I think porn is simply erotica that people are uncomfortable with. And since that applies to all erotica, then porn and erotica are basically the same thing. As the quote goes: “What I like is erotica. What you like is porn.”
In reading the opening of your book, it’s interesting how you frame the current situation over free speech, censorship, and pornography within a historical framework. You see the main groups attacking pornography as being on the left now, is that correct?
Yes, the worst attacks on porn (and all free expression for that matter) today are on the left, whereas that wasn’t always the case. My book looks at fascism in a historical context. The fascism of the 1930s was right-wing in nature. Today’s fascists are on both wings of politics….”
Among the signals of fascism is a deep anti-intellectualism; and in particular, a backlash against scientific reason. So one of the most frightening twists in modern politics is a rising anti-science trend in discourse. Even more worrying is that, over the past half-century, this anti-science trend has firmly established itself in parts of academia, the mass media, and in politics. While the political left was once wed to progress and to the science revolution, now it is the left that has turned most strongly against science.
In this extract from my book Porn Panic!, I look at one of the most popular and dangerous attacks on science of all: the idea, popular among feminists since the 1960s, that behavioural differences between men and women are primarily due to recent social developments rather than ancient biological ones.
“To understand why porn viewing might be linked to a decline in sexual violence, it is worth visiting some simple questions about sex itself. Sex is such a deeply politicised subject that, despite the fact one can find ‘expert’ comment everywhere, few people understand the most basic aspects of our sexual behaviours. Sex has always been a subject where the science clashes with deeply-held feelings, and so the science of sex regularly comes under attack for reasons of superstition and dogma. The rapid recent decline of religion has (unfortunately) not been matched by a rise in scientific literacy. New, God-free myths about sex have been created to replace the old religious ones.
This was perfectly illustrated when I participated in a 2015 porn debate at Cambridge Union. Three comments from participants summed up the current mythology surrounding sex, even among those presenting themselves as experts. A student speaking from the floor demanded I apologise for claiming a correlation between porn viewing and a decline in rape; then, an anti-porn speaker pointed out that the vast majority of rapes are committed by men, and presented this as evidence of insidious patriarchal influences; and finally, a pro-porn feminist speaker declared that the world could never be equal until women watched as much porn as men.
All three statements are based on the same popular myth: that differences in sexual behaviour between men and women are entirely social rather than biological in origin, and can therefore be ‘fixed’ – in much the same way that the American religious right declares homosexuality to be a choice, and therefore curable. Just as religious zealots cannot imagine a God who would create homosexuals, so certain feminists cannot tolerate a Mother Nature who would make men and women in any way different from each other.
The demand that I apologise for mentioning the reverse correlation between rape and porn was not issued on the basis that my information was inaccurate. My crime was far more serious than one of merely getting my facts wrong: I had blasphemed. It has become an article of feminist faith that ‘rape is about violence, not sex’. The student’s reasoning was correct: if (as she had been taught) rape is primarily motivated by a misogynistic desire to harm women, implanted in young men’s minds by an entrenched system of patriarchal oppression, then porn-aided masturbation should not result in a steep decline in rape. Here was a classic problem: fact clashing with dogma, the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object.
There is, of course, no contradiction between human biology and the classic feminist demand for equal rights. Whether or not men and women are biologically different is irrelevant: equal rights are an ethical construct, not a natural one, and do not depend on people being identical. However, once equal rights had been won in law by the mid-70s, sections of the left set out to go further and demand equal outcomes. This required a belief that significant biological differences between sexes did not exist, which set feminism – or at least some strands of feminism – on the course from political movement to religious one. Now, any scientific research finding differences must, of necessity, be denounced as heresy.”
As reported here last week, a parliamentary committee issued a report calling for sex work decriminalisation. My own reaction was somewhat sceptical; in contrast, sex worker activists and commentators rejoiced at a “historic victory” which, to me, didn’t seem much like a victory at all. This rejoicing led to deep confusion among observers, many of whom mistakenly believed that Parliament had rejected the “Nordic model”, which criminalises the purchase of sex.
In the intervening days, my scepticism has deepened. The sex work author and researcher Laura Agustín also questioned the report, referring to it as “meaningless”, and writing on Facebook:
“My advice is do not rejoice: This is stage one of making an anti-sex-buying law in which women selling are decriminalised while men buying are criminalised”
I agree: last week’s announcement was not a win for decriminalisation, but simply a deferral of the key decision wrapped in confusing language. And while, yes, the way is still left open for the committee to back decriminalisation, that isn’t what happened last week. Nor, I suspect, will it be the committee’s final verdict.
