Tag Archives: free speech

Events Update September 2019

In my campaign to oppose censorship and oppose moral panics, I participate in many media and public events. On Friday, I participated in a debate at Exeter University titled “This House Would Watch Porn”, in front of around 140 students. Myself and Charlotte Rose (sex worker and free speech activist) won the debate easily (we won at least 90% of the vote). Charlotte livestreamed the debate via her phone, on Twitter, and you can watch it here (my speech begins at 5:10 and Charlotte’s around 16:10):

And tomorrow (Monday), I’ll be participating in a ThinkIn event in London for Tortoise Media. Tickets are available here. Please note that I often do these events unpaid, because I care deeply about the corrosive threat from moral panics, and the rising threat of censorship. You can support me by making a small donation at Patreon, or by buying my book, Porn Panic.

Obscenity law liberalised

This is a cross-post from my contribution to the Adam Smith Institute blog.

Last week the Crown Prosecution Service published updated guidance for prosecutions under the Obscene Publications Act (1959). Legal campaigning has brought about a big change: the liberal tests of harm, consent and legality of real acts are now key parts of their working definition of obscenity. The CPS explain:

… conduct will not likely fall to be prosecuted under the Act provided that:

  • It is consensual (focusing on full and freely exercised consent, and also where the provision of consent is made clear where such consent may not be easily determined from the material itself); and
  • No serious harm is caused
  • It is not otherwise inextricably linked with other criminality (so as to encourage emulation or fuelling interest or normalisation of criminality); and
  • The likely audience is not under 18 (having particular regard to where measures have been taken to ensure that the audience is not under 18) or otherwise vulnerable (as a result of their physical or mental health, the circumstances in which they may come to view the material, the circumstances which may cause the subject matter to have a particular impact or resonance or any other relevant circumstance).

The guidance supports a realistic notion of consent which means that depictions of most safe, consensual activities under the umbrella of BDSM are unlikely to be subject to prosecution:

“Non-consent for adults must be distinguished from consent to relinquish control. The presence of a “gag” or other forms of bondage does not, without more, suffice to confirm that sexual activity was non-consensual.”

The CPS acknowledge the damaging impact on the rule of law when prosecutors rely on subjective notions when making charging decisions:

“An ill-defined concept of moral depravity or corruption does not provide for legal demarcation of sufficient precision to enable a citizen to regulate his or her conduct. However, where conduct or an activity is itself criminalised, that may be a clear indication as to its tendency to deprave or corrupt.” 

This is a substantial improvement for the OPA which has previously been used to prosecute consensual sexual expression, including publications depicting and defending LGBTQ sexual practices.

For now, the guidelines relate only indirectly to decisions to prosecute for possession of Extreme Pornography (Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008). They appear to clarify that prosecutors should not normally be targeting depictions or records of legal acts between consenting adults. This avoids the logical incoherence at the heart of previous obscenity definitions that meant people could be prosecuted for publishing or possessing visual records of practices that were perfectly legal to conduct, such as fisting.

This is good news for liberals and anyone with an interest in freedom of sexual expression. We have to remain vigilant to see how prosecutors use these guidelines in practice. But this is at least a substantial improvement on past definitions that provided little guidance for citizens, producers or prosecutors.

What is responsible for this surprisingly liberal turn? There is little we can say with absolute certainty other than that the CPS has wisely chosen to adjust its prosecution practice to better reflect contemporary public attitudes towards minority sexual practices and porn producers.

There are a few likely contributors to this reform. Various, sometimes overlapping, strategies formed an ecology of activism and advocacy that changed the legal and policy environment. Central to the story is the civil liberties group Backlash (declaration of interest: I have volunteered my research expertise at Backlash). It began as an advocacy group, campaigning against the extension of obscenity law to include possession of extreme images that the Home Office presumed to be a necessity in the Internet age.

After the law was passed despite well-informed opposition, obscenity lawyer Myles Jackman joined Backlash as legal advisor. In a switch in strategy, Backlash started providing legal advice and financial support to defend some criminal allegations that involved consenting acts between adults.

Juries tended to favor the defence in these cases that Backlash identified as consensual. Juries rejected prosecutions for the possession of erotic horror images, possession of fisting and urethral soundings, ‘twink’ porn, as well as the sale of fisting videos. These criminal cases couldn’t set legal precedents as they never got to the stage of appeal. Nonetheless, these failed prosecutions probably deterred the CPS from pursuing many future cases.

