My latest article, The Price of Sex, examines the economics of sex. While many people regard the sex trade as simply a synonym for sex work, it goes far deeper than that. The sex trade is everywhere, fundamentally woven into the human psyche, into the economy, and into our history. It’s so widespread and obvious that, like the air around us, we usually choose not to notice it. This is an article I’ve been planning to write for a long time, and I’m delighted that Quillette chose to publish it. Click to view the article at Quillette.
Recently, I came across a campaign called We Can’t Consent to This, which purports to be ‘a response to the increasing use of “rough sex” defences to the killing or violent injury of women and girls’. But when I browsed the campaign’s site, it seemed somewhat familiar, and I started to suspect that the campaign was not what it claimed to be. British radical feminist campaigns tend to fit a particular pattern – a pattern with which I became familiar when I observed it over a number of years for my book Porn Panic!
For several years, a small, active (and hateful) radical feminist group called Object was a key driving force behind claims that pornography was harmful, and made repeated calls for porn to be censored. Additionally, Object was behind a number of other pop-up anti-sex campaigns. These included Stripping the Illusion (a campaign to get strip club licenses revoked by councils), Lose the Lads Mags (which attempted to stop supermarkets selling magazines such as Zoo and Nuts), and Rewind and Reframe, which called for the censorship of “sexist” music videos. Object may also have been influential in the No More Page 3 (NMP3) campaign, which called for the Sun newspaper to end its iconic daily topless model on page 3. The same groups of people are also behind anti-sex work campaigns such as Nordic Model Now. At times it seems there are more radfem campaigns than there are activists.
Each campaign had a set of common features, most obvious of which was the shallowness of their arguments. In place of evidence that porn (or lads’ mags, music videos, …) was harmful, the campaign would resort to fear-mongering and the vague insinuation that erotic imagery caused ‘objectification’ which in turn (somehow) caused men to harm women. The campaigns rarely, if ever, attempted to provide evidence of the alleged harm, and with good reason: there was none to be found. Instead they relied on moral panic, scary anecdotes, and the endless repetition of the word ‘objectification’, as if this alone was all the justification they needed. In the rare cases when the campaigns provided statistical evidence, it was often false or misrepresented. One such case was the use of the ‘Lilith Report’ to demonstrate that strip clubs contributed to the prevalence of rape in the local area. This report was mercilessly dismantled by Dr Brooke Magnanti, who showed that the Lilith result had been falsified by cherry-picking only the evidence that matched the claim and ignoring evidence that contradicted it. This did not prevent Object from quoting Lilith for years after it had been discredited.
These campaigns had a number of other things in common. First, they all received uncritical backing from the Guardian, sometimes in comment pieces and occasionally via editorials and planted ‘news’ stories. Second, they all drew their arguments from a small number of unreliable sources: often the leading anti-porn radical feminist activist Gail Dines. And third, they were supported by small numbers of MPs, generally from the Labour Party, and often including the veteran Labour MP (and radical feminist) Harriet Harman, who regularly lends her name to anti-porn and anti-prostitution lobbying efforts. The Guardian, Dines and Harman reappear regularly in support of anti-sex campaigns. All three appear in conjunction with We Can’t Consent to This, with the Guardian publishing a supportive piece, rich in anecdote and panic, on the subject.
We Can’t Consent to This makes the central claim that, increasingly, men accused of murder are using the defence that the death occurred during ‘sex games gone wrong’. It does provide some statistics in a briefing document. However, the statistics quoted by WCCTT themselves seem to suggest that the use of such a defence is extremely rare, and that in any case it doesn’t appear to be taken seriously by the courts. WCCTT’s own data suggests that the defence has been used in the killings of 57 women and girls since 1972 (a timeframe of 47 years), and never more than five times in any year. Furthermore, in almost all cases (51), the defendant was found guilty of either murder or manslaughter. One case has yet to reach court.
WCCTT is a strange campaign: not only is the problem it identifies (the use of a ‘sex game gone wrong’ defence) extremely rare, but the defence it complains of rarely, if ever, works. The briefing document does suggest that the defence has helped reduce charges or mitigate sentencing, but provides no evidence to support this. Most of the site is dedicated to the individual, harrowing, stories of women who have been brutally murdered. So given that murder and manslaughter are already illegal, what exactly is WCCTT trying to achieve?
