Although Coronavirus is (rightly) taking up plenty of attention right now, the war on sexual freedom and free speech is trundling along in the background. Here are a few things that have happened in the past couple of weeks:
Woody Allen Cancelled
Mob-led censorship claimed a new victim last week when Film maker Woody Allen had the publication of his autobiography cancelled by his publisher Hachette, after staff walked out. Although Hachette had been planning to publish, it revoked the deal and returned the rights for the book to its author. Allen was accused of sexual abuse in the 1990s, but was investigated and cleared. The allegations came amidst a bitter campaign against him by his ex-partner, Mia Farrow. It appears that Allen has become the latest victim of the attack on due process that has arisen in the wake of the #MeToo campaign.
Anti-Kink Bill Returns to Parliament
The Labour MP (and vociferous campaigner against porn and prostitution) Harriet Harman is pushing the government to amend the Domestic Abuse Bill so that “rough sex” defences for injury and murder are outlawed. Although this may sound reasonable, in reality there is no “rough sex” defence: men are sent to prison for murder if there is evidence of murder, regardless of which defence they use. The amendment (which has been campaigned for by anti-sex radical feminist group We Can’t Consent To This, with help from the Guardian) is actually written to outlaw all rough / kinky sex, even for those who consent. (I wrote a more detailed explanation here). Small numbers of killings (for which men have been rightly sent to prison) are being used to create a moral panic that would make kinky sex illegal. This would particularly affect sex workers and people involved in the BDSM scene. The danger is (as so often happens with anti-sex laws) that MPs will vote for the law based on a mistaken belief it is designed to protect women from being killed.
Police are Investigating Thousands of Teenagers for Sexting
Way back in 2014, I wrote about the criminalisation of teenagers for sharing naked images of themselves. Recently published statistics have revealed the extent of police interference in teenage sexuality. Over 6,000 children under 14 have been investigated by police for “sexting”. No doubt aware that they are under surveillance, teens have adapted their language to prevent The (Dirty Old) Man spying on their sex chat. It seems that teens are sensibly using code words: for example, girls use “peri-peri” to refer to a well-hung male, and “coleslaw” to mean a bit on the the side. The story also revealed that girls talk about sex more than boys, overturning long-held stereotypes about sexuality.
Professor Fired After Online Misinformation Campaign
Bo Winegard, a professor at a small US college, was fired after being targeted by left-wing websites and students. There appeared to be little solid basis for the action, but he had been accused – with no apparent basis – of advocating “pseudoscience employed by eugenicists”. As in Woody Allen’s case, the facts appear to matter less than the power of the mob. Winegard’s account of events can be read at Quillette.
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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)
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!
Tuesday was one of those days that pop up a few times a year for me: a phone call from a media outlet (in this case talkRadio) alerts me to the fact that porn is in the news again. Would I be interested in joining a discussion about porn being a “public health crisis” at five past 11?
Of course, I would: defending the indefensible is my niche. So I dutifully appeared on talkRadio, followed by BBC Radio Leeds and (later that evening) Newsnight.
Porn is a “public health crisis”?
The claim that porn has created a “public health crisis” is not an evidence-based one, but in fact emerged from America’s religious right a couple of years ago, and has been used by right-wing state legislatures to pass anti-porn legislation. This is simply the latest salvo in a war on pornography being fought by Republicans and anti-porn feminists for the past four decades.
Now, worryingly, the claim had been regurgitated by the parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee, and has appeared in a report they published this week, that has deeply worrying implications for civil liberties.
The report is one of the worst examples of “porn panic” I’ve ever seen, and I (literally) wrote the book on this subject. It makes ungrounded, hysterical claims based on anecdotal evidence:
“sexual harassment in public places … is a routine and sometimes relentless experience for women and girls”
This claim isn’t supported by empirical evidence, and there certainly isn’t evidence it’s been getting worse, but the porn panic (most recently in the form of the #MeToo movement) has established that it is bad, and is getting worse, and that if you question the witch-hunt, you must be a witch.
