This podcast features a debate on pornography between Jerry Barnett of Sex & Censorship and Luke Gittos of Spiked! Online. It can also be heard (with photo slideshow) on the Sex & Censorship YouTube channel.
This half-hour video is of a debate that took place between me and Luke Gittos, Legal Editor of Spiked! Online. The event was hosted by Birmingham Salon. I open the debate in defence of pornography, followed by Luke, opposing.
For an in-depth examination and rebuttal of the alleged harms of porn, you can buy my book, Porn Panic!
In this episode, the interview tables are turned: I’m interviewed about my book Porn Panic! by publisher Douglas Lain of Zero Books. This was a wide-ranging and enjoyable interview about the book and the political ideas surrounding it.
September looks to be a busy month for me, in part because of the recent publication of Porn Panic!
I’ll be taking part in events in London, Birmingham and Exeter, as well as online. This schedule is liable to change. To stay up to date, please follow on Twitter, Like the Facebook page, or join the mailing list.
Tuesday 6th September London (Greenwich)
I’ll be signing my book, and reading from it, between 17:30 and 19:30, at Waterstones in Greenwich. Waterstones will be kindly providing wine, and we’ll likely migrate to a pub afterward (the Duke is an easy 10 minute walk). Click here for the Facebook event page.
Monday 12th September Fubar Radio, Online
I will be interviewed on Fubar Radio at 3pm.
Friday 16th September Exeter
I will take part in a debate at Exeter University titled “This house believes porn is a harmful industry”. I’m told this will be a very popular event, so come early if you want a seat. The debate will start at 7pm at: The Amory Moot Room, University of Exeter Amory Building, Rennes Drive, Exeter EX4 4RJ
Thursday 22nd September Birmingham
From 19:30, I will participate in a debate, to be held by Birmingham Salon, on the subject “Can Pornography Ever be Liberating?” The event will take place at The Victoria, John Bright Street, Birmingham B1 1BN. Full details at the Birmingham Salon website.
Tuesday 27th September London
Screening of the documentary film Respectable: The Mary Millington story. I’ll be taking part in the panel discussion.
TBC: Fiona Patten of the Australian Sex Party
I’m hoping to arrange a short event in late-September with the wonderful campaigner Fiona Patten, the leader of the Australian Sex Party and MP, when she visits London. Further information to be posted soon.
My book Porn Panic! is to be published this week, by Zero Books. I was recently interviewed at length about the book by Douglas Lain of Zero Books, and this has now been published at the Zero Books site as a podcast. Douglas is a great interviewer, and I thoroughly enjoyed our lengthy discussion – I hope you will too.
Please click here to subscribe or listen to the podcast at the Zero Books site
Here is a 20 minute video covering the highlights of last Friday’s porn protest outside the UK Parliament. With thanks to Terry Stephens (aka The Naked Truth Guy), who shot and edited it (follow him on Twitter).
The video includes my speech on behalf of Sex & Censorship, along with speeches by organiser Charlotte Rose, lawyer Myles Jackman and CAAN representative Jane Fae.
Those familiar with the state of anti-porn argument will know it’s pretty comparable with anti-climate change argument: very little in the way of evidence, but plenty in the way of noise, indignation, conspiracy theory and “it stands to reason”-type arguments.
The foundation of today’s anti-porn rhetoric was laid by Catharine Mackinnon and Andrea Dworkin (“the Macdworkinites”) in the 1980s, and the arguments appear not to have evolved greatly in the intervening decades; today’s anti-porn feminism lacks the flair and (evil) genius of the Macdworkinites. For this reason, it’s increasingly easy to demolish claims of harm caused by pornography; the problem is that the media is still largely in the sway of the “OMG what about the children?!” brigade. It’s for this reason that I founded Sex & Censorship: to present evidence-based argument against the combined religious/feminist weight of porn panic.
University debates are a rare opportunity to be heard equally in a fair environment (rather than the 90 seconds of shouting allowed by the news media), and I take every opportunity to participate in these (contact me if you’d like me to debate or speak at your university or college). I therefore seized yesterday’s opportunity to debate the radical feminist Julie Bindel with glee.
