Tag Archives: parliament

UK Committee Recommends Sex Work Decriminalisation (Kinda)

British sex workers are jubilant as the parliamentary sex work inquiry, led by Labour MP Keith Vaz, has recommended scrapping laws restricting the sale of sex in the UK. While sex work is legal, sex workers have long called for complete decriminalisation.  In particular, sex work activists have pointed at the brothel-keeping law which effectively prevents two or more women working together for safety.

The statement includes a quote from Vaz which strongly recommends the scrapping of these laws:

“Treating soliciting as a criminal offence is having an adverse effect, and it is that sex workers, who are predominantly women, should be penalised and stigmatised in this way. The criminalisation of sex workers should therefore end.

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The current law on brothel keeping also means sex-workers can be too afraid of prosecution to work together at the same premises, which can often compromise their safety.”

This is fantastic for those who have campaigned to make life safer for sex workers. There are caveats, however:

“There must however be zero tolerance of the organised criminal exploitation of sex workers, and changes to legislation should not lessen the Home Office’s ability to prosecute those engaged in exploitation.”

So, for example, it is unclear whether a partner of a sex worker who works from home might still be criminalised. Such a statement suggests that full decriminalisation is not, in fact, on the cards – rather a loosening of existing laws. Nonetheless, life is set to become easier and safer for sex workers in general.

However, this is an interim statement, and there is a huge omission: the committee has yet to determine whether sex buyers will be criminalised under the so-called Nordic Model, which has been implemented in Sweden, Northern Ireland, and most recently in France.

“The Committee will evaluate a number of the alternative models as this inquiry continues, including the sex-buyers law as operated in Sweden, the full decriminalised model used in Denmark, and the legalised model used in Germany and the Netherlands.”

As I reported in my article about France, the introduction of the Nordic model was dishonestly presented as decriminalisation. A Twitter user suggested to me that:

“France is not banning prostitution actually quite the contrary. We are banning the buying of sex and de-criminilising prostitutes” [sic]

So the language of decriminalisation is malleable and slippery. Since “decriminalisation” has become a popular word, so prohibitionists have adopted it and changed its meaning. Shifting the legal burden from workers to clients is not, of course, decriminalisation – it just uses different tools to achieve the same ends; it would also make a mockery of a new law that allows brothels to be kept, but doesn’t allow anyone to visit them.

So there is certainly great cause for celebration, but perhaps the most important decision has been left to a later date. We await with interest.

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Vid: The London Porn Protest

Here is a 20 minute video covering the highlights of last Friday’s porn protest outside the UK Parliament. With thanks to Terry Stephens (aka The Naked Truth Guy), who shot and edited it (follow him on Twitter).

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The video includes my speech on behalf of Sex & Censorship, along with speeches by organiser Charlotte Rose, lawyer Myles Jackman and CAAN representative Jane Fae.

‘Rape Porn’: Our Response to Parliament

Parliament is currently considering, as part of the upcoming Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, criminalising the possession of what the government refers to as ‘rape porn’. Sex & Censorship have submitted a response to oppose this new law (Clause 16 in the new bill).

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The response was written by Jerry Barnett of Sex & Censorship, and Dr David Ley, a psychologist specialising in sexuality. We raised seven issues, which are summarised below (Dr Ley’s response formed point 5).

  1. The proposed law results from a moral panic over ‘rape porn’ rather than any evidence of harm.
  2. Although headlined as ‘rape porn’, the wording of the law would criminalise consenting (but perhaps non-standard) sexual activity.
  3. The law blurs the distinction between consensual and nonconsensual sex, and so may hinder, rather than help, attempts to reduce sexual violence.
  4. There has been no evidence presented that viewers of the content in question may be driven to commit sexual violence as a result of viewing it.
  5. Conversely, there is evidence that such content may serve as an outlet for people who are prone to sexual violence and may reduce rather than increase their likelihood to commit harm.
  6. In general, possession laws are draconian as they place an impossible burden of legal and technical knowledge on members of the public.
  7. Censorship itself is harmful to free expression. Censorship laws should, therefore, only be introduced in response to compelling evidence of harm rather than on the basis of moral values alone.

