Yesterday, BBC Radio 5 Live dedicated an hour to discussing the alleged threat posed to public health by pornography. The programme made little attempt to ask balanced questions, or examine any evidence beyond the anecdotal. Instead, it was premised on the assumption that porn poses a threat to society, and that “something must be done”.
I was invited on to the programme to discuss the issue. Before I joined the discussion, I listened with incredulity as a BBC-approved, evidence-free anti-sex moral panic was broadcast to the nation. I was eventually added to the discussion, and did my best to counter the misinformation, though no real time was allowed for discussion of solid evidence.
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.
It seems the NSPCC are not alone. The anti-sex morality group (sorry, I mean “feminist human rights organisation” or whatever they are calling themselves this week) Object has commissioned a poll on porn.
Faced with a complete lack of evidence that can link porn with violence or other harm, Object have cut out the science and gone straight to the public.
Do serious researchers think that porn causes violence? No. Does the public? According to this poll (which we’re sure was carried out to impeccably high standards), 64% say Yes. Worryingly, only 2% don’t know. And a very sensible 1% refused to answer.
So we’re carrying out our own “scientific” poll here:
Do you think that hatred of sex and sexuality is caused by:
a) Genuine fear that it is harmful,
b) A twisted and hateful view of humanity,
c) Badly fitting underwear?
Please answer in the comments section below or send us an email. We’re sure the mass media will be fascinated to publish our results.
Alternatively, please donate to our campaign to help us continue to oppose this dangerous moral panic, which is aimed at creating a case for Internet censorship.
The letter below was sent to Peter Wanless, CEO of the National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children, on Friday 10th April. It is signed by leading academics, sex educators, journalists and campaigners.
To: Peter Wanless, Chief Executive Officer, NSPCC
Dear Mr Wanless,
We write to express our deep concern about a report you published last week, which received significant press coverage. The report claimed that a tenth of 12-13 year olds believe they are addicted to pornography, and appears to have been fed to the media with accompanying quotes suggesting that pornography is causing harm to new generations of young people.
Your study appears to rely entirely on self-report evidence from young people of 11 and older, and so is not – as it has been presented – indicative of actual harm but rather, provides evidence that some young people are fearful that pornography is harming them. In other words, this study looks at the effects on young people of widely published but unevidenced concerns about pornography, not the effects of pornography itself.
It appears that your study was not an academic one, but was carried out by a “creative market research” group called OnePoll. We are concerned that you, a renowned child protection agency, are presenting the findings of an opinion poll as a serious piece of research. Management Today recently critiqued OnePoll in an article that opened as follows: “What naive readers may not realise is that much of what is reported as scientific is not in fact genuine research at all, but dishonest marketing concocted by PR firms.”
There have been countless studies into the effects of porn since the late 1960s, and yet the existence of the kinds of harm you report remains contested. In fact, many researchers have reached the opposite conclusion: that increased availability of porn correlates with healthier attitudes towards sex, and with steadily reducing rates of sexual violence. For example, the UK government’s own research (1) generated the following conclusion in 2005: “There seems to be no relationship between the availability of pornography and an increase in sex crimes …; in comparison there is more evidence for the opposite effect.”
The very existence of “porn addiction” is questionable, and it is not an accepted medical condition. Dr David J Ley, a psychologist specialising in this field, says: “Sex and porn can cause problems in people’s lives, just like any other human behavior or form of entertainment. But, to invoke the idea of “addiction” is unethical, using invalid, scientifically and medically-rejected concepts to invoke fear and feed panic.” (2)
Immediately following the release of your report, the Culture Secretary Sajid Javid announced that the Tories would be introducing strong censorship of the Internet if they win the next election, in order to “protect children” from pornography. The Culture Secretary’s new announcement would probably lead to millions of websites being blocked by British ISPs, should it come into force. We would point out the experience of the optional “porn filters”, introduced in early 2014, which turned out in practise to block a vast range of content including sex education material.
The BBC news website quotes you as saying, in response to the minister’s announcement: “Any action that makes it more difficult for young people to find this material is to be welcomed.” We disagree: we believe that introducing Chinese-style blocking of websites is not warranted by the findings of your opinion poll, and that serious research instead needs to be undertaken to determine whether your claims of harm are backed by rigorous evidence.