The direct goals of the campaign are not stated clearly anywhere on the site, but are hinted at: “We do not believe that women can consent to their grievous injury or death, and will campaign until claiming this is no longer a useful defence”. WCCTT asks supporters to write to their MPs calling on their support for an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill. The content of the amendment is not on the WCCTT site; to find out what it actually says, one must visit Parliament’s website, and now we can finally see what the campaign’s true mission is.
There’s a subtle difference between this amendment and the wording on the WCCTT website. While the campaign refers to death and serious injury, the amendment also includes a third category: actual bodily harm. But ABH is defined as follows:
Actual bodily harm is a criminal offence in which someone gives another person a minor injury
ABH refers to bruises, scratches and so on. So this law is primarily designed to stop people causing minor injury to each other. It’s likely that 99% of injuries sustained during sex are both minor and consensual. And so here, apparently, is the big con: We Can’t Consent to This talks loudly about murders and horrific injuries, but actually is campaigning for consenting BDSM, fetish and kink sex to be criminalised.
Is this deliberate, or naive? Fiona Mackenzie of WCCTT contacted me on Twitter after I tweeted about the issue, and denied that the campaign was anti-kink.
I pointed out the campaign seemed to be linked with well known anti-sex campaigners.
Mackenzie is right. According to legal precedent, one cannot consent to being injured. In 1993, during the trial of R vs Brown (aka the Spanner case), a group of gay men were convicted of “unlawful and malicious wounding” after participating in a sadomasochistic sex party, despite the fact that all participants were consenting. However, the case was seen to be deeply homophobic as well as an intrusion into people’s private sex lives. It is unlikely, these days, that police would choose to arrest people for going to an S&M party. And yet, this is what Mackenzie, Harman and their supporters seem to want. I thought I should clarify this point:
She didn’t reply. I tried again:
Again, Fiona Mackenzie failed to reply. I have contacted her again, asking for comment, and will update this article if she responds further.
So We Can’t Consent to This is actually acting to prevent pro-dommes and lifestyle kinksters from enjoying perfectly consensual and (barring the odd bruise) harmless sex lives. The campaign should perhaps be renamed to We Don’t Approve of You Consenting to This.
If you are a pro-domme, or enjoy a fetish lifestyle, and would like to support my work, you can make a contribution here.
(Photo credits: photos courtesy Hyena Photography and Red Heaven Media)
Today, it was announced that the UK government’s plans to introduce age verification for online porn, and to block any content that did not comply, were being shelved.
For me, it all began about 12 years ago. I was running Strictly Broadband, a British streaming porn movie rental site, which was one of the UK’s best known porn outlets. I began to hear that the British Board of Films Classification (the BBFC – formerly, and more accurately, known as the British Board of Film Censors) were investigating the idea of classifying online streaming movies, in the same way they already did for cinema and DVD releases. Given that porn was heavily restricted on DVD (and completely banned in cinemas), this was worrying for the British industry, which would have to heavily cut content to conform to British standards.
We were already beginning to suffer from the effects of free content from the newly-launched ‘tube’ sites such as Youporn.com, so this was unwelcome news for an industry that was already struggling.
I went to the meet the BBFC’s new Head of Online, Pete Johnson, to discuss his plans. He was introducing a scheme called BBFC Online, under which movies should display the appropriate BBFC certificate (which was either 18 for soft titles or R18 for hard ones, although many titles that were legal in the EU or USA would not be allowed at all). Johnson explained that the scheme was voluntary, but would likely be adopted soon by UK regulators. My team implemented BBFC Online on our site, but we were just about the only site to do so, and the scheme failed.
Johnson, however, jumped ship to run a new regulator, ATVOD, which would report to Ofcom, the UK’s giant media regulator and censor of TV and radio. Again, I met with him, and registered my site with ATVOD (and paid the hefty registration fee). ATVOD was supposed to be a general-purpose regulator of all video-on-demand (VoD) services, but Johnson appeared to have a particular obsession with regulating pornography.