Having established that women and “and even girls in school uniform” are being harassed and assaulted literally all the time in oh so many ways, the report then quickly gets to the something must be done moment: “Sexual harassment is never acceptable, and women and girls should not be expected to endure it.” Anyone questioning the report hereafter is clearly implying that harassment is acceptable and that womenandgirls should have to endure it.
What’s to blame?
What’s to blame for this virtual holocaust of harassment? Porn, of course!
“There is significant research suggesting that there is a relationship between the consumption of pornography and sexist attitudes and sexually aggressive behaviours, including violence”
Readers of this blog, and my book, will know that this simply isn’t true. In fact, one of the widest-reaching meta-studies on porn-and-harm ever commissioned was carried out by Ofcom on behalf of the British government, which concluded:
“There seems to be no relationship between the availability of pornography and an increase in sex crimes in other countries; in comparison there is more evidence for the opposite effect.”
In plain English, porn isn’t harmful but it does appear to reduce sexual violence.
This important conclusion appears somewhere in the middle of a 146-page report which the government published in 2011, and then went on to completely ignore as it continued blaming porn for every (often imaginary) problem in society.
What must be done?
So, having established the falsehoods that 1) unspeakable horror is occurring and 2) it’s porn’s fault, the report then goes on to make an incredibly broad set of scattergun recommendations which are unsupported even by the preceding nonsense.
The government’s position to date has been that porn is fine, so long as it isn’t “extreme” or “obscene”, and is only seen by people over 18. The UK already has some of the tightest pornography restrictions of any democratic country. However, this report challenges that position, complaining that the government:
“…has no plans to address adult men’s use of mainstream online pornography”.
This throwaway line is a huge shift in the anti-porn movement, away from “child protection” to “all porn is dangerous”.
Some of the report is vague but ominous:
“set out a comprehensive programme of work to make all public places safe for all women and girls”
And some of it just ominous:
“The Government should take an evidence-based approach to addressing the harms of pornography, similar to the huge investment there has been over many years in tackling road safety, or preventing public health problems caused by lawful behaviour such as smoking.”
The recommendations stop trying to pretend that porn causes harassment, and just assume that porn and harassment are basically the same thing:
“Bus regulations should be amended to prohibit sexual harassment and viewing pornography on buses.”
Thus, in future, a person viewing porn on a bus will count against the sexual harassment statistics, which will push up arrests for harassment and “prove” the problem is getting worse.
There’s random stuff like:
“Universities should have a legal obligation to have policies outlawing sexual harassment…”
Of course, universities do already have policies in this area. This sounds like America’s Title IX which set loose a wave of “rape on campus” hysteria out of all proportion with reality, and a situation where two students could be deemed to have harassed each other.
There’s also a weird dig at strip clubs, which picks up on (false) claims by feminists that strip clubs were causing rape:
“Local authorities must consult local women’s groups and sexual violence specialists when deciding their policies on licensing strip clubs and lap-dancing clubs.”
Can you rape someone via WhatsApp?
But the most worrying recommendation is as follows:
“A new law should be brought forward on image-based sexual abuse to criminalise all non-consensual creation and distribution of intimate sexual images, on the basis of the victim’s lack of consent rather than perpetrator motivation.”
This appears to mean that anyone sending a sexual image to another person could be criminalised if the recipient denies consenting. I’m on a couple of WhatsApp groups where short porn clips are sometimes shared: now, just by receiving one of these clips (which are always unsolicited), I could claim to have been the victim of sexual violence. Likewise, this would open up anyone involved in sexting to a claim of sexual harassment (and for many teens, sexting is a normal part of relationships today).
We are at the point where any sexual contact, even digital, may fall into the same category of offence as rape. Sex, in virtually any context, is now considered problematic. While these ideas were once the preserve of an extremist clique of feminists, they are now actively discussed in the British parliament.