No decision has yet been made
First of all, the committee (as it made clear) has not reached a decision on whether to follow the New Zealand model (decriminalisation), the Nordic model (criminalise buyers) or some form of legalisation. Since this is the only decision that matters, then nothing of substance has yet happened. All the committee announced was that, whichever decision it eventually makes, it recommends the reform of laws on brothel-keeping and soliciting. But this is just stating the obvious: whether the committee favours New Zealand, Sweden, Germany, or some other model, there will be no point maintaining existing restrictions on brothels. So the lip-service paid to decriminalisation is – as Agustín says – meaningless, and apparently designed to mislead.
A good way to tell if you’re winning is to watch the reactions of your enemies. If – as sex worker campaigners claim – this is a victory, then prohibitionists will be fuming, right? Except… they aren’t. What the campaigners seem to have missed is that both sides have embraced the language of “decriminalisation”. Here, for example, is Vera Baird QC:
“Regardless of whatever brings women into sex work … I fully back the notion of decriminalising sex workers”
Yet Baird is a staunch prohibitionist. This is politics: when your opponent has succeeded in setting the narrative, steal their narrative. Note the subtle use of “workers” rather than “work”. Similarly, the Christian Tory MP David Burrowes has called for soliciting to be decriminalised. Both Baird and Burrowes went on to call for the Nordic model to be implemented in the UK: which is semantic nonsense, since the Nordic model criminalises sex buyers.
In other words, “decriminalisation” can now either mean decriminalisation, or the exact opposite, depending who uses it.
Why has a meaningless statement been issued?
Given that the interim report means almost nothing until the key decision has been made, the question then arises as to why it was issued at all. I asked activists who were close to the inquiry process, but none seemed able to answer the question. The report was clearly issued to get media attention; if it was intended to confuse and misdirect people, it apparently succeeded.
The political climate is ugly
As I have noted for some years, British liberalism appears to be in decline across the spectrum. This is true on both the political right and left; the liberal centre has shrunk as social conservatives and authoritarians have taken over both wings of politics. In this climate, it would be surprising if a radical decision – such as decriminalising sex work – were to take place.
I hope Augustín and I are wrong, and the sex work representatives are right; but as things stand right now, it seems to me that we have been witness to the Great Decriminalisation Swindle.
This article was first published at XBIZ.com on Friday.
In my new book, Porn Panic!, I recount the rise of a new British fascism. What began a few years ago, for me, as a campaign against anti-sex feminists who were trying to censor pornography, grew gradually into a realisation that free speech and other fundamental underpinnings of liberty were under fierce assault from all sides. This new authoritarian movement, which is taking over both wings of politics, has been slowly gaining ground over the past 10-15 years. But with yesterday’s Brexit vote, the way is clear for an explosive rise in fascism across Europe – and beyond.
Having stayed up most of last night to watch, with increasing incredulity, the EU referendum results, I’m still reeling. It’s not that the result was especially unexpected; but the scale of the catastrophe that is now – in real time – engulfing the UK and European economy is staggering, and dwarfs the 2008 meltdown. And if the economic fallout is massive, the political implications will be even more so. Yesterday, the British people lit the fuse. The explosions are only just beginning.
For months, most people with any understanding of what has been unfolding have just looked at each other and said “But we’d never actually vote to leave the EU, would we?”, and we’ve reassured each other that, no, when it comes to the crunch, the British people would pull back from the brink. And so this morning’s news – that the UK population voted by 52% to 48% to exit the EU – is hard to stomach.
From the perspective of the goals of my campaign, Sex & Censorship, the news is very bad. Many of the protections of free speech, net neutrality and human rights that exist in British law have been passed down to us from the EU. EU law offers a good deal of protection against the anti-sex and anti-free speech laws and regulations that I’ve campaigned against. Now, those protections risk being stripped away. The British state, restrained in many ways by the liberalising influence of the EU, may shortly get free rein to pass laws that would not have been acceptable in a western democracy during the liberal postwar era. It’s probably fair to say that yesterday, that era came to an end.