ATVOD’s Rule 11 was especially suspect. It required adult sites to verify the ages of all visitors before allowing them to view any content. This age verification was far more than just a button saying “I’m Over 18”. Sites were required to check age using a credit card (debit cards were not considered secure enough) or some other method, such as a passport check. To implement this would have simply meant that we went bust. I began lobbying on behalf of the industry, pointing out that there was no point simply chasing us all out of business or offshore; but the regulator seemed to relish the chance of destroying the UK’s small adult industry.
Johnson began to pick on a series of small sites – mostly those whose owners had made contact with him to enquire about the regulations. Then ATVOD served notice on Playboy TV and my own business. Playboy (who were by now owned by the biggest porn company) simply closed their UK operation and migrated to Canada. Given only two weeks to comply, I had little option but to sell my site and close my company.
However, ATVOD was short-lived. Johnson’s porn obsession was annoying the big broadcasters – BBC, Channel 4, Sky, and so on – who were largely funding the regulator. Eventually, Ofcom closed ATVOD down, and took the regulation in-house. This was not the end of attempts to censor pornography, but the start of an escalation.
In 2016, Ofcom began a consultation on adult content, to which I submitted a response. This appeared to be rigged, with the outcome predetermined to recommend censorship. Sure enough, Ofcom rapidly announced that children were indeed threatened by the existence of online porn, and that legislation was required to protect them (aka give Ofcom powers to censor the internet).
The legislation (the Digital Economy Act) was rolled out in April 2017. This created the role of Age Verification Regulator, and granted this new regulator powers to fine and disrupt services that did not verify the ages of visitors. It was later announced that the AV regulator would be the BBFC (which was no doubt grateful, as its business from DVD censorship was quickly dying).
More significant, it was announced that ISPs would be required to block sites on a blacklist provided by the BBFC. This would be the most powerful internet censor in British history – and possibly in any democratic country.
However, the immense cost of the block, and various civil liberties issues, appear to have finally changed the government’s mind, and they pulled the plug. This is bad news indeed for the BBFC and the age verification industry, but good news for civil liberties. However, the government ominously suggests it will continue to act against “Online Harm”. It may be that, given the rise of social media in the past few years, the blocking system simply makes little sense any more. Far easier to threaten Facebook and Twitter to control what content can be shared on their platforms.
Watch this space for the next thrilling installment…
I recently appeared at a ThinkIn – a discussion hosted by Tortoise Media. The subject was “Life in the Porn Age”, and the panelists (other than me) were: the tireless sexual freedom campaigner and First Lady of Sex, Charlotte Rose; pornstar Misha Mayfair; ‘porn addiction therapist’ Paula Hall; and solicitor Honza Cervenka, a specialist in ‘revenge porn’. The session was chaired by journalist and author Nichi Hodgson.
The write-up of the session slightly misrepresents me, by stating: “… free-speech activist Jerry Barnett warned us to be careful about concluding too much from the data available. Much of it is flawed, partial and based on conjecture.” In fact, I’m massive fan of data as the essential tool for debunking myths. What I in fact said was that false claims linking pornography to rising sexual violence were not backed by data: the available data (and there’s plenty) suggests the opposite, that rising porn use correlates with a decline in sexual violence. I devote a chapter in my book Porn Panic! to this subject.
(NOTE: The Tortoise link has now been updated with more accurate wording at my request).
Below is the video of the event. Enjoy!
I began the Sex & Censorship campaign in 2013 in order to cast light on UK government attempts to censor the Internet (attempts which are now worryingly close to fruition), and to oppose feminist-led moral panics for the censorship of sexual expression. I assembled a broad coalition of support, including sex-positive feminists. What I hadn’t bargained for was a widespread belief among my allies that gender was a social construct.
I was familiar with social constructionist ideas, which had been popularised in the second wave feminist movement of the 1960s. My mother, in common with much of her generation, had once subscribed to the idea that ‘gendered toys’ and socially-constructed stereotypes were to blame for unruly male behaviours. And so, like many Generation Xers, I didn’t own any toy guns or swords, I was briefly enrolled into ballet classes, and I had a doll (called Jemima). All this provided little obstacle to the expression of my gender identity. Weapons could be made out of sticks. I refused (age 5) to participate in ballet, and I don’t remember having any great interest in Jemima. My long-suffering mum, who produced two more boys after me, learned the hard way that gender identity isn’t something you can mould like dough. Having sons appears to be a quick cure for mothers who subscribe to wishful theories on gender. I had assumed, in the intervening years, that this view of gender identity had been quietly left behind. I could not have been more wrong.