The issue of sex work decriminalisation seems straightforward on the surface. But nothing can be understood without understanding the underlying political context, and especially that in these strange times fascism flows under the surface of all political debate. In Britain, sex workers enjoy a relatively liberated status compared to those in many other countries. Both the sale and the purchase of sex are legal activities. The primary obstacle to liberty is the fact that “brothels” are banned; and a brothel constitutes any two or more people working in the same premises. And so, sex workers often work alone (and unprotected), often against their wishes.
These days, faux-liberal language is routinely used to hide conservative attitudes. So two years ago, when a parliamentary committee expressed support for “decriminalising sex workers”, activists celebrated. But as I warned then, the announcement was an empty one. Note the choice of words: not “sex work” but “sex workers”. The announcement left open the option of the “Nordic model”, which criminalises buyers, not sellers. Rather than express solidarity with sex workers, this model applies a feminist lens to the issue, treating prostitutes as victims rather than as free agents. Some of my acquaintances in the sex worker activist community were angry with me pouring cold water on this “victory”. But it was no victory.
Sex worker as victim
The treatment of sex workers as unwilling actors is not just a game played by anti-sex work feminists and the “rescue industry”, but by some sex worker advocates too. Left-wing activist groups see prostitution not as a choice, but as something forced on women by the ethereal “Patriarchy” and “capitalism”. These activists are adamant that nobody could ever really enjoy sex work, and that sex work is a necessary stop-gap until the eventual overthrow of patriarchal-neoliberal-capitalism (insert your own neo-leftist word spaghetti here). Inevitably, sex worker activist groups have become infected with identitarian attitudes, and so announcements tend to be riddled with lip-service being paid to trans people, “women of colour” and other groups deemed to have been forced into sex work by their “systemic oppressions”.
These sex worker activist groups tend to be dominated by privileged, middle-class women, and their attitudes infuriate many sex workers. Privately, sex worker friends confide their dislike of being portrayed as victims, and I sometimes receive messages from sex workers who are outraged that they are not allowed to claim they ever enjoy their work, for fear of being branded traitors or patriarchal shills.
Given the worldview of the far-left – that all “workers” are victims of capitalism – it is unsurprising that Jeremy Corbyn (a typical conservative of the middle-class left) has announced support for the Nordic model:
“I don’t think people that are, mainly women, working in sex industry should be criminalised from working in it… Those benefitting should be the ones we go after.”
This was all so inevitable. As the working class has turned its back on the left, so the left has become an increasingly privileged clique seeking to impose its twisted vision of “social justice” on those they deem to be victims.
From the Nordic model to the censorship model
The Nordic model represented a subtle shift as feminists took over the morality movement from Christians. Instead of treating prostitutes as criminals, they chose to treat them as victims, and turned their attacks on clients instead. But now, the Nordic model may also be outdated and unnecessary, because censorship is a far more effective way to attack sexual liberty.
The Digital Economy Act (2017) introduced a state Internet censor to the UK, and that changed everything. The authorities no longer need to outlaw anything. They simply need to find an excuse to block content. The Act was ostensibly about pornography, but I’ve warned repeatedly that this was a smokescreen. Porn is simply the first category of content that will be blocked. Having implemented the blocking system, the state can add as many new categories as it chooses. The recent US laws FOSTA and SESTA point the way forward. Moralists no longer need to attack either sex workers or their clients. Instead the state can criminalise (using the excuse of “sex trafficking”) the platforms that they use to communicate. The Labour MP Sarah Champion recently introduced a debate into the House of Commons last week on this subject.
The UK’s two leading sex worker platforms, Adultwork and Viva Street, were singled out to be named and shamed, just as those of us who tried to run UK-legal porn platforms were attacked in 2012. It’s perhaps ironic that individuals at both companies have been broadly supportive of the blocking system, mistakenly believing that they could stay on the right side of the law. They were wrong: the British state, having watched from the sidelines for decades as the Internet took away its censorship powers, is now getting its claws stuck back in.