Jerry Barnett, CEO Sex & Censorship
Frankie Mullin, Journalist
Clarissa Smith, Professor of Sexual Cultures, University of Sunderland
Julian Petley, Professor of Screen Media, Brunel University
David J. Ley PhD. Clinical Psychologist (USA)
Dr Brooke Magnanti
Feona Attwood, Professor of Media & Communication at Middlesex University
Martin Barker, Emeritus Professor at University of Aberystwyth
Jessica Ringrose, Professor, Sociology of Gender and Education, UCL Institute of Education
Ronete Cohen MA, Psychologist
Dr Meg John Barker, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, The Open University
Kath Albury, Associate Professor, UNSW Australia
Myles Jackman, specialist in obscenity law
Dr Helen Hester, Middlesex University
Justin Hancock, youth worker and sex educator
Ian Dunt, Editor in Chief, Politics.co.uk
Ally Fogg, Journalist
Dr Emily Cooper, Northumbria University
Gareth May, Journalist
Dr Kate Egan, Lecturer in Film Studies, Aberystwyth University
Dr Ann Luce, Senior Lecturer in Journalism and Communication, Bournemouth University
John Mercer, Reader in Gender and Sexuality, Birmingham City University
Dr. William Proctor, Lecturer in Media, Culture and Communication, Bournemouth University
Dr Jude Roberts, Teaching Fellow, University of Surrey
Dr Debra Ferreday, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, Lancaster University
Jane Fae, author of “Taming the beast” a review of law/regulation governing online pornography
Michael Marshall, Vice President, Merseyside Skeptics Society
Martin Robbins, Journalist
Assoc. Prof. Paul J. Maginn (University of Western Australia)
Dr Lucy Neville, Lecturer in Criminology, Middlesex University
Alix Fox, Journalist and Sex Educator
Dr Mark McCormack, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, Durham University
Chris Ashford, Professor of Law and Society, Northumbria University
Diane Duke, CEO Free Speech Coalition (USA)
Dr Steve Jones, Senior Lecturer in Media, Northumbria University
Dr Johnny Walker, Lecturer in Media, Northumbria University
Dr Anna Arrowsmith
Tuppy Owens, veteran campaigner for sexual rights for disabled people
Eric Paul Leue, Director of Sexual Health & Advocacy, kink.com
– The first condition of progress is the removal of censorship – George Bernard Shaw
– I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it – Evelyn Beatrice Hall
In my upcoming book, Porn Panic, I raise a question about the censorship state – specifically the British Board of Film Certification (BBFC), the police and prosecutors – Are They Superhuman? In Britain, all DVD and cinema releases are required, by law, to be certified (and possibly censored) by the BBFC. Obscenity law defines obscene material as that which might “deprave and corrupt” the viewer, listener or reader, and it’s the BBFC’s job to ensure that no such material gets into the public sphere where it might damage our fragile little minds. BBFC examiners watch all submitted material, second-by-second, and recommend cuts if they encounter obscenity. Similarly, police officers who are preparing a case for an obscenity prosecution must sit through hour after hour of depraving and corrupting material. So how is this possible? How can material that depraves and corrupts its audience not deprave and corrupt BBFC examiners, police officers and prosecutors? Are they a different species from us?
I asked the obscenity law specialist, Myles Jackman, for his thoughts on this, and he said: “I’ve have to watch a lot of fairly colourful material in my career, and it doesn’t seem to have had a significant effect on me. Who watches the watchman? Why normal, average members of society are considered to be more sensitive and delicate, I simply can’t answer.”
Censorship is a decision by one group of people to deprive another group of people the right to access some content. At its core, censorship is inherently elitist, and can be nothing else. The censor doesn’t believe that he or she is weak, stupid or brutal enough to be depraved by the material, but believes that other people are. This elitism usually appears in class form, though it can also be linked to sex, sexuality, race or age. Most people don’t think they have the right to censor others, even if they dislike what they watch; but some do. These people, by definition, are elitists.
Elitism rears its head in every single moral panic and act of censorship, without fail. It appears constantly in attempts to censor pornography: “Of course, porn didn’t turn ME into a rapist, but then I’m not one of those people…” It appears among the nice, middle-class ladies of the No More Page 3 campaign, who don’t want to see breasts in a newspaper, and don’t want the Sun’s (mostly working-class) readership to do so either. It appeared in the 1960 Lady Chatterley trial, when the prosecutor asked whether… “you would wish your wife or servants to read”… such books. It appeared during the Video Nasties moral panic, in response to the idea that, thanks to the new VHS technology, ordinary people could now see the kind of uncensored material that had, formerly, only been accessible to the wealthy. It appears now in a new moral panic over computer gaming, in which “the impressionable” are considered at risk of being turned into rapists and murderers.
“The impressionable” are never people like us. They are other. They are poor, or black, or female, or male, or gay, or belong to some other group that we decide to fear or hate. In moral panics, bigotry becomes acceptable – such as this Guardian piece implying that African men don’t have the restraint of white people, and are thus especially prone to being turned into rapists by pornography: “I used to think porn was tremendously good fun… [until in a Ghanaian village, a mud hut is transformed] into an impromptu porn cinema … turning some young men into rapists…” – those primitive Africans, and their rapey ways! And this is in a “liberal” newspaper. As the left has lost touch with its labour roots, it has also become ever more elitist.