Things warmed up on the day before the debate, with the publication of an article in the student newspaper that managed to disparage both myself and Bindel at once, referring to her as a homophobe and transphobe, while I was simply branded a “multi-millionaire”. Sadly (for me), this claim wasn’t true, but even if it had been, I failed to see the relevance in this context: surely “sexual freedom advocate”, “free speech activist” or even just “blogger” would have been more useful.
So when I met Bindel on the train to Colchester, we were able to find some common cause, and jokingly speculate about which one of us might be more protested-against: her, the transphobe; or me, the spokesman for patriarchal oppression.
The debate took place in a packed lecture theatre; Bindel had been scheduled to speak first, but the chair asked if we could switch places, for fear that protesters would shout her down and end the session early.
In my introduction, I made mention of the importance of free speech on university campuses, including (in fact, especially) speech that we might consider offensive or otherwise unpleasant. Universities are supposed to be hubs of free thought, but there is a disturbing, and rising, trend among student unions to shut down “bad” speech, from bans on the Sun newspaper, to closing down a rugby club for speech crimes, to multiple bans on Bindel herself.
I then took a statement from a piece Bindel had written about pornography, and set out to demonstrate that it is not backed by solid evidence; indeed, it runs counter to the known evidence:
There is … a direct link between violence against women and pornography
I made the following points:
- The term “pornography” tends to refer to all sexual/erotic imagery, so that arguments deployed against porn are then used to attack Page 3, music videos and other media that most people wouldn’t consider pornographic.
- To claim that large numbers of women are abused by the porn industry, without being able to point to any actual arrests or prosecutions is strange indeed. Where are the victims that anti-porn campaigners so often talk about?
- Why are only women (supposedly) harmed by sexual expression, and not men? This seems to perpetuate the old fashioned view that sex is something men do to women, rather than something both men and women can enjoy.
- The sexual objectification concept – the curiously vague idea that men who view sexual imagery become more dangerous towards women – is backed by no statistical evidence. To the contrary, the availability of porn widely correlates with a declines in sexual violence.
- Why does “objectification” only seem to work in sexual contexts? Why can men see a woman run a marathon but not assume that all women must be marathon runners?
- To blame porn for sexual violence is to remove blame from rapists.
- Although the porn industry is often painted as a male-dominated one, there are many female, and feminist, porn directors.
- Nobody could judge whether “women are demeaned by porn”, except for pornstars themselves; I then read a series of statements from pornstars in answer to the question “Do you find working in porn to be demeaning?” – they all answered no, of course.
Short on time (I actually overran the 15 minutes allowed), I had little opportunity to go through much of the evidence; but I pointed out that the UK government (via Ofcom) has conducted its own research into whether porn is harmful, and could find no evidence of harm. It also polled 20 other European governments about their own research into whether porn might harm under-age viewers, and stated:
No country found evidence that sexually explicit material harms children
Despite this, the government has introduced various censorship laws and regulations, just in case…
Julie Bindel’s contribution (thankfully not shouted down by protesters) was packed with familiar claims and anecdotes, many obviously drawn from her campaigning colleague Gail Dines, and the UK anti-sex group Object. Various scare words and stories were dredged up; the term “porn baron” was thrown around, and links between the porn industry and organised crime were hinted at, but not backed with evidence. Choosing an ad hominem attack, she suggested that I currently make a living from the porn industry (actually, I closed my website business in 2012).
Although there was no formal vote at the end of the session, the chairman asked for a show of hands partway through on the question of whether pornography should be banned; no more than half a dozen, of an audience of perhaps 150, raised their hands. I hope that my contribution had made many change their minds.
But perhaps the culture is simply changing. Maybe young people, having grown up with the Internet and pornography, no longer fear sexual expression, and cannot easily be persuaded to. This would be good news indeed!
Object, the anti-sex morality group posing as a human rights organisation, generally refuse to engage with the porn industry, and certainly refuse to meet with the women they claim to be “rescuing” from their work as pornstars, strippers, sex workers or models.
