This Thursday 14th May, I was involved in a debate at Cambridge Union: This House Regrets Pornography. Of course, due to lockdown, it actually took place live online. There were three speakers on each side. I appeared along with US ex-pornstar and activist Ela Darling, and British performer Epiphany Jones.
The adult industry journal XBIZ carries a report of the debate, and the video itself can be seen at YouTube. The video starts with an 8 minute intro, then launches into the debate. My contribution begins about 36:44.
I take part in these debates because I passionately believe in individual freedom and am concerned about the erosion of civil liberties. If you’d like to support my work against censorship and repression, you can become a patron for $1 per month (and get goodies).
I’m now publishing audio versions of my long-read articles. These are initially available only to people who support me via Patreon. You can support me – and help me in my campaigning work against censorship and sexual repression – from just $1 a month.
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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This week, we learned that Ofcom is to be given censorship powers over social media and other web sites. This is merely the latest attempt by the regulator/censor to take control of online content.
For some years, this blog has covered attempts by the British state to censor the Internet. The original cover story for implementing this was an age verification system to ‘protect children from porn’. While this sounded reasonable on the surface, this idea required the state to be given the power to block websites that did not comply to the rules. And this required the creation of a state Internet censor with broad powers to block content. After spending more than a decade pursuing this goal, the government pulled the plug on the whole scheme last October; I explained the decision and the background here. In a later twist, the age verification industry announced last month that it is suing the government for cancelling the plans.
Behind the scenes, Ofcom has been lobbying hard. While Ofcom combines many roles and powers over the media and communications, of greatest concern (to me, at least) is its role as television censor. Not only does the regulator enforce tight controls over content broadcast in the UK, but it actually writes its own censorship rules. This effectively gives Ofcom the power to write British law without consulting Parliament, which is an astonishing amount of power for an unelected body to hold. And not only does Ofcom get to decide what is ‘illegal’, but it can issue huge fines to anyone who breaches its ‘laws’. Ofcom is thus judge, jury and executioner.
Broadcasters can be fined hundreds of thousands of pounds for breaching the Ofcom censorship code. Naturally, the end result is that British broadcasters self-censor in order to avoid the risk of being fined. The regime disproportionately affects smaller broadcasters, many of whom could barely afford a fine at this level.
Unsurprisingly, Ofcom’s censorship power is seen by many as a threat to civil liberties. Even David Cameron, in 2009 before he became Prime Minister, promised to cut Ofcom’s powers, and in particular to remove its undemocratic ability to write policy. Once he had been elected, however, his plans sank without trace.
The new announcement, in which Ofcom was officially put in charge of regulating the Internet, was widely expected. Few anti-censorship campaigners had believed that October’s announcement was a full-scale victory for free speech. The regulator will be given the power to fine sites that fail to deal adequately with two types of content: illegal and “harmful”. In the case of illegal content, Ofcom will check that sites act quickly to take down content which is criminalised, from terrorist propaganda to child abuse imagery.
Harmful content is harder to define, because it refers to content that is legal to publish, but might breach sites’ own standards. There is a long list of content categories potentially considered harmful, including sexual, nude or erotic content, violent content, information related to self-harm or suicide, and of course, the ethereal and ever-expanding category of “hate speech”.
Deciding what is harmful is very much a subjective decision, and will vary from site to site. Readers might remember the hilarity that ensued when – encouraged by the government – many ISPs rolled out parental control filters in 2013. The filters blocked all sorts of sites that did not appear to be in any way harmful, from the Liberal Democrats’ LGBT site to this blog. I still often receive messages complaining that Sex & Censorship is inaccessible from some places. This eventually mattered little, as most broadband customers simply switched their filters off anyway.
While Facebook may have the resources to police its user-generated content, most sites do not. Any site that accepts comments (for example, this one, as well as most news services), or hosts a forum, will likely be covered by the legislation. It is unclear, in any detail, who might be affected, and how. But one things is certain: Ofcom censorship of the Internet is set to become a reality.
Just as with the now-defunct Porn Block, we are at risk of being bounced into disproportionate and draconian action based on poorly-defined ‘harms’ and moral panics. Although it is easy to be swept up by carefully-orchestrated panics over hate speech, self-harm, bullying and other important issues, it is important that we do not allow the state to use these concerns to encroach on free speech.
A woman is standing trial in Utah for being topless in front of her her stepchildren, in her own home. Although she argued that Utah’s lewdness law is unconstitutional, the judge has disagree and so her trial continues. Read more...
Recently, there has been a disturbing rise in antisemitic incidents emanating from certain black nationalist groups, especially the Black Hebrew Israelites. These have included assaults in London, and the shooting of three people at a kosher supermarket in New Jersey. My latest article, at Areo Magazine, looks at the history of these movements, and wonders whether the anti-racist left is capable of challenging such ideologies.
I wrote this piece for Poliquads, a Canadian site. In it, I outlined the background to the UK general election, in terms of three populist earthquakes that have gripped the UK over the past few years.
In the space of five years, Britain’s two main parties have been transformed from pro-EU, pro-migration, pro-trade positions to populist, anti-EU forces. The Tories are now openly hostile towards migration, and even historically pro-immigration Labour is now split in a struggle over the issue, with regular flip-flops in position over whether it supports free movement of European workers.
Yesterday, Ofcom circulated a confidential email to broadcasters signalling its intention to increase the strength of its censorship regime. This has been provided anonymously to Sex & Censorship, and is published in the public interest.
Ofcom is better known as the UK’s media and communications regulator, but it is also the UK’s media censor. It is hugely powerful and well funded, formed by the merger of multiple earlier regulators covering various sectors of TV and radio. It has always applied ludicrously stringent censorship, often driven by compaints from a handful of individuals, and it throws out huge fines for the smallest of infringements. Its power began to be eroded by the rise of the internet, broadband, and streaming services, but it has long signalled that it intends to extend it remit over all forms of communication.
Ofcom not only censors the British media, but actually writes its own censorship policy – surely something that should be done by government with parliamentary oversight, rather than an unelected body. British (small-L) liberals have long worried about Ofcom’s power. David Cameron, possibly the most liberal of all Tory leaders, signalled his intention to drastically reduce Ofcom’s power before the 2010 election. Presumably, his wrist was slapped by the establishment, and his pledge was never heard of again.
Yesterday’s email reads as follows:
From: Ofcom Standards Team <OfcomStandardsTeam@ofcom.org.uk> Sent: 18 November 2019 Subject: Note to Broadcasters – Daytime chat and adult chat television services
The note reminds broadcasters of daytime chat and adult chat services of Ofcom’s guidance in this area and puts these broadcasters on notice that it will be commencing a targeted monitoring exercise of these services. [my highlight]
Standards and Audience Protection team
The linked document is worth reading, because it gives an insight into the tight level of monitoring to which broadcasters are subject. Ofcom has the power to levy fines of hundreds of thousands of pounds, without recourse to the courts. For smaller broadcasters (and streaming companies), these would be impossible to bear. Broadcasters have no option but to tightly self-censor, or be put out of business.
As an afterthought, consider in this context the Labour Party’s recently announced plans for a state-owned, free broadband service. It is unimaginable that the government-run broadband service would allow this to function like a normal ISP that allows full access to the internet, including sexual material or open discussion of difficult issues related to race, sexuality or gender. Given the Tories’ recent attempts to censor the internet, I am deeply distrustful of both major parties with regard to civil liberties, and am keeping my fingers crossed for a hung Parliament.
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)
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