What I hadn’t fully realised in 2013 is that, rather than remain a whimsical idea of the baby boomers, the belief that ‘gender is a social construct’ had become popularised, embedded in academia (via Women’s and then Gender Studies), and then become part of the education of countless young people. Many of these had gone on to become the next generations of journalists, educators and politicians. Rather than attempt to discover the realities of gender, these new ‘theorists’ simply adopted a theological approach. A recent, confessional article by a gender academic reveals the truth about gender theory: it begins from a key false assumption, and then much of the rest is made up. As gender theory matured, so the body of work based on this false assumption grew. Social scientists cited earlier social scientists, piles of books were written, and the new religion became solid. The myth became fact, because it was built on a huge foundation of erroneous works, each one adding credence to the rest.
As I came into contact with gender theorists, I was confused by the theory I began to encounter, which seemed to clash with much of the sex science I had read, and I would ask these new acquaintances to explain their view of gender to me. I was rewarded with blank looks, or scornful ones for asking the wrong questions. Finally, I got the chance to interrogate an actual lecturer in gender studies, the husband of a friend. Over a pint, I explained my confusion regarding ‘gender theory’, and asked a simple, devil’s advocate question to get the ball rolling: surely, gender was rooted in biology? To my surprise, the man became flustered, (literally) began tugging at his his hair and became incoherently angry. He then called on a fellow academic (a historian of comic books, I recall) to explain why my question was wrong. From this encounter, I learned little about gender theory, except one thing: gender theorists did not behave remotely like scientists. They didn’t revel in defending or explaining their field, nor in the cut and thrust of discussion.
Around the same time, I shared a story on Twitter from a scientific publication about a research paper on the mating habits of bears. The story revealed a close match between human and bear mating behaviours. I hadn’t expected any response save, perhaps, some smutty dad jokes. My tweet, however, received an outraged response from a well-known feminist sex blogger, who angrily tweeted me that BIOLOGICAL DETERMINISM IS FUCKING BOLLOCKS.
Biological determinism is not a scientific term, but a social constructionist pejorative to be directed against evolutionary science that threatens the cult’s belief system. This accusation was confusing: if the similarities between bear and human behaviours were not biological in origin, was bear behaviour constructed by copying mating behaviour from humans? Or were humans copying bears? The blogger failed to explain, but launched into a Twitter rage against me. Puzzled, I spoke to a feminist journalist who was a mutual friend of myself and the sex blogger, but she too dismissed my belief in behavioural evolution as so extreme that “not even Richard Dawkins would support that!” (Dawkins, of course does support that, but in any case, he isn’t the High Priest of Evolution). I experienced the unsettling sensation that many of my acquaintances were joining a cult.
Having inadvertently crossed swords with the fledgling Woke movement, I began to hear rumours about myself that friends had heard from their friends: first that I was a misogynist, and later an Islamophobe. Since nobody directed these attacks at me directly, I never got to understand why I was being called these names, and was not given the chance to defend myself. I had a decades-long background in anti-fascist activism, and in the era of the English Defence League I had been one of the best-known online activists debunking their brand of anti-Muslim hate, so the Islamophobe label was especially puzzling. I had become (in the terminology of the cult) problematic, so I was a valid witch-hunt target.
Attempting to seek enlightenment from gender theorists or their followers had failed. Transgender friends proved more useful in explaining matters than academics. I observed over a period of time as a trans friend transitioned from female to male, and saw the remarkable effects of testosterone in altering his personality. Another trans friend in her 60s explained her journey to me in language that was refreshingly clear, if not politically correct: she was born, she told me, with a ‘defect’ in her brain that did not recognise her male body. Surgery, hormones, a new name and living as a woman had allowed her to be comfortable in herself, for the first time in her life. Her harrowing story helped convince me that trans people must have the right to live as as the gender they choose rather than the sex they were born as.
