Category Archives: Comment

Identity Politics is Killing Solidarity and Fuelling Fascism

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.

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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.

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The Biology of Prostitution

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.

The good news is that social progress is closing the gaps between men and women. Sexual freedom and migration have significantly brought down the price of sex, and rising food production means that hunger – a major driver of sex trade – is also in steep decline. Correspondingly, violence appears to also be in long-term decline (contrary to popular belief) – at least in part due to the easier availability of sex and food.

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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.

My book Porn Panic! is now available for pre-order.

The Guardian and the Return of the Victorian Lady

Guardian Journalist
Guardian Journalist

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).”

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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.

The Slut-Shaming of a Sex Worker on Facebook

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.

 

slut-shaming
slut-shaming
slut-shaming

‘I Was Left Like a Freak in the Corner’: Visiting the Doctor as a Sex Worker

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

Source: ‘I Was Left Like a Freak in the Corner’: Visiting the Doctor as a Sex Worker | Broadly

The Trouble With the F Word: Documentary Fundraiser

f-wordA couple of years ago, as I was launching this campaign, I was contacted by Vanessa Pellegrin, who was working on a documentary called The Trouble With the F Word: a film examining why feminism has become so unpopular. She has now launched a Kickstarter campaign to help complete the film.

It’s an interesting question, and one that also partly drove me to write my own book, Porn Panic!

The film will take a balanced look at feminism and anti-feminism (whatever those things may be – sometimes, feminism itself appears to be so broad and self-contradictory that it could be labelled anti-feminism!)

In the short video below, Vanessa gives five reasons to help fund her project. Have a look, and check out her Kickstarter page if you’d like to be involved.

TV-Like Content: Closing the Loophole

The government plans to close the “TV-Like” loophole which a handful of porn services have used to stay in business.

For years, the British censorship state has become infuriated with the way digital communications have entirely sidelined their tight controls over film, TV and video content. The TV regulator Ofcom and the BBFC, which censors DVD, had no control over content on the Internet, whether or not it was published in the UK.

In order to regain some control, the regulators seized on the Audiovisual Media Services Directive, a framework from the EU designed to extend broadcast TV regulation to online streaming services. The directive was written to apply only to “TV-Like On Demand Programme Services”, and was expected to apply to the BBC’s iPlayer and similar services.

However, the British censors saw their opportunity, and set up ATVOD in 2010 in order to implement the directive. While most EU countries followed the spirit of the directive, and set up minimal regulatory regimes, ATVOD instead drafted its own onerous rules and demanded large annual payments (£2,900 in the first year) from services (mainstream and adult) it considered to be “TV-like”.

Since ATVOD’s first goal was to raise funds, it cast its net wide, and declared a wide range of online newspaper and magazine services to be TV-like. The Sun newspaper swiftly appealed, and Ofcom (ATVOD’s effective parent) found in its favour. As a result, ATVOD dropped attempts to bring the Sun, as well as The Sunday Times Video Library, Telegraph TV, The Independent Video, FT Video, Guardian Video, Guardian YouTube, News of the World TV and Elle TV, under its control.

Subsequently, ATVOD tried to declare that some BBC YouTube channels – Top Gear and BBC Food – were TV-like services, and again lost on appeal.

Later, adult services also used the same appeal, sometimes successfully. The first successful appeal was by Mistress Tytania (who I interviewed for a podcast). She therefore found herself in the peculiar position of running the only hardcore adult service legally allowed to trade in the UK while ignoring ATVOD’s rules.

In our interview, Mistress Tytania said “I think ATVOD are now trying to correct all the holes in their argument. I’m free for now, but I don’t know for how long.” Well, now we know how long. Tucked away in the recently issued consultation on new porn laws, was an important line:

“… our proposals would also apply to pornography that the BBFC would rate as category 18 sex works and would apply to all online content, not just VOD services.”

