A feminist campaign against Tyler the Creator, a hip hop artist, led to Theresa May banning him from touring the UK.
One of the core themes of my book Porn Panic! is the way in which feminism has become a force for censorship. While pro-censorship feminism began decades ago by attacking pornography as ‘misogynistic’, its scope has since broadened significantly. Now, any expression that might be labelled as misogynistic, or offensive to women, becomes a valid target for censorship.
One of the most shocking recent examples of feminism-as-censorship was the ban (by the then Home Secretary, Theresa May) on a popular hip hop artist, Tyler the Creator, from the UK. The following is an extract from Porn Panic!:
… The next ban of an ‘unsuitable foreigner’ was a breathtakingly pointless piece of cultural (and probably racial) bullying. Tyler the Creator, a young, black American hip hop artist was barred from the UK (where he had been planning to tour) in August 2015. The basis of the ban was that he had written and performed misogynistic and homophobic lyrics several years earlier, at the age of 18. There could have been no serious suggestion that Tyler was any kind of threat to anyone – especially since his lyrics were no longer of the crude kind that had once caused offence. But now, his mere physical presence was deemed to be a significant enough problem that he should be barred from entering the country.
The smell of witch-hunt was again in the air. Some primitive human fear instinct had elevated a young man who had once penned some unpleasant words to the status of kryptonite; merely being in his presence might turn young British men into violent rapists and homophobes! The ‘rape culture’ meme came into play. While rape is measurable, rape culture is not. It is the superstitious idea that rape somehow hangs in the air and infects people like a virus. Carriers must be quarantined.
The hand of pro-censorship feminism was again visible. Collective Shout, an Australian feminist group with a history of anti-porn campaigning, had already successfully petitioned to have Tyler banned from Australia based on his lyrics and alleged bad behaviour. The British ban merely rubber-stamped the earlier Australian decision. Where have all the racists gone? Leftward. They appear to have realised that lynching a black man is no longer OK; unless you first label him a misogynist. Then it’s fine.
Hip hop has long been a proxy for racism. It is a black artform that has lasted decades and grown from strength to strength. Although a creation of New York City, it encapsulates the African excellence in rhythmic, spoken word performance. It has elevated poetry to new heights and become the world’s most widely-adopted musical form, in every language. It is common to hear hip hop dismissed in its entirety as ‘cRap’ (geddit?) This makes no more sense than to dismiss all poetry, or all guitar music. Hip hop infuriates because it represents a global triumph of something uniquely African.
Small, forgettable events like the inexplicable travel ban on a young American man are litmus tests for our political system and societal attitudes. Our culture does not appear to be in a good place right now.
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.
Nick Cowen is a PhD student, who has recently published an academic paper on Millian Liberalism and Extreme Pornography. In this, he argues that apparently ‘liberal’ justifications for banning ‘extreme porn’ in the UK are misguided. The Sex & Censorship campaign agrees: trying to justify censorship from a liberal perspective is a contradiction in terms. Below, Nick explains his argument in brief. His full paper can be downloaded here.
In August 2012, Simon Walsh, a prominent lawyer and former aide to London mayor Boris Johnson, was prosecuted for possession of ‘extreme pornography’. The alleged crime was possessing digital photographs depicting ‘fisting’ and ‘urethral sounding’ taken at a private all-male sex party where Walsh was a participant.
The prosecution claimed that the acts depicted were extreme because they could cause serious harm. The jury heard expert evidence from a surgeon that the acts, which are relatively commonly practiced within the LGBT community, could be conducted safely. It took the jury just a few minutes of deliberation to reject all charges.
Despite the ‘not guilty’ verdict, the trial came at personal cost to Walsh. Intimate details of his sex life were exposed in a public forum. Moreover, the Crown Prosecution Service continues to argue that the grounds for prosecution were sound and that the images were ‘extreme’, leaving open the possibility of continued prosecutions. This suggests a particular legal vulnerability for gay men and other sexual minorities. This is a perverse result for a law that was originally intended to address violence against women.
The British government banned extreme pornography in 2008. There are now more than 1000 prosecutions a year in the United Kingdom. We know comparatively little about the circumstances of most cases, possibly because, unlike Walsh, most defendants accept a sanction to avoid public attention and the greater risk of a prison sentence.
Prosecution statistics indicate that many cases involve depictions of bestiality. While bestiality raises real concerns with animal cruelty, many images may amount to harmless (if poor taste) jokes. For example, one failed prosecution in Wales involved possession of an image of a man having sex with a woman while wearing a tiger costume.
