This podcast contains two interviews I did in 2012, with “Shelley” and “Edie”, two strippers-turned-activists. In hindsight, these interviews are important, because they mark the point when a small feminist morality movement began to grow. In Edie’s words, the strippers were “the canaries in the coalmine”. The attacks on strip clubs may have seemed irrelevant to most people, but they were followed by far bigger attacks on free expression in the subsequent years. You can also find this podcast on YouTube.
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:
Support Sex & Censorship:
Buy Porn Panic! - The Book
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.
In October, I wrote to Object to question their accusations of sexual violence against the sex entertainment industry, and their behaviour during a recent protest. Although they tweeted that they would be responding to the “false” allegations, we have heard nothing more from them.
We have now exclusively obtained a video of Object’s protest outside Spearmint Rhino in London on 27th September – watch it below:
For those that had any doubts, this demonstrates hateful, harassing behaviour by Object supporters towards both men and women – bizarrely, men were labelled “scum” and “rapist”, while women entering the club were called “loser”. We have also heard from strippers claiming to have experienced harassment by Object supporters.
And yet, Object claims to be a human rights organisation, takes funding from the National Lottery and other sources, and receives strong, positive coverage from the Guardian and other publications. We believe Object is a hate group: how and why are they gaining access to these funds?
Stripper Activist Stacey Clare is angry…
I have a confession to make. It’s not in anyway salacious, sorry to disappoint. In fact, once I start explaining the background to it, you may well lose interest. But stick with this, because I have a shocking revelation to make about lap dancing and strip clubs. I’m still reeling from it myself.
To add some context, I am co-founder and member of a group of strippers called the East London Strippers Collective. I call myself a stripper activist these days, since someone needs to be. I have been banging on about the state of the strip club industry for almost as long I have been working in it. Since day one, I quickly recognised the injustice of clubs running their business models predicated not only on sales of drinks to customers and door entry fees, but also the amounts of money they can extort from the girls working in them, in the form of house fees and charges.
So, I started educating myself. I made use of my time as a student to make sense of what I was doing. I trawled through decades of feminist theory, explored what little academic research was available, and even bothered to get down to the nitty-gritty legislation itself. Reading actual white paper documents is hardly sexy, but from my point of view, knowing your rights and being able to uphold them is sexy as FUCK. In 2008 I eventually wrote a dissertation about licensing legislation and I had a pretty good idea of what was happening in my industry. The Licensing Act 2003 boosted the night time economy and opened up new markets – one of which was the adult entertainment industry. Lap dancing clubs proliferated under the new licensing regime that allowed them to operate with a public entertainment license. Between 2004 and 2008 lap dancing clubs were popping up in every town across the nation, at one stage opening at the rate of one per week.
Still with me? Ok, great.
I was working a lot during this period, and I remember dancing for the opening weekend of a club in Sunderland. I remember how appalling the management were, and how oversubscribed the club was with dancers – all paying a hefty house fee, making up a reasonable portion of the club’s income. And while we all hustled for private dances among the few blokes who had dared to become patrons of a controversial new business in their town centre, breaking our backs in plastic shoes to scrape together a couple of hundred quid, the proprietors of the club were comfortably watching the money rolling in by the minute. Something was dreadfully wrong with this business model.
Just as I was handing in my dissertation, a political campaign led by prohibitionist womens’ rights groups Object and the Fawcett Society, resulted in a parliamentary debate and a subsequent change in licensing law around lap dancing clubs. The Policing and Crime Act 2009 gave local authorities new powers to control the spread of the industry and limit the numbers of existing licenses. No longer able to operate with only a Public Entertainment license, lap dancing and strip clubs must now comply with tighter licensing objectives, and an SEV license is now needed. SEV stands for Sexual Entertainment Venue.
Now, SEV licenses have actually been around a lot longer than this, in fact since the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982. Back then SEV stood for Sex Encounter Venue – which sounds a bit clinical and sinister. None-the-less, councils did already have at one stage the power to impose SEV licensing objectives on local sex industry businesses. Quite how the loophole happened and why licensing authorities were handing out public entertainment licenses to strip joints up and down the land, defeats me. It was good for business I suppose. But the actual realities of these clubs appeared to be going right under the noses of licensing officials, who turned a blind eye to their business practises.