At a stroke, this closes the only possible route of appeal for adult services that wish to remain in the UK. It also extends the age verification requirement to still images as well as video, and to soft imagery as well as sexually explicit. It will probably also extend to cartoons, drawings and other artwork, and maybe even to text.

It will cover Twitter and Google, and many other non-porn services, as these feature nude imagery. In other words – as I have often pointed out – this is a blueprint for censoring the Internet as a whole, not (as billed) protecting children from seeing porn.

From ATVOD to Ofcom: Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire

The recent transfer of Internet censorship powers from ATVOD to Ofcom has been trumpeted as a victory for free expression. It is anything but.

In 2009, the then opposition leader, David Cameron (who, we might remember, used to show vaguely liberal leanings), made a radical pledge: to break up the mighty super-regulator, Ofcom.  As reported by the Guardian, he said:

“With a Conservative government, Ofcom as we know it will cease to exist. Its remit will be restricted to its narrow technical and enforcement roles. It will no longer play a role in making policy. And the policy-making functions it has today will be transferred back fully to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.”

This was a very important pledge. Ofcom, a large organisation with an annual budget running into the hundreds of millions of pounds, also writes and enforces policy, particularly in the field of television censorship: something that, as Cameron had noticed, is surely the role of government rather than an unelected regulator.

Of course, once the coalition was elected in 2010, this pledge was never heard of again. Ofcom remained intact, and is alive and well to this day. Furthermore, as of 1st January this year, video-on-demand censorship powers were transferred from ATVOD to Ofcom.

When the demise of ATVOD was reported last year, there was much jubilation, especially among small UK porn producers. As probably the original anti-ATVOD campaigner (having been in some way involved with the new VoD regulations since 2007), I too did a little dance on ATVOD’s grave. ATVOD’s CEO, Pete Johnson, had proven to be an obsessive anti-porn activist, and he turned his organisation’s ‘regulatory activity’ into little more than a witch-hunt of British porn publishers.

But some of those involved trumpeted this move as some kind of victory for free expression. Anyone with experience of Ofcom would never make such a mistake. It is a grave threat to online free speech.

Ofcom is a typical New Labour creation: iron-fisted authoritarianism wrapped in a velvet glove of diversity and other fluffy things. Formed by merging multiple regulators into one monolith, it was granted powers of control over our daily lives. Its rules for television are moralistic and wide-ranging, and almost never challenged by our elected representatives. The 2009 version of David Cameron deserves at least a little kudos for even mentioning the problem.

Ofcom’s attitudes to pornography on TV make ATVOD’s prudish rules for VoD seem positively libertine. While online rules allow hardcore porn – at least up to the BBFC’s R18 standard – Ofcom totally banned all explicit sex acts from TV. This applies even to PIN-protected adult channels broadcasting at 3am. In the name of child protection, British adults are banned from watching porn on TV: almost all other EU countries and the ‘prudish’ US allow hardcore porn to be broadcast – many in the middle of the day.

But even the BBFC’s 18 standard for soft porn is too much for the moralists at Ofcom, who have created their own, even softer standard of decency, which is prudish to the point of comedy.

Empowered by the Broadcast Act (2003), Ofcom doesn’t just write law: it is judge, jury and executioner. Tiny breaches of its code can result in fines of tens of thousands of pounds – in fact, it can impose fines of up to £250,000. And it also has the power to order TV channels to close, and even to ban companies from operating TV channels.

Playboy TV, for example, fell foul of Ofcom rules numerous times. Having been fined £25,000 in 2004, it was fined £22,500 in 2008 for broadcasting content that ‘included sequences depicting masturbation, oral sex (both between women and between men and women), clear labial detail, sexual intercourse, and full nudity. Some also included strong language, such as “fuck” and its derivatives and “cunt”, in an overtly sexual context.’

Yes folks, a massive, unelected, publicly-funded organisation issues huge fines to porn businesses that allow adults to see ‘clear labial detail’, on an encrypted TV channel in the middle of the night.