Meanwhile, other campaigners brought this issue to wider public attention. Jerry Barnett’s website Sex and Censorship and book Porn Panic helped to link the anti-porn agenda to a wider pro-censorship movement that is now prominent in some Internet political movements. Sexual freedom campaigner, Charlotte Rose, organized a ‘face-sitting’ protest outside Parliament aimed specifically at new media regulations and helped to raise the profile of sexual freedom more generally.

The protest attracted mainstream media attention. Pandora Blake used regulatory action against her website as a test case to quash some of the more subjective regulations. Blake then ran a campaign to show that it was the Obscene Publications Act, underlying these new inconsistent and censorious regulatory practices, that needed reform. The lost cases and reaction from vulnerable parties together prompted the CPS to consult on adjusting their guidelines to better represent what the general public evidently thought to be worthy of criminalization and censorship.

Obscenity and pornography regulation has attracted a great deal of scholarly interest. Initially, from critical supporters of the ban on extreme pornography from the field of feminist legal theory. Media communications scholars, especially Feona Attwood and Clarissa Smith, in the nascent porn studies sub-discipline, challenged the idea that porn had systematically negative impacts on culture, society and the status of women.

My article, ‘Millian Liberalism and Extreme Pornography’ showed that there was a surprising overlap between the interests of queer sexual politics, including the freedom to engage in transgressive expression and a right to establish safe spaces for minorities to support and cultivate their identities, and the classical liberal approach to freedom of expression and association. My Adam Smith Institute report, ‘Nothing to Hide’ argued for making consent to legal acts the primary way of judging the legality of sexually explicit images. It prompted LGBTQ media to highlight the risks of the law for their audience, and to start quizzing the Home Office about how they intended the law to be used.

Initially, academic feminist proponents of the extreme porn ban, including Clare McGlynn, sought quite a broad application.  They argued explicitly that the law should not apply to a narrow notion of harm but also to ‘cultural harm’ or the imputed indirect, social impact of the availability of pornography, not just those participating in the acts themselves). More recently, these proponents have accepted a greater role for consent in defining the limits of image prohibition.

They now focus on the problem of ‘revenge pornography’ (the non-consensual sharing of sexually explicit private images). In contrast to ‘extreme pornography’ and obscene publications in general, ‘revenge porn’ constitutes a personal violation and severe social problem that both liberals and feminists agree requires civil and criminal remedies. Fortunately, there has been some degree of agreement on where future criminal justice activity needs to be directed.

Criminal obscenity law is just one strand in a tangle of issues threatening sexual expression and freedom of expression in the UK. This change doesn’t do very much to make the government’s age verification system and broader surveillance of Internet access safe. It only marginally improves the legal protection of sex workers who use or offer online services. So there are a great deal more liberal reforms needed. Nevertheless, this success shows that campaigning, through legal challenges, protests and informed scholarship, can lead to genuine reform. I see this as a model for future campaigns aiming for greater personal liberty.

Psychologist Hounded and Censored by Anti-Sex Activists

Dr David J Ley, a psychologist specialising in sexual matters, and especially pornography, has recently been at the receiving end of a barrage of online abuse, following the announcement he would be speaking at a conference on the treatment of adolescent sex offenders. Dr Ley (author of Ethical Porn For Dicks) was due to give a speech titled: “Promoting Responsible Porn Use in Youth and Adolescents”.

Sexual violence is highest in the adolescent age group. An influential study called Pornography, Rape and the Internet (PDF) found that pornography viewing appears to significantly reduce sexual violence in this age group:

I find that the arrival of the internet was associated with a reduction in rape incidence. While the internet is obviously used for many purposes other than pornography, it is notable that growth in internet usage had no apparent effect on other crimes. Moreover, when I disaggregate the rape data by offender age, I find that the effect of the internet on rape is concentrated among those for whom the internet-induced fall in the non-pecuniary price of pornography was the largest – men ages 15-19″

So anyone with an interest in reducing sexual violence – one might assume – would have found Dr Ley’s talk informative and beneficial. But morality campaigners thought otherwise, and set out to get the talk cancelled.

