Sunday, 19 October 2008

Going to Extremes

Opponents of the "extreme porn" provisions of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act - due to come into force in January - will be protesting in Westminster on Tuesday. The demo will be led by fashion photographer Ben Westwood, who fears that the new law (which bans the possession of any "pornographic" depiction of an act which is life threatening or "results, or is likely to result, in serious injury to a person’s anus, breasts or genitals") will render illegal at least one of his books. So he'll be "taking a chain of slaves for a walk in central London and photographing them" - the idea being that the photographs are likely to fall foul of the act. The "slaves" will be "bound and gagged in a visual protest against recent government legislation restricting adults’ sexual choices."

That such images would actually become illegal under the law seems highly doubtful. But confusion is rife, since no-one seems able to tell for certain just what would constitute "extreme porn". The government has denied that artworks would fall foul of the law - yet they rejected attempts to insert an artistic defence into the legislation. Speaking in the House of Lords, Home office minister Lord Hunt referred to material which he had seen exhibited at Charing Cross. They were "pretty disgusting images, and I frankly find it horrific that they are available and that people can see them." Yet at the same time he felt able to "extend a warm welcome to noble Lords to view this material and see what we are talking about." To the pure, all things are pure.

Yet some lawyers have apparently advised that even material published in coffee-table books like Madonna's notoriously hard-to-obtain Sex - the full contents of which are freely available online - might constitute "extreme pornography" for the purposes of the Act. While several of the scenes in that volume involve bondage none of the images strike me as extreme or even particularly pornographic. Self-indulgent and acutely embarrassing to Lourdes the day her schoolfriends get hold of a copy and pass it round the playground, no doubt, but certainly not criminal. Which makes me suspect quite a few people are over-reacting. Which might, of course, be what the government intended all along.

The trouble is that nothing has been tested in court, government guidelines haven't been forthcoming, and in the meantime there is fear, anger and above all confusion, with many quite harmless S&M enthusiasts fearful that they will find themselves branded as sex offenders, lose their jobs or even be sent to prison for having contraband material on their computers. An atmosphere close to paranoia - already in evidence after the Max Mosley affair brought a string of exposés in the press and to the police in its wake - has overtaken parts of the "Scene". One leading messageboard has asked its members to resubmit any personal photographs for analysis. People are wondering whether nipple-clamps might be taken to threaten "serious injury to the breasts", or if a clip from a favourite horror movie might take on a sinister implication if it's found on the same hard-drive as some run-of-the-mill internet porn.

This is the somewhat surreal background to what, by all accounts, will be a somewhat surreal demo on Tuesday. Much of the attention is likely to be on Westwood himself, who has a famous mum (Vivienne) and who revealed a couple of months ago that he had the likes of Gwen Stefani and Dita Von Teese standing right behind him. So to speak. The main organiser, though, is a new pressure group calling itself the Consenting Adults Action Network (CAAN), a "loose-knit network of who believe in the right of adults to express themselves sexually with other adults without interference from government. Over the past few months, CAAN have been assembling a database of dubious images and attempting to show them to various police officers. So far the police have been unresponsive.

The crackdown feared by CAAN activists is in one sense nothing new. Historically, Britain has stood apart from its continental neighbours in the strictness with which the authorities clamped down on smut. Sexuality was the one area in which free speech - and, later, visual free expression in the form of photography and film - was not permitted. Elsewhere, it was easier to see porn but often harder to criticise the government. There's no space here to ponder such anomalies. I'll merely comment that the free availability of hardcore porn in Britain is a strikingly recent phenomenon, one that has accompanied and is inseparable from the growth of the internet. So that the revolution that in Denmark occurred around 1970 had to wait thirty years to reach these shores. Once it arrived, however, the tide of filth has turned out to be unstoppable. Until now.

The arguments used against extreme porn are strikingly similar to the arguments that were used against "video nasties" prior to the passing of the Video Recordings Act of 1984 - in particular the assumed (but contested) link between viewing violent material and committing acts of violence. But there's a difference between targeting the producers and distributors of hardcore material - who ranged from idealistic hippies to (more commonly) mafia-style criminal operations - and criminalising possession. To do so casts the net far more widely and creates what can only be described as a thought-crime. I don't doubt that there's some deeply nasty stuff out there: but that doesn't mean that people who look at it are sex offenders. Some form of filtering, as currently happens with child porn, would be both more effective and more just.

The prime mover behind CAAN's current campaign, Clair Lewis, is a folk-rock singer, a mother and a disabled rights activist (seen here looking almost virginal in white). She describes herself on her MySpace page as a "purveyor of disability equality propaganda loosely framed as music" and an "uncompromising genderqueer activist" (not sure what that means). She has "come out as kinky" because she is "sick of the demonisation, persecution and criminalisation of people with alternative sexualities and sick of feeling forced to be in the closet because she engages in consensual loving adult BDSM relationships". Speaking exclusively to the Heresiarch, Lewis explained that the aim of the protest was to "raise public awareness", about the ban and other repressive legislation, especially the government's decision to make "conduct involving sexually explicit images depicting violence against human beings (including possession of such images)" - a phrase considerably vaguer and much wider than the CJIA - one of the grounds for barring people from working with children and "vulnerable adults". The enhanced vetting procedures under the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act are likely to be applied to at least 14 million people.

"This affects millions of adults in the UK," she says, "whose private sexual interests and practices are nobody else's business, as long as they stay between consenting adults in private. These are not helpful laws about protecting victims, or uncovering and investigating crimes, their sole purpose is to create sex offenders out of harmless citizens, when there is no proof that this is for any reason necessary."

