When, a few weeks ago, a parliamentary committee – chaired by Keith Vaz MP – declared its support, in an interim report, for decriminalising sex workers, I was sceptical. My scepticism was based, not on inside knowledge of the committee, but on two main things:
The declared purpose of the inquiry was to determine whether clients should be criminalised for paying for sex. But this point was ignored in the interim report. So why was an interim report issued before even considering the most important issue? This remains unclear.
Over recent years, I’ve documented a rising ultra-conservatism which is permeating society, and is prevalent across the entire political spectrum (see my book Porn Panic! for details). Could it be, just as the pendulum is so clearly swinging away from liberal values, that we are about to see sex work fully decriminalised? Much as I’d like to believe that, it seems unlikely.
In the mean time, a couple of things have happened. The sudden downfall of Keith Vaz, following a tabloid sting, has led to him stepping down from the committee. The sting (which involved recording his alleged encounter with two young Romanian men), exposes him as a potential hypocrite (MP IN HYPOCRITE SHOCKER!) and has led to him stepping down from the committee. This was immediately seized upon by abolitionists, who called for the entire review to be scrapped.
Whether it is, in fact, hypocritical to pay sex workers while chairing a committee on sex work, will be left for another discussion. Can one imagine “Hypocrite MP who chaired football enquiry discovered to be Arsenal fan!”? Me neither.
Even more creepy than the carefully planned sting on Vaz was yesterday’s call from the “anti-slavery commissioner” (ugh) for Londoners to shop suspected brothels to the Metropolitan Police. The “sex trafficking” narrative has been escalated to a “sex slavery” one. The new campaign has been accompanied by hysterical language: “…sex workers in the capital were being beaten, raped and sometimes starved by the men controlling them in a form of human slavery that was blighting the capital”.
The coverage neglected to mention the almost total failure of the police to find “sex slaves”. In fact, raids on brothels have been used to arrest and humiliate sex workers, bust them for drug possession, and identify (and then deport) illegal immigrants. In short, the sex slavery hysteria is yet another new cover for the recently merged anti-prostitution and anti-immigration movements. “Rescuing” has become code for “harassing, criminalising and deporting”.
This new, Stasi-type attempt at citizen spying also ignores the fact that Vaz’s parliamentary committee has recommended the decriminalisation of brothel keeping. The police are ramping up anti-brothel raids under a law that is now widely seen – including by parliamentarians – as outdated and redundant.
Not only have illegal immigrants been targeted in this way, but even legal migrants have been targeted for deportation. In May it was reported that Romanian sex workers – EU citizens – are facing deportation on the basis that they are criminals. And their crime? This is unclear, as prostitution is legal in the UK.
So while we appear to be looking at isolated incidents, these events take place in an atmosphere of rising authoritarianism, anti-sex prudery and xenophobia. While Keith Vaz is in no way a libertine, one can predict with confidence that he will be replaced (on the Home Affairs committee) by somebody more socially conservative.
As I document the rising fascism in British society, I frequently check myself: am I cherry-picking to fit my narrative? Have I been swayed by conspiracy theorists? I’d like to discover that my pessimism about the state of society is misplaced. But sadly, I don’t think it is (feel free to reassure me in the comments section below).
An inquiry is currently under-way in the British Parliament into the laws governing prostitution, and last week Dr Brooke Magnanti (aka Belle de Jour) and Paris Lees – both former sex workers – gave evidence.
There are two broad forms that a change in the law might take: either towards full decriminalisation – as has been the case in New Zealand since 2003 – or towards the criminalisation of clients (the so-called Nordic model). While the vast majority of sex workers favour decriminalisation (96% according to a recent survey), the inquiry made clear from the start that it is inclined towards the Nordic model:
“The Home Affairs Committee is looking at the way prostitution is treated in legislation. In particular, the inquiry will assess whether the balance in the burden of criminality should shift to those who pay for sex rather than those who sell it.”
So from the outset, the inquiry appears to be slanted towards a legislative model that is opposed by sex workers: an approach that signals moralistic goals, rather than a desire to reduce harm.
Judging by The Mirror’s account, the discussion was somewhat surreal. Labour MP Keith Vaz, who seems to have a particular, long-term issue with sex work, appeared reluctant to believe the accounts of women who had actually been sex workers:
“Mr Vaz expressed disbelief at when Ms Lees said she’d never met anyone who had felt pressured into becoming a sex worker.”