The tweets varied from the infantile…

 

… to the murderous…

 

… and of course, someone managed to blame capitalism (because nobody EVER thought of wanking before Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations)…

 

 

 

Ley’s Speech Cancelled

Following the abuse, and a letter-writing campaign to the conference organiser, Dr Ley’s invitation was withdrawn, and he will no longer be speaking at the event. The letters repeated standard myths about pornography, and contained veiled threats to disrupt the conference:

“You are hosting the porn industry. This is quite likely to increase sex trafficking at the hotel where hosting!
I certainly will raise my voice and bring women to protest this conference!!
We will protest the venue as well as the entire conference. Pornography does not help sexual offenders!

88% of porn is sexual violence!”

Sexual Repression is Harmful

We need to retake the moral high ground: We believe sexual repression is harmful. We believe sexual freedom reduces harm. The puritan left, like the religious right, would return us to the sexual dark ages, and that will be deeply harmful for everyone.

Milo, Berkeley, and the Death of the Spirit of the Sixties

This week’s protests to prevent a controversial speaker – Milo Yiannopolis – from speaking at the University of California at Berkeley, are a sad indictment of the of the state of progressive politics. The location of the incident, once the birthplace of a great liberal movement, makes for a sad comparison with the great radical era of the 1960s.

Those of us who were teenage activists in the 1980s felt we’d missed out on something. Our parents’ generation (at least, in our imaginations) had the civil rights movement, the great anti-Vietnam war protests, the hippy movement, Black Power and psychedelia.  Their soundtrack was Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan, Otis Redding, Joan Baez, Motown, Simon and Garfunkel. We had Reagan and Thatcher, mass unemployment, power ballads, and yuppies. They had great progressive victories, we got used to experiencing defeats.

We, children of a grey London that was run down and depressed after half a century of economic decline, dreamed of the California of the 1960s. I read Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comics, and knew all about San Francisco’s famous Haight-Ashbury district, the centre of counterculture, although in reality, my entire experience of travelling outside Britain was limited to a couple of short trips to France.

And I read about the university campus at Berkeley, near San Francisco, the heartland of 1960s American radicalism; a radicalism which, already by the 80s, was ebbing away. In response to repression, Berkeley had been birthplace to the Free Speech Movement of 1964-65, which aimed to ensure that everybody on campus was given their right to speak. It was, in today’s terms, the mirror image of the current student obsession with “no platforming” (i.e. censoring) ideas considered unacceptable. While the movement was left wing, it is important to realise that it created a space for all political speech. As the Wiki page notes: “This applied to the entire student political spectrum, not just the liberal elements that drove the Free Speech Movement”.

Contrast this anti-censorship attitude with what happened this week. Milo Yiannopolis, a provocative speaker of the right, was due to talk about “cultural appropriation” – a bizarre, illiberal idea, now popular on the left, that access to culture should be segregated by race. “Cultural appropriation” popularises on the left an idea that the 1960s left stood firmly against: that people should be treated differently based on nothing but their skin colour or racial origin. It is a bullying and authoritarian ideology, and has resulted in racist incidents like a famous attack on a white man for the “crime” of wearing dreadlocks, and the cancellation of a reggae festival because too many white people were involved.

Milo is a well known shit-stirrer, and enjoys winding up easily-offended illiberal types. He’s annoying, often (but not always) wrong, and I’ve done my best to avoid him. Unfortunately, some on the left have decided instead to promote him, by protesting against him, having him no-platformed, or calling him a “Nazi” for no good reason. Thanks to these intolerant arseholes, we’ve had to put up with Milo being everywhere, and getting a lucrative book deal. Thinking about it, this is pretty much the same way that “liberals” helped Donald Trump reach power. Thanks guys.

Fans of George Orwell will enjoy what happened next. Milo (a gay, Jewish man), due to speak out against a racist, pro-segregationist ideology, faced protest by people calling him a “Nazi”. The talk was cancelled, and riots ensued. And (did I mention?) all this happened at Berkeley, once the home of the Free Speech Movement. Oh, and then Donald J Trump, perhaps the closest thing to a fascist ever elected in America, tweeted to defend free speech against attacks from left-wing Berkeley students. We live in the age of irony. Or perhaps the era of facepalm.

Western liberalism is facing its greatest threat since the 1940s, if ever. The far-right may soon seize control in France, the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe. And if you’re expecting a defence of liberalism from the left, it seems you’ll be disappointed.

Free speech must be defended as a universal human right. Human rights cannot be stripped from people on the basis that they’re Muslims or Communists. Nor can they be stripped from people on the basis that they offend other people. The left will not defeat the fascist right by being more fascist than the right. That way lies tyranny.