The fact that the resignation of the Prime Minister is one of the more minor stories in today’s news helps illustrate the scale of events. It’s hard to find a comparison on a historical scale. Certainly, this crisis of European politics looks to be every bit as significant as that of the 1930s. Nationalism, which has been slowly rising in Europe (as well as globally) since 9/11, has now been unleashed in a way that few living Europeans have seen in their lifetimes. The European Union has presided over the longest era of peace in European history; the British people just voted to burn it down.
The global significance of the referendum was underpinned by the fact that Donald Trump chose today to fly in and visit the UK (he quietly pre-announced the visit a few weeks ago). Trump understands the nature of fascism, and has shown a far deeper understanding of the threat to western democracy than most of the established political class. This morning, he hailed the referendum result. Simultaneously, the odds of a Trump win in November were cut sharply. Nationalism begets nationalism, and today’s Europe provides Trump with all the nationalistic sentiment he needs to further his authoritarian bandwagon. Elsewhere in Europe, fascists are celebrating. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders celebrated the British poll and called for one to be held locally. In France, the far-right leader Marine Le Pen did the same. Those with a knowledge of WWII history will know that the Netherlands and France were deeply infected by the fascist bug in the 1930s/40s. It is not so surprising that the anti-immigrant backlash is growing rapidly in those same countries today.
Amidst the chaos, it seems churlish to ask what this means for the adult industry. But as has been so often pointed out, sex is the canary in the coalmine of liberty. Sexual and political freedoms have always gone hand-in hand; an attack on one is an attack on the other. And so surely we all – on both sides of the Atlantic – are in for a huge battle in the coming months.
Jerry Barnett is an author and campaigner, and runs the Sex & Censorship campaign and blog. His book, Porn Panic!, will be published in August, and is available now for pre-order on Amazon.
There was a time when we on the British left owned terms like Unity and Solidarity. The broad left had formed around a single, enormous issue: the obscenity of poverty. Thus, the left once represented the disadvantaged, and the right fought to maintain the old status quo. When fascism last surged in the 1930s, it was the left’s broad base that ensured British fascism was crushed: it alone could unite the mighty industrial working class with immigrants and sympathetic liberals. It was opposition to poverty that united white working class people with the immigrants – Irish, Jewish, Black and Asian – that came to Britain over the past century. Ultimately, this was why the left eventually championed the fight against racism: because it understood that the biggest problems faced by immigrants – bad housing, low pay, state indifference, routine violence – were shared by poor white people, and formed alliances in factories and poor communities that transcended race.
Racism was never a one-way street. Tension and violence grew in high-immigration communities because of mistrust and misunderstanding on both sides. Mass immigration – then, as now – benefited the economy as a whole, but placed a disproportionate burden on poor communities. People who complained about rapid, disconcerting change in their neighbourhoods were not uniformly attacked as “racists”; instead, the left sought to find common ground and build unity. The Notting Hill Carnival is one of the lasting testaments to this approach: it was a community creation designed to bring white and black people together in the wake of race riots.
But the Labour Movement, the foundation of the old left, effectively collapsed during the 1980s and 90s for a variety of reasons. The left dwindled, and found new power bases: no longer in factories or council estates; instead in academia and the public sector. It lost touch with working class people, and lost interest in poverty. It instead adopted identity politics, dividing people by race, gender, sexuality just as it once united people across these lines. It became whiter and more middle-class, and gradually came to represent the interests of white, middle-class people above all others. Step by step, from the 80s onward, the left took on the attitudes of the old fascist movements, seeking to divide society into isolated, opposing groups of people.
None of this mattered much, until a new surge in left-wing support followed the 2008 financial crash. My initial excitement at the left-wing resurgence turned into disgust as I saw what the left had now become.
I first noticed the shift via my involvement in sexual freedom causes. The old Christian right had died along with Mary Whitehouse. Now, a new conservative movement surfaced, this time based around the remnants of the old feminist movement. The new attackers of sexual freedom came from the organs of the new-left: universities, trade unions, local authorities and the Labour Party. This new left had lost all interest in tackling poverty and disadvantage, because they had no experience or understanding of it. Instead, they declared gender, skin colour and sexuality to be the true marks of oppression. So, porn and other sexual expression came under attack, not because it was “ungodly” but because it was deemed to “oppress women”. Thieves had stolen the language of the (now defunct) progressive left and used it to advance fascist agendas.