It is well-known that prohibitionists claim to have met countless women who have been forced into prostitution, but these victims tend to remain invisible, and are apparently never able to speak for themselves. As Lees responded:
“It seems to me you’ve had people at this inquiry who’ve got absolutely no business talking about sex work. Whose only qualification seems to be that they write for the Observer.”
“It has long troubled me that Object are prepared to make endless claims of rape and sexual abuse against the sex entertainment industries; and yet, to my knowledge, you have filed no police reports.”
Those interested in the issue should carefully watch the inquiry unfold in Parliament. Any truly open-minded exercise would doubtless come to the same conclusion as Amnesty International did last year: full decriminalisation is the only way forward that is backed by evidence. But, I suspect, this is not the recommendation that this particular inquiry will reach.
I have a confession: for many years, I was a loyal Guardian reader. At one point, prior to the arrival of smartphones and apps, I bought the paper, at a quid a time, perhaps three or four times a week. I always enjoyed, and wanted to support, its high quality, liberal-minded news coverage. It was saddening, therefore, to became aware of the deeply conservative slide the paper was taking, most of all when it came to the subject of sex. In the Guardian’s war on sexual expression, honest journalism at the paper has been sidelined, and bigoted opinions have appeared in place of fact. This bigotry hasn’t just been directed towards strippers, models and pornstars, but also has included deeply racist attitudes. I documented much of this in my book Porn Panic! (which is now available for pre-order on Amazon).
The Guardian’s descent into social conservatism dates back more than a decade. Brooke Magnanti – better known as Belle de Jour – who had blogged about her life as a sex worker, was awarded the Guardian’s blogger of the year award in 2003. She recounts in her book The Sex Myth that a group of Guardian journalists threatened to resign en-masse should she be offered a column. She instead went to write for the Telegraph. The irony that the right-wing paper was more accepting of sex work than the supposedly liberal Guardian was not lost on Magnanti.
In 2013, the paper published an editorial titled “Internet pornography: never again” in which it openly called for Internet censorship. The paper’s liberal values had been overruled by its hatred of sexual expression.
But porn is not the only area in which the Graun has succumbed to moral panic and pro-censorship attitudes. It has joined a far bigger and more worrying war on free expression. This time, the justification for censorship is the very Victorian idea that women are incapable of dealing with the same situations as men. Gender equality is under fierce attack, as it has been many times in history; this time, bemusingly, the attacks come from the political left. This massive assault on gender equality, and on free speech, began to rear its head a few years ago, and began with Twitter.
The War on Twitter
Twitter has long been hated by control freaks. Unlike Facebook, Twitter has been reluctant to censor the content of its posts. This has led the platform to be far edgier than Facebook, and thus more exciting and anarchic. The UK government first signalled its discomfort with free speech on this scale when it blamed Twitter, in part, for the UK riots of 2011. You get the message: free speech is all very well when you’re sending photos of kittens, but too much can be a dangerous thing. This is the age-old mantra of dictators and fascists, and it apparently never gets tired. Threats by David Cameron to provide a “kill switch” for emergency situations were thankfully ignored by Twitter, which is protected from state censorship by the First Amendment to the US Constitution.
The control freak tendency instead reached for the oldest trick in the book: Twitter’s free speech is a threat to womankind! The opportunity to play this card came when a journalist, Caroline Criado-Perez, was abused on Twitter. Now, here was the perfect victim: a photogenic, blonde, middle-class journalist. The press initially reported the abuse as if it had come from a multitude of people, implying that Twitter’s free speech policy was somehow turning hordes of men into misogynistic monsters, and coining the term “misogynistic Twitter trolls”.
Yet once the moral panic had dissipated, it turned out that the abuse received by Criado-Perez had largely originated from two people, and (inconvenient for the “MASSIVE MISOGYNY” narrative), the worst offender was a woman, Isabella Sorley. Furthermore, Sorley had 25 previous arrests, mostly for being drunk and disorderly. Here was a minor story of two unpleasant people – at least one of whom was probably mentally ill – sending horrible tweets to another person; but in the hands of the pro-censorship feminist lobby, it had become a false message that misogyny was everywhere, and that too much free speech can be a bad thing – at least, for ladies.