So that’s when the feminists got involved. And with the help of some heavy weight journalists and academics, and the voices of several ex-dancers who had quit the industry after experiencing the exploitation going on in it, they won the fight to reclassify lap dancing clubs under the more honest and suitable title of Sexual Entertainment Venue. (Thanks to the hard work and brave efforts of those fighting the side of the clubs, in particular one dancer known as Solitaire, who enlisted the support of the performers union Equity, the term Sex Encounter was changed to Sex Entertainment for the purposes of wording the legislation.)
That’s when things took a turn for the worse. In my mind, there was a major oversight throughout every stage of the consultations that took place during the lead up to the licensing reform. That dancers themselves were not legitimately consulted and represented, that they did not have an effectual voice in the debate, neither in the media nor in parliament, has had a highly detrimental effect on our jobs and working environments. Unsurprisingly, the level of taboo attached to the job, and the marginalisation that dancers suffer as a consequence of doing it, means individuals prefer to remain anonymous and are unlikely to come forth and contribute their views and opinions for fear of judgement and social chastisement. Thus decisions are made on our behalf by those who make assumptions about us. Talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place – no pun intended.
So here we are 5 years later. What’s changed? Well at first glance not much. And in terms of how clubs operate by charging girls money to work in them and offering little or nothing in return regarding job security or comfortable working conditions, nothing has changed. In fact in some cases, it is getting worse.
This is where my confession comes in. And if you have stuck with me this far, then you deserve something juicy. So, in my capacity as a stripper activist I have known about the licensing reform since before it even happened. I have griped about it ever since. And in this last 5 years that I have been working under this new licensing regime, I have never actually bothered to sit down and read the Policing and Crime Act 2009.
I know right? Lazy girl.
Last week was the first time I finally got round to it – between doing an interview for VICE and promoting our upcoming event (a public talk about licensing) it seemed like the right time.
Boy, did I get a shock. Anyone who either works as a stripper, or engages as a customer should see this. In fact anyone with a vested or personal interest in upholding and protecting the right to engage with any form of sex work should see this.
The Policing and Crime Act 2009, consists of 9 Parts, and 117 Sections, of which Part 2, Section 27 Regulation of lap dancing and other sexual entertainment venues etc. is the new law used to control SEV licensing. Part 2, titled Sexual Offences and Sex Establishments contains 14 sections, each relating to a particular type of offence. For example Section 14 Paying for sexual services of a prostitute subjected to force etc., or Section 16 Amendment to offence of loitering etc for purposes of prostitution. In real language this legislation is talking about the crimes of trafficking and street walking. Section 18 deals with Rehabilitation of offenders, while Sections 22-25 deal with sexual tourists who travel abroad to commit sexual abuse on children, which would be considered a crime in this country. Section 26 handles those who choose to view child pornography online. And then comes Section 27 – lap dancing clubs.
WHAT THE FUCK???
As I reread this document I can feel again the rising sense of disgust and anger… What the hell does my job have to do with SEX OFFENDERS? Rapists and paedophiles in the same category as strippers and punters!!!!?
I MEAN, WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK????
This stops here. And I mean it stops.
From what I can see, the very fact that licensing legislation for lap dancing clubs is included in a law that deals with crime and disorder is a clear move towards criminalisation of lap dancing. There is a clear moral campaign that seeks to stamp out all aspects of sex work by criminalising it, and lap dancing is now on the target range. Being lumped in with a general list of offences is not only misleading but degrading – as if somehow all acts of sex work are indicative of abuse. To conflate stripping with trafficking, and acts of sexual violence effectively means that strippers are by law represented as victims of abuse, which is turn sets a very dangerous precedent. When we allow this type of merger it eventually becomes all the more difficult to discern and distinguish those who are genuine victims of abuse, and those who aren’t.
In all the years I have been working as a stripper, I have never, not once in any of the clubs I have worked in, seen evidence of strippers being trafficked. I do know however that there are girls working in some clubs who are being coerced and controlled by club owners and bosses. I know which clubs have the tell tale signs,
I hear the rumours because I am in that world. Yes, there are abuses in my industry, yes there are poor working conditions and exploitative business practises. So, who asked me what I thought about changing the law? Who offered to help us when all this evidence was coming out in Parliament? Who gave us a voice?
