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General Synod digest: support for porn-age-verification motion

15 July 2022

Fr Stephen Maxfield (Greek Orthodox Church)

Fr Stephen Maxfield (Greek Orthodox Church)

Pornography

AGE verification to prevent under-18s’ accessing pornographic websites should be brought in via legislation in Parliament urgently, the General Synod agreed by carrying a Guildford diocesan motion on Monday evening.

Introducing the motion, the Revd Jo Winn-Smith (Guildford) said that age-verification ought to be a no-brainer, akin to film certification. Pressure needed to be maintained on the Government to change the law. Freely available pornography was increasingly extreme, violent, unhealthy, and exploitative, she said.

The Online Safety Bill has reached the report stage in the House of Commons (News, 27 May) and the industry was working on tools to stop children accessing porn. Age verification was first proposed in 2013, but no measures had yet been introduced, Ms Winn-Smith said. This motion, if carried, would keep the pressure on Westminster to push ahead. The protection of children must trump any concerns about civil liberties with age verification, she insisted. “If we are silent and inactive, it leaves a void which can and will be filled by others.”

Julie Maxwell (Winchester), a paediatrician who also teaches children about sex and relationships, said that the attitudes of young people had changed in recent years because of the ubiquity of porn. Most depressingly, she said that young teenage girls had become numb to the inevitability that their boyfriends would consume degrading porn. “We must protect children from harm,” she said.

The Revd Steve Wilcox (York) spoke of the long-term damage done to young people by porn at a formative stage of their lives, including his own. He strongly supported the motion, but said that the theology in the paper should be strengthened with a call to repentance, and the importance of fleeing lust.

The Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson, also strongly backed the motion. Porn was degrading both for viewers and participants, and yet it was statistically likely that a significant number of Synod members were caught in the cycle of shame of porn addiction. He pledged to use his place in the House of Lords to push for age verification in the Online Harms Bill.

The Revd Fiona Jack (London) relayed the research she had carried out around age verification online, and reported that almost every child she had spoken to told her that they had lied about their age online. Age verification was important, but difficult to enforce in practice, she warned. Some methods were incredibly intrusive, such as tracking the other websites that a user had visited, or biometric data. She supported the motion, but said that more thought was needed about the extent.

Rebecca Chapman (Southwark), a mother of three sons, agreed that online porn was harmful, but questioned the benefit of legislative solutions. The Online Safety Bill would not work, she warned. The UK did not have a “firewall down the English Channel”, and it was not possible for websites hosted internationally to be compelled to carry out age verification. Parents could be lulled into a false sense of security and not realise that age verification was a “legislative fig leaf”. The answer instead was to focus on education of young people, parents, and teachers.

The Archbishop of York had spent four years on a House of Lords committee enquiring into internet regulation, he said, and industry leaders told him that they could do something on age verification. Internet firms were not platforms as they claimed, but public spaces; the answer was not to protect children from the internet, but make the internet “safe by design” with regulation and a code of conduct.

Abigail Ogier (Manchester), a former Barnardo’s employee, said that she had seen close up the impact of porn on young people. Age verification on its own was not a silver bullet, she said, hence the third clause of the motion.

The Revd Mike Tufnell (Salisbury) was concerned about what his children had easy access to online, and knew of marriages that had broken down over porn addiction that had begun in teenage years. Could the Church not play a bigger role online and in schools, steering children away from porn and towards God’s “beautiful vision for love, sex, and relationships”?

Fr Stephen Maxfield (Greek Orthodox Church) spoke of his experience of hearing confessions, which, 30 years ago, had rarely included pornography. Today, a large proportion concerned this, he reported. “This is a disaster, not just for children,” he said. “The men were filled with shame and self-disgust; the women are ashamed that they have been so unsuccessful as a lover. This is a terrible thing, a catastrophe for all of us. Do everything you can to fight this devil in our midst.”

Ruth Allan (Guildford) described pornography as a “pandemic” that had a particularly destructive effect on girls and young women.

The Revd Fraser Oates (Worcester) described himself as a millennial who had been immersed in the internet growing up. He and his friends encountered online porn as young as ten, which had been deeply damaging, he said. Unless the Church intervened now, advances in technology would lead only to more widespread impact on future generations, he warned.

The Chaplain General of Prisons, the Ven. James Ridge, said that huge numbers of people convicted of sexual offences were in prison, and that the starting point was often legal porn, before graduating to more extreme options. If this measure could detract even one young person from this path, and save victims, it was worth doing.

The motion was carried by 263-2, with three recorded abstentions:

 

That this Synod

(a) acknowledge that our children and young people are suffering grave harm from free access to online pornography and that there is currently no legal requirement for pornography sites to have in place age verification systems to prevent children from having access to those sites;

(b) ask Her Majesty’s Government to introduce legislation requiring pornographic sites to have in place age verification systems preventing access by people under the age of 18; and

(c) recommend more social and educational programmes to increase awareness of the harms of pornography, including self-generated sexually explicit images.

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