So we saw the grotesque sight of middle-class “left-wing” people declaring themselves to be “oppressed” (for reason of possessing a vagina or extra melanin in their skin), and attacking poor white communities as “privileged”. The new-left had restarted the class war, but this time was firmly on the other side.
So when Edie Lamort, a stripper-activist (who I interviewed some time back), declared herself some years ago to be the “canary in the coalmine”, she was very prescient. The attacks on her and her comrades, by fascists in left-wing clothing, were indeed an early sign of a broad attack on liberal values from the political left.
The pus-filled boil of identity politics, quietly swelling since the 80s, really only burst within the past couple of years. And now, the identity fascists are dismantling all remnants of cross-community solidarity as rapidly as possible. Every progressive movement of recent years is collapsing as identity politics moves in. Among the most spectacular examples has been the undermining of the campaign against police violence in the United States. A few years ago, thanks to smartphones and social media, and campaigns such as Copblock, a bright light was shone for the first time on the astonishing violence of US policing. Although there was clearly a strong racial element, police violence was meted out across all communities. If there was a particular “identity” group at the receiving end, it was overwhelmingly poor, young men, of all races.
But to make it a “male issue” would have been foolish and divisive. A Martin Luther King character, should one exist today, would identify a common cause and an opportunity for cross-community solidarity; but this is not the liberal 60s, and there appears to be no room for uniting characters like MLK today. Instead, the issue was seized by black nationalists. The hashtag #filmthepolice gave way to #blacklivesmatter. In a remarkable reversal of logic, black nationalists – backed by identity fascists – declared #alllivesmatter to be a “racist” sentiment. Never mind that numerically, the single biggest identity group to be shot by police was white men; or that, proportionately the greatest sufferers were native American men. The issue was now owned by the 24% of victims who were black, and the other 76% were excluded (Source: The Counted). This marked the high watermark of the campaign against police violence: it had been killed by sectarianism. If there ever was a signal to white working class people that nobody cares for them, here it was.
Now, when a 12 year old (white) girl was shot dead by police, there would be no community mobilisation, no public outcry. After all, what hashtag does one use in such a case? #Alllivesmatter was already deemed racist, and #whitelivesmatter would be even worse. So, the girl’s name never made it into the public consciousness: Ciara Meyer RIP: killed by police, forgotten by identity politics.
Now, it seems, the scourge of mass shootings in the US is going the same way. While only a couple of years ago, every shooting was met with horror, and renewed calls for gun controls, now the campaign has been targeted, divided and sunk by identity politics. A steady stream of mass killings – driven by easy access to guns, however much the gun lobby denied it – was punctuated a year ago by the killing of nine people in Charleston, South Carolina. Like many such mass killings, the shooter was an angry/crazy/hateful (take your pick) white man. Unlike most others, the targets were exclusively black.
Dylan Roof, the shooter, was no doubt motivated by racist views: but statistically, the event was an outlier. It makes no sense to declare a single atrocity, carried out by a single person, to be representative of anything but the views of that person. Racial violence has, in fact, tumbled a long, long way since the days of the lynch mob. But identity politics (which previously had no interest in the long succession of mass shootings) now awoke, and declared the issue a black-owned one.
And with the recent mass-shooting in a gay club in Orlando, the divisiveness reaches a whole new level. This time, identity fascists of the right blame “Islam”, while those of the left are determined to blame “Homophobia”. But neither explanation is matched by a genuine trend: neither Islamist nor homophobic atrocities are regular enough events to be anything but outliers. Homophobia may still be commonplace, but is almost certainly at its lowest level in US history. The same old explanation holds true for this mass shooting as for all the hundreds of others: an angry/crazy/hateful individual managed to get hold of military-style weaponry.
Identity politics is really the politics of the self. The identity warrior’s deepest instinct is: “How can I make this all about MEEEE?” Thus, the ever-vapid commentator Owen Jones walked out of a Sky News dicussion on the Orlando shooting, ostensibly because the other commentators were refusing to acknowledge homophobia. But in reality, Jones had finally found an American massacre that he, as a gay man, could associate himself with, and so become outraged about. Never mind that, as a British person, the chance he will ever encounter a mass shooting is close to zero. Never mind that many of the dead were undocumented Latino migrants rather than middle-class British journalists. Jones’ sexuality is the hook with which he can claim a stake in the misery of strangers, far away.