I argue that this approach to regulating pornography is disproportionate to any notional public benefit, and cannot plausibly protect women’s interests or improve their social status. My article highlights some illiberal aspects of the ban. First, ‘extreme’ is defined in terms of what the image appears to depict, rather than any actual harm done in creating the image. This means that records of acts safely performed by consenting adults can nevertheless be criminalised. Second, the law bans possession, not publication. This means that the law respects no boundary between private and public, and does not consider the context in which an image is found or displayed.
These features would have a strong chance of rendering such a ban unconstitutional on first amendment grounds if the law were passed in the United States. It is somewhat less clear whether it infringes European human rights law. Regardless of where positive law stands, I argue that liberal defences of privacy and free expression extend to extreme pornography.
I argue instead that images used to expose or harass individuals (or ‘revenge porn’) are legitimately prohibited. On my account, consent to view or be depicted should be the key test of legality, a test that the current definition of ‘extreme pornography’ sadly ignores.
It’s a whole year since the London face-sitting porn protest, organised by sex worker activist Charlotte Rose, made global news. The protest was held in response to a new law, AVMS 2014, which heavily restricted which porn could be legally sold by UK businesses. I explained the implications on this blog,
This Saturday at midday, we will gather outside Parliament again to protest. Last year’s law was the last straw for many of the remnants of the British porn industry, and many people have closed their businesses.
But it was just the beginning. The significant law isn’t the last one, but the next one. The bans introduced last year didn’t prevent providers outside the UK streaming their content to British consumers. The ultimate aim of the censorship machine is to create a mechanism for blocking non-UK sites that breach UK standards of ‘decency’. This won’t just apply to porn, but to many categories of content – as we discovered when the ‘porn filters’ were introduced two years ago.
I expect an attempt to introduce Internet censorship in 2016. In fact, one attempt is currently in the House of Lords: the Online Safety Bill.
This is the year to join the protest – please come along on Saturday if you can.
[Editor’s note: it was with incredulity that I first heard about The Block Bot, a piece of software that automatically blocks Twitter users chosen by the Block Bot team, which has made itself judge, jury and executioner in deciding whose tweets should not be seen. The author of this piece is a law student who has decided to take legal action against the Bot team: read on for details… I encourage readers to support his action – see Go Fund Me link at the bottom.]
The internet is a dynamic place. As a new and increasingly important part of our lives the datasphere has really only existed for a few decades. I remember getting my first ‘proper’ internet email account at University in the late 1990s. It is natural therefore that society is still trying to find the right balance between freedom and regulation.
Society does need to draw lines. I personally draw the line at children, animals, dead people and ‘real’ violence. On the other hand, to invert something a senior Labour Party official once said to me, “There is censorship, and then there is taking the f***ing piss”. The Block Bot falls hard into the latter category.
The Block Bot, for those of you who are unfamiliar with it, is a subscription service to ‘protect’ users of Twitter from ‘harassment’. The Bot project maintains a database of ‘bad’ users of Twitter. When you sign up to the Block Bot it blocks them for you, 24 / 7. Silently and automatically, people are removed from your timeline.
The problems with the Block Bot are twofold –
The first major problem is that whilst it bills itself as protecting people from ‘harassers’ it in fact blocks many people who are merely political opponents of the Block Bot. The small print of the Block Bot project shows it has three levels of iniquity and, whilst the definitions have regularly changed, the current definition for Level 3 is, “This may include, but is not limited to, accounts that appear to frequently engage in microagressions, parrot tired talking points, show a sense of entitlement to have a conversation, exhibit a lack respect for the lived experience of others, etc.”https://archive.is/fVeaM
The Block Bot list contains Professor Richard Dawkins, Beatrix Campbell OBE and at one stage it it even included Barack Obama, although he was eventually removed. Users of the Block Bot are told who is blocked on the sign up page, although as there are around 10,000 usernames to read in tiny print it is infeasible for most people to read it. There are no further mechanisms to notify subscribers of blocks afterwards, although the Block Bot account tweets out the occasional unblock. Individuals have been explicitly added for no better reason than being humanists.
The second major problem is that the Block Bot maintains a database of the alleged ‘offences’ committed by people on the list. Professor Richard Dawkins is listed for (amongst other things) ‘#racist’, ‘#childabuseapologism’. Whilst Dawkins is many things he is neither racist nor a child abuse apologist. Beatrix Campbell OBE is listed on the bot for ‘freazepeach’ (supporting free speech is an offence … to the Block Bot team).
The database has usually been publicly searchable although it has been up and down recently following threats of legal action and its use as a back-end to search software written by opponents.
Silently, political views are removed from the world view of those who use the bot, enclosing them in an echo chamber bubble. At the same time, they will be interacting with the Block Bot team. Its administrators are best described as members of the extreme left – a noxious variation of the Tumblr tendency based around a hard left forum called, ‘Atheism Plus’ who take offence … easily. Members of the community are occasionally made an example of for deviating from the approved line.