The existence of trans people (which refers to people born with gender dysphoria) creates a problem for social constructionists. If gender is a social construct, then how can one be born believing one is the wrong gender, with such distressing consequences? Social constructionists are forced into a position of either surrendering their belief system, or suggesting that gender dysphoria is a social creation. The latter explanation both belittles the traumatic experiences of trans people, and suggests their condition might be ‘curable’ by therapy alone. This puts social constructionists in a similar position to American Christians who advocate for a ‘gay cure’. I have found that some Woke friends, while publicly echoing acceptable positions on transgender issues, are quietly uncomfortable with the issue.
Science clearly backs the idea that gender identity is innate. Neuroscience has only recently begun to mature as a discipline (this is easily explained by the fact that an adult human brain is almost unfathomably complex, and is formed of around 100 billion neurons), but it is clear that most brains are identifiable as male or female. The interesting word in the last sentence is ‘most’. Gender isn’t a single, binary brain feature with two settings, but appears to be a combination of features. In a 2015 study (‘Sex beyond the genitalia: The human brain mosaic‘ by Daphna Joel and others), 29 regions of the brain were scanned in multiple people, and each region was a different size depending on the person’s sex. However, in only a small proportion (no more than eight percent) of brains were all 29 regions either typically male or female. The vast majority of us show some combination of the two.
Nobody should be too surprised by this finding. After all, while most people show fairly typically gendered behaviours, most also show some atypical ones. As Joel’s paper states in its introduction: ‘… human brains are comprised of unique “mosaics” of features, some more common in females compared with males, some more common in males compared with females, and some common in both females and males’.
Based on this mosaic model of the brain, it becomes easier to understand that a more typically male brain might (somehow) occur in a female body, and vice-versa. It also becomes clear that some people are likely to feel ‘non-binary’, meaning they don’t identify strongly as either male or female. Gender is therefore a spectrum rather than ‘binary’ – however, brains are not evenly distributed across the spectrum, but mostly fall within the ranges of typically male or typically female.
Unfortunately, gender politics misses any such nuance. Feminism has a history of dividing deeply over controversial issues. The subject of pornography split the movement in the 1980s; gender dysphoria is another such issue. The appalling ‘debate’ over transgender rights has broadly split the Left into two dogmatic tribes, each with its own set of simplistic positions and slogans. While it seems an obvious ethical point that transgender people should be allowed to choose their gender expression, there are caveats and exceptions to be considered.
One such exception is in sport, where (despite loud insistence to the contrary), it is possible that trans women may have an advantage over cis women. Although sporting performance is heavily based on testosterone levels, which are heavily reduced in trans women, this does not mean that trans women do not have any residual advantage: height, musculature, bone density or lung capacity, for example. Female athletes are increasingly challenging the inclusion of trans women in elite sport as unfair, but in turn they face accusations of ‘transphobia’ for raising the issue. These should be interesting and complex discussions, but gender politics is often so polarised that nuanced points become unsayable if one is determined not to be labelled problematic.
On one side of the argument are trans-exclusionary radical feminists (often referred to as TERFs, though they generally refer to themselves as ‘gender realists’). These take what is essentially a gender-nationalist position, and refuse to accept trans women into the sorority. TERF behaviours appear to be heavily driven by spite, though are typically couched as a defence of women’s rights against the encrosion of men into women’s spaces. Many TERFs appear to enjoy referring to trans women as ‘he’, or yelling that ‘women don’t have penises’. These behaviours shed little light on why TERFs care so much about how trans women choose to define themselves. Beyond exception cases, there is little evidence that trans rights impinge on women’s rights, and yet this is the central claim of TERF arguments. There is also the complex matter of how transgender children and teenagers should be treated, but TERFs offer no deep insight into this, and this seems to be a matter for medical professionals, researchers, parents and the children themselves, rather than for political point-scoring. Referring to the acceptance of transgender children as ‘child abuse’ may be useful for stirring up rage on social media, but does not add to useful discussion.
A case in point is that of Meghan Murphy, the founder of Feminist Current, who (like so many other radical feminists) apparently became bored of campaigning to get genitals deleted from the internet, and turned to the anti-trans cause. Murphy was banned from Twitter in 2018 for referring to a trans woman as ‘him’. This level of petty bullying appears to be the norm for TERFs, who have little to contribute beyond endlessly repetition of ‘you’re not a woman!’ Ironically, Murphy had, for years previously, been a strident campaigner for bans against pornography and other form of sexual expression, but this didn’t prevent her being lauded as a free speech hero by others in the anti-trans movement. While I oppose social media censorship of this kind, Murphy is certainly no defender of free expression.