A line had been crossed: ugly, foul-mouthed working class people are not supposed to come into contact with nice, blonde, middle-class ladies. When the two were imprisoned for their speech crime, the press was notably silent in questioning the sentences.
The Criado-Perez case set a precedent, and suddenly feminist commentators were climbing over each other to discover widespread online misogyny. The only problem with this “analysis” was that beyond anecdotes, there was no evidence to be found that women were being systemically targeted more than men. Indeed, when Demos carried out comprehensive research into abuse on Twitter, it was found that men were far more likely to be targeted than women.
This mirrored the situation with real-world violence, which men are far more likely to experience than women. Indeed, in a rare moment of clarity a 2008 Guardian article stated:
“Although it is the attacks on young women that we are most likely to respond to, it is young men who, overwhelmingly, are victims of violence (as the stories of knife attacks over the past year so well illustrate).”
This is hardly a radical new idea: we know that men are more likely to experience violence, and always have been. Despite this, neo-feminists have chosen to cherry-pick evidence to fit their “massive systemic misogyny” narrative. In other words, it isn’t that women are being targeted: it’s just that women are considered weaker and less capable of handling things that should be the preserve of men. This is, of course, not a feminist message at all: gender equality was once the core thing that feminists believed in, and the infantilisation of women was frowned upon. But from the 80s onward, the feminist movement has become ever more conservative in its attitudes, to the extent that it now largely opposes feminist positions from the 1960s. 1960s feminists argued that women were capable of handling any situation that men could. 2016 feminists disagree.
The neo-feminist view of women, while being nothing like the second-wave feminist view, is remarkably similar to the Victorian one. In Victorian times, women were considered to be frail creatures, prone to “hysteria”, “lunacy” and prone to fainting. Thus, they could not possibly be expected to handle gender equality. Since the Women’s Lib era, there have been frequent campaigns by conservatives to put women back in their place. What has changed is that now, the conservatives are on the political left, and call themselves feminists. The old forces that resisted gender equality – such as the Tory Party and the Daily Mail – have been replaced by new ones, including the Labour Party and the Guardian.
As demonstrated by violence statistics and the Demos study of online abuse, the feminist claim that women suffer more abuse than men is simply false. This is a huge problem for a movement whose single message is that women are “oppressed” by “patriarchy” and “structural misogyny”. Quite simply, if there did exist widespread hate of women by men, then women would suffer more violence and online abuse than men, not less.
And now, enter the Guardian to save the day. Last week, the paper published its own study into online abuse, and unlike any previous study, it found that women were, indeed, more likely to be victims. The study (and accompanying daily drumbeat of moral panic) was chillingly titled “The Web We Want” (“we”, meaning Oxbridge-educated Guardian journalists). Here was the Guardian in campaign mode, pretending to be publishing news but in reality whipping up a Daily Mail-esque moral panic over free speech:
“…along with online camaraderie, the vituperative modes of interaction took hold: bullying, shaming and intimidation… For women it frequently assumes a particularly violent and sexualised form, sometimes extending to public rape threats; for ethnic minorities it is often racist.”
In a nutshell, here is the methodology of the conservative left: attack free expression, but using left-wing language. Don’t say “Christian family values are under threat”, say “OMG people are being sexist, racist and homophobic! We must stop them!”
But it is, indeed, puzzling that the Guardian’s findings overturn conventional wisdom. Puzzling that is, until the methodology is examined: it is simply laughable. The explanation is packed with irrelevant technical detail (they used Postgres database software, and wrote scripts in Perl – so what?) which apparently is only included to distract the reader from the important bit. The entire article contains one useful, and very revealing, sentence:
“In our analysis we took blocked comments as an indicator of abuse and/or disruption”
So the reasoning is entirely circular, and hugely dishonest. Guardian moderators, acting (one presumes) under Guardian policy, block posts they subjectively consider to be sexist, racist and homophobic. They then examine the blocked posts and (shock horror!) discover they are largely sexist, racist and homophobic. The newspaper is guilty of the worst sort of misinformation: making a headline claim and then providing small print that doesn’t back it.