Like many BDSM enthusiasts, she suspects that the ban on extreme porn is not an isolated event - a misunderstanding, even, with measures designed to target images of real depravity linked to violence having an accidental impact on blameless people such as herself. Rather, it is part of a more insidious agenda: "They started targetting the S&M community many years ago with the Spanner case [which involved four gay men who engaged in extreme, but consensual, sadomasochistic acts, and were sent to prison], and now they know they can get away with it without public outcry, they are taking bolder faster steps towards a far larger proportion of the public...They want to regulate the sexual behaviour and interests of all adults."

But why should a government that has made a point of not standing up for traditional morality - one that created civil partnerships, lowered the age of consent for gay sex, and (through its licensing reforms) opened the door to the proliferation of lap-dancing clubs throughout the country - now turn round and start a campaign of neo-Victorian repression? What's in it for them? "Your guess is as good as mine", Clair Lewis says, though she has some suggestions: belief that public opinion is on their side, genuine concern that extreme images are harmful, the opportunity it might provide the police to hit their targets for catching sex offenders, and the government's desire to exert ever greater control over the population.

One of the reasons they are able to do this is that they have never recognised an adult's right to consent to any kind of 'alternative' sexual behaviour in itself - their current equality stance is that nobody should be discriminated against because of the accident of their birth - in this they include homosexuals, but not people who are into kink. I think they also think hardly anyone is really kinky, when a high percentage are a bit kinky - for example my hairdresser, who is not into S&M, when I told her about the porn law said 'Everyone's likes a bit of rough now and again, don't they?'

It's true that the present government seems to regard people who have less than vanilla sexual tastes with a fair degree of suspicion. The Employment Equality regulations of 2003, for example, which forbid discrimination on grounds of "sexual orientation", exclude sexual practices such as sadomasochism - despite considerable evidence that they can be every bit as deep-seated as preference for one sex over another. Whether these regulations are compatible with either European law or the Human Rights Act must be extremely doubtful. Every generation has its moral blindspots, of course; but it strikes this outside observer as bizarre that a government so concerned with protecting gay sensibilities that it has legislated very broadly to outlaw "incitement to hatred" (have they looked in the Bible?) against them is quite happy to see people lose their jobs and be barred from looking after children because they have an entirely private taste for spanking.

My guess is that the present government has a particular theory of - or rather intuition about - sex which can't accommodate the violent (or violent-appearing) or merely deviant activities of S&M enthusiasts. It's not a religious view, which sees sex as for marriage and procreation; nor is it a libertarian view, which sees sexual self-expression as an individual right; nor is it a wholly utilitarian view - though in its emphasis on health targets and prescribed sex-education for small children comes close to that. Feminism, of a puritanical sort, is in the mix - thus prostitutes and other sex-workers, whatever their circumstances, are predefined as victims. But the most important element may be a desire to police boundaries.

New Labour is a regime which frequently exhorts the populace to "celebrate diversity", but to do so in prescribed ways, by attending seminars, thinking uniform thoughts and taking expert advice. It governs by quangoes and placemen. It is highly suspicious of independent thought, and even more suspicious of privacy. The place of sexuality in such a scheme is out in the open, in your face (whether you want it or not) - sexual fulfilment, like the latest gadget, is what a good citizen is supposed to strive for and boast about. But darker sexual fantasies flee the light of open day, not because they are depraved, but because they are by their nature introverted, private, personal. They want to be left alone. They engage the imagination, moreover, in ways that might have unpredictable consequences.

"If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear", ministers keep telling us. But the corallary of that is at least as insidious as any extreme porn: if you want to keep something private, then it must be shameful, and it must be dangerous, and it must be wrong.


emarkienna said...

I agree, much of the problem is that nothing has been tested in court. Whilst you and I might think that no consensual imagery should be "extreme", it's unclear how police or a jury will see it.

The Explanatory Notes give the only few examples of acts that the Government intends images of to be illegal, suggesting that turning a sexual image into an illegal image is as simple as holding a blunt knife to someone's neck and pretending to threaten them, or placing hands on someone's neck. The Government has been clear that consensual and even staged acts are targetted (indeed, there's yet to be any examples of non-consensual material found), but it's unclear what will be covered. Images of breath-play would be another possible example.

Regarding clips from a horror movie, note that extracts from films are explicitly referred to in the law as being covered (the test being, if it's believed they were extracted primarily for the purpose of sexual arousal - who knows how on earth this is decided).

But anyway, thanks for an informative and insightful article on this.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for going into such detail in this article - lets hope the press deal with this with similar intelligence tomorrow!

Sadie said...

I find it ironic is that our government is making a law like this at a time when they are still supporting the USA in their illegal use of REAL TORTURE of NON CONSENTING individuals.

I can't see who the law is supposed to protect either.

I'd wager that the number of people arriving at A&E with "serious" injuries from consentual BDSM activity is negligible compared to those injured during any number of "acceptable" pursuits. Many hobbies & lifestyle choices carry an element of risk. It's important to be well informed before you engage in any of them. In my experience those who choose to engage in BDSM take their "duty of care" very seriously. Taking first aid courses so that you know what to do should something do go wrong is commonplace within the BDSM community. Safety issues are often discussed in forums and IRL. Although (or perhaps because) some of these activities are "extreme" they are, generally, not entered into lightly by any of those involved.

passer by said...

We need a written constitution, one not written by the politicos.

Yes of course we already have one, but its past its best, our enemies today don't just wear bomb belts, they carry briefcases as well.

asfxea said...

Where do the Employment Equality regulations of 2003 explicitly exclude sexual practices such as sadomasochism? I'd be keen to know but searched in vain for the relevant passages.