And here is the real tragedy of identity politics: solidarity is dying. While, only a few years ago, we could all unite to express shock at the killing of a black person by a racist, or a gay person by a homophobe, or a Jew by an anti-semite, now this is quietly breaking down. Now, every atrocity is an identity atrocity, and so every atrocity fosters further anger and division, while not so long ago we could unite in our common humanity against the tiny minority that commit vile acts of hate.
Identity politics is the politics of self-pity. If I were to choose this route, I could assert my Jewishness: henceforth, I could declare any anti-semitic attack to be all about MEEE. But I choose not to be defined by my Jewish heritage, however much self-pity it could allow me to wallow in. My children are Nigerian-Jewish; should they revel only in the victimhood of Jews and Nigerians? Should my daughter declare herself a Judeo-Nigerian Feminist, and add gender self-pity to black and semitic self-pity? We are in a race to the bottom: when we selectively ignore horror, because we don’t identify with the identity of the victims, we are losing our humanity.
Is it surprising, therefore, that poor whites would now also choose to unite around their racial identity? Is the rise of Donald Trump or of Nigel Farage so surprising in this climate? This new ascent of the fascist right was clearly preempted and driven by the rise of fascist politics on the left. We have no chance of resisting the rise of of the far-right in Europe and America if we adopt fascist methods and ideas ourselves. We need to rediscover the solidarity of the old left: we must stand shoulder to shoulder with those who suffer, however much – or little – they resemble ourselves.
The biological roots of prostitution are well documented, but upset religious and political sensibilities.
As a frequent speaker and debate participant on pornography and other sexual issues, I’m often shocked by the lack of scientific understanding of sex, the most fundamental of human issues. This doesn’t just apply to students and casual listeners, but also to many presenting themselves as experts. Science isn’t just absent from the discussion, but often appears to have been deliberately pushed out for political reasons.
Sex is, and always has been, a controversial subject, and so discussion of it is heavily censored. While, on the surface, discussion of sex has become far more acceptable in recent years, in practise, many facts are still considered unpalatable. And no subject arouses more emotion than the evolution of sex as a tradeable commodity: the biology of prostitution.
The idea that prostitution might be a biological impulse can deeply upset those with dogmatic viewpoints. For religious people, the thought of a God that created prostitution is too much to take: fundamentalists are still reeling from the revelation that homosexuality is widespread in nature. But revulsion at the thought of sex trade goes far beyond religion. As the political left has become increasingly conservative in its attitudes, it has become common to blame the existence of prostitution on Patriarchy or Capitalism. Thus, for some feminists, banning prostitution is a part of their war on Patriarchy. And for socialists, attacking prostitution is part of a righteous war against Capital.
But the history of sex trade goes back many millions of years before humanity. To understand how deeply it is embedded in our behaviours, we need to start from the beginning. In the case of sex, the beginning happened about 1.2 billion years ago. Prior to sex, creatures reproduced asexually – by cloning themselves. But cloning simply produces multiple identical copies. Cloned populations lack diversity: this means that they can be quickly wiped out by a disease, climate change or other external factor. Sex fixed this problem.
Sex combines genes from two individuals of different sexes. Unlike cloning, every individual produced is unique. This creates diversity, and makes species more resilient to change; it also vastly accelerates the speed of evolution, by providing far more variety to select from. The two sexes were originally very similar to each other, but quickly sexual strategies evolved, and became more sophisticated. One sex evolved a lazy strategy, and the other responded by taking on most of the reproductive effort. This strategic change defines the sexes. The key difference between males and females is quantitative rather than qualitative: males are low investors in reproduction, and females are high investors. This applies to all sexual species, including – of course – humans.
On the surface then, males were early winners in the evolutionary arms race that biologists sometimes refer to as the Battle of the Sexes. However, although males could (in theory) reproduce at far less cost than females, they faced one enormous obstacle to reproduction: a shortage of available females. Sexual strategies evolved and became more sophisticated. Since reproduction was limited by female availability, then increasingly females could set the terms for reproduction. Males, for whom reproduction was cheap, became forced to jump through hoops in exchange for the right to reproduce.
