Photo: Damian Green, Getty
Damian Green (Photo: Getty)

POLITICS

Suddenly Britain is discussing porn. And it’s as awkward as it sounds

The row about whether or not Damian Green had pornography on his work computer is raising vital but tricky questions – for feminists, politicians and the police. Gaby Hinsliff looks on

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By Gaby Hinsliff on

It isn’t easy to have a sensible conversation about porn, if you’re British.

The whole thing tends to descend either into schoolboy sniggering or squeamishness. Feminists are torn between acknowledging that actually some women like watching porn, too, and decrying the degradation of women that so often goes with it. Men are mainly desperate to sound like they’ve never, ever watched any. It’s complicated, embarrassing and nearly impossible to get right, so it’s pretty much the last thing on earth most politicians want to discuss in public. But the sword hanging over the de facto deputy prime minister Damian Green’s head right now leaves them no choice.

The porn allegedly found on Green’s parliamentary computer nine years ago, by police investigating how he might have got hold of leaked information that embarrassed the then-Labour government, is in some ways the least of his problems. The story only emerged following allegations by the writer Kate Maltby that Green made advances to her – something he denies as categorically as he denies watching porn at work – and the key questions for Theresa May remain whether or not Green ever took advantage of his position to behave inappropriately with women, and whether or not he has told the truth throughout. But whatever becomes of Green himself, the porn furore is now dividing his party and it raises difficult questions.  

Around 16 per cent of men admit watching porn at work, according to one recent survey, although more often on their phones than on work computers. There are sound practical reasons why, as the women and equalities minister, Justine Greening, pointed out at the weekend, most employers don’t consider that acceptable and the obvious one is that people go to work in order to, ahem, work. Although most bosses will turn a blind eye to the odd personal phonecall or sneaky Tesco online order, anyone with hours to surf X-rated material in the office almost certainly isn’t doing the day job properly. (Given Britain has enough problems right now to keep a conscientious politician’s hands otherwise occupied for years, for MPs to while their afternoons away on Pornhub would be treating constituents with contempt).

But the second reason for banning it is that porn in the office can all too easily create a hideous atmosphere for everyone else. The law is pretty clear that swapping or discussing porn at work, or deliberately exposing female colleagues to unwanted images, constitutes sexual harassment. Nobody should have to knock three times and cough loudly before entering the boss’s office, just for fear of what she might otherwise be walking in on. The basic principle is that porn is a private matter right up until it affects someone else’s life, when it really isn’t. But it’s getting harder to know exactly where that line is drawn.

For libertarian Tories like David Davis, the Brexit secretary who supposedly threatened to resign if Damian Green is fired over porn allegations, the overriding principle is that everyone’s entitled to their privacy. Police officers, they point out, are bound to stumble across the odd embarrassing secret when searching through people’s intimate belongings, but they’re not supposed to gossip in public about it – if it's not illegal, it's none of our business.

The law is pretty clear that swapping or discussing porn at work, or deliberately exposing female colleagues to unwanted images, constitutes sexual harassment

But for many women, it’s a bit more complicated than that. They worry about porn culture warping teenage boys’ expectations of sex, which is why so many successfully campaigned for compulsory sex education in schools emphasising the importance of consent. They want tech giants to take more responsibility for what they’re hosting. They see it seeping into everyday life, blurring the lines between public and private consumption, as anyone who has ever spent a bus or Tube journey wedged beside some guy openly watching it on his phone will know.

They may well blame porn producers, rather than users, for this toxic climate, but men's God-given right to watch people shagging still isn't the hill they'd choose to die on. And the worst thing is that it’s almost impossible for ministers to start a sensible conversation now about the way all this affects women's lives without it being interpreted as a plea to sack or save Green. We should be able to do so much better than sniggering and sniping over this. But right now, don’t hold your breath.

@gabyhinsliff

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Damian Green (Photo: Getty)
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