Occasionally though, we get a rare moment to meet them face to face on TV or at university debates. Today I had one such opportunity to meet them in a (sadly short) televised debate on London Live. Here’s what happened…
While we at Sex & Censorship are following – with increasing trepidation – the endless drift towards censorship in the UK, we’re sometimes reminded that many of our supporters can’t keep up with all the news and events. That’s hardly surprising: Britain is currently experiencing wave after wave of moral panic, and it seems that hardly a week goes by without more bad news for free expression. So here is a brief round-up of some of the main issues comprising British censorship at present. I’ve undoubtedly missed stuff: feel free to add it below. Of course, a short blog post can’t hope to explain everything that’s taking place. I’m currently documenting British censorship in a book, Porn Panic: please join our mailing list to be alerted when this is published.
- The Obscene Publications Act: the grandaddy of all censorship laws, outlawing the distribution of content that might “deprave and corrupt” its audience.
- Video Recordings Act: since 1984(!) the BBFC (a private organisation) has had the right to censor videos and DVDs, and they seem to have a particular problem with pornography, making UK video among the most censored in Europe.
- Protection of Children Act: originally designed to criminalise images of child abuse, but sometimes misused, even to harass viewers of legitimate pornography.
- Dangerous Cartoons Act: yes, you can become a sex offender for possessing a sexual cartoon featuring a character that might appear to be under-age – such as seen in popular Japanese anime cartoons.
- Extreme Porn Law: three years in jail for possessing images of what the government considers to be “extreme pornography” – even if they are images of yourself participating in consensual sex with your own partner.
- Rape Porn: a planned extension to the extreme porn law whereby you can be jailed for possessing an image of a sexual act that appears to be non-consensual (whether it is actually consensual or not). Quick, delete those bondage photos!
- Gagging law: no, it’s not about blowjobs: it’s a serious attack on the rights of political campaigning organisations to speak freely, disguised as a law to regulate lobbying.
- Although they’ve never been mandated by Parliament or the British people to do so, Ofcom have consistently refused to allow hardcore sex on TV: even on adult channels at 3am. Almost all other EU countries, and the US, allow porn to be broadcast.
- A private body, ATVOD, has taken it upon itself to drive much of the online porn industry out of the country, or out of business, by mandating strict website guidelines that make profitable business effectively impossible. They claim an EU directive gives them this right, although strangely, none of the other 26 EU member states have taken this action, and erotic/sexual material continues to be sold legally elsewhere in Europe without such restrictions.
- Internet blocking: There were at least two attempts to introduce mandatory Internet censorship laws into Parliament last year; while these both failed, we expect similar laws to have more success in the near future.
- Mobile networks: since 2004, mobile operators have voluntarily censored Internet access from phones until the owner proves they are over 18. This censorship covers all sorts of material, and many adults as well as teenagers are denied access to much of the Internet from their mobile phones.
- Broadband filtering: since December, ISPs have voluntarily begun to offer “porn filters” to home-owners, under the pretext of “protecting children”. However, these filters block, not just porn, but dozens of categories of content for entire households, and offer the bill payer a means of restricting Internet access for others in the same household.
A raft of laws against “malicious communication” and “terrorism” have been used to jail people for speech alone. Increasingly, the important line between expression and action is becoming blurred in the eyes of the UK authorities. These days, writing can be considered terrorism, and jokes tweeted in poor taste can see you dragged into court.
There is a worrying trend towards increasing censorship within universities, which (one would have hoped) should be beacons of free expression, debate and discussion. For example, several student unions have banned the Sun newspaper, not for its dodgy news or political bias, but for displaying that most terrible thing, the female nipple.
Censored UK is a reality. We struggle with limited resources to expose these attacks on free expression, and campaign against those who try to push us even further in this direction. If any of this worries or outrages you, please donate to our campaign and help us restore some sanity!
One of the categories of content that is blocked by BT and other ISPs relates to self-harm. BT promises that its filters will block ‘sites that promote or encourage self-harm or self-injury’. But as ever, real life is far more nuanced than the headlines. One might be immediately repelled by the idea that THE INTERNET IS MAKING TEENAGERS CUT THEMSELVES (as the Daily Mail might express it), but does this reflect reality? Self-harm is an upsetting idea, but why do people do it, and can it blamed on websites? Alternatively, could sites that provide a forum for openly discussing the subject be therapeutic to those who use them? And are there really sites that exist simply to ‘promote or encourage’ people to self-harm?