This isn’t about sex work, any more than it was about pornography or “hate speech”. We are watching the erosion of Internet free speech. Free speech is not just another issue: it is the issue of our age. Unless we resist now, future generations will marvel at the golden era of free expression that we enjoy from about 1990 until… well, around now.
How do you help? Sex work decriminalisation is a worthy goal, but the free speech issue cuts far deeper. You can help the English Collective of Prostitutes respond to the government survey (deadline 16th July), and you might consider supporting my Patreon campaign. The issue of free speech has been recently hijacked by the far-right and my goal is to bring it back into mainstream politics.
I have long predicted that the porn panic – the war on sexual expression – would engulf content far beyond pornography. The takeover of the British anti-censorship movement by members of the fetish-porn scene has thus been frustrating, as it has suggested that the threat to free speech is about the needs of people with unusual sexual tastes. I have predicted, in particular, that dating sites like Craigslist would be hit hard, as they allow people to post adult images on their ads. Last week, Craigslist did indeed close its dating section, but in response to legal changes in the US, rather than the UK.
While the UK’s attacks on Internet freedom have focused on the “need to protect children from pornography”, US attacks have focused on prostitution (labelled as “sex trafficking”). Using the latter excuse, the United States just approved a pair of laws, known as SESTA and FOSTA, which criminalise online services that enable “sex trafficking”. While this might seem a worthy effort, when one scratches the surface, we find the hand of anti-sex feminism at work, as usual, and the story is not as it seems.
The trafficking panic has been rising for a decade, and has long ago been exposed as largely mythical by tireless campaigners such as Brooke Magnanti and Laura Agustin. Magnanti’s book The Sex Myth outlines how the panic rose in the UK, leading to Parliament approving funds to tackle sex trafficking; but although anti-trafficking campaigners had claimed thousands of victims, the police could find hardly any. Agustin, in her book Sex in the Margins, outlines how illegal immigrant women enter the sex industry voluntarily as an alternative to lower paid (illegal) hotel work, but are dismissed as “victims” by campaigners.
Illegal immigrants who sell sex are thus labelled “trafficked women”, and then rescued. Agustin refers to the anti-trafficking movement as the Rescue Industry. The Rescue industry is, in reality, a merger between the anti-prostitution movement and the anti-immigration movement. Now, when brothels are raided to “rescue” trafficked women, the women are often sent to asylum camps before being deported – hardly the rescue of helpless victims that people tend to imagine.
Despite the fact that genuine victims of sex-trafficking are more rare than one would assume from reading the headlines, politicians have been persuaded otherwise. The first American victim of the panic was Backpage.com, which last year was forced to drop its famous escort listings. SESTA / FOSTA is the latest example of this. American sex workers have strongly opposed the new law, arguing that without places to advertise, they will be forced underground, and inevitably face more dangers as a result. The police too say that street prostitution has increased since Backpage was closed. But the Rescue Industry is now a well-funded juggernaut with the power to shout far louder than sex workers.
Once escort ads were banned, US sex workers moved to classified ad platforms like Craigslist, which have never allowed blatant escort advertising. When SESTA / FESTA was approved last week, Craigslist had little choice but to close its dating section – a little corner of Internet freedom that has thrived for years.
Although SESTA / FOSTA doesn’t apply in the UK (where anyway, prostitution is legal), Craigslist is a US business – so the UK has lost one of its most vibrant dating and adult contact services.
What is the future for UK escort listing sites like Adultwork.com and Viva Street? On paper, there is no reason for them not to continue. But I predict that the Digital Economy Act, which already enables porn censorship, will inevitably be extended to block new categories of content, and that “trafficking” will feature in the next list of targets.
Yesterday, BBC Radio 5 Live dedicated an hour to discussing the alleged threat posed to public health by pornography. The programme made little attempt to ask balanced questions, or examine any evidence beyond the anecdotal. Instead, it was premised on the assumption that porn poses a threat to society, and that “something must be done”.
