Regulating the bizarre world of online sex would have not saved Hope Barden

The young woman's parents want to see tougher rules on adult sites. It's an understandable reaction – but one that pushes us down a slippery slope towards extreme surveillance

Rebecca Reid
Thursday 27 June 2019 13:48
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Last year, a young woman named Hope Barden died from autoerotic asphyxiation during a live webcam show. Now her family has joined calls for stronger regulations on the adult film industry and online sex forums. Her mother has said that the adult film industry "serves no-one except those who wish to perpetrate violence against women." She described the acts that her daughter performed online as "degrading and dangerous".

It’s an understandable reaction to their loss. But I’m afraid, no matter how noble the intention, the regulation of online sex is not a practical answer.

As a teenager and into my early twenties I spent a lot of time in these forums. Initially I did so because I had questions about my sexuality; later I used them to meet like-minded people to explore the London fetish scene. I can attest, the online world of sex is a Wild West of sorts. It’s a world filled with men and women performing strange and sex acts for each other, sharing photos, stories and videos, as well as enjoying sexual gratification – and feeling somewhat less alone, too.

Even to me, open minded as I was and still am, much of what you can find online is pretty shocking. But that doesn’t mean that it is wrong.

The problem here isn’t like-minded people getting together to share their fetishes free from judgement and shame, it’s a lack of education and understanding. Hope Barden’s death was a tragedy which no doubt has caused her family terrible pain. When situations like these occur it’s very normal for friends and family of those affected to call for urgent changes to be made to regulation, whether of sex clubs or the digital sphere, in order to prevent it happening again. But what, in practice, would that achieve?

Regulating sex online is a dangerous, slippery slope which is either impossible, or only possible through extreme surveillance. It would mean a team of real people being employed to spy online, watching privately recorded videos, listening to private confessional emails and knowing the real names behind anonymous writing. It means Big Brother is watching you masturbate. And even if official figures behind computer screens do watch what you’re doing when you log on to a sex website, what are they going to do if they spot something that they consider a potential problem? Cut your wifi off if you start doing something considered dangerous? You can see the problem.

Most fetishes can be explored in a safe way as long as the people taking part in them understand what they are doing. Unfortunately, while extreme sex has become more popular in recent years, education about how to enjoy that type of sex safely has not caught up with it.

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The genie is out of the bottle: we cannot legislate for what people masturbate over. All we can do is give them the tools to experiment safely.

Watching how people express themselves sexually online and exposing people with consensual, legal (if slightly strange) fetishes to surveillance is not the answer. It would not have saved Hope Barden.

The only way to prevent sex related deaths is through better education. Choking, like many BDSM activities, might be mainstream, but it is still dangerous. If you are going to attempt it – alone or with a partner – you absolutely must understand first how to mitigate the risks attached.

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