In some species (such as lions) males are required to violently compete for the right to mate: females simply wait for a winner to emerge. This process means that the strongest, and most violent males get to reproduce, which means that genes for strong, violent males are more likely to be passed down to future generations; this explains why in many cases – especially in mammals – males are bigger and stronger than females, as well as more adept fighters. Human males are around 20% more heavily built than females; in gorillas, the difference is as much as 50%
In other species, males may be required to pay for the right to reproduce. Perhaps the most extreme examples of this are in insects and spiders where males are eaten after sex. The value of reproduction is so high that males will pay with their lives in order to replicate their genes.
Generally though, sex trade is somewhat less terminal than this. Females of many species trade sex for food or other nuptial gifts. This behaviour is common throughout the animal kingdom. Male scorpion flies offer gifts in exchange for sex. Prostitution was observed in penguins over a century ago, and it is common in our close relatives, apes and monkeys.
A Yale economist, Keith Chen, studying whether monkeys could understand the concept of money, made a surprise discovery. Having worked out that coins had value, male monkeys then began to offer them to females for sex, instead of (as expected) trading them for food or drink. As the New York Times pointed out, behaviour that was once assumed to be uniquely human, is actually far more widespread:
“When taught to use money, a group of capuchin monkeys responded quite rationally to simple incentives; responded irrationally to risky gambles; failed to save; stole when they could; used money for food and, on occasion, sex. In other words, they behaved a good bit like the creature that most of Chen’s more traditional colleagues study: Homo sapiens.”
The fact that female sex is far more valuable than male sex provides a strong explanation for many human behaviours. When I recently interviewed black dominatrix Lady Andromeda for the Sex & Censorship podcast, I asked what options were open to people who were down to their last penny. Women, she said, can sell sex. And as for men? “They steal cars, or sell drugs.” This helps explain why the UK prison population is 96% male – a fact that’s hard to explain if one believes (as is fashionable in some places) that the world is run by men, for men. It also neatly explains lower male life expectancies and higher male suicide rates. An understanding of the biology of prostitution provides far better explanations of human behaviour than either the feminist “patriarchal oppression” narrative, or the correspondingly confused claims (by men’s rights activists) that men are oppressed. We are all, male and female, slaves to our biology. We tend to believe that we have free will, but increasingly, science suggests otherwise.
Porn debates I’ve attended tend to be littered with claims that our sexual behaviours are socially constructed, despite all the evidence to the contrary. These ideas aren’t just silly: they’re deeply misguided. If one believes that differences in gender behaviour are primarily social in origin, then it is tempting to look for authoritarian “cures”. If those people selling gay cures are dangerous, then those people who believe men and women should behave the same as each other are far more so.
This is why anti-sex conservatism – as evidenced by events like France’s recent ban on prostitution – is such a dangerous force. Sexual freedom is about far more than the right to have fun. It affects every aspect of our lives.
I have a confession: for many years, I was a loyal Guardian reader. At one point, prior to the arrival of smartphones and apps, I bought the paper, at a quid a time, perhaps three or four times a week. I always enjoyed, and wanted to support, its high quality, liberal-minded news coverage. It was saddening, therefore, to became aware of the deeply conservative slide the paper was taking, most of all when it came to the subject of sex. In the Guardian’s war on sexual expression, honest journalism at the paper has been sidelined, and bigoted opinions have appeared in place of fact. This bigotry hasn’t just been directed towards strippers, models and pornstars, but also has included deeply racist attitudes. I documented much of this in my book Porn Panic! (which is now available for pre-order on Amazon).
The Guardian’s descent into social conservatism dates back more than a decade. Brooke Magnanti – better known as Belle de Jour – who had blogged about her life as a sex worker, was awarded the Guardian’s blogger of the year award in 2003. She recounts in her book The Sex Myth that a group of Guardian journalists threatened to resign en-masse should she be offered a column. She instead went to write for the Telegraph. The irony that the right-wing paper was more accepting of sex work than the supposedly liberal Guardian was not lost on Magnanti.
In 2013, the paper published an editorial titled “Internet pornography: never again” in which it openly called for Internet censorship. The paper’s liberal values had been overruled by its hatred of sexual expression.
But porn is not the only area in which the Graun has succumbed to moral panic and pro-censorship attitudes. It has joined a far bigger and more worrying war on free expression. This time, the justification for censorship is the very Victorian idea that women are incapable of dealing with the same situations as men. Gender equality is under fierce attack, as it has been many times in history; this time, bemusingly, the attacks come from the political left. This massive assault on gender equality, and on free speech, began to rear its head a few years ago, and began with Twitter.