It is like joining a kind of ‘stealth’ virtual cult, which rather than physically intern its subscribers in a compound somewhere, mentally interns them in a so-called ‘safe space’ in which dissenting views are excluded and the occasional initiate is dragged screaming from the ‘room’ as a warning to others – deterring anyone from following suit.
The Block Bot is subject to significant rate restrictions. For a new sign up it can only block 1 person per minute. That means that running 24 / 7 it will take a week to complete the initial block list. Existing users are subject to similar restrictions.
The end result is rather unhealthy. An automated online tool, the Block Bot does not rapidly block offenders but instead locks them in a sealed room with its administrators. The echo chamber does not brook dissent and of course the Block Bot team deliberately insulate themselves from complaints, which they regard as ‘harassment’.
All that changed earlier this year. After making a video critical of the Block Bot I was added to the list as a ‘Level 1’, ‘Troll’ and when I served two block bot administrators with letters before action all hell broke loose. Unable to comprehend that there might be other points of view they reported me to the police. The police are under a statutory duty to investigate and initially they did. One police force even served me with a ‘notice of harassment’ allegation. After an investigation that has now been rescinded. The police concluded that my actions were not harassment.
Now the boot is on the other foot. I have started County Court proceedings against Block Bot creator James Billingham, who lives in the UK. Readers will judge for themselves whether it is legal to –
Maintain an ‘offenders’ database and add people for sexual allegations without telling them
Not register the database with the ICO
Make the database searchable online
Write a ‘John Scalzi’ quotes bot to tweet snide remarks at aggrieved persons who contact you instead of having a clearly defined appeals procedure
Answers on a postcard. I am bringing a small claim for £1,000 under the recent ruling versus Google that persons whose data protection rights are breached are entitled to moral damages. In itself that is not enough to bankrupt Billingham or end the Block Bot. However, there are over ten thousand people on the bot. If I win Billingham could be looking at a seven-figure bill. Q – if a tenth of the list, (say 1,000 people) sue for £1,000 damages each, what is the bill if they win?
Litigation is always risky, although I have had three positive second opinions. I am running a Go Fund Me as a way to minimise risks. If you want a laugh, chuck in a £20, would you? If there is any money left at the end it will be spent on a London meet up for members of an anti-censorship, pro-consumer, pro-ethics group called KotakuInAction (free to join).
This week saw draconian policing directed towards the dominatrix listing site, Professional Mistresses (NSFW). There can be little doubt this was done to “send a message”. UK censors seem to have a particular bee in their bonnet about BDSM, and also Twitter, for its defence of free expression, including sexual expression, regularly comes under attack from UK authorities and media.
So it’s not too surprising that last Sunday, the site’s webmaster was arrested at his home, taken to his local police station, and questioned for two hours before being de-arrested. The arrest seemed to have been triggered following a complaint about the site’s tweets being “unsuitable for children”. It should be noted at this point that sending out tweets or any other communication “unsuitable for children” is not illegal! As we know, THINK OF THE CHILDREN is standard fare for people wanting to ban legal things.
The webmaster explained in an email to his list:
“… late on Sunday afternoon, a marked police car attended my property and arrested me. The arrest was made by my local police force who had received a complaint from the Thames Valley police area, due to what they claim were tweets on the Professional Mistress twitter account, that was unsuitable for children (or that’s the excuse they gave). I spent 2 hours being interviewed before being de-arrested…
During the 2 hours, they showed me a couple of examples of tweets, which were just links to promoting mistresses on the site and also a retweet of another mistresses. I made it very clear that there was nothing illegal about my directory site or tweets, but they refused to give me a reason why they felt it was… A brief mention of trafficking was brought up, but I knocked that on the head within minutes, pointing out whilst I vet profiles, in great detail, I am not the “pimp” for those listed on the site.”
Also note the chilling mention of “trafficking”, which has become the standard excuse for anti-prostitution campaigners determined to blur the clear lines between illegal immigration and legal sex work.
Why are police arresting people for non-crimes? It’s unlikely this was an accident or a coincidence, and I also seriously doubt whether the complaint came from an outraged member of the public.
The UK authorities often appear to be outraged that Twitter, a US-based service, and so with its free speech protected by the 1st Amendment to the US Constitution, operates in the UK, where we (sadly) have no legal defences against state censorship. Expect more UK attacks against the BDSM, porn and sex work communities and against users of Twitter, coming soon.
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?