Advocates of censorship are certain of their own superiority over those-who-must-be-censored. If they weren’t, it might dawn on them that they don’t have the right to control the behaviour of other people; that they are no better than the people they seek to control. They would instead realise that, while they have the right to boycott material that offends them, the other people also have the right to see it.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that the middle and upper classes, already secure in their innate superiority, are the ones who most seek to censor and control the activities of others. Of course, few people ever admit elitism – they instead try to justify their behaviour with spurious claims of harm: “I’m not a prude, but porn turns men into rapists”, “I’m all for free expression, but computer games make people violent”, “Much as I admire the energy and enthusiasm of youth, heavy metal gives power to Satan”, “I’m not a racist, but hip-hop encourages misogynistic attitudes”… “I’m as reasonable as the next person, BUT THOSE PEOPLE ARE DANGEROUS!”
It is a sign of these conservative times that universities, once bastions of free thought and rebellion against the status quo, have become increasingly censored places. The excuses for campus censorship tend to sound vaguely progressive, but (as the quote at the start of this article makes clear) censorship is anathema to progressives. Conservatism in progressive clothing is the order of the day.
The latest target of campus censorship is a comedian called Dapper Laughs (DL), who has a show on ITV2. I hadn’t heard of him until a week or so ago, when an explosion of outrage erupted on Twitter. Personally, I’m of the opinion that “ITV comedy” is an oxymoron. See – I’m an elitist too!
This latest moral panic began when a Cardiff University student, Vicky Chandler, began a petition to block DL from performing at the university, based on the fact that he’d been recorded telling jokes about rape. No evidence has been presented – it should go without saying by now – that men hear jokes about rape, and then go on to commit rape. The beer sold in the Cardiff student union bar is far more likely to have been involved in sexual assaults than any comedy act. But to call for alcohol to be banned from campus would a truly brave act*, whereas calling for a “sexist” comedian to be banned is guaranteed to win applause and admiration for Chandler from those looking for the next pro-censorship hero.
So the students that might have wanted to see DL, and decide for themselves, are told they’re not allowed to. Because they’re not clever enough to see (alleged) sexism without endangering the female population of Cardiff. Only the elite can decide what is suitable for the entire Cardiff student body to see or hear, and the elite have signed Chandler’s petition. Game over. Predictably, once a few-hundred signatures had been received, the gig was cancelled. Then ITV announced DL would not have another series. But the witch-hunt was just beginning.
The Twitter hysteria followed a pattern which has become tediously familiar: person found guilty of “hate speech” (without the need for a messy trial – who needs due process?); those that question the verdict are accused of supporting hate speech, as are those who defend the right to free speech on principle. Attempts at reasoned discussion are futile (OMG I can’t fucking believe you support violence against women!!!, etc.) Lynch-mobs have no need to hear alternative viewpoints, and the risk of being publicly branded a misogynist is enough of a deterrent for most people to keep quiet.
Supporters of the ban tried to deny this act of censorship was, in fact. censorship, and claimed this had been a democratic process, because everybody had the right to sign the petition, or organise a counter-petition. If this is democracy, it’s an ugly variety – more commonly known as tyranny of the majority. And not even a true majority – just the small number of elitists that decided they should have control over the viewing habits of the quiet majority. This is a fascistic interpretation of democracy, and has chilling implications for all the minorities that might next face censorship-by-petition. As a Jew (we make up 0.3% of the UK population) with mixed-race kids (they constitute 2%), this makes me more than a little uncomfortable. But hey – the elite would never turn on us, would they?
This country, once the birthplace of Enlightenment values, has lost touch with the meaning and purpose of liberal thought. Free speech must, by definition, include bad speech, and (as the old saying goes) the antidote to bad speech is good speech. Allow an elite to deem (without a hint of due process) certain speech to be unacceptable, and freedom is fundamentally lost.
Chandler herself has showed a deep ignorance of liberal values by declaring herself qualified to determine the limits of free speech for everybody. While justifying herself, she tweeted “offending a religion isn’t freedom of speech, it’s hate”. But to offend is a basic right. I find Chandler’s utterances offensive in their dangerous ignorance as to what constitutes free speech, but still, I defend her right to her ignorance, and her right to shout it from the rooftops. All speech that has any value will offend somebody; without the right to offend majority values, the feminist and civil rights movements would have been crushed before they had begun.