This is far from being the Guardian’s first campaign for censorship – it has actively campaigned for porn, “sexualised” imagery and (black) music videos to be censored. But this is the broadest attack so far, targeting the very basis of online free speech. Furthermore, the moral panic is obviously carefully planned and orchestrated, with day-by-day updates. Unsurprisingly, a Labour voice has now joined the campaign, with an Orwellian call by Yvette Cooper for “greater monitoring of online harassment”. Labour MP John Mann is already on record as calling for internet bans on “trolls”: crushing people’s right to speak out if the authorities consider them unsavoury. The implications for controversial political speech are profound.
Little of this could fly in America, where free speech has been protected since 1789. But speech in Britain has no such protection, and so (as predicted by George Orwell in 1984) is a soft touch for “nice” censorship, designed by a paternalistic state to protect us from ourselves.
My book Porn Panic!, which documents sexual prudery, the decline of the progressive left, and the rise of a new fascism, is now available for pre-order on Amazon UK and Amazon US.
The new Kiddle Search Engine is ‘protecting’ teenagers from learning about sex, sexuality and the human body.
Readers of this blog will be aware that attempts at anti-sex censorship are usually dressed up as ‘child protection’. You might remember, for example, the ‘porn filters‘ that were rolled out by ISPs to protect the little dears from all that horrible pornography; yet in practise blocked everything from sex education to drug information and self-harm support: things that are vital for teenagers to access.
Again, the current government consultation on ‘protecting children online’ is actually aimed at preventing everyone – including adults – from accessing porn that doesn’t comply with UK censorship laws.
In short: when you hear ‘online child protection’, you can expect the exact opposite: defining teens as ‘children’ and then blocking access to vital information and resources is NOT protection: it’s abuse.
So when the new ‘child protection’ search engine from Kiddle turned up, I was suspicious. And, it turns out, rightly so. As Jane Fae writes in Gay Star News (link below), the search engine believes that any terms related to homosexuality are unacceptable. This is not accidental. Searching for ‘LGBT’, for example, returns:
“You have entered an LGBT related search query. Please realize that while Kiddle has nothing against the LGBT community, it’s hard to guarantee the safety of all the search results for such queries. We recommend that you talk to your parent or guardian about such topics”
But the restrictions aren’t confined to gay or trans issues. Searching for ‘breast cancer’ returns:
“Oops, looks like your query contained some bad words. Please try again!”
We live in a country so determined to stop teens seeing nipples that they can’t learn about breast cancer. This isn’t child protection: if a young person is old enough to search for LGBT information, they’re old enough to read the results. To tell a young person exploring their sexuality to “talk to your parent or guardian” is beyond insensitive.
When attacks on civil liberties are announced by governments, they are usually sold under the guise of “tackling terrorism” or “protecting children”. Today, we have an example of the latter.
The UK government today announced the start of a consultation on protecting children from the insidious effects of online pornography. This might seem a little like Groundhog Day to many observers, who have repeatedly seen British porn laws and regulations added and extended over the years, always to “protect children”.
So, it turns out, all of the previous exercises in child protection weren’t enough. Now we need yet more action, since (unsurprisingly) companies based outside of the UK are ignoring our regulations. Since the UK is the only country in the world to implement such a ludicrously large raft of anti-porn laws, this is hardly surprising.
The latest proposals are to implement a new law that can be used to attack those naughty foreign porn sites that ignore the UK’s (pointless) age verification regulations (in other words, all the porn sites in the world). The planned means of attack will to cut off UK revenue streams to porn services, via pressure on services such as payment providers and advertising companies. It is not made clear whether hosting companies or ISPs will also be targeted.
According to research (Kendall), porn use among 15-19 year olds is responsible for a decline in rape among that age-group; yet this is the very group to which the government seeks to switch off access (the government considers everyone under 18 to be a ‘child’ when it comes to pornography).
The document also claims that only 100 sites constitute 77% of UK porn traffic; yet it fails to make the obvious point that if these 100 were somehow blocked, users would move to other sites. So the regulator would have to target another 100, then another 100, and so on. In fact, there are many millions of porn sites (not to mention millions of others that are not pornographic, but which the UK government considers unsuitable for children anyway).
Sex & Censorship will, of course, be submitting a response to this consultation, and begin a campaign of public education to demonstrate how dishonest – not to mention dangerous – this government’s anti-porn campaigns are. We call on supporters to also submit your own responses.
Readers are also asked to consider donating to this campaign – even just a few pounds/euros/dollars can help – to support our work. Think of it as an investment to protect your right to watch free porn.