Silencing “Hate Speech” Doesn’t Stop Hate

Anti-fascism is in my blood. As a teenager in the late-1970s, I became involved in Anti Nazi League protests and attended free Rock Against Racism festivals. I was concerned with racism in part because I attended a school where 90% of pupils were non-white, and I could directly see the corrosive effects of racism. But I was also aware of fascism because of my grandparents’ experience in the Jewish East End of London during the 1930s, where locals and anti-fascist supporters faced the real threat of fascism on a daily basis, and eventually had to physically confront the fascists in the streets.

You can read the full article at Huffington Post UK.

Feminism, free speech and keeping your enemy in plain sight

Journalist Nichi Hodgson takes a look at a feminism that justifies censorship in the name of fighting sexism. This article was originally posted on her blog, and is republished here with her permission.

If you’ve been thinking about feminism and free speech in the wake of the Julien Blanc debacle, I recommend you read Helen Lewis’ article for the Guardian on free speech and trolling. In it, she makes the little-mentioned point that the way we broadcast on social media is leading to ‘context collapse’. Yet to some extent this applies to Blanc too. The context for the PUA movement’s performative braggodocio is a country where the Westboro Baptist Church can caw for the death of homosexuals in the name of true faith in God, and where the right of abortion protestors to shout in the face of vulnerable womenleaving clinics is effectively a constitutional right.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that we have to accept Blanc’s feckless brand of manipulation (as manipulative of men as it is women) out of some kind of culturally relative sympathy.  But it does help to explain how Blanc could establish his expensive workshops and get his stomp on in the grounds of maligned masculinity.

Lewis argues that it was right to deny Blanc a visa because his free speech is inciteful of violence against women. The problem, as ever, is proving incitement. It’s not impossible to do, of course, (although it raises serious questions about personal responsibility). But what the wider debate about free speech vs sexism is demonstrating is that it may be time to broaden our hate speech laws if we want to make it an offence to incite gender-based violence. To do that could throw up some interesting results – such as whether OBJECT constitutes a hate group, for example (here’s an interesting post from Sex and Censorship on the topic). After all, feminists against misogynistic language need to be careful. Labelling men rapists, where they have not been charged with a criminal offence, is defamatory.

Lewis’ argument is astute and articulate. But it is also unfortunately an argument diluted to censorship by campaigning feminists in their war against sexism. No More Page 3 have managed to persuade Tesco to censor the covers of tabloid papers on the basis of their sexism and so-called ‘harm’ against women. Yet they cite no independent, empirical research to back up their claims.

What’s more, they need to watch out that they don’t inadvertently curtail women’s sexual freedom. I’ve just been told that my next book won’t be for sale in supermarkets unless I tone down the title, for example. Guess what it’s about? Yep – female sexual liberation. Incidentally, there’ll be no scantily clad anything on the cover.

What’s more, the war against sexism is at risk of mis-serving its  most serious victims. We talk of ‘rape culture’ but seem to ignore the real details, causes and context of the 85,000s rape that take place in England and Wales. We harp on about the assault that is a street-side ‘hey baby’ while it’s revealed that Margaret Thatcher knew of the Westminster paedophile ring. Sexism and harassment manifest at every social level. Of course the government is going to round on individuals like Blanc – it helps deflect from their own multifarious abuses. But is Blanc really who we should be getting aerated about over a prime minster who turned a blind eye to eye – watering sexual assault, alleged murder and the abuse of scores of young men?

Personally, I’d rather be able to hear Julien Blanc. Milton’s argument in Areopagitica is that the broader the range if views we are privy to, the better we can crystallise our own. Keep your enemies in plain sight, especially when they are misogynists.

As the American academic Stanley Fish has it, “Free speech is what’s left over when you have determined which kinds of speech cannot be permitted to flourish”. Fish, of course, like Lewis, also believes that’s a good thing.

But that’s the thing about the internet. You can’t round on its dark, anti-social, hateful voices the way you can out there in civic society.

Nor can they hide.

That too, is a good thing.

Who Will Defend Hate Speech?