I was invited on to the programme to discuss the issue. Before I joined the discussion, I listened with incredulity as a BBC-approved, evidence-free anti-sex moral panic was broadcast to the nation. I was eventually added to the discussion, and did my best to counter the misinformation, though no real time was allowed for discussion of solid evidence.
Thanks to a supporter who contacted me via my Facebook page, I discovered that my book Porn Panic! has been briefly discussed on a Facebook feminist group called Level Up. Which is nice – except that the discussion is deeply inaccurate, and handily illustrates some of the deep problems within the identity-obsessed left that my book identifies.
I should point out here (to anyone poised to suggest that my taking issue with feminism is “sexist”) that the book has been well reviewed by female reviewers and readers, including this lovely tweet received today:
So anyway, the Level Up thread (shown in this screenshot) begins by complaining that Porn Panic! conflates “objecting to the objectification of female bodies with censorship” (followed by a sad/angry face).
It then proceeds with a series of increasingly wrong claims. I applied to join the group in order to respond (politely, of course!) but it’s looking like my application is being overlooked. Hence this post.
Having been branded everything from a Nazi to a misogynist and (this week’s favourite insult) an alt-right sympathiser, I think it becomes ever more important to correct false claims.
Do I conflate objecting about objectification with censorship?
Yes, pretty much. Not directly, but by pointing out that claims of “objectification” invariably come along with “something must be done!” demands. The deeper point is that objectification itself is a dodgy concept, suggesting that one woman can demand another woman’s image be removed, simply on the basis they’re both women. So a model doesn’t have a right to work, because feminists demand a right for no woman, anywhere, to be “objectified”. It’s nonsense, of course – the only person who has a right to decide where her image is seen is the person who owns the body in the image, not random strangers. “Objectification” has become an excuse for bullies to attack the right of women to self-expression.
Do I claim feminism is a driving force for censorship?
Yes, very much so. The poster complains that I equate censors with “feminists complaining about sexism”. That’s not very accurate, except in the sense that some feminists don’t know the difference between sexism and sexual expression. So when a feminist says “sexualised music videos are sexist and something should be done!” then really they’re saying “erotic images of women are harmful and must be censored”. Porn Panic! documents many real-life examples of this behaviour.
Am I connected with Spiked?
A commenter responds: “A quick google suggests that the author is connected with the vile brigade of Spiked”. Quick googling has replaced genuine research for many people online. I can only assume she found a review of my book in Spiked. But then, the book has also been reviewed (favourably) by feminist bloggers, and nobody’s suggested this connects me to feminism.
Are Spiked vile? “Vile” is one of those words that identitarians (including feminists) seem to throw around with abandon. Spiked is an interesting publication, with roots in the far-left Revolutionary Communist Party, but currently is a blend of liberal/libertarian and other viewpoints. I support the excellent Spiked defence of free speech, which is desperately needed in these censorious times. Spiked is refreshingly radical on other issues too, though we part company on issues like Brexit (I’m a staunch remoaner).
Have Zero Books gone all libertarian?
The commentor goes on to say: “…Zero Books which used to be a very interesting publisher has been literally taken over by the Spiked/Institute of Ideas crowd and they seem to publish little else than their questionable ‘libertarian’ stuff…”
I’m incredibly proud to have been published by Zero Books. They’re a left-wing imprint that (unlike much of the left) hasn’t been gripped by authoritarian or identitarian viewpoints. My publisher Douglas Lain seems to be one of the few Marxists left in the world who knows what Marxism is; and though I no longer call myself a Marxist, it’s important to differentiate between Marx’s ideas and the claptrap spouted by most “Marxists”. I’m also an ex-leftie left distraught at the atrociously reactionary state of the political left, so Zero Books is my ideal publisher. Unlike many on the left, ZB looks for intelligent viewpoints from many sides for their podcast and YouTube channel. They have not “literally” been taken over by Spiked, Institute of Ideas (which is linked to Spiked) or libertarians.