But many of today’s “progressives” come from a different school. They use liberal language to cloak the fascistic idea that some viewpoints can be crushed by a small, active group. The censorship of Dapper Laughs is a victory for a censorious elite that is growing in strength by the day.
* For clarity: no, I don’t support bans on alcohol either.
PS: a quick look at Dapper Laughs’ Twitter mentions reveals more people (male and female) regretting the closure of his career than rejoicing in it. But sorry folks, you can’t enjoy your comedy. The elite have spoken.
Some days, really weird sets of coincidences happen. For me, yesterday was one of those days.
Readers of this blog are probably not aware that I’m a photographer, and for a number of years I’ve followed many of London’s up-and-coming soul singers, musicians and hip-hop artists. London is brimming with musical talent, and my photography has allowed me to follow and get to know some of the best. Among the most amazing singers I’ve got to know is Baby Sol. I was lucky enough to see one of her first public appearances during a gig in Mau Mau Bar, Portobello Road, when she was handed the microphone by the performer. I’ve attended and photographed several of her performances, and once shot her in the studio. She’s beautiful, smart, has a wonderful, distinctive voice, and yet is utterly modest, with no hint of diva about her. It’s no surprise that in the last few years, Baby Sol has rapidly climbed the ladder to success.
Yesterday, I was contacted by Baby Sol’s manager to request use of one of my photos in a Guardian blog post. I made clear that I don’t provide images free of charge to commercial publications; but, due to a miscommunication, the image appeared on the blog. I then spoke to Baby Sol’s manager, who explained that the image was being used to back the launch of a new charity single, in support of the No More Page 3 campaign. Those who know me and my views will realise that I am not a supporter of NMP3. Finding that my image had appeared without my permission, to support a cause I object to was a surprise, to say the least. I made my view clear, and the image was removed from the article early this morning.
Why Oppose NMP3?
I founded the Sex & Censorship campaign with the primary aim of countering anti-sex moral panics, which in turn are used to build support for censorship. Of all the moral panics that have raged in recent years, the one created by NMP3 has probably been the cleverest and most successful. Targeting the Sun newspaper, which is hated by many left/liberal British people, was a stroke of genius, as it brought on board people who would normally consider themselves too liberal to support a pro-censorship cause. It also tapped into that most potent of all bigotries: snobbery. The “Sun reader” has for many years been the archetypal ignorant working-class person.
I too have always disliked the Sun: for years, it has poured out anti-immigrant, anti-gay and other nasty attitudes. It was blatantly racist until blatant racism went out of fashion at some point in the 1990s. It was a strident supporter of the Thatcherite war on trade unionism, and in 1986 was the focus of one of the great attacks on trade unionism, when Rupert Murdoch suddenly relocated his newspapers to a new location, with a new, non-unionised workforce.
The way to deal with publications one doesn’t like is to boycott them, and encourage others to do the same. In my dislike of everything Murdoch, I’ve never bought the Sun, nor its sister paper the Times, nor have I ever taken a Sky TV subscription. But anyone who values free speech will defend the right of a publisher to distribute whatever content they choose, without censorship. NMP3 have instead taken a directly censorious approach, calling on the Sun to withdraw Page 3, and applauding student unions that have banned the Sun from sale on campuses. Oddly, NMP3 deny being pro-censorship, even though censorship is all they stand for. They show as much disdain for Sun readers, and their right to choose what to buy and read, as they do for the free speech of the publisher. And as for the models’ right to work? This is a right that NMP3 don’t recognise.
NMP3 also claim that their only goal is to close Page 3; that they have no interest in wider anti-sex campaigning and indeed they claim on their site: “We love breasts!”. The dishonesty of this claim was revealed when they attended the Stop Porn Culture conference in March, which played host to anti-sex fundamentalists from around the world, including the British anti-sex worker hate group Object. So although they claim they only want to close Page 3, NMP3 have links with campaigning groups that seek to ban pornography, close down strip clubs, remove lads’ mags from supermarkets, criminalise prostitution, and attack music videos from “sexualised” artists such as Beyoncé, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj (yes, all black artists – surprise!)
The NMP3 people I’ve encountered are all terribly nice: they seem to be the Women’s Institute wing of the anti-sex movement, leaving the nastier attacks on women-who-dare-to-be-sexual to Object and Gail Dines. But for all the politeness, they are building a formidable pro-censorship movement, and a head of steam that can be directed far beyond Page 3.
The arguments made by NMP3 employ a variety of false claims and moral panic techniques that we’ve seen many times before. Although there is no evidence for the nonsensical “sexual images cause men to objectify women” claim, they make it frequently, and then go on (completely dishonestly) to link Page 3 with abuse and violence against women. The NMP3 organisers are no-doubt aware that there are no studies linking Page 3 (or any other sexual imagery) to harm against women, and yet they encourage, and retweet, these claims from their supporters.