This Tuesday I appeared on a panel at the National Theatre to debate pornography and its cultural impacts. Joining me in the red corner was the feminist porn producer and performer Pandora Blake. In the blue corner were Heather Brunskell-Evans of Resist Porn Culture (an apparently new anti-porn group; don’t we have enough?) and Kate Smurthwaite, the comedian, writer and anti-sex feminist activist.
It wasn’t the easiest of debates; not because of the subject matter, but because of some heckling from the anti-porn speakers and certain members of the audience (Pandora recognised at least one audience member from other events – there were clearly a number of activists in attendance). This gives reassurance: when one has evidence and reason on one’s side, heckling is unnecessary.
Of course, nobody ever admits they’re anti-sex, for obvious reasons: if you’re trying to get people on-board with an anti-porn message, looking like a fundamentalist doesn’t help your cause. So when I chose to talk about the anti-sex, rather than anti-porn movement, my choice of words was questioned. In attempting to answer (I was cut off more than once), I pointed out that Smurthwaite, appearing in an anti-porn guise at this event, is a supporter of a variety of other, puritanical causes. I had printed out a tweet of hers in preparation for the event; when I tried to read it, Smurthwaite shouted over me, and threatened to walk out if I read it (I backed down – which I regret, in hindsight).
So here is the tweet which Smurthwaite (@Cruella1) was so determined should not be heard:
@gingerrobbers is a stripper, and as I interpret the above, Smurthwaite is blaming her choice of career for women being raped.
This is, of course, a disgusting thing to say, and surprising from a feminist, since it blames rape on women’s behaviour, rather than on rapists. It’s also a lie: there is no evidence that strip clubs and other forms of sexual expression cause men to commit rape.
Blaming sexual expression (and thus, women who undress in public) for rape has always been a feature of anti-sex feminism. Catharine Mackinnon, an American pioneer of anti-sex feminism, actually went so far as to suggest that a rapist/murderer should be freed, and instead the porn industry put on trial, because he had watched porn prior to committing the crime, and so was not responsible for his actions.
It also demonstrates that the ‘anti-porn’ label is misleading. I have never encountered an anti-porn feminist who is not also anti-striptease, anti-prostitution, or anti-sexual expression that goes far beyond what most people would consider pornographic.
It is for this reason that the anti-sex campaigner Gail Dines coined the term ‘pornification’, which is popular today in the anti-sex movement. It is designed to imply that all sexual expression, however soft, is somehow pornographic in origin and intent, and so proof of the insidious influence of porn across our culture. Thus, Beyoncé music videos, Page 3 of the Sun, sun cream adverts and lads’ mags are all examples of ‘pornification’… created by the river, the torrent, the TSUNAMI of filth that (they say) bombards us on a daily basis.
So if a person attacks every possible known instance of sexual expression as harmful and dangerous, how could they not be anti-sex? I have always wanted to ask Dines, Smurthwaite and their colleagues in the Porn Panic industry to explain what expression of sexuality they would find acceptable; perhaps a Ministry of Smurthwaite could be established to approve erotica that – according to the puritans – does not demean, degrade, objectify or otherwise ‘harm’ women. One suspects it would be a small, sad and sexless library of content.
So I don’t apologise for referring to such types as anti-sex rather than simply anti-porn. I use the term with care.
The Porn Panic – my name for the rising tide of scaremongering against sexual expression over the past decade – has followed familiar paths. As religion has declined in this country, so pseudo-science has risen to take its place. Attacks on normal sexual behaviours, once wrapped in biblical terminology, have evolved in step with the new, “enlightened”, times.
Sexuality may be impossible to switch off, but fear and guilt can be instilled to stigmatise and control sexual behaviours. Once it’s branded abnormal, a sexual behaviour can be attacked and suppressed, all in the name of helping the victim. In this way, “medical conditions” ranging from nymphomania to homosexuality have been attacked, stigmatised, and then turned into profit-making vehicles for peddlers of cures.
As already outlined on this blog by psychologist Dr David Ley, porn addiction is at the very least a dubious concept. But this has not stopped the media from promoting the condition as a genuine one. In recent months, the Porn Panic appears to have swung from a primarily feminist attack on sexual expression (under the “objectification” banner) to a pseudo-medical one.