With the convergence of TV and the Internet, Ofcom was always going to make a grab for Internet censorship powers. The closure of ATVOD may have made us all smile, but it fits in with Ofcom’s strategic interests. In fact, ATVOD only existed for temporary convenience, the result of a pretence at co-regulation between government and industry (ATVOD was once a genuine trade association, but was hijacked and turned into a censorship body in 2010).

The current consultation on further Internet censorship powers for Ofcom is ominous indeed. It is clearly an exercise in box-checking before the government inevitably decides that the UK, alone in the democratic world, needs more Internet censorship to protect our under-18s (and purely by accident, protect adults too) from sexual expression. There is little chance that the old, liberal Cameron will leap to our rescue. Internet censorship is on the short-term agenda: the transfer of power from ATVOD to Ofcom was not a victory for free speech, but a signal that state censorship of the Internet is getting serious.

Liberalism and Extreme Pornography

Nick Cowen is a PhD student, who has recently published an academic paper on Millian Liberalism and Extreme s200_nick.cowenPornography. In this, he argues that apparently ‘liberal’ justifications for banning ‘extreme porn’ in the UK are misguided. The Sex & Censorship campaign agrees: trying to justify censorship from a liberal perspective is a contradiction in terms. Below, Nick explains his argument in brief. His full paper can be downloaded here.

In August 2012, Simon Walsh, a prominent lawyer and former aide to London mayor Boris Johnson, was prosecuted for possession of ‘extreme pornography’. The alleged crime was possessing digital photographs depicting ‘fisting’ and ‘urethral sounding’ taken at a private all-male sex party where Walsh was a participant.

The prosecution claimed that the acts depicted were extreme because they could cause serious harm. The jury heard expert evidence from a surgeon that the acts, which are relatively commonly practiced within the LGBT community, could be conducted safely. It took the jury just a few minutes of deliberation to reject all charges.

Despite the ‘not guilty’ verdict, the trial came at personal cost to Walsh. Intimate details of his sex life were exposed in a public forum. Moreover, the Crown Prosecution Service continues to argue that the grounds for prosecution were sound and that the images were ‘extreme’, leaving open the possibility of continued prosecutions. This suggests a particular legal vulnerability for gay men and other sexual minorities. This is a perverse result for a law that was originally intended to address violence against women.

The British government banned extreme pornography in 2008. There are now more than 1000 prosecutions a year in the United Kingdom. We know comparatively little about the circumstances of most cases, possibly because, unlike Walsh, most defendants accept a sanction to avoid public attention and the greater risk of a prison sentence.

Prosecution statistics indicate that many cases involve depictions of bestiality. While bestiality raises real concerns with animal cruelty, many images may amount to harmless (if poor taste) jokes. For example, one failed prosecution in Wales involved possession of an image of a man having sex with a woman while wearing a tiger costume.

I argue that this approach to regulating pornography is disproportionate to any notional public benefit, and cannot plausibly protect women’s interests or improve their social status.   My article highlights some illiberal aspects of the ban. First, ‘extreme’ is defined in terms of what the image appears to depict, rather than any actual harm done in creating the image. This means that records of acts safely performed by consenting adults can nevertheless be criminalised. Second, the law bans possession, not publication. This means that the law respects no boundary between private and public, and does not consider the context in which an image is found or displayed.

These features would have a strong chance of rendering such a ban unconstitutional on first amendment grounds if the law were passed in the United States. It is somewhat less clear whether it infringes European human rights law. Regardless of where positive law stands, I argue that liberal defences of privacy and free expression extend to extreme pornography.

I argue instead that images used to expose or harass individuals (or ‘revenge porn’) are legitimately prohibited.  On my account, consent to view or be depicted should be the key test of legality, a test that the current definition of ‘extreme pornography’ sadly ignores.

Nick Cowen is a PhD student in political economy at King’s College London and a volunteer policy researcher for Backlash