Freeze Peach is bad, m’kay?
The poster replies: “Eurgh yeah I’ve seen way too much of Spiked moaning about freeze peach on university campuses. They can’t even be bothered to find out what freedom of speech entails” – which is pretty hilarious, as she goes on to say “…no platforming is people demonstrating freedom of action!” (No Platform being one of the most blatant forms of censorship now prevalent on the left).
“Freeze Peach” is a way of sneering at free speech that has become fashionable among lefties (the fact they need to sneer at free speech at all is revealing). Ironically, I even mention the term in my book:
“Free speech, once the bedrock of liberalism, has – quite literally – become a dirty word on the political left. For a while in 2014, it even became fashionable for some online activists to mock the defence of free speech as FREEZEPEACH, using the argument that free speech cannot be allowed while some groups remain oppressed. The argument is a circular one, because in the swamp of identity politics, some groups are deemed to be permanently oppressed, by definition. So the argument goes: all women are oppressed; all men are privileged; therefore men cannot have free speech, because they use it to oppress women.”
I’d welcome the chance to discuss these points further via the Level Up group or elsewhere. You know where to find me!
Dr David J Ley, a psychologist specialising in sexual matters, and especially pornography, has recently been at the receiving end of a barrage of online abuse, following the announcement he would be speaking at a conference on the treatment of adolescent sex offenders. Dr Ley (author of Ethical Porn For Dicks) was due to give a speech titled: “Promoting Responsible Porn Use in Youth and Adolescents”.
Sexual violence is highest in the adolescent age group. An influential study called Pornography, Rape and the Internet (PDF) found that pornography viewing appears to significantly reduce sexual violence in this age group:
“I find that the arrival of the internet was associated with a reduction in rape incidence. While the internet is obviously used for many purposes other than pornography, it is notable that growth in internet usage had no apparent effect on other crimes. Moreover, when I disaggregate the rape data by offender age, I find that the effect of the internet on rape is concentrated among those for whom the internet-induced fall in the non-pecuniary price of pornography was the largest – men ages 15-19″
So anyone with an interest in reducing sexual violence – one might assume – would have found Dr Ley’s talk informative and beneficial. But morality campaigners thought otherwise, and set out to get the talk cancelled.
The tweets varied from the infantile…
… to the murderous…
… and of course, someone managed to blame capitalism (because nobody EVER thought of wanking before Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations)…
Ley’s Speech Cancelled
Following the abuse, and a letter-writing campaign to the conference organiser, Dr Ley’s invitation was withdrawn, and he will no longer be speaking at the event. The letters repeated standard myths about pornography, and contained veiled threats to disrupt the conference:
“You are hosting the porn industry. This is quite likely to increase sex trafficking at the hotel where hosting!
I certainly will raise my voice and bring women to protest this conference!!
We will protest the venue as well as the entire conference. Pornography does not help sexual offenders!
88% of porn is sexual violence!”
Sexual Repression is Harmful
We need to retake the moral high ground: We believe sexual repression is harmful. We believe sexual freedom reduces harm. The puritan left, like the religious right, would return us to the sexual dark ages, and that will be deeply harmful for everyone.
I’ve attended London’s Notting Hill Carnival most years since 1981. This year, like most, I went both days: Sunday with the family, Monday just to dance. Carnival showcases a West Indian culture that (unlike European cultures) shows no shame in blurring the line between dance and sex. And of course, this openness is bound to upset western sensibilities. Once, conservatives would have complained bitterly about the displays of sexuality, but the mantle of anti-sex puritanism has now been firmly taken over by the political left, and especially by parts of the feminist movement.
As an anti-censorship activist over the past decade, I began to notice about five years ago that anti-sex feminists had particular issues with black music and dance. I dedicated some time to documenting this in my book Porn Panic!