The brutish arguments of TERFs should be easy to oppose in debate, if it wasn’t for the equal intransigence of many of those claiming to represent transgender interests. The pointless ‘Women don’t have penises!’ is met with the equally vapid ‘Trans women are women!’. There is nowhere to go from here other than a loop: ‘No they are not!’, ‘Yes they are!’, “TERF scum!”, “Misogynist!”, and so on. This bald statement (that trans women are women) is designed to close down discussion, rather than illuminate, advocate or educate. To illustrate how far the rot has spread, consider the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which once had such a deep commitment to free speech that it defended the Ku Klux Klan. Now, the ACLU appears to have succumbed to the Woke authoritarianism that has torn through the Left, and shuts down speech by tweeting “Trans girls are GIRLS. Period”
To be a labelled a TERF is (among the Woke) roughly akin to being called a Nazi. Just as political violence against (alleged) Nazis is now acceptable among Wokeys, so is the advocating of violence against TERFs – as a quick Twitter search on punch a terf demonstrates. As with all censorious and threatening behaviour, this simply encourages sympathy for people who don’t deserve sympathy, and who would be easily defeated in debate. Debate is, however impossible in this climate. Leading TERFs such as the Guardian journalist Jule Bindel are routinely no-platformed, and clearly enjoy this treatment.
While trans people have often had traumatic life experiences, and deserve heartfelt support and solidarity, neither side in this debate does. TERFs tend to deny the biological roots of gender dysphoria, and dismiss trans women as ‘deluded men’. And yet gender dysphoria isn’t ‘delusion’. Trans women appear to have brains that are more female-typical than male. This is not a delusion or a mental illness, but biology. The TERF response – refusing to honour a person’s choice of pronouns – is pure, malicious spite, designed to cause individuals pain.
While each side shouts slogans at each other, a third group muddies the waters still further. ‘Coming out as non-binary’ has become a trend, as illustrated by the recent announcement by the singer Sam Smith. Unlike coming out as transgender (which typically means a person will start living as the opposite sex, take hormones and possibly prepare for surgery), coming out as non-binary means little to the observer. Other than refer to Smith as ‘they’ rather than ‘he’, how is one supposed to respond to such an announcement? A couple of years ago, a feminist pornmaker of my acquaintance similarly announced she (now they) identified as ‘non-binary trans’. Like Smith, this change meant nothing more to observers than the adoption of new pronouns, but it did also increase their Woke score, and certainly provided a publicity boost for their business. A while before that, a (female, white) activist that I knew announced she was not just gender-fluid (the predecessor of non-binary), but a ‘woman of colour’ as well. These announcements appear to have little purpose, beyond self-promotion for those living in Woke social circles.
There’s nothing wrong with people posturing in this way. ‘Gender bending’ (as it used to be known) is a perfectly good challenge to rigid gender stereotypes. But to compare this attention-seeking behaviour with the suffering experienced by people with gender dysphoria is ludicrous, and somewhat akin to a gender version of blackface… ‘You’re trans? I feel a little bit trans too, sometimes…’
Transgender people (at least in the vast majority of cases) don’t come out for publicity, or to ‘bring attention to an important issue’. They do it because they have no choice, if they want to lead fulfilled lives. Because they need to express as their chosen gender before they can receive the medical treatment they need. To the wider, uninformed public, announcements like Sam Smith’s give the impression that gender is a choice, and that a casual flip of pronouns will sort it all out. Far from bringing understanding and support to trans people, the ‘coming out as non-binary’ trend suggests to the uninitiated that gender dysphoria is a fashion statement, and a choice. Furthermore, one suspects, the adoption of the awkward ‘they’ formulation, is often done as an excuse for Woke bullying, a chance to attack people if they accidentally misgender as ‘he’ or ‘she’ rather than ‘they’.