A year ago, the hideous ISP filters came into force. Although they had been sold as “porn filters”, they ended up blocking all sorts of things that had nothing to do with porn, from drug and self-harm information to nudity, even in non-sexual contexts. Initially, there was a spike of public outrage, but quickly the issue fell into the swamp of identity politics. On discovering that various gay and trans sites were blocked, the outrage became about homophobia and transphobia. ISPs moved to quickly unblock sites that had been identified by the press, and the media lost interest. The filters remained in place, and still today, up to 20% of sites are blocked by them. What could have become a broad-based movement for free speech fizzled out.
On Monday, a new law came into place, extending DVD censorship controls on to Internet videos. None of this was new or unexpected. The censorship rules which have caused so much outrage this week have been in place for many years.
The new law – which I explained on this blog – is probably the greatest attack on free expression that the UK has seen since the BBFC was empowered, in 1984, to censor all video works before they could be released. One of the BBFC’s first policy decisions was to ban all explicit sex on video. And so, the UK became one of the few democratic countries whose population was banned from legally buying porn on DVD, until this rule was eventually challenged by the porn industry in 2000. Forced to accept explicit sex acts, the BBFC (along with the police and CPS) clung to as much power as possible, and still refused to approve many, many “niche” sex acts on DVD.
By mid-decade, this barely mattered any more. Broadband Internet connections made DVD increasingly redundant, and likewise the BBFC, which saw its revenues steadily fall. Pete Johnson, a BBFC manager, tried to reverse this decline by introducing the BBFC Online scheme in 2007. But this had no statutory backing, and never took off.
In 2010, Johnson moved from the BBFC to head a new regulator, ATVOD, and (via a complex use/misuse of EU law), was empowered to implement regulations for VoD sites. His first – and only significant – action was to implement onerous age-verification requirements for UK porn sites: rules that were not implemented anywhere else in Europe. As a result, many businesses (including my own) closed, and others (such as Playboy’s UK operation) moved overseas, shedding jobs in the UK.
The new law adds power to ATVOD’s existing regulations, and for the first time, enforces the BBFC’s R18 rules online. This year’s fashion among the new-left has been to label everything sexist: toys are sexist, and computer games are sexist, and that comedian is sexist, and he’s sexist, and you’re sexist, and that tree is sexist… and so of course, by cherry-picking BBFC rules, the new law was also deemed to be sexist. Not a huge step towards Chinese-style Internet censorship that will harm everybody’s right to access information. Sexist.
So yes, it’s true (as well as ludicrous) that female ejaculation – aka squirting – is one of the many acts now banned, and easy to assume this is sexism (since, of course, male ejaculation is still allowed to be seen). In fact, within the BBFC’s reasoning process – which makes sense within its own, screwed-up logic – this makes perfect sense. The powers-that-be have deemed urination in a sexual context to be unacceptable, and since the evidence as to the nature of squirting is still far from conclusive, they have also banned that. Commentators have also complained that gagging on cocks is still approved; but in fact, the BBFC will cut such scenes if they are deemed to be “potentially life-threatening”. And they will allow similar acts to be carried out by a woman with a strap-on. And the ban on face-sitting isn’t an attempt by The Patriarchy to attack female domination, any more than the ban on strangulation of female models is an attack on male domination. The rules may be extremely stupid, but they’re not sexist.
Although the most immediate casualties of the law will be fetish sites, it’s not especially about targeting fetish either – that just happens to be the first thing in the way of the bulldozer. As already mentioned, the BBFC tried as hard to ban “vanilla” sex as it did to ban kink. It’s just that it lost that particular battle in court.
So what is this about? As the name of our campaign suggests, it’s about both Sex and Censorship. It’s odd that almost nobody noticed what actually happened on Monday: well over 99% of the world’s websites are now technically illegal here in the UK. Not because of the R18 thing, but the other part: the one requiring sites to validate a visitor’s age before they’re allowed to see any naughty bit.
There are multiple interests here: anti-sex moralists (of both religious and feminist varieties) who are truly outraged by sex, and want it all banned; vested interests that stand to earn money and power from censorship (ATVOD and the BBFC, for example); and authoritarian interests that are looking to find excuses to block online content. In the latter case, porn is just one of a number of excuses, as are terrorism and copyright theft. Those familiar with Orwell will recognise that the British state, liberal on the surface, is deeply authoritarian beneath.
This week’s public outrage is an opportunity to build the movement for free expression to a new level, and it would be a shame if certain “It’s all about meeeee!” narratives were allowed to distract from that.
The new law is actually a means to an end, not an end in itself. A process that began (suitably) in 1984 is still rolling along. If you would like to support as we build the case against censorship, please join our list or even send a donation, large or small. Next year is going to be “interesting” for the UK, and not in a good way.
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