Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Dr Peter Nelson


A young man walks into a newsagent and buys a copy of the Sun or similar newspaper. On page 3, he sees a picture of a young woman wearing little or no clothing. What goes through his mind?

Does he think, “I must get a good job, earn a living, save some money, get married, have children, and help bring them up”?

Or does he think, “I must go out at the weekend, have some drinks, find a woman, and have sex with her”?

If the latter is the case, then society has a big problem.


In the first place, young men who think like this do not make good fathers. They make women pregnant, but take little or no interest in bringing up the children. This leaves women bringing up children on their own. While some do this remarkably well, the evidence is that children from single-parent families do less well, and are less well-behaved, at school.1 Even in homes where a father is present, there can be domestic violence which has an adverse effect on children. Many of the problems in education today can be traced back to poor parenting. Teaching youngsters who lack discipline and encouragement to study is very difficult.

Secondly, the open display of sex in the media brings sex to the attention of children from an early age. This leads them to engage in sexual activities before they are old enough to appreciate the consequences. Teenage pregnancy rates in Britain are very high. This is despite attempts to bring them down by promoting the use of contraceptives in schools.2 These fail because they raise children’s interest in sex still further. Even good sex education is limited in what it can do, given the big influence the media have on young people.

A recent NSPCC study reveals that nine out of ten young people between 13 and 17 years old in England, Scotland, and Wales have experienced some form of intimate relationship.3

Thirdly, pornography encourages men to be promiscuous. Promiscuity leads to transmission of sexually transmitted-diseases (SDIs). Health agencies promote the use of condoms to try to stop this, but condoms are not always used, and frequently fail. SDI levels in Britain are very high and rising. The number of new diagnoses in the UK is now running at 1.3% of the population per year.4

Fourthly, pornography inflames men’s sexual passions. Men who cannot control these may attack women. The incidence of rape and indecent assault on women in Britain is very high. On present figures, one in ten women will be raped or assaulted during their lifetime.5 The NSPCC study referred to earlier found that as many as one in three girls in Britain have experienced some form of sexual violence from a partner.3

Adult pornography may also be implicated in the development of paedophilia.6

Fifthly, sexual images of women contribute to the pressure on men to assert their masculinity. They see women vaunting their sexuality and want to show off theirs. This leads them to engage in loutish behaviour, drink heavily, drive recklessly, and so on. Anti-social behaviour is a big problem in Britain today, and much of it is macho-driven.

Sixthly, pornography contributes to mental illness in society. Many mental problems have a sexual component. Emotions are interconnected, and difficulties in one area can lead to problems in another. Some men have so much difficulty coping with pornography that they have set up a help group, “Men and Porn”. Many suffer on their own, and are reluctant to admit that they have sexual problems. The incidence of mental illness in Britain today is very high and rising.

While most pornography is aimed at men, it encourages women too to think of sex as something to be pursued as and end in itself, and not just as part of a stable relationship within which children can be brought up. Pornography aimed at women will do this even more.


The contribution of pornography to these various problems is evidenced by the extent to which they have grown over the last sixty years. Sixty years ago, media standards were high, and there was almost no pornography on sale to the public. Since then, standards have been relaxed, and the volume and explicitness of pornography have increased. At the same time, the incidence of all the above problems has grown.

This is shown by the following comparisons, taken from my 2005 briefing paper.4 There are large rises in all the indicators from the 1950s to the 2000s.

Teenage pregnancies

The following chart compares the number of girls in England and Wales becoming pregnant below the age of 14 per thousand members of their age group.

Sexually-transmitted infections

The chart below compares the number of new cases of syphilis, gonorrhoea, herpes, and genital warts in England and Wales per thousand members of the population. The comparison is limited to these STIs because there was no HIV/AIDS in the 1950s, and no records were kept of chlamydia or other infections.

Sexual crime

The following chart compares the number of rapes and sexual assaults on women and girls per thousand members of the female population. This is based on the number of offences reported to the police. Reporting of sexual crimes against women has become easier since the 1950s, but against this, many women take protective measures that they did not take then (eg avoiding going out alone at night).

