Small, volcanic, with a proud Viking heritage and run by an openly gay prime minister, Iceland is now considering becoming the first democracy in the western world to try to ban online pornography.
A nationwide consultation has found wide support for the move from police and lawyers working in the field of sexual violence, along with health and education professionals, according to Halla Gunnarsdóttir, adviser to the interior minister Ögmundur Jónasson. Ministers are now looking at the results.
“We are a progressive, liberal society when it comes to nudity, to sexual relations, so our approach is not anti-sex but anti-violence. This is about children and gender equality, not about limiting free speech,” she said. “Research shows that the average age of children who see online porn is 11 in Iceland and we are concerned about that and about the increasingly violent nature of what they are exposed to. This is concern coming to us from professionals since mainstream porn has become very brutal.
“A strong consensus has been building, with people agreeing that something has to be done. The internet is a part of our society, not separate from it, and should be treated as such. No one is talking about closing down exchange of information. We have a thriving democracy here in our small country and what is under discussion is the welfare of our children and their rights to grow and develop in a non-violent environment.
“There are some who say it can’t be done technically – but we want to explore all possibilities and take a political decision on what can be done and how.”
Gender equality is highly valued in Iceland and by its prime minister, Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir. In the Global Gender Gap Report 2012, Iceland holds the top spot, closely followed by Finland, Norway and Sweden.
An online ban would complement Iceland’s existing law against printing and distributing porn, and follow on from 2010 legislation that closed strip clubs and 2009 prostitution laws that criminalised the customer rather than the sex worker.
Web filters, blocked addresses and making it a crime to use Icelandic credit cards to access pay-per-view pornography, are among the plans being devised by internet and legal experts.
Hildur Fjóla Antonsdóttir, a gender specialist at Iceland University, said: “This initiative is about narrowing the definition of porn so it does not include all sexually explicit material but rather material that can be described as portraying sexual activity in a violent or hateful way.
“The issue of censorship is indeed a concern and it is important to tread carefully when it comes to possible ways of restricting such material. For example, we have a new political party, the Pirate party, that is very concerned about all forms of restrictions on the internet. It is very important not to rush into anything but rather have constructive dialogues and try to find the best solutions. I see the initiative of the interior ministry on this issue as a part of that process. Otherwise we leave it to the porn industry to define our sexuality and why would we want to do that?”
Not all the experts agree with the idea that porn is bad. Studies are often small and it is now impossible to find large numbers of young males who have never watched porn. But one 2009 study conducted by Montreal University found that porn did not change men’s perception of women.
Another, however, by Dr Tim Jones, a psychologist at Worcester University, concluded: “The internet is fuelling more extreme fantasies and the danger is that they could be played out in real life.”
There is evidence of a massive rise in internet porn addictions and in the type of porn available becoming more hardcore. Women are reporting more relationship problems caused by their partners’ porn habits and the number of indecent images involving children is escalating.
Iceland’s move has been welcomed by Dr Gail Dines, a professor of sociology at Wheelock College in Boston and the author of Pornland: How Porn has Hijacked Our Sexuality. “Of course internet porn is damaging,” she said. “We have years of empirical evidence. It’s like global warming – you will always find some global warming deniers out there who can quote some little piece of research they have found somewhere, some science junk, but the consensus is there.
“We are not saying you see porn and go out and rape, but we are saying it shifts the way people think about sexual relationships, about intimacy, about women. A lot of people really don’t realise what porn looks like online. If a 12-year-old searches for porn in Google, he doesn’t get some Playboy pictures, he gets graphic brutal hardcore images of women being choked with tears running down their faces and of the kind of anal sex that has female porn stars in America suffering from anal prolapses.
“Children are traumatised by what they see. You develop your sexual template around puberty and if you see brutal porn on an industrialised scale then can anyone really suggest that exposure has no effect? Because, if so, then we will have to totally rethink an awful lot of branches of science and psychology.”