Bang On Target
Bang On Target

Defending the right of people to publish and watch porn is an uphill battle. Nice, “liberal” people aren’t always as liberal as they think, and many think sexual imagery is a Bad Thing, and shouldn’t fall under the umbrella of free expression. So there was a strong boost for the anti-censorship movement in December when the UK “porn filters” were rolled out, and it turned out that they weren’t really much to do with porn at all.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much of a genuine free speech lobby in this country (it was the discovery of this fact that led me to set up the Sex & Censorship campaign). However, the filters blocked such broad areas of content that far more vocal groups have been spurred into opposition, and have strengthened the anti-censorship movement. The revelation that a number of gay sites had been blocked, apparently in error, led to outrage from the LGBT community and its supporters. And the inclusion of Sex Education as a category that parents could prevent their teens from accessing caused outrage among many commentators.

The animal protection organisation World Wildlife Fund adopted the panda as its symbol, rather than some endangered species of lizard or beetle, because pandas look cuddly. Saving ugly creatures isn’t a cause that many people will donate to. In the world of anti-censorship campaigning, LGBT and sex education causes are the panda; and yet, many of the “uglier” blocked categories should be just as much a cause for concern as the “pretty” ones. But if people accept that some expression can be censored, then free speech is lost.

Many of the blocked categories have been ignored because they don’t upset any large lobby group, but they should be cause for concern. I have seen no defence, for example for “sites that give information on illegal drugs”. Yet such sites save lives, and fill a role that, in a more sane world, would be carried out by government. The site pillreports.com, for example, is a database of ecstasy tablets on the market. As the site says: ‘Pills sold as “Ecstasy” often include other, potentially more dangerous, substances such as methamphetamine, ketamine and PMA.’ Filtering of drug information doesn’t protect anyone, but simply enforces an anti-drug morality. If allowed to continue, this filtering will doubtless cost teenage lives.

“Sites that promote self-harm” may make for good Daily Mail headlines, but people in distress most need a community of people who understand them. Isolating troubled young people from each other can only be a recipe for disaster. “Sites that describe guns” are also on the list, and illustrate the constant confusion between expression and the physical world. America’s gun lobbyists try to claim that “guns don’t kill people”; this is patent nonsense. Guns do kill people: but there’s no evidence that pictures or descriptions of guns do, and in fact guns are shown daily on TV, often in glamorised ways, without any evidence that this leads to real-world violence.

The option to block social networking sites is perhaps one of the most sinister of all. Depriving children of social contact may be classified as emotional abuse, and yet, because of the endless panic over “online grooming”, many parents may exercise this option. The best way to open a child to the possibility of grooming is to keep them ignorant of the real world. The filters will harm children.

The “file sharing” category is not there to protect children at all, but to protect media corporations from having their content pirated, and probably the result of some clever lobbying activity. Piracy is the problem of the media and entertainment industry, and is a poor excuse for censorship.

The catch-all category of “tasteless and obscene” is another one that preserves conservative ideas of morality, rather than attempt to protect children. Among other things, it includes the ludicrous concept of “how to commit murder”; one would think any teenager conversant with basic physics, chemistry or biology would be able to work that out. Presumably the banning of science classes in school must follow. This category also includes “bathroom humour”, though one must suspect that children can work out fart jokes by themselves, without help from the Internet.

The list goes on and on. In every case, it seems that blocking content can do more damage to child development than the content itself. The category that most divides people is that of hate speech: “sites that encourage the oppression of people or groups based on their race, religion, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation or nationality”. The idea that racism, homophobia and other prejudices can be dealt with by censorship has been fashionable for a few decades, and is attractive to people who dislike prejudice. And yet it is a false promise. Censorship of words that might offend minorities has never solved any underlying problem. Discourse is the solution to bigotry, and this must include angry, “offensive” discourse, however unpleasant it is. Politically correct cures for prejudice do not work; indeed, they leave problems to fester and get worse.

This isn’t to say that prejudice should be left alone: education, discussion, debate, argument and, most of all, leadership are essential. We have a government that wants to protect us from “hate speech” on the one hand, while hinting on the other that immigrants are a threat to our society. Hate can be spread without using hate speech.

And those who think that censorship introduced for “good” reasons will not then be abused are naive in the extreme. The core problem with censorship is that it will always be abused by those with power. Once it is accepted that hateful speech can be suppressed, then the definition of hateful speech will grow inexorably until it is unrecognisable.

Voltaire said: “I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. Those who are tempted to draw acceptable lines for Internet filtering are missing the point. In a free society, there can be no acceptable lines.