The War on Twitter
Twitter has long been hated by control freaks. Unlike Facebook, Twitter has been reluctant to censor the content of its posts. This has led the platform to be far edgier than Facebook, and thus more exciting and anarchic. The UK government first signalled its discomfort with free speech on this scale when it blamed Twitter, in part, for the UK riots of 2011. You get the message: free speech is all very well when you’re sending photos of kittens, but too much can be a dangerous thing. This is the age-old mantra of dictators and fascists, and it apparently never gets tired. Threats by David Cameron to provide a “kill switch” for emergency situations were thankfully ignored by Twitter, which is protected from state censorship by the First Amendment to the US Constitution.
The control freak tendency instead reached for the oldest trick in the book: Twitter’s free speech is a threat to womankind! The opportunity to play this card came when a journalist, Caroline Criado-Perez, was abused on Twitter. Now, here was the perfect victim: a photogenic, blonde, middle-class journalist. The press initially reported the abuse as if it had come from a multitude of people, implying that Twitter’s free speech policy was somehow turning hordes of men into misogynistic monsters, and coining the term “misogynistic Twitter trolls”.
Yet once the moral panic had dissipated, it turned out that the abuse received by Criado-Perez had largely originated from two people, and (inconvenient for the “MASSIVE MISOGYNY” narrative), the worst offender was a woman, Isabella Sorley. Furthermore, Sorley had 25 previous arrests, mostly for being drunk and disorderly. Here was a minor story of two unpleasant people – at least one of whom was probably mentally ill – sending horrible tweets to another person; but in the hands of the pro-censorship feminist lobby, it had become a false message that misogyny was everywhere, and that too much free speech can be a bad thing – at least, for ladies.
A line had been crossed: ugly, foul-mouthed working class people are not supposed to come into contact with nice, blonde, middle-class ladies. When the two were imprisoned for their speech crime, the press was notably silent in questioning the sentences.
The Criado-Perez case set a precedent, and suddenly feminist commentators were climbing over each other to discover widespread online misogyny. The only problem with this “analysis” was that beyond anecdotes, there was no evidence to be found that women were being systemically targeted more than men. Indeed, when Demos carried out comprehensive research into abuse on Twitter, it was found that men were far more likely to be targeted than women.
This mirrored the situation with real-world violence, which men are far more likely to experience than women. Indeed, in a rare moment of clarity a 2008 Guardian article stated:
“Although it is the attacks on young women that we are most likely to respond to, it is young men who, overwhelmingly, are victims of violence (as the stories of knife attacks over the past year so well illustrate).”
This is hardly a radical new idea: we know that men are more likely to experience violence, and always have been. Despite this, neo-feminists have chosen to cherry-pick evidence to fit their “massive systemic misogyny” narrative. In other words, it isn’t that women are being targeted: it’s just that women are considered weaker and less capable of handling things that should be the preserve of men. This is, of course, not a feminist message at all: gender equality was once the core thing that feminists believed in, and the infantilisation of women was frowned upon. But from the 80s onward, the feminist movement has become ever more conservative in its attitudes, to the extent that it now largely opposes feminist positions from the 1960s. 1960s feminists argued that women were capable of handling any situation that men could. 2016 feminists disagree.
The neo-feminist view of women, while being nothing like the second-wave feminist view, is remarkably similar to the Victorian one. In Victorian times, women were considered to be frail creatures, prone to “hysteria”, “lunacy” and prone to fainting. Thus, they could not possibly be expected to handle gender equality. Since the Women’s Lib era, there have been frequent campaigns by conservatives to put women back in their place. What has changed is that now, the conservatives are on the political left, and call themselves feminists. The old forces that resisted gender equality – such as the Tory Party and the Daily Mail – have been replaced by new ones, including the Labour Party and the Guardian.
As demonstrated by violence statistics and the Demos study of online abuse, the feminist claim that women suffer more abuse than men is simply false. This is a huge problem for a movement whose single message is that women are “oppressed” by “patriarchy” and “structural misogyny”. Quite simply, if there did exist widespread hate of women by men, then women would suffer more violence and online abuse than men, not less.
