Barrister Gareth Roberts explains why an addiction to pornography should be taken as seriously as those dangerously reliant on alcohol or drugs

There are occasions when a story breaks that, though superficially appearing relatively inconsequential, actually masks more profound matters affecting society, law and public policy. The story of the Conservative MP watching pornography in the House of Commons is one such moment.

Initially I, like many others, chortled to myself at the prospect of another humiliation for the Government. But the story of one man who felt the need to watch porn at work should make us all stop and think about the issue. The prevalence of free porn sites on the internet has without doubt had a massive impact upon the lives of many people. 

One can assume that, to all intents and purpose, the MP in question is intelligent, articulate and seemingly well-adjusted enough to become an elected member of our legislature – which makes the idea of him concluding that it is perfectly acceptable to access porn in the House of Commons absolutely baffling. 

David Baddiel perhaps summed it up best when he tweeted that he couldn’t understand the attraction of watching porn at work, as “watching porn is surely a pointless exercise without its interactive element”. He then mused as to whether the MP was watching the content for its plot and acting.

The answer to Baddiel’s mischievous question is that this MP very likely believed that putting on porn during a parliemtnary debate was not unusual – because for him, it had become a normal way of life. In short, he was displaying all the signs of addiction. 

Porn addiction is a modern phenomenon; something that has crept perniciously upon us with the advent of the internet and super-fast broadband. And, like all forms of addiction, it is not a harmless or victimless pursuit. 

In my work as a criminal lawyer, I have encountered many people who have seen their lives decimated as they became submerged into a world of pornography; a world that has gripped them, taking away their time, destroying their relationships and, in many instances, leading to the commission of horrific crimes. 

Unlike addictions to drink or drugs, it is much more difficult to spot someone who spends hours on their phone or laptop looking at sexual imagery. But the effect upon them can be just as significant.

An American 2020 study concluded that pornography had played a direct role in 195,509 divorces in the US in 2018. Professor Samuel Perry, of Oklahoma University’s sociology department, has made the link between a downturn in ‘normal’ sexual activity and attitudes once an individual had started to regularly access porn. 

Many of those who commit sexual offences cite an addiction to porn as the starting point for their errant behaviour. As a criminal barrister, I regularly hear the excuse that what started off as an interest in ‘normal porn’ became an uncontrollable desire to seek more illicit and harmful images including images of children and other extreme forms of sexual activity. 

There is, without doubt, a link between watching porn and the commission of sexual assault and rape. 

The 2020 study carried out for the Government’s Equalities Office made the connection between those who access porn regularly and an increase in the objectivation of women, and aggressive and sexually inappropriate behaviour by men who have become desensitised and incapable of acting properly around the opposite sex. 

It also pointed out the impact that porn has had on girls who see the models and behaviour of those in porn films as normal and believe it is expected of them in their own relationships. An increasing number of young girls have been suffering with mental health issues and anxiety, citing a feeling of sexual and physical inadequacy as a cause of their problems. 

But what can be done? Can the MP in question, and others like him, be charged with a criminal offence for looking at porn in public? 

The answer is potentially yes – putting offensive images in any way into the public domain may amount to an offence of gross indecency, particularly if the individual concerned knew that others might be able to see what he was watching. 

But, like other addictions, it may be that the criminal justice system isn’t the most effective way to deal with the problems caused by those who are physically and mentally dependent upon the consumption of a particular commodity.

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The MP, like others in the same boat as him, clearly needs help – he needs to be educated to understand the impact that porn can have on his own life, the life of those who love him, and also the lives of others who are affected by the porn industry. 

It may be that the politician in question will refute the notion that he has a problem with pornography; ‘it’s just a little bit of porn, I can handle it’ may be the familiar refrain. This shame and embarrassment will prevent many people from seeking help for this addiction – and so steps must be taken to help people come to terms with their addiction, and realise that it is a serious condition; in many ways just as serious as an addiction to cocaine or alcohol.

And, of course, the companies who provide the free-porn sites must also be brought under greater scrutiny. Proper protection must be put into place to prevent children from accessing the porn sites, and proper punishments must be meted out to those who fall foul of these regulations – paltry fines and slaps on the wrist will not suffice. 

The Government, to its credit, is introducing legislation to regulate the internet through the Online Safety Bill, but any legislation must be accompanied by proper funding for the organisations given the task of regulating and policing the internet – Ofcom, for instance, must be given the tools to do the job effectively, because the multi-billion-dollar porn industry won’t be easily brought to heel. 

It’s easy to laugh at the porn-watching MP. It’s easy to shake our heads in a bemused way. But the reality is that porn is – literally – everywhere, and if we allow it continue to grow and populate every area of our lives, we will live to rue the consequences. 

Gareth Roberts is a barrister

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