All sides – the social constructionists, the anti-trans activists, the self-appointed trans rights activists, and the I-feel-a-bit-trans-today fashionistas are guilty of misrepresenting gender, or of trying to suppress discussion, or both. The losers are scientific reason, public understanding, and transgender people seeking support.
This is a (slightly updated) repost of an article I originally wrote in 2011, regarding the decline of Britain’s (once) great liberal paper, the Guardian
The British press is among the best in the world. And among the worst. We have some of the most intelligent journalism that can be found anywhere, but also some of the most appalling. There are five daily newspapers (Guardian, Times, Telegraph, Independent and FT), from across the political spectrum, that are worth reading; of these, the Guardian often stands head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to providing high-quality journalism. When it comes to challenging dangerous abuse of power within the British state and corporations, The Guardian is often alone in publishing stories ignored by the rest of the British media.
At a time when social conservatism is on the rise in many pernicious ways, it was good to see a Guardian article by Zoe Margolis (aka The Girl With The One Track Mind) challenging the anti-sex crusade spear-headed in parliament by rightwing Tory MP Nadine Dorries. And yet, on the broad subject area of sex and sexuality, The Guardian, more often than not, comes down on the side of repression. The paper comes very much from the liberal, middle-class, English tradition, and the one subject the English middle-classes have always had trouble dealing with is sex. The Guardian also tends to take anti-sex campaigners more seriously if they adopt the “feminist” label than if they crusade under a more old-fashioned “morality” banner. On this subject, the Guardian’s coverage can swing from liberal to deeply conservative in the blink of an eye.
I blogged recently about the UK Government’s steps towards Internet censorship, using the excuse of “protecting children from pornography”. The Guardian, normally a warrior against censorship, lost its mind in an editorial on the subject, using Daily Mail-type phrasing such as “…bombarding of people’s homes and children by pornography…” and “…the destructive effects of pornography on relationships and values…“. The editorial also mentioned a recent government-commissioned report on “sexualisation”, neglecting to mention that it came from a Christian lobbying organisation. The idea that anyone who doesn’t want to see porn is “bombarded” with it is of course laughable, and serious research on porn has yet to reveal the harmful side effects claimed by conservatives of various shades.
And this wasn’t a one-off: on the icky subject of sex, The Guardian is often deeply conservative. For a podcast, I interviewed London strippers who are defending themselves against campaigners who threaten their right to work in the London boroughs of Hackney and Tower Hamlets. These women are articulate, well-paid and belong to trade unions. Yet, the Guardian is apparently convinced that stripping is bad, and refuses to take seriously the voices of the women themselves who earn a living that way; instead, they give a platform to “feminist” (aka sexual morality) groups who use dubious propaganda methods (such as claiming a non-existent link between strip venues and rape) to attack the venues and the people who work in them. While women who strip have offered to write for the Guardian about their experiences, only one ex-dancer, Homa Khaleeli is published, because she tells “the truth about lap dancing” – in other words, she makes the “exploitation” and “objectification” noises that Guardianistas want to hear.
The Guardian has a confused idea of defending sexual freedom. While Gay, Lesbian, Transgender issues are treated with the appropriate straight-faced correctness, other forms of sexuality and sexual freedom have Guardian journos giggling like schoolchildren. Fetishes, swinging, polyamory, BDSM, open lifestyles, bisexuality and sex work… these aren’t causes for free speech but excuses for The Guardian to pander to middle-England prejudices.
It’s not that I’m asking for the Guardian to become a campaigner for sexual freedom; but it should be delivering the quality of journalism it does so well elsewhere. Repeating misinformation about porn leading to marriage break-up, lap dancing leading to rape or most prostitutes being “victims” isn’t good journalism. Accepting the word of a woman simply because she calls herself a feminist but ignoring the many voices of women who earn their money this way isn’t fair or balanced. Ignoring researchers in these fields but listening to morality campaigners lets down the readership.
It’s not that The Guardian is the worst offender – not by a long way! – but it’s the one (or am I being naive?) that should “know better”. In fact, the most level-headed coverage of sex and the sex industries comes from the Financial Times and its stable mate The Economist, but these are targeted primarily at business people. Among mainstream press, the Guardian, often alone, has the courage to expose police brutality and corporate corruption. Why not maintain the same high standards on the difficult subjects of sex and sexuality? Up your game Guardian, and stop being so damn English about sex!