Family breakdown

Sexual infidelity is one cause of family breakdown. (Other factors are money, alcohol, and drugs.)

The chart below gives the number of lone parents with dependent children in Britain as a percentage of the total number of families with dependent children.

Mental illness

Sexual problems are one cause of mental illness. A measure of the level of mental illness in society is the number of anti-depressant drugs people use. The following chart compares the number of prescription items for these drugs in the community in England per person. Anti-depressants were introduced in 1957.

Macho violence

Much of the violence in society is driven by machismo. Alcohol is often implicated, but heavy drinking by men is itself, in many cases, macho-driven. Violence in the media and drugs are other factors.

The chart below compares the number of violent offences against the person recorded by the police in England and Wales per thousand members of the population. The comparison is only very approximate because the police have changed the way they count violent crimes. I have doubled the 1955 figure to allow for this.

This evidence leaves little doubt that pornography is very harmful. This finding contradicts the conclusions of Home Office reports on the effects of pornography, published in 1979 and 1990.7 I have discussed the weaknesses in these reports elsewhere.8 The biggest one is that they do not answer the question, “If pornography is not a major cause of the sexual problems now afflicting society, what is?”

A more recent study of hard pornography by the Ministry of Justice concludes that this does have a harmful effect on adults.9 Other recent studies, including one by Dr Linda Papadopoulos for the Home Office, similarly conclude that exposure to pornography has a harmful effect on children.10 Dr Papadopoulos’ report is alarming. Would that the proponents of permissiveness in the 1960s had heeded the warnings of those who predicted what the consequences of this would be.


The remedy for these problems is for the Government to enact legislation to restore standards in the media to where they were sixty years ago. This will be difficult. Users of pornography will protest, and liberals will complain about loss of freedom. The above problems are, however, huge and need to be addressed.

My suggestion is that the Government sets up a Royal Commission to re-examine the effects of pornography and to make recommendations. Acting on a Royal Commission’s report would be easier for Government than acting on its own.

I have answered objections to raising standards and discussed possible legislation elsewhere.11 The answer to the objection of loss of freedom is that pornography takes away even more freedom—from women who would like to be able to go out alone at night, from young mothers who would like to do what their other friends do, from men who find pornography addictive, from old people shut in for fear of macho-driven yobs, and so on.

Pornography makes for a less civilized society. It is an evil, and needs to be treated as such.


1. Lords and Commons Family and Child Protection Group report 1998.

2. Cf. M Henderson et al, “Impact of a theoretically based sex education programme (SHARE) delivered by teachers on NHS registered conceptions and terminations: final results of cluster randomised trial,” BMJ, 2007, 334, 133; Meg Wiggs et al, “Health outcomes of youth development programme in England: prospective matched comparison study,” BMJ, 2009, 339, b2534.

3. Christine Barter et al, Partner Exploitation and Violence in Teenage Intimate Relationships, NSPCC, 2009.

4. P G Nelson, Sex in the Media: Is it Harmful? mediawatch-uk, 2005.

5. Andy Myhill and Jonathan Allen, Rape and Sexual Assault of Women: the Extent and Nature of the Problem, Home Office Research Study 237, 2002.

6. P G Nelson, Nudity and Sexual Activity in the Media, Whittles, 1998, Sect. 1.5.2.

7. Report of the Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship, chairman Bernard Williams, 1979; Dennis Howitt and Guy Cumberbatch, Pornography: Impacts and Influences, 1990.

8. Nudity and Sexual Activity in the Media, Chap. 2.

9. Catherine Itzin, Ann Takets, and Liz Kelly, The Evidence of Harm to Adults Relating to Exposure to Extreme Pornographic Material, Ministry of Justice Research Series 11/07, 2007.

10. Michael Flood, “The harms of pornography exposure among children and young people,” Child Abuse Review, 2009, 18, 384; Linda Papadopoulos, Independent Review into the Sexualisation of Young People, Home Office, 2010.

11. Nudity and Sexual Activity in the Media, Chaps. 3–4.

September 2013

Prepared 18th March 2014