Although the NMP3 attacks are couched in the language of women’s rights, the campaign actually creates false “rights” in order to attack real ones. The Women’s Lib movement (which, ironically, created the conditions for sexual freedom that allowed Page 3 to ever come into existence) focused on choice and agency: the right for women to choose what they do with their own bodies and how their bodies are depicted. Models have the right to go naked in front of a camera, and to allow their image to be published. Against this genuine right, NMP3 creates a false right: the right for other women to attack the choices of models as to how and where they are depicted.
Thus, NMP3 (and other groups that attack depictions of female sexuality) tell women that they have the right to censor the depictions of other women’s bodies. NMP3 supporters often say things along the lines of “I have the right to sit on the train without having to see breasts”. But that right doesn’t exist. This abuse of the idea of rights comes from the fascist play-book, and is equivalent to “I have the right to go out without seeing gay people kissing”, “I have the right to live in a street with no black people”, and “I have the right to buy my food in a shop that doesn’t sell halal meat”. These rights are fabricated, and are perversions of liberalism.
Women have the right to control how their own bodies are treated and depicted, NOT the right to control how other women’s bodies are treated and depicted. By spreading the false idea that women have the right to attack the way other women are depicted, NMP3 creates the precedent that (overwhelmingly middle-class) women have the right to suppress the depiction of any sexual imagery featuring women.
Boobs Aren’t News?
With no evidence to present, NMP3 falls back on “but what about the children?” type statements, and silly slogans: Boobs Aren’t News. In the argument-free space of NMP3, this is as near to reasoned discussion as it gets. Sure, boobs aren’t news. Neither are horoscopes, but they also feature in the Sun. Shouldn’t these be withdrawn too, especially since they perpetuate silly superstition? How about travel reports, or recipes, or concert reviews? None of those are news either.
NMP3 claim they seek diversity of female representation: but this already exists. Women are presented in a thousand different manners and roles. Nobody attacks any of them, except one: the sexual woman.
The Oldest Taboo: Suppression of the Sexual Female
The idea that women’s bodies must be hidden away – for their own good – is hardly a new one. This idea appears in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, and the Quran, and doubtless other religious texts. Over and over again, throughout history, woman-as-sexual-being has been attacked, and depictions of sexual women have been destroyed.
An exhibition of erotic Roman sculpture that took place last year at the British museum focused heavily on male erotica, and had almost no female erotica. When interviewed, the curator explained that this wasn’t his choice: there was simply a lack of female imagery to choose from. It had probably once existed, but had been smashed in some later, more conservative era.
Later, women who dare to be sexual were branded witches and murdered. Later still, in Victorian times, sexually liberated women were branded nymphomaniacs and hysterics, and locked in asylums.
And European colonisers of Africa brought “Christian morality”, including the idea that breasts were shameful and should be covered. This old European fear of female nudity has never gone away: it’s just continually reinvented, in new ways, with new language: from witch-hunting to objectification, slut-shaming is one of mankind’s oldest instincts.
There are a thousand good reasons not to buy the Sun. Breasts are not one of them.
This is an open letter to Roz Hardie, CEO of the campaign group Object.
It was good to meet you on London Live TV last Wednesday, if only briefly, where we discussed this past weekend’s XBIZ EU conference for the adult industry. It was an extra, unexpected pleasure to see you in the Hilton prior to your anti-porn protest on Thursday, and again at your protest outside the Spearmint Rhino strip club on Saturday.
Although we don’t seem to agree on much (you think all expressions of sexuality are evil, I don’t, etc.), I’m contacting you to suggest an alliance in one area where we seem to agree, and where we can work together against one of the great scourges of society: rape.
You see, in all the years I’ve been following Object, I’ve noticed your frequent claims that women in the sex entertainment industries are being raped as a matter of routine. When I debated against your colleague Julia Long at UCL some years ago, she claimed to know of cases where women had been abused on porn sets – although she declined to provide any detail.
You made similar points about sexual coercion in pornography during our TV appearance last week, but again provided no detail. It seems this behaviour isn’t new; the veteran anti-sex campaigner Mary Whitehouse claimed to be in possession of letters from victims of the porn industry, although oddly, she chose not to share these with the authorities.
Object seem to have one core tactic: to shout “rape” in the context of pornography and other sexual entertainment. At one protest I witnessed outside an Internet porn conference, your supporters were shouting about the mass rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which took place during its long and brutal war; although it remained a mystery to me as to how Internet porn could be held responsible for this, in a country with few roads, let alone broadband connections.