A particularly blatant example appeared recently on the BBC’s yoof-news channel Newsbeat, where a young man’s “cure” from porn addiction was trumpeted without a shred of scepticism. The story was based on a self-diagnosis by a 23 year old who had found that his “porn addiction” was leading him to watch “pornographic content that disturbed him” – although the nature of the content wasn’t revealed. The article then introduced an expert, Robert Hudson, who said:
“The first thing we ask them to do is stop masturbating for 90 days”
This sounded familiar: masturbation-as-sin has been a target for centuries, and has long been stigmatised under a variety of pretexts. It has only been in the Internet age that much of the stigma has been lifted, and people have felt more free to admit that they, too are wankers. It is now well known that masturbation is good for both physical and mental health; we also know that it is an outlet for pent-up sexual frustration. This advice seemed deeply troubling to me, so I approached Dr Ley for his thoughts, and he agreed:
“It’s disturbing to me when people recommend giving up masturbation for 90 days. I always wonder how they treat “oxygen addiction?” Should I give up breathing for 90 minutes?”
“The sad fact is that teenagers and teenage boys especially, need lots of support to understand, talk about and express their sexual feelings. We don’t allow that, so these young men go to porn instead. Blaming problems on porn is like blaming Fast and Furious movies for a speeding ticket. Society has a responsibility to teach people about sexual health, and sadly, we’ve neglected that responsibility.
Porn isn’t addictive: excessive use of porn reflects libido, sexual shame, and an inability to understand and discuss one’s private sexual desires. When we allow young men and women to safely discuss and express their sexual needs, even those we are afraid of, this pseudoscientific concept of “porn addiction” will vanish.” [My highlight]
But cures for porn- and sex-addiction are rising in popularity, with the help of promotion from the BBC and others. Just as “gay cures” became popular in those parts of the US where homosexuality was not widely accepted, so today normal sexual feelings in young people are stigmatised as an illness; and once an illness is deemed to exist, remedies can be sold, and money can be made.
But selling cures for fake ailments isn’t just harmless profiteering. Research has found (HuffPo link) that people with sexual hang-ups (in particular, religious people) are more likely to self-diagnose as “addicted”. In fact, perceived addiction is not related to the amount of porn viewed, but to the levels of guilt felt by the viewer. Furthermore, the research suggests that a belief one suffers from porn addiction can itself be harmful:
“Regardless of whether porn addiction is “real,” Grubbs and his co-authors note that perceived addiction has been linked to several real elements of psychological distress, such as depression, compulsive behavior and anxiety.”
It seems the NSPCC are not alone. The anti-sex morality group (sorry, I mean “feminist human rights organisation” or whatever they are calling themselves this week) Object has commissioned a poll on porn.
Faced with a complete lack of evidence that can link porn with violence or other harm, Object have cut out the science and gone straight to the public.
Do serious researchers think that porn causes violence? No. Does the public? According to this poll (which we’re sure was carried out to impeccably high standards), 64% say Yes. Worryingly, only 2% don’t know. And a very sensible 1% refused to answer.
So we’re carrying out our own “scientific” poll here:
Do you think that hatred of sex and sexuality is caused by:
a) Genuine fear that it is harmful,
b) A twisted and hateful view of humanity,
c) Badly fitting underwear?
Please answer in the comments section below or send us an email. We’re sure the mass media will be fascinated to publish our results.
Alternatively, please donate to our campaign to help us continue to oppose this dangerous moral panic, which is aimed at creating a case for Internet censorship.
For about five years, I’ve tracked state plans to introduce mandatory Internet censorship under the guise of “protecting children from pornography”, and for the past 18 months or so, I’ve documented these activities on this blog. This drive to censorship has been backed by carefully orchestrated scaremongering about children being “harmed” by pornography by an alliance of government regulators, religious moralists and anti-sex feminists. Most recently (and disturbingly) the child-protection charity NSPCC joined the party, with a deeply unscientific piece of market research.
In 2010, a new regulator, ATVOD, was created to regulate UK video-on-demand providers. ATVOD has focused almost all its efforts on closing down UK-based porn businesses that don’t comply with extremely stringent age-verification controls.
ATVOD has devoted its own resources to lobbying for more powers for itself, complaining that no other country has implemented the same controls, and thus UK citizens are still able to access pornography overseas (or in other words, they’re complaining that no other government has the same prudish and panic-prone view of pornography as ours).