Oh yeah, they did give us a voice. They let us change 1 word – from “encounter” to “entertainment”.
Our group, the East London Strippers Collective, has come together out of a shared grievance over the problems in the industry. And as we start to scratch beneath the surface, we discover that these issues are compounded by empty licensing that offers no help, no protection or security, and, thanks to the further stigmatisation of our workplace, pushes us further out onto the fringes of social acceptability, leaving us even more vulnerable than before.
To truly tackle problematic conditions in any industry, governments should use employment law to uphold the rights of workers. So long as strippers have no rights, and continue to fall through the net of employment protection, they will be exploited. Even self-employed people have rights to negotiate with their business associates and clients, yet the industry we work in affords us none of these freedoms, as we scrabble around doing our best to look sexy while we fear for our jobs from one day to the next.
We demand a revision of the current licensing law, and for the voices of those who choose to work in the industry (not just those who have left it) to be reconsidered. We need to re-examine the motivations of those who seek to stigmatise and criminalise our profession, and remove the venues in which we do it. We want to be recognised as workers like any others, and to be acknowledged by law as independent autonomous citizens with free will, who have consciously chosen to walk the controversial path of sex work because, believe it or not, there is some benefit for those who do it.
We have a long way to go, but there is no doubt in my mind that if we do not challenge the aspects of society that seek to destroy beauty and creativity, we are a very sick society indeed. Licensing may be dull and exhausting, but when we fail to engage, laws like this one sneak through Parliament. Suddenly we find ourselves defined by terms we have not chosen and certainly don’t want.
Not only that, but if there’s one thing I know in my bones, it’s that when I can do it on my own terms, when I want, where I want, for whom I choose… I bloody love to strip.
Here’s a quick update regarding my recent letter to Object (the human rights organisation/hate group – take your pick), in which I questioned Object’s frequent accusations of rape against the sex entertainment industries.
The letter was written on 1st October. Four days later, Object tweeted the following response:
— OBJECT (@ObjectUpdate) October 5, 2014
We would, of course be horrified, if these allegations were made in error, and look forward to Object’s reply with interest. Watch this space for more updates.
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.
Founder, Sex & Censorship
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…
On March 15, the Stop Porn Culture circus will come to London, representing a coalition of the loudest anti-sex and pro-censorship voices in the English-speaking world. Former pornstar Renée Richards calls on UK pornstars, strippers, models, sex workers and their supporters to take a stand and join us to protest against those who have, for so long, labelled and lied about the women in the sex industries.
When I woke up yesterday morning and saw the Stop Porn Culture event being tweeted, my first inclination was to get out the banners and sit on the Blackfriars Road for the next four weeks in angry anticipation. This was soon overcome with a worry; a worry that to protest outside the event would be conflicting with Sex and Censorship’s free speech ethos, and that surely if I were to protest outside the Stop Porn Culture’s conference then I would be trying to censor or prevent women such as Gail Dines, Julie Bindel and the women who speak on behalf of the organisation OBJECT, from achieving their goal of spreading their lies* and prejudices about the porn industry and sex workers.
So instead of trying to find my CND tent, I did what most Brits do and passively grumbled to my husband. “But if people don’t protest then surely this gives across the message that you don’t care? Silence can be read as compliance…” He followed this up with “anyway, you wouldn’t be protesting to silence them.” This soon had me flying back to my laptop keyboard and tweeting all of the porn performers I knew.
So if I’m not protesting to silence these women, then what I am I protesting for? Well, I’ll tell you:
On Stop Porn Culture’s website it has a section called ‘Survivor Stories’ where, as you can imagine from the title, there are lots of accounts from women who have worked as sex workers within the porn industry, as strippers and/or as prostitutes. These accounts are all very harrowing and upsetting, and I am sure that they are real, but my annoyance is this: These things do not happen to all women who work as sex workers. I, and many, many other women I know who have worked and continue to work as sex workers in the porn industry, strip clubs and as prostitutes have not had these harrowing experiences.
