Georg Gänswein finding the time in retirement to catch up with all those Fellini classics that have hitherto passed them by, with a nice box of well-deserved violet creams.

Twitter: @PhilipHensher

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