In December 2014, a new law was introduced, banning online pornography that exceeds the BBFC’s strict R18 rating. Sadly, many pro-porn campaigners got distracted by controls on squirting and BDSM, and missed the bigger picture – as I wrote in December, “well over 99% of the world’s [adult] websites are now technically illegal here in the UK”.
The last, inevitable step is to introduce mandatory website blocking of the vast majority of adult content worldwide that does not comply with the UK’s puritanical regulations.
This new law would empower an “independent regulator” (almost certainly ATVOD) to ensure that non-compliant material will be blocked. The result would be the blocking of millions of sites to ALL UK citizens. Although this march to censorship has been done in the name of child protection, there will be no official way for UK adults to access porn outside of the UK (although technical workarounds such as Tor will be easy enough to implement).
Based on the experience so far with the optional “porn filter” (which blocks far more than pornography), we can be certain that this new mass-blocking of websites will encompass far more than porn. Indeed, the government has already signalled a desire to block “extremist” sites – whatever they might be, and media corporations have long lobbied for blocking of pirated content. If implemented, this law puts the power of Internet censorship into the hands of a non-governmental body, and certainly marks the end of an open Internet for UK citizens.
Shamefully, these plans have been backed by certain porn companies, both British and American, which see a commercial advantage to the blocking of their competitors.
Finally, the end-game of the Porn Panic has arrived: now the task of building a broad movement for free speech begins. This was never about pornography.
If you want to attract mass support for a dodgy cause, the trick is to sound eminently reasonable. Extremists tend to alienate most people, including those that are inclined to agree with them. If you have extreme objectives, the important thing is to deny them vociferously, however implausible the denial. Remember that most of your supporters don’t pay close attention to the detail: it’s the presentation that counts.
The far-right know this. The British National Party abruptly switched from an anti-Asian message to an anti-Muslim one within days of 9/11. Their target (working class Pakistani communities) hadn’t changed, but the presentation had. Similarly the English Defence League, eager to avert accusations of fascism, tried to show how pro-Jewish they were by carrying Israeli flags on their protests. “You see,” they were saying, “how can we be Nazis when we love Israel so much?” (although their supporters didn’t always get the message).
The anti-sex movement has had similar presentational problems. The powerful campaigner Mary Whitehouse had become widely mocked by the younger generation by the end of the 20th century. The new generation could no longer be convinced that enjoying and flaunting their sexuality was a bad thing. It seemed that the fear of sex had become a thing of a more prudish past.
The Whitehouse style of moral outrage gave way to a new presentation, re-wrapped in feminist terms. The new anti-sex movement talked in terms of objectification rather than decency or permissiveness, and tried to demonstrate that sexual expression was harmful to women, and thus censorship could be justified in the name of feminism. But beyond the realm of student unions and Guardian comment pages, anti-sex feminists suffered from the same problems that had afflicted Whitehouse: they were seen as prudish, humourless and ideological.
The biggest problem with building a popular anti-sex movement is that most people like sex. Trying to ban all visible displays of sexuality is unlikely to attract mass support, especially when the reasoning (“OMG Objectification, Sexualisation and RAPE CULTURE!!!”) is so easy to pick apart, given the chance for debate.
The problem is one of presentation. Just as the far right was forced to adopt a “we’re not racist, but…” approach, so the anti-sex movement had to learn to to be more subtle than repeating “porn is rape”. A soft target for censorship had to be found – one that attracted little sympathy. Enter No More Page 3.
The success of the No More Page 3 campaign has been based on two decisions: first, to pick the widely-hated Murdoch-owned Sun newspaper as the target for censorship; and second, to deny that their blatantly anti-sex, pro-censorship campaign was either anti-sex or pro-censorship. The first move was smart; the second took sheer brass nerve, reminiscent of Saddam Hussein’s Information Minister Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf (aka Comical Ali), who famously claimed Iraq was winning the war, against a backdrop of invading American troops.
As well as nerve, denying the obvious with a straight face takes a good deal of PR expertise and media training, and NMP3 clearly has no shortage of such resources. In politics, most people follow the voice they like, not the one with reasoned argument, and the nice ladies of NMP3 have fashioned themselves an image as the Women’s Institute of the anti-sex movement (though of course, they’re NOT anti-sex). They have successfully formed a broad church ranging from middle-English Christians and girl guides to various strands of feminism and the puritan left.