One site related to self-harm is Safe Haven, a forum dedicated to discussing related issues, and a quick view of the site seemed to indicate this was an important resource to those who used it. Thread titles such as ‘I Want To Stop Self-Injuring Because…’, ‘To Every Soul That Suffers’, ‘How to deal with relapsing?’ and ‘I don’t know what to do’ indicated that this is a place for troubled people to find company and share their pain. Yet I found the site to be blocked on at least one network (EE).
The very idea that happy, stable people might find such a forum and thus become self-harmers seems (to me as a layperson) to be unlikely. More likely is that this is a classic example of shooting the messenger, which is an impulse that so often underlies censorship: perhaps if we can hide the bad things, they will no longer exist.
But I am no expert, so I approached Dr David Ley, a psychologist based in New Mexico and occasional blogger at this site, and asked him for his views on the site, and the wisdom of blocking it. He responded that, while some people fear that self-harming could escalate to something worse – even to suicide – the evidence appears to contradict this.
‘Although self-harming behavior is quite frightening and concerning, there is actually very little solid evidence that such behavior leads to suicide. In fact, it may be the exact opposite. We often intuitively expect that such behavior is “on the road” to building up to a suicide attempt. But, in fact, there are many reasons why people engage in such behaviors, and many of them are in fact, quite adaptive. For instance, over the years, I’ve had patients describe to me that such behavior can help them “ground themselves in reality,” when they are feeling psychically distant from themselves or the world. Others have told me that the pain can help themselves distance themselves from emotional pain.’
And as to the wisdom of trying to prevent troubled people from accessing such information:
‘It is unfortunate and likely counter-productive, to use filtering to try to prevent people from exploring all sides of this issue. It smacks of the old “Just say no” attempts to prevent drug use in children. Such efforts invariably fail, because children and teens know very well that such issues are not as two-dimensional as they are presented. By restricting access to information on sites such as this, which might glorify or encourage self-harming behaviors, filtering is also preventing access to dialogue and ideas from peers who are also attempting to control these desires. Such dialogue and ideas are much more likely to resonate with individuals who are struggling with self-harming desires themselves. Further, there is a great deal of information presented on the site that might be characterized as “harm reduction,” describing how to prevent infection, increase healing, and prevent serious injury. Again, a black and white presentation of the self-harm issue, as reflected by the filtering, actually may increase the dangers of such consequences in individuals who self-harm, and don’t have access to this information.’
I contacted Safe Haven to let them know that their site was being blocked. The site is based in the United States, and the owner seemed somewhat bemused to learn that her site had been censored in Britain. She pointed out that sites like hers are often the first place that troubled teenagers go to when they decide it is time to talk, and can be instrumental in helping them gain the confidence to speak with parents or health services:
‘Young people usually feel safer first reaching out online and getting support and advice from others in similar situations, or who can at least empathize. I feel some people might think young people should only be confiding in trusted adults like their parents or educators, or those manning helplines, but self-harm and mental health issues are taboo and cause such feelings of shame. Sites like mine allow young people to talk freely without worry that people will look at them askance for mentioning self-harm, or without worry they’ll be bullied for being a self-harmer. I see a lot of the members of the forum telling young people to reach out in real life.’
As in so many cases, the impulse to censor something that appears harmful may itself be harmful. The same applies to another blocked subcategory, ‘sites that encourage suicide’, which is, for some reason, tucked away within BT’s Weapons and Violence category. It seems highly unlikely that a non-suicidal person would find such a site and become suicidal; and it seems likely that a suicidal person may find the ability to share their feelings with others to be beneficial, and even life-saving.
The British are famous for our stiff-upper-lip culture, and yet according to the Mental Health Foundation, we also have among the highest self-harming rates in Europe. Perhaps the idea that difficult things are best not seen, heard or discussed is a dangerous one; but this is the driving force behind the UK’s Internet filters.