This, of course, does not mean that these horrible events are okay just because they have only happened to some women. But instead of banning porn, which is what the women at the Stop Porn Culture conference would like to do, which would push the industry into an illegal terrain where human rights are not accounted for and more harrowing events could freely occur, we should be recognizing it for the legitimate industry that it is. I wish that the likes of Gail Dines, Julie Bindel and OBJECT would put as much effort into trying to unionise sex workers and creating better working environments for sex workers, as they are into trying to ban them.
Get your facts right!
So, again, I’m not protesting to silence the women at this conference, I’m protesting for these women to get their facts right.
The website also contains links to websites which state that new studies from Cambridge University that ‘MRI scans of test subjects who admitted to compulsive pornography use showed that the reward centres of the brain reacted to seeing explicit material in the same way as an alcoholic’s might on seeing a drinks advert.’ Therefore, porn is addictive, right? WRONG! Just because the self-identifying excessive users of ‘pornography show similar brain activity to alcoholics or drug addicts’ does not therefore mean that these excessive users are addicted, or that porn is addictive.
A problem with studies such as these is that the information provided, with words such as ‘similar brain activity’ are then removed to make the information more accessible, or palatable to those who have already made up their minds on the subject. So ‘a small test group of excessive porn users have an MRI scan and show similar brain activity to those who are addicted to alcohol and/or drugs’ which are not yet tested against other porn users who are not deemed as excessive users (what is excessive use anyway? And who gets to decide? Is watching three films a night excessive, or one film a week?)
Neither have these MRI scans taken place on a small test group of excessive porn users who claim not be addicted to pornography. So, the information gained by these limited experiments are then misinterpreted as ‘everyone who watches porn will become addicted’. If these continual studies show that porn is addictive to a small percentage of people, similar to that of alcohol being addictive to a small percentage of people, then surely this is not an argument against its ban. Unless of course the likes of Julie Bindel, Gail Dines and OBJECT think that the prohibition experiment of the United States between 1920 and 1933 worked, of course…
If I don’t object to OBJECT, who will?
This final point is probably the most important: We have the right to protest!
Both articles 10 and 11 of the Human Rights Act protect our rights to free speech and protest. We have the ‘right to speak freely and join with others peacefully, to express [our] views’. In this instance the pro-porn and/or the pro-sex industries’ voice is very rarely heard. Gail Dines is a well renowned author, Julie Bindel regularly writes for The Guardian and OBJECT are no stranger to protesting or speaking out. Yet the men and women who perform in adult films, prostitutes and lap dancers who are regularly spoken about are very rarely heard from themselves. This is our chance!
This is my rallying call… (if only I had a ‘XXX’ beacon to project into the sky à la Batman):
If you work within the sex industry and do not want to stop, do not want other people to speak on your behalf and do not feel as if you voice is being heard and/or want to protect your job, then join us outside the Stop Porn Culture conference on 15 March from 3pm till 5pm.
Location: Outside Wedge House, 36-40 Blackfriars Road, Southwark, London, SE1 8PB
Join the event page on Facebook.
See you there!
* I use the word ‘lies’ because some of the ‘facts’ that I’ve read on the SPC website are completely unfounded, and through empirical evidence of my experience as a porn performer, I find these not to be true. And ‘prejudices’ because the definition of this word is ‘preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience’.
The morality group Object has long campaigned against striptease as well as other forms of sexual expression. Although they claim to be a “women’s rights” organisation, they show notable disdain – even at times, hate – towards the women in the sex industries. Object show no apparent interest in listening to the “poor, abused women” that they claim they are saving from exploitation.
This week, Object founder Anna van Heeswijk published a Guardian article listing five reasons why the strip industry must be attacked using further legislation. In response Vera Rodriguez, a Spanish stripper working in London, wrote the following letter.
Lapdancing clubs need to listen to the voices of the dancers. Here is why:
A response to Ms Heeswick letter, from a dancer’s perspective. Your ‘5 reasons’ easily refuted and more.
Dear Ms Heeswick, after reading your article published yesterday, I would like to answer to each of your reasons…
1. Lap dancing clubs market women as sexual objects for male gratification
Let me question your affirmation, Do lap dancing clubs market women as sexual objects for male gratification?