And now, enter the Guardian to save the day. Last week, the paper published its own study into online abuse, and unlike any previous study, it found that women were, indeed, more likely to be victims. The study (and accompanying daily drumbeat of moral panic) was chillingly titled “The Web We Want” (“we”, meaning Oxbridge-educated Guardian journalists). Here was the Guardian in campaign mode, pretending to be publishing news but in reality whipping up a Daily Mail-esque moral panic over free speech:
“…along with online camaraderie, the vituperative modes of interaction took hold: bullying, shaming and intimidation… For women it frequently assumes a particularly violent and sexualised form, sometimes extending to public rape threats; for ethnic minorities it is often racist.”
In a nutshell, here is the methodology of the conservative left: attack free expression, but using left-wing language. Don’t say “Christian family values are under threat”, say “OMG people are being sexist, racist and homophobic! We must stop them!”
But it is, indeed, puzzling that the Guardian’s findings overturn conventional wisdom. Puzzling that is, until the methodology is examined: it is simply laughable. The explanation is packed with irrelevant technical detail (they used Postgres database software, and wrote scripts in Perl – so what?) which apparently is only included to distract the reader from the important bit. The entire article contains one useful, and very revealing, sentence:
“In our analysis we took blocked comments as an indicator of abuse and/or disruption”
So the reasoning is entirely circular, and hugely dishonest. Guardian moderators, acting (one presumes) under Guardian policy, block posts they subjectively consider to be sexist, racist and homophobic. They then examine the blocked posts and (shock horror!) discover they are largely sexist, racist and homophobic. The newspaper is guilty of the worst sort of misinformation: making a headline claim and then providing small print that doesn’t back it.
This is far from being the Guardian’s first campaign for censorship – it has actively campaigned for porn, “sexualised” imagery and (black) music videos to be censored. But this is the broadest attack so far, targeting the very basis of online free speech. Furthermore, the moral panic is obviously carefully planned and orchestrated, with day-by-day updates. Unsurprisingly, a Labour voice has now joined the campaign, with an Orwellian call by Yvette Cooper for “greater monitoring of online harassment”. Labour MP John Mann is already on record as calling for internet bans on “trolls”: crushing people’s right to speak out if the authorities consider them unsavoury. The implications for controversial political speech are profound.
Little of this could fly in America, where free speech has been protected since 1789. But speech in Britain has no such protection, and so (as predicted by George Orwell in 1984) is a soft touch for “nice” censorship, designed by a paternalistic state to protect us from ourselves.
My book Porn Panic!, which documents sexual prudery, the decline of the progressive left, and the rise of a new fascism, is now available for pre-order on Amazon UK and Amazon US.
This story is hardly an unusual one. Sex workers experience slut-shaming and other abuse as standard if they dare have a public presence. I have a number of Facebook friends who are prostitutes, pornstars, webcam girls and strippers, and I’m all too aware how often they are attacked online. I’m sharing these images with permission from sex worker and activist Laura Renvoize, who was the subject of the abuse, and chose to share them on Facebook.
The comments reveal how a pseudo-left, pseudo-feminist narrative is often adopted by middle-class women who feel the need to intellectualise their slut-shaming. These days, since it’s become fashionable to be left-wing (or at least, to sound left-wing), attacks on sex workers tend to be veiled in pseudo-left language. It is fascinating that the old left issues of sexism, racism and capitalism have now become excuses for anti-sex work and other forms of bigotry.
Unfortunately, this is indicative of the intellectual rot on the new left. Simply shouting CAPITALISM has become a substitute for reasoned argument. Note the claim that Laura is ‘a disgrace to women and girls’: in this version of feminism, no woman can be liberated, since every woman is (we’re told) answerable to all other women for their behaviour.
Note also the argument-hopping: Laura is told that her chosen work is violence against women (one would think she would have been the first to notice that) and is then blamed for breaking up nice families by sleeping with attached men and other crimes. Prostitution is said to be a “sick industry that promotes everything wrong with the world”. Entertainingly, prostitutes are often (as here) that told they don’t “value themselves” – a strange accusation to throw at some of the highest paid people in society.
Here’s an excellent article by Samantha Rea at VICE on sex workers’ experience of medical care.
If you thought getting healthcare for your desk job was bad, try being a woman in the sex industry. We spoke to escorts, porn actors, and former sex workers who ran into devastating prejudice when getting trying to get something as simple as a medical che