The full response document (PDF) can be downloaded by clicking this link: S&C parliament rape porn submission.

Letter to MPs on Criminalising “Rape Porn”

This week, the following letter was sent to a number of MPs and Lords, to raise concerns over the planned “rape porn” legislation. This was sent on behalf of Sex & Censorship and an alliance of other sexual freedom campaigns: Backlash, Consenting Adult Action Network, Campaign Against Censorship and the Sexual Freedom Coalition.

We write to express grave concern regarding S16 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill which will extend the existing ban on extreme pornography (S63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act). This section is poorly defined. It will have the unintended consequence of criminalising the possession of material that depicts consensual sex, bondage and power-play fantasies common to millions.

Pornography of all kinds has become much more accessible since the Internet has become available to the general public. In that time, the prevalence of sexual abuse has not increased in the United Kingdom and may have decreased. It is simplistic & mistaken to suggest that pornography is a cause of violence against women. Correlation is not causation. Serious academic studies of pornography and sexual violence (1) show that increased availability of pornography is, in fact, associated with less violence and abuse.

Fictional and consensual portrayals of submission and domination are a common and popular sexual fantasy, as recently illustrated by the Fifty Shades of Grey novels. Indeed one of the largest surveys ever undertaken in Britain (2) indicated that nearly a third of us have fantasies about elements of forced sex, with approximately 2.2 million men and women having violent sexual fantasies. With around 90% of men and 60% of women viewing pornography, and with so many enjoying fantasies of this nature, the danger is that this poorly defined legislation will have a huge impact.

The Bill’s Impact Assessment suggests that the number of cases cannot be predicted. When extreme material was criminalised (by S63(7) CJIA 2008) government ministers predicted there would only be 30 cases a year, but the reality was very different. In the last year for which the MoJ has provided data (2012/13), there were 1,348 prosecutions. Given that the number of people who enjoy material that features sexual bondage and power-play is so high, we fear government will create thousands of new sex offenders, most of whom will be entirely harmless law-abiding citizens.

There is also a problem with government guidance for the public and prosecutors. Just prior to the enactment of S63(7) CJIA 2008, in response to reservations, the House of Lords was promised that meaningful guidance would be issued to explain those categories that were difficult to define. This never happened. In fact prosecutors were so unsure of the meaning of the law that there have been some trials of material which we are confident Parliament never intended. For example, the prosecution of barrister Simon Walsh, a former aide to Boris Johnson, whose legal practice had included investigating corruption within British police forces. His career in public life was ruined by a prosecution. It was rejected by a jury after 90 minutes deliberation. Prosecutors failed to prove that images depicting consensual sex acts between him and two other gay men were ‘extreme’.

The prosecution also threatened the reputation of the Crown Prosecution Service as an impartial public servant by showing that gay men risked having their lives destroyed in court over intimate acts which were consensual, safe and commonly practiced within the LGBT community. Bad laws do not harm only the individuals prosecuted; they also harm the institutions tasked with enforcing them, and increase even further the costs of the justice system to the taxpayer. This proposed law will also traumatise large numbers of women and men by having their private sexual fantasies examined and shamed in public.

It is therefore vital that S16 of this Bill be refined to limit the scope of the ban to images that are produced through real harm or lack of consent. Fantasy portrayals of forced/power-play sex are too commonly enjoyed to be reasonably subject to prohibition.

We appeal to you to refine this legislation. We also ask to be permitted to put detailed evidence to Parliament at the committee stages. Finally, we ask if you would be willing to host an event in Parliament, at which representatives could speak, so that members of both Houses can better understand what is at stake.

References.

1. Pornography, Public Acceptance and Sex Related Crime: A Review: 2009: Milton Diamond
2. British Sexual Fantasy Research Project: 2007. ISBN 978-0-713-99940-2

Filtering: Definition of Irony?

Home of Democracy?
Home of Democracy? (Image license info)

While browsing some old emails, I discovered the invitation to Claire Perry’s “let’s censor the Internet” committee (or a “parliamentary inquiry into the online protection of children”, as it was formally known). The email begins with this delightful intro:

“Dear Mr Barnett – apologises for sending this via gmail unfortunately the Parliament I.T. systems do not allow us to send and recieve emails to strictly broadband. I do hope the below is something you can consider. Please respond using my gmail email. Many thanks, …”

Parliament, like many large organisations, had already implemented filtering on its Internet connections; how many children are protected by this mechanism is unclear, but obviously MPs cannot be trusted to have open access to the network.