My answer is NO, in big capital letters. If so, how can an object dance with high heels and do pole dancing tricks? Behind every action of every worker there is a human being taking decisions for themselves. If somebody makes us “objects” is obviously your organization.
Dancers we are entertainers and so far, all workers work for money and that is what we do, entertainment for an audience that pays for our bills.
I also have to make a point to your state. The presence of strip clubs does definitely not increase the demand for “prostitution” but it offers a complete different service. I assume that you take prostitution –that I will call ‘sex work’ as something ‘lower’ than stripping but as a stripper I will not compare to others workers in a way that creates a hierarchy.
2. Women who work in lap dancing are routinely subjected to harassment, exploitation and the expectation of sexual services
Let me question your honesty about the definition “Object” as a human rights organization. To me, it is pure demagogy as it is only trying to make us -the female workers- more vulnerable. If more strip clubs disappear in these hard times of recession and less chances to get other jobs, do you think that is real feminism? As you thought you know what is best for us, let me also advice you to put your energy and your dubious anger in creating more jobs for women, not trying to take away jobs that we decided to do. We are thousands of mothers, migrants, students, fighters, activists and so on, as every one of us has a story to tell. I cant help but laugh sourly at your research with 14 years in the industry at my back.
Real feminism should defend women’s choices. It is not about privileged women eager for some kind of leadership thinking that they know what is best for the rest of us.
Yes, it is true that we have to pay house fees which, increased dramatically after the so called “feminists” like you pushed for a tough legislation that is not even enough for you now. That made us work in what is called now “sexual entertainment venues” and increased dramatically the price of licensing that clubs have to pay. Thanks for making my life –and other women’s life tougher, feminists!
To finish with this point, I will highlight that you try to prove your perspective with what you describe as ‘one woman’ that she felt it was the hardest job that she ever did. I could name hundreds of women that we are still in the industry by choice but as you only mention one, to mention myself is more than enough. Still, I will mention some collectives that support my statement.
3. Lap dancing clubs create a threatening environment for women and girls who live in the areas around the clubs
You support your answer again referring to “one woman that told Object” Can I meet her? Where is she? In which area does she live? Because in my whole career I have generally worked in places that are much more discreet than any other “normal pub” can be. Again, Ms van Heeswijk, why don’t you give more evidence? Is it because you truly lack of knowledge?
4. Councils can still operate under legislation that equates lap dancing clubs with restaurants and karaoke bars
I don’t question your question here when you say that councils can still operate under legislation that equals lap dancing clubs with restaurants and karaoke bars. I just want to ask you why are you so offended? Is it not a karaoke bar a place where people perform which is what I do in my shifts? As long as it is adult consent, which happens to be the case, I don’t think I need to ask permission to work in any neighbor hood, sorry. Can you name where the strip clubs are, Ms van Heeswijk? Sorry to question what I doubt. I have worked in places where even the neighbor hood did not notice that there was a stripping venue. This licensing requirement is only making our lives harder. Do you really want to ‘help’ strippers? Ok, help me to remove our house fees by not asking a special license.
5. Bars and pubs can get around the licensing regime by holding sexual entertainment events on an ‘occasional basis’
On your last ‘reason’ you assert that Bars and Pubs can get around the licensing regime by holding entertainment events on occasional basis. Let me ask you again why does it bother you so much that event workers work on event occasions? Why to make it more difficult to both organizers and dancers that we agree to work? Why not focus on protecting our rights as workers? Why don’t you fight stigma with us instead of us being your target?
Please Ms Van Heeswijk, other members of Object as certain kind of feminism, don’t be patronizing with other women. Start including sex workers and trans women in your out of date discourses. If you don’t agree with my decisions I simply do not care. But if you try to make my job even harder than it is, this letter will only be the beginning.
Signed: An angry stripper and…
I know you remember me – we’ve met twice. The first time, I was a witness at your parliamentary inquiry into “protecting children online” – although of course, we all knew that was a euphemism for justifying Internet censorship. I was shocked, but not surprised, to hear the torrent of anecdote and misinformation that passed for “evidence”, and was duly noted by the MPs.