Last week, my long-held ambition to meet NMP3 came to fruition, when I was invited to debate the issue against a NMP3 representative at Loughborough University. The NMP3 “argument” is almost identical to the anti-porn one that I’ve found so easy to overturn in numerous debates; the big difference is that NMP3 caveat everything they say with “But we’re not anti-sex, we only care about Page 3”.
Thus: Naked models “objectify women” BUT ONLY WHEN THEY’RE ON PAGE 3! WE LOVE PORN!; Bare female breasts contribute to a culture of misogyny and sexism BUT ONLY WHEN THEY’RE ON PAGE 3! WE LOVE BOOBS! And so on…
It’s all so silly, one should laugh; except that 250,000 people have signed a petition on the back of this nonsense, and various public figures, including MPs, have supported the campaign.
The debate itself felt like some combination of Alice Through the Looking Glass and Orwell’s 1984. Bianca, the NMP3 representative, seemed to be treating the occasion as though she were a government minister, sent to appear on Newsnight to defend a policy she didn’t really agree with. So, for example, when I questioned whether she really didn’t have a problem with sexual imagery in general (for example, lads’ mags), she simply refused to answer, saying that her own views were irrelevant, and she had come to represent the official position of NMP3. When I pushed the issue, she embarked on a long, skilled and off-topic ramble of the type that Jeremy Paxman is so often forced to deal with.
Again, asked why NMP3 appears to have strong links with anti-sex organisations and individuals, the response was one of faux outrage: To label NMP3 anti-sex was totally unjustified! (Although I hadn’t actually done that). Yet she refused to provide any clarity as to why NMP3 mingles with anti-sex campaigners when it is a pro-sex organisation. Questioned as to why NMP3 attended the extremist Stop Porn Culture conference in London, she simply denied that they were anti-porn, but didn’t clarify why they had attended. Surely if an “anti-racist” had attended a BNP conference, they would at least have a case to answer.
I was genuinely impressed, and somewhat thrown, by the skilled use of doublespeak. When I pointed out the the lack of any research evidence linking Page 3 with harm against women, Bianca announced that NMP3 have never claimed Page 3 was harmful! And as I tried to stop myself falling off my chair, she then embarked on a speech listing instances of harm caused by Page 3: body image problems, a culture of sexism, and so on. So no evidence of harm, but lots of harm. Who needs evidence when you just know, deep in your heart, that it’s wrong? Again, doublespeak was much in evidence when dealing with the issue of censorship: NMP3 is definitely NOT in favour of banning anything, explained Bianca, before proudly stating that 33 student unions, with the support of NMP3, had voted not to allow sales of the Sun on campus. But – I questioned – isn’t that a ban? No, she replied, because NMP3 don’t call for legislation. The Sun isn’t banned from those 33 campuses. It’s simply not sold because the student unions voted to – er …. No, not ban it! Simply prevent it from being sold. There’s a word for that kind of thing… it’s on the tip of my tongue.
Similar wordplay is in evidence whenever NMP3 talk about their goals. They don’t want to censor anything! They simply want the Sun to remove Page 3 so people can’t see it any more. I was ultimately reduced to suggesting the attendees should look up the words “ban” and “censor” in a dictionary, as well as read 1984, to get an understanding for how skilled NMP3’s abuse of the English language was. Dictionary.com provides this definition of censor: “anypersonwhosupervisesthemannersormoralityofothers”… and what could better describe a mob of non-Sun readers trying to dictate what Sun readers can look at?
The debate ended with a stereotypical, and comical, student-leftie discussion about “capitalism”: It’s outrageous, claimed a speaker, that Rupert Murdoch is profiting from women! Ignoring the fact that “profit from women” happens anywhere that women choose to work, from banking to sport to journalism to… well, everything. The only solution to this horrible exploitation would be to ban all women from working! And although that may sound snarky, it reveals a truth about much that is said in the name of feminism these days: many self-declared feminists are working to reverse, not defend, the gains of the Women’s Lib movement.
No More Page 3 is establishing a dangerous pro-censorship precedent: that there are cases (or one case, anyway) where imagery of women must be suppressed for the wider good of all decent women and girls. It’s an old, moralistic viewpoint with a new twist. That precedent being established, where would the anti-sex, anti-woman witch-hunt end?