At your protest last Saturday, your supporters were screaming “rapist” at men walking into Spearmint Rhino. There were also women going into the club, and curiously your people called them “losers”. I would have expected that, if you believed women were being raped in Spearmint Rhino, you would be extending an arm of support to them, rather than screaming childish insults.
It has long troubled me that Object are prepared to make endless claims of rape and sexual abuse against the sex entertainment industries; and yet, to my knowledge, you have filed no police reports. Nobody has been arrested or taken to court. Shouldn’t rapists face the full might of the law? As we know, rape convictions are difficult to get, because it often comes down to one person’s word against another. But you’re claiming that industrial-scale rape is taking place ON VIDEO! Surely, convictions will be easy in these cases?
So here’s my proposal: if, as you have long claimed, Object have evidence of sexual violence associated with the sexual entertainment industries, then let’s approach the police with it. I will help you identify the publishers, producers and performers involved. We recently discovered that we both live in the same London borough – shall we fix a date to meet at Lewisham police station?
As a “feminist human rights organisation”, I’ve no doubt you will leap at the chance of bringing rapists to the attention of the law. If, on the other hand, you are merely using rape accusations as a tool of panic in order to further moralistic, pro-censorship aims, then you are taking the fight against sexual violence backward rather than forward. By labelling random men as rapists, and by referring to consenting sex between adults as rape, you are redefining the concepts of rape and consent to suit a conservative, anti-sex agenda. By harassing women who work in the sex industries, while telling the media that you are “saving” them, you divert attention away from sexual violence and towards the stigmatisation of healthy, adult sexual expression.
A female business owner who witnessed your behaviour on Saturday wrote the following to me:
Object’s attitude towards anyone, whether they are remotely affiliated to the adult industry or directly involved in it is absolutely disgusting. A couple of guys were horrified when they arrived as they had the term ‘Rapist’ shouted at them. It is irresponsible to use such terms so candidly when a number of women and some men even have been subjected to such horrible crime. It is dangerous and potentially damaging to society when people start using such labels so lightly. Most will agree that this is not a rational way of putting across any sort of argument, this is quite simply verbal abuse because our ideals of sexual freedom and freedom of speech are not line with theirs.
I look forward to hearing from you, and helping you ensure that the violent criminals you regularly invoke are brought to justice.
Outside the world of free speech advocacy, most people take the default position that some censorship is necessary and acceptable; that sensible lines can be drawn to keep out the bad stuff without affecting free expression in general. This approach naively ignores one of the great problems with censorship: that it is a tool of power, and once granted censorship powers, the state will almost certainly extend them in directions that could not have been predicted at the start. Thus, any censorship measure is a danger to all expression, and should be greeted with great scepticism.
Sadly, the British people appear to have lost track of this important point. While free expression is protected by the US Constitution, the UK has no such protection in law, and free expression here – especially sexual expression – has been deeply restricted as a result.
It’s not difficult to get the British masses behind new censorship: simply create a moral panic over harm to “women and children” (note that women are not considered to be autonomous adults in such situations). And nothing is better guaranteed to rouse the mob than child abuse.
So it was that in the 1970s, a moral panic (led by the Queen of Panic herself, Mary Whitehouse) over “child porn” led to the Protection of Children Act – which ostensibly existed to criminalise the creation of child abuse imagery. But the law went far further than criminalising abusive imagery: its final wording instead referred to “indecent imagery” – a subjective, moral idea.
In taking the step from child rape to nudity in general, the state sent a message: not that child abuse is wrong, but that the depiction of nudity is wrong, and so the state has enshrined into law an old British attitude – that nudity and sex are synonymous with each other, and naked bodies are dirty and shameful. The law has often been misused – perhaps most famously in 1995 to arrest the newsreader Julia Somerville, and her partner, who had taken photographs of their daughter in the bath. Many other, less famous people, have been branded child abusers and had their lives ruined for taking similar photographs – a victimless crime that upsets the nudity-hating moral attitudes of the British establishment.
The law is also dangerous in defining anyone under the age of 18 as a child. So in theory, a couple aged 17 who take naked photographs of each other – even for private use – can be branded paedophiles and criminalised.
And so a law that was supposedly introduced to protect abused children has instead been used to attack teenagers for enjoying consensual sex lives. It has also absorbed vast amounts of police and CPS resource that could instead have been directed at identifying and rescuing genuine abuse victims. Meanwhile, as we now know, the law did nothing to protect genuine victims of abuse from men in power.
Such is the nature of creeping censorship: laws passed in response to moral panics rarely do what they were intended to do. More recently, as the British censorship state has grown in reach and power, more draconian laws have come into being, and each one covers a far greater scope than promised by the politicians.