If the event hadn’t been so serious, it would have been comical. Jacqui Smith (whose expertise in pornography extended as far as accidentally claiming for some on expenses) was sure that porn was leading more people to try anal sex – although she apparently had no evidence that this was true, and didn’t explain why it might be a bad thing anyway. The anti-sex group Object was, of course, represented, and of course furnished the inquiry with horrific (but vague) tales of rape caused by porn. But then, Object are as fond of linking everything to rape as the Daily Mail is of linking everything to cancer.
I did my best to point out that, if there is any link between porn and sexual violence at all, evidence suggest a benign one: increasing sexual freedom and openness (including easy access to pornography) correlates with a decline in sexual violence. And psychologists are increasingly coming to the conclusion that porn isn’t harmful – although conservative sexual attitudes probably do cause lasting damage. But puzzlingly, the MPs showed fairly little curiosity, and seemed to note down wild claims just as easily as they did hard evidence. There already appeared to be a general acceptance that something must be done.
I was especially worried to be the only person defending the basic concept of free speech (although I discovered later that Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group had appeared in another session). Free speech was once something Britain prided itself on, and still today, many Britons live in the mistaken belief that our country is founded on this idea. But the reality is otherwise: for decades, Britain has been easily panicked into surrendering rights in exchange for (false) promises of greater protection for our children. I was proud to defend free speech in Britain’s historic Parliament, but I felt that myself and Jim should not have been left to fly that flag alone.
Although you made a good show of listening carefully to all the arguments, it was already known at that stage that you favoured an Internet filter. To my eyes, it seemed that you had reached your conclusion and were going through the process of gathering evidence before you announced your support for a filter. And so it turned out.
You had been warned that the first experiment in filtering for “child protection”, on mobile networks, had been a catastrophe. It is simply not possible to classify hundreds of millions of websites as either “safe” or “over 18” without making vast numbers of mistakes. Yes, it’s pretty easy to block most commercial porn (in fact those sites voluntarily self-label as adult content), but in between kink.com and disney.com there is a near-infinite amount of hard-to-classify content.
Much of the content and many of the forums on sex education, sex advice, gay and lesbian advice, information on sexual infections, and so on, is aimed at teenagers, and yet has been largely blocked from mobile phones held by under-18s. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. All sorts of content has found itself blocked on mobile networks. The Open Rights Group even found a site selling engraved silver gifts that had been blocked because it sold cigarette lighters – classed as “tobacco products” and therefore censored by the blind, dumb filtering software.
And these sites aren’t just blocked for children: millions of adults too have found themselves unable to reach “over 18” sites. There are many reasons why some adults don’t want to contact their provider and ask for the block to be removed; and even among those who do, some have found the block replaced a day later, presumably through some technical error.
This isn’t “filtering”, it’s censorship, and it already affects the way millions of people see the Internet. And now you want to repeat an experiment that has failed catastrophically, but on a far greater scale. Home connections, unlike mobile connections, are shared. Now, as well as asking their ISP for the right to look at “adult content”, people have to ask their parent, their landlord, their flatmate, their partner.
The second time we met was in the Sky News studio. I know you remember me, because you described me as a “responsible pornographer”. I felt dirty. I tried to put two questions to you, but you talked over them, as politicians are trained to do. So here are those questions again:
- I’m a parent: are you suggesting that my partner and I should censor our home Internet connection because we happen to have a child in the house? Should parents set their filters on or off?
- How can you prevent a repeat of the huge overblocking problem that already appears on mobile networks?
Since you wouldn’t answer these, I will: 1) There is no sense in a filter that affects a whole household rather than individuals; 2) You can’t prevent overblocking. You can promise to, just as you can promise to stop the tide. But you can’t. It’s impossible.
And now, the ISP filters are here. And guess what? Overblocking has already been reported. Of course, you (and the ISPs) will dismiss these as teething problems, but unlike teething problems, they ain’t going away.
We shouldn’t worry about teens though. They have doubtless already downloaded the Pirate Browser, or bought themselves a USB key that bypasses the filter. The net result is that nobody is safer, but many people have had their view of the Internet censored. The genius of your approach – bullying the ISPs – is that you have done all this without the messy business of passing a law or having a debate in parliament! Who needs democracy anyway? The Chinese and Iranians are, no doubt, taking notes.
I look forward to our next meeting.
Founder, Sex & Censorship