Perry has spent the past two years arguing vigorously that overblocking rarely occurs and is easily dealt with; yet evidence to the contrary was already staring her in the face. If Parliament can’t even get a porn filter right, how is the entire country supposed to do so?

ALERT: Parliament Considers UK Internet Block-List

David Cameron’s announcement of an Internet filter to “protect children” has raised great concern this year; and yet, as I wrote following the announcement, the filter is merely a first step towards Internet censorship: I referred to it as “Internet Censorship 1.0”. The filter is not a legal requirement, but a voluntary agreement between the government and ISPs; but it was inevitable that legislation would follow. And indeed it has: the Online Safety Bill is a private member’s bill which is about to have its second reading in the House of Lords.

A casual reader might assume it simply refers to the filtering system already discussed, but in fact it contains something far more serious: an attempt to introduce a mandatory UK Internet block-list. This historic move would truly put the UK in the same camp as China and Iran: the government, or more likely, unelected regulators, would deem a site to be inappropriate for viewing by the British public, and it would vanish from our view of the Internet. Below is the key text from the bill, with my comments in bold.

(1) Internet service providers must provide to subscribers an internet access service which excludes adult content unless all the conditions of subsection (3) have been fulfilled. Note that “adult content” is a very broad term. This blog is already considered “adult content” by some UK mobile networks.

(2) Where mobile telephone network operators provide a telephone service to subscribers, which includes an internet access service, they must ensure this service excludes adult content unless all the conditions of subsection (3) have been fulfilled.

(3) The conditions are— Now watch carefully…

(a) the subscriber “opts-in” to subscribe to a service that includes adult content; This simply puts the existing filter plans into law.

(b) the subscriber is aged 18 or over; and The ISP must age-check the subscriber before allowing them to opt in – this already happens on mobile networks. The juicy bit is next:

(c) the provider of the service has an age verification policy which meets the standards set out by OFCOM and which has been used to confirm that the subscriber is aged 18 or over What does this mean? Let’s break it down:

Clause 3(c) means that even if the user has proved their age and opted in to see “adult content”, the ISP must only allow them to do so if the service meets content standards as set by the media regulator Ofcom. Each ISP can’t, of course, check every site on the Internet. Instead, the only technical solution is to block any service that appears to provide adult material, unless it is on an Ofcom-approved list.

Does such a list exist? Yes: Ofcom has already delegated the power to regulate online video services to a private organisation called ATVOD. ATVOD requires video services to register (and pay), and to comply with a series of UK-specific content guidelines. How many adult services comply to ATVOD? At present, around 20, and most of these are fairly soft, and are mostly linked to existing adult TV channels.

There are millions of porn sites in the world. There are many million more sites that contain sexual imagery, sexual chat, sex education material or other content that might (according to some people) not be suitable for under-18s. Under this bill, ISPs would be breaking the law if they failed to block a site containing “adult content”, and so if a service is in doubt, it will be blocked, to be on the safe side. As noted above, massive over-blocking has already occurred on mobile services.

There is no partial step into Internet censorship; either a block list exists, or it doesn’t. Once created, it can be used for any purpose; David Cameron has already hinted at blocking “extremist” sites. And “extreme”, like “adult content” is wide open for interpretation. Although we generally believe we live in a free country, we have always been a censored one. The Internet blew a hole in the power of the state to decide what can be published and what can be seen. It is no surprise that the state wants to reclaim that power.

Any step to create a UK block list must be opposed by anyone who believes in free expression. We must ask our MPs: why does Britain, almost alone in the democratic world, see the need to implement such a measure? Why are British people more in need of “protection” than Americans or other Europeans? As a private member’s bill, the Online Safety Bill may well fail, but the measures are most likely to reappear in an official government Communications Bill. We have time to protect our Internet freedom, but we don’t have long. What can you do? We will be making an announcement shortly. Please join our mailing list to receive alerts.