The “extreme porn” law is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Introduced in response to the murder of Jane Longhurst (which was dishonestly linked to BDSM pornography), it was supposed to be aimed at avoiding further such murders. Yet, as the law was drafted, it was broadened to include a number of categories of content, including animal porn, for which the vast majority of prosecutions have taken place. Given the broad definition of “possession”, this means that even receiving an unsolicited image is a criminal offence. Recently, two Essex men were found guilty – under a law supposedly designed to protect women from being murdered – for having received an animal porn video via WhatsApp. Although they had not requested the video, and had attempted to delete it, copies had remained on their phones, and they were forced to plead guilty to sexual offences.
And most recently, the “rape porn” law looks to catch far more people who pose no threat to anybody. The effect of the law is to criminalise consenting adults who enjoy BDSM porn featuring consenting adults.
In each of these cases, a seemingly good cause – child abuse, murder, rape – has been appropriated by the state in order to brand all sexual expression as wrong, as perverted, as criminal. One wonders where the real “perverts” are: at home, watching porn and snapping nude selfies; or in the censorship state, endlessly blurring lines between consensual and non-consensual activities.
Censorship is not something that can be harmlessly introduced to hide “the bad stuff” and leave “the nice stuff” alone. It is harmful by nature, and corrosive to the freedom of everyone. All sexual behaviour risks falling within the remit of Britain’s increasingly draconian anti-porn laws. The state has signalled its belief that all sexual activity belongs at home, in private, behind closed doors, and in the absence of recording devices. And thus, child abusers will cover their tracks and walk free, while consenting adults are branded sexual predators and harassed into taking their kinks back underground.
One of things that took me by surprise when I launched my porn website a decade ago was the amount of hatred thrown at pornstars. As I got to know the sex industries better, I discovered that strippers and prostitutes are the targets of similar abuse – or worse. But the biggest surprise was the source of much of the hatred: not from a religious-minded “patriarchy”, as I’d expected, but in large part from other women, and especially from feminists.
This was bizarre, given that feminist morality campaigners were claiming they were out to rescue these women. When “rescuing” entails spitting on strippers as they go to work, supporting immigration and drug squad raids on brothels, and calling for well-paid women to be made unemployed, one has to suspect the true motivations of the rescuer.
Pornstars are public performers, and tend not to be particularly shy or retiring. But most prostitutes, out of necessity (partly thanks to the bigotry of the rescue industry), seek privacy. In my campaigning work, I’ve often encountered women who have had their livelihoods attacked, but have chosen to stay silent because of the fear of stigma, should they choose to defend themselves. The video-on-demand regulator ATVOD, for example, chooses to publish the real names and addresses of sex workers who run video websites. It is, of course, purely coincidental that a number of such women have chosen to close down their sites rather than be forced to publicly defend their right to run them.
Anti-sex campaigners rely on sex workers’ fear of publicity, knowing that few will openly challenge their campaigns of misinformation. So when I watched the excellent Sex Workers’ Opera at a packed theatre in East London last night, I was deeply impressed by (among other things) the bravery of the performers, many of whom were sex workers.
The performance opened with a rant from a “member of the audience”, who jumped on stage and began shouting about “objectification” and “trafficking”, while screaming SHUT UP! at anybody who dared look in her direction. This rapidly set the scene: in this war of morality-dressed-as-concern, even those sex workers who dare to speak for themselves must be denied a voice. They must be saved, and if they don’t want to be saved, it just shows how badly sex work has fucked them up psychologically, thus reinforcing the need to save them.
The performances were based on sex workers’ own stories, and so were poignant as well as frequently funny; they often struck a chord with sex workers who were present in the audience. The police raid in which women were taken from their workplaces and locked in cells “for their protection”; the women forced to work alone, and made more vulnerable to attack, by laws against brothels; the prostitute who found herself giving marriage guidance counselling to her client; the dominatrix; the submissive. A section of the performance was by webcam workers, and was projected onto a screen rather than performed live on stage. There was an excellent performance by a pole dancer.
Having expected a fairly amateur affair (after all, none of these were professional singers or actors), I was surprised by the quality of the writing, production and performances. For sure, there were some rough edges – but for a two-day play staged by non-professionals, the quality was easily good enough for me to enjoy the entire show.
The overall message was a simple one, which was laid bare in the finale: Listen To Me. How dare outsiders deign to speak on behalf of those whose voices they refuse to hear? How dare moralists insist to know more about sex work than the sex workers themselves?