“Since their invention, music videos had come under fire from morality campaigners, but this was a phenomenon better known in the United States, with its powerful Christian right, than in Britain. Many of the attacks on popular music in America contained thinly-veiled racism. US Society was racially segregated for most of its history, until relatively recently, and most white Americans had had little contact with black Americans or their cultures, until the rise of music recording and radio. Although black artists were often boycotted by radio stations, white performers, from Elvis Presley onwards, began to copy black music, and young white people began to dance to it. Unsurprisingly, this infuriated white conservatives.
A 1960s circular from the Citizens Council of Greater New Orleans reads as follows:
“Help Save The Youth of America
DON’T BUY NEGRO RECORDS
(If you don’t want to serve negroes in your place of business, then do not have negro records on your jukebox or listen to negro records on the radio.)
The screaming, idiotic words, and savage music of these records are undermining the morals of our white youth in America.
Don’t Let Your Children Buy, or Listen To These Negro Records…”
Such a message shows more than hatred or anger: it reveals fear. As well as breaching the carefully constructed walls of racial segregation, black music and dance had caused a deeper concern: it was highly sexual. African dance had always been more ‘wild’ than the European equivalent. Now, as civil rights and anti-colonialism movements peaked, and segregation ended, continents were belatedly colliding. For the first time, black music entered mainstream Western culture. The dam broke. This was not a meeting of equals: African culture poured over white society like a tsunami.
Blues, jazz and rock and roll had just been the beginning. Now soul, hip hop, disco, reggae, dancehall, afrobeat, soca, dub, house, R&B, and many other genres sold records by the millions and entered the charts worldwide. By the turn of the century, it was hard to find music in the British charts that did not have some black roots.
And the videos that came with the music showed another African influence: clothing became skimpier, hips and backsides rolled in a way that white bodies had never before moved. As the moral panic against ‘sexualised’ music videos took root, it was not just a reaction to music; it was a reaction to blackmusic.
Black female artists came under particular attack during the Big Panic. Especially singled out for criticism were Beyoncé, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj. But far from apologise and cover themselves up, all three of these artists revelled in their displays of sexuality, and responded to attacks by becoming more ‘sexualised’, apparently taking enjoyment from taunting the mostly white, middle-class commentators that were attacking them. Beyoncé’s famous performance outfits became more revealing. Rihanna turned up to the 2014 Council of Fashion Designers Awards in a near-transparent dress, which generated an inevitable barrage of outrage. Minaj’s Anaconda video gave the finger to her critics, being a celebration of her famously rounded backside, and featuring the line, delivered as a parody of a prissy, white girl: “Oh. My. Gosh. Look at her BUTT!”
Prudish anger mounted, with article headlines such as “Don’t call Beyonce’s sexual empowerment feminism” trying to create a faux-liberal case for demanding that the singers cover themselves up. But there was no contest: three of the world’s most confident and talented black female performers could easily handle whatever the bloggers and journalists could dish out. Commentators were reduced to whining, inaccurately and patronisingly, that the singers were the ‘victims’ of a white, male-dominated capitalist music machine. The women, and their millions of fans, paid little attention.
Given how deeply rooted the Big Panic was in the political left, and that the anti-sex movement was dominated by white, middle-class women, endless overt attacks on black performers would begin to look suspiciously racist. A white target for the rage was needed. Enter Miley Cyrus.
Cyrus had committed multiple sins in the eyes of moralists. She had been a child star, and now had the nerve to grow up and become an attractive young woman. She appeared naked in the video for her single, Wrecking Ball, and, most outrageous of all, during a 2013 live TV performance, she twerked.
Although twerking was a fairly new term, it described a dance move that had been around for decades, if not centuries. Nobody who has seen videos for hip hop, dancehall, R&B or other black music styles could be unaware of the ways in which some black female dancers could move their hips, buttocks and thighs. I had been a happy witness to this at least since I started attending London’s Notting Hill Carnival and West Indian parties in my teens. It is hardly surprising that twerking provoked the backlash it did among so many commentators: the link between dance and sex had never been more obvious.