In my campaign to oppose censorship and oppose moral panics, I participate in many media and public events. On Friday, I participated in a debate at Exeter University titled “This House Would Watch Porn”, in front of around 140 students. Myself and Charlotte Rose (sex worker and free speech activist) won the debate easily (we won at least 90% of the vote). Charlotte livestreamed the debate via her phone, on Twitter, and you can watch it here (my speech begins at 5:10 and Charlotte’s around 16:10):
And tomorrow (Monday), I’ll be participating in a ThinkIn event in London for Tortoise Media. Tickets are available here. Please note that I often do these events unpaid, because I care deeply about the corrosive threat from moral panics, and the rising threat of censorship. You can support me by making a small donation at Patreon, or by buying my book, Porn Panic.
A recent study identified some links between genes and sexual orientation. While this is both expected and interesting, it upsets some political sensibilities. My latest article in Quillette (There is NO ‘Gay Gene’, but Sexuality is Affected by Many Genes of Small Effect) explores the issues and sensitivities around the idea that genetics affect human behaviours.
Items from Australia’s first National Museum of Erotica have been listed for sale through Lawson’s auction house. The online auction, entitled ‘Body Politics’, is owned by Victorian MLC Fiona Patten and her partner Robbie Swan. The two have been collecting erotic art and ephemera since the early 1990s.
Ms Patten said that she would be sad to see the collection go as it had been part of their relationship and been collected from all parts of the globe but from the mid 2000s the Museum had taken second place to politics. “Sadly sex has lost out to politics and my increasing work load has made it impossible to continue to house and maintain this collection”. The 160 items up for sale are a mix of erotic fine art, memorabilia and sex industry collectibles – much of it with political themes or messages. Bret Whitely, Lesbia Thorpe, Sidney Nolan, Maree Azzopardi, Richard Larter, John Blackman, Martin Sharpe and many other well-known artists are represented.
Ms Patten said that many of the pieces formed part of the couple’s anti-censorship campaigns when they ran Australia’s national sex industry association.
She encouraged MPs from across the spectrum to buy a piece from the Museum’s collection. “There is a large and colourful oil painting by one of Australia’s foremost religious painters, Salvatore Zoffrea, that has the Prime Minister’s name all over it”, she said. “On the other side there is an untitled forest landscape said to have brightened the walls of former Treasurer Jim Cairns’ office before making its way into the Treasury building in Canberra in the early 1970s”.
A satirical portrait of Amanda Vanstone by Talking Pictures chief, Mike Bowers, and a knitted impression of Obama’s penis complete with Michelle’s hand, represent widely differing styles. One of Australia’s most complete early brothel collections and a rare 1800s Japanese erotic shunga scroll are also being offered.
Mr Swan said that Lawsons knocked back only one piece – a rare digital print of one of the first pieces of photoshopped political satire to appear on the internet in 1996 which featured Pauline Hanson, John Howard and Kim Beasley. It was titled ‘Distributing Preferences’ and was created by the notorious online satirist, Dr Irresponsible. “It’s still for sale if anyone is interested”, he said
The items can be viewed on Lawson’ site.
In my latest article, published by Areo Magazine, I argue that the rise in gang-related knife crime in London is in part the result of a state apparatus reluctant to address problems within minority communities. This leads to a bizarre outcome in which “cultural sensitivity” leads directly to the deaths of young black men.
“Before arriving in London, most West Indian and West African migrants had never encountered the levels of violence and criminality—which had come to the UK, in large part, from Kingston—and were appalled to be living (and raising their children) in the midst of it, and even more horrified when many British people, especially those on the racist right, attempted to link it to black people in general. But, with the rise of politically correct thinking in the nineties, the new left now made the same mistake, assuming that race was at the root of the problems, and (anxious to deflect blame from the black community, a broadly imaginary construct), instead tried to suggest that the problems had been created by British racism. Both the right-wing and left-wing versions of this narrative made the same fundamental error—confusing a correlation between race and crime with causation. The same mistake would never have been made about white people: for example, high crime rates linked with some Romanian migrants would never have been blamed on the white community, because that would obviously be ludicrous.”