Want to see it? Sadly, you’ve probably missed it. Tonight’s is the final performance, and it’s almost certainly sold out, as yesterday’s was. But the show was strong enough that, with professional production, it could be revived as something bigger and better in future. Let’s hope this happens, and that these voices reach an ever wider audience. You can join their Facebook page or follow on Twitter to keep in touch.
On Thursday evening, BBC3 showed a whole hour of porn panic, hosted by Radio One presenter Jameela Jamil. The programme’s title, Porn What’s The Harm, suggested an open-minded enquiry into the question of whether porn is harmful to teenagers who view it. But this was never going to be an unbiased look at the issue. Jamil has long made clear her dislike of pornography. And the programme was as full of misinformation and panic as we expected.
Jamil’s opening words set the scene: “Porn is everywhere!” Um… is it? Of course it isn’t – this is a standard porn panic statement. And it wasn’t alone. Barely a minute passed without Jamil making clear her shock, horror and disgust: “UNBELIEVABLY explicit sex acts”, “In the homes, in the minds, in the lives of our children”, “This is unbelievable!”, “Ordinary families have to deal with this every day”, “Countless children have already been exposed to shocking images”, “I’m horrified!”, “Bombarded with these pornographic images”, and on and on and on…
According to the Internet, Jamil is 28. Yet I wondered at times if she is perhaps in her 50s. Although Internet porn has been freely available for a full generation, Jamil seems to believe she grew up in an innocent, porn-free age, and that young people today are growing up in a different world to the one she did. The web has been widely available for about 20 years, and porn has always featured very heavily, and has been easy to access. And porn on video has been widely available since the 1980s. Anybody under 30 has had easy access to Internet pornography since their early teens, and most people under 50 will have had some exposure to porn as a teenager.
There was a genuine laugh out loud moment for me, when Jamil describes seeing porn at 15, a scene involving a woman and a cucumber, and says: it “…made me not eat a salad for 12 years!” So now we know: porn is responsible for Britain’s unhealthy diets as well as every other bad thing that’s ever happened.
When talking about teens “sexting” images to each other, she again appears to be far older than she actually is. “I’m so glad that every boyfriend I’ve had until now was before picture messaging”, she says. And since picture messaging has been around for a decade or so, poor Jameela has clearly been single since she was 18!
The programme conducts a survey of teens and finds the average age of first accessing porn is 14 – so no great surprise. It then goes on to look at the effects of porn on teens. Rather than speak to experts, the teenagers themselves are asked how they are affected. Such self-report evidence is of little value. How can teens compare themselves to the person they would be if they hadn’t watched porn? How can teens today compare themselves to the teenagers of the 1970s who didn’t have easy access to pornography?
Predictably, although she claimed to be interested in the effects of porn on teens, Jamil didn’t interview any psychologists. If she had, she’d have discovered there is little evidence that pornography is harmful. Instead, there was a brief appearance by two “experts in sexualisation”. And as has already been covered here, sexualisation is simply another keyword designed to invoke moral panic.
Undaunted by the lack of evidence of harm, Jamil goes into full-blown moral panic mode. She raises the case of an 11 year old boy who raped his 8 year old sister after – we are told – looking at porn. And she interviews a rape victim who is “convinced pornography played a part in the attack”.
In linking porn to rape, Jamil is playing a trick that has been employed by morality campaigners since at least the 1980s. And like those campaigners, she is guilty of switching the blame for rape away from the rapist, and giving rapists an excuse for their behaviour: “the porn made me do it”.
And then, like all good purveyors of panic, Jamil casually adds child abuse imagery to the equation, helping blur the line between consenting adult sex and the rape of children.
She throws in several other tried-and-tested panic tools for good measure, such as blaming porn for women who have cosmetic surgery on their labia. According to this idea, all vulva in pornography are neat and small, and this makes women seek surgery to copy the pornstars. In fact, porn has taught people that vaginas are not all the same, and some scenes (link NSFW!) positively worship generously-proportioned female genitalia. Her evidence that this is happening? “I often see reports in the media linking porn to labiaplasties”. You mean the same media that allows dishonest, moralistic documentaries like yours to be broadcast on TV, Jameela?
It is disappointing that such propaganda is still broadcast by the BBC in the place of informed, panic-free comment. And of course, there’s an agenda. While pretending to be naive of all things porn, Jamil throws in some very current political soundbites. When browsing porn, she expresses shock that she has not been asked to verify her age, thus fitting in surprisingly neatly with ATVOD’s recent campaign aimed at giving ATVOD statutory powers to censor the Internet. If she had tried to access the same sites from a PC on which child protection software was installed, she wouldn’t have been able to access the images that so shocked her.
So come on BBC: this discussion is welcome, but let’s have some honest, evidence based programming, rather than endless panic aimed at building public support for Internet censorship.