Now the anti-sex movement could finally take aim from the moral high ground. Object teamed up with black feminist group Imkaan, created an astroturf campaign to censor music videos called Rewind and Reframe, and, with help of the ever-supportive Guardian, began to insinuate that Cyrus’s twerking was not just sexist, but in some way racist too. Guardian journalist Hadley Freeman ludicrously complained that Cyrus had ‘culturally appropriated’ black people by daring to move her buttocks in a certain way, and having apparently worked herself into an angry froth, described the performance as a ‘minstrel show’. Under the guise of anti-racism, here was a white ‘liberal’ journalist doing what racists had done in the Deep South decades earlier: trying to stop black culture from being adopted by white people. In place of an exhortation not to buy ‘negro records’, the new left had found new language to express their discomfort that white kids were copying the dance moves of black artists.
Freeman’s real problem was revealed in the article when she wrote of Cyrus “…adding in a racial element while she copied the dance moves of strippers and bellowed her love of drugs”. Black people, nudity and drugs: the triumvirate that has upset white conservatives for centuries. She even dared to invoke (or appropriate, perhaps) Martin Luther King, ending the article by stating that she ‘had a dream’:
“I have a dream that female celebrities will one day feel that they don’t need to imitate porn actors on magazine covers and in their stage acts. I have a dream that the predominantly white music world will stop reducing black music to grills and bitches and twerking. And I have a dream that stupid songs about seducing “good girls” will be laughed at instead of sent to No 1.”
Freeman’s dream, of a world free of strippers, porn, drugs, good girls doing bad things, and white people doing black things, is hardly a progressive one. She could have found her dream in Selma, Alabama, in 1963, where King made his famous speech. If any article summed up the 21st century collapse of the left into ugly conservatism, this one did.
If it had appeared alone, Freeman’s article might have simply been a one-off piece representing her own views. But it was not: the Guardian was in campaign mode. The piece was handily followed and supported a couple of months later by an article from Imkaan’s Ikamara Larasi titled ‘Why must we accept the casual racism in pop videos?’, putting the boot in on Miley Cyrus once again, and adding the ‘authenticity’ of a black voice to Freeman’s messy argument (albeit a black voice with close links to Object). And in case we did not get the message, a month later Larasi wrote another Guardian piece, ‘Sexed-up music videos are everyone’s problem’. Beyond her two attacks on music videos, Larasi was not again seen in the Guardian; her work was done.
In addition to Freeman’s and Larasi’s contributions, the Guardian carried a surreal ‘news’ piece on the story that 73 year old Christian singer Cliff Richard also disapproved of Cyrus’s behaviour, and he “just hopes she grows out of it”.
However clumsy and quasi-racist it might have been, the Guardian’s attack on ‘sexualised music videos’ helped do the trick. It was never about convincing Cyrus fans – the goal was to put pressure on the UK authorities. Just one month after Larasi’s second article, in January 2014, the Guardian wrote in approving terms that the BBFC wanted to regulate (i.e. censor) music videos in the same way it did feature films. Of course it did: the BBFC, let us not forget, is a private business.
“Following the issuing of new classification guidance from the BBFC on Monday, the organisation’s assistant director, David Austin, said it was responding to pressure from parents who were concerned about the sexual imagery freely available to children who had access to the web…”
And a few months afterwards, in August 2014, the Prime Minister, David Cameron announced in a speech on (ominously) The Family that the government was backing censorship of music videos:
“From October, we’re going to help parents protect their children from some of the graphic content in online music videos by working with the British Board of Film Classification, Vevo and YouTube to pilot the age rating of these videos.”
The Big Panic had claimed a an important cultural scalp. Without any genuine public discussion or outcry, and certainly without any research showing that ‘sexualised music videos’ were causing any harm to anyone, music – and especially black music – would be subject to prurient censorship controls. The old Citizens Council of Greater New Orleans would be proud.”
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