Monday, 26 January 2009

Extremely bad law

Photo: Mark Mackenzie______

Another freedom died today. The freedom to own and watch extreme pornography, as defined by a rather baffling piece of legislation, doesn't sound like much of a freedom - certainly, not as compared to the freedom to practise a religion, criticise the government or get married to (or divorced from) the person of your choice. But freedoms are being curtailed all over the place, big freedoms as well as small ones; and with more surveillance, databases and bans on the way every little chip hastens the transformation of the sturdy oak of English liberty into something more closely resembling a bonsai tree: pruned into an unnatural shape, displayed with pride to impress foreign visitors, but in the end a paltry and insubstantial thing incapable of surviving on its own.

The new law (which I've discussed at length before) was part of last year's monstrosity called the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act (this year's monstrosity being the Coroners and Justice Bill). Its passage was marked by mutual incomprehension by campaigners on both sides. The government seems to have imagined that no-one could possibly object, especially as it was introduced partly as a result of the case of murderer Graham Coutts, whose crimes (it was suggested) may have been prompted by his "obsession" with violent pornography.

Labour MP Martin Salter, one of the law's fiercest supporters, responded to accusations that it would criminalise pictures of entirely consensual activity - and thus thousands of law-abiding people with non-standard sexual tastes - by saying that "If people want to do weird things to each other they still can, but I say, Don’t put it on the internet." Such comments speak volumes about the largely unconscious attitudes towards unconventional sexual tastes that can produce this type of legislation. Different is weird. Different is dangerous. Different is potentially criminal.

The government conspicuously failed to produce convincing evidence of a link between watching extreme porn and committing acts of violence. The best that they could come up with was "a correlation between the viewing of violent sexual images and pro-rape attitudes"; but that neither demonstrates whether the one causes the other nor distinguishes between an "attitude" and a crime. Although, to be fair, under New Labour it's increasingly hard to tell the difference. Most of the material covered by the legislation doesn't feature rape in any case.

The government have always denied that they are aiming to target consensual BDSM enthusiasts. But such is the inevitable consequence of a law in which it is no defence to demonstrate that the things depicted were staged and consensual. For example, depictions of strangulation and simulated strangulation would seem to fall foul of the Act as being "life-threatening": yet erotic asphixiation, a common enough feature of sadomasochistic porn, is not about threatening life but rather heightening sensation. Other forms of S&M roleplay involve the use of knives, which may also now be illegal to view. I think the problem may lie in a lack of imagination on the part of lawmakers unable to conceive of why anyone who isn't violent or psychologically disturbed could possibly entertain such fantasies. Even though many of them must, perhaps in their younger days, have enjoyed horror films.

The defence was largely left to campaigners from within the BDSM community, such as CAAN - an ad hoc coalition that seems to have turned itself from a standing start a few months ago into a remarkably professional operation. More mainstream groups such as Liberty were nowhere. I checked their website and could find no reference to this law or to any of the government's proposals aimed at controlling sexuality. The Guardian have launched a new Liberty Central sub-site on Comment Is Free. There, too, this debate is little in evidence. They prefer to concentrate on the broad picture, highlighting data sharing, ID cards, anti-terror legislation and more theoretical issues of human rights.

At the end of next month the much trumpeted Convention on Modern Liberty will be taking place in central London - sponsored by the Guardian and featuring a strong line-up of speakers on many different aspects of freedom and its increasing curtailment. There will be Lord Goldsmith talking about the role of judges, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown discussing liberty and national identity, mini symposiums about faith, international human rights, the invasion of privacy by big business and the place of children in our society. There seems to be nothing about sex, although the debates surrounding pornography, censorship, the sex industry and public expressions of sexuality have been and remain intense. A strange omission. There are other freedoms, too, whose erosion doesn't seem to bother the conference organisers: the freedom to buy proper lightbulbs, for example, or to own a TV set without being forced to pay a tax to the BBC, or to express an opinion about a particular religious belief or personage even if it upsets believers. Freedom comes in many forms, though rather fewer than it once did.

CAAN put a good fight, but ultimately they were powerless against the bulldozer of the legislative process. They had the better arguments, but laws are not decided by arguments, or even by emotions, but by Parliamentary whipping and guillotines. Few Parliamentarians (with honourable exceptions such as Baroness Miller of the Liberal Democrats - who has no constituents to worry about) were prepared to argue publicly for the right of people to watch filth. On the other side were women's groups such as the Fawcett Society, known to be highly influential with New Labour and generally opposed to all manifestations of the sex industry. As is the Home Office under the ever-delightful Jacqui Smith. There's a picture of Liberty's Shami Chakrabarti on the Fawcett Society website. (There's also one of Tracey Emin, alongside the Tories' Theresa May; they must have some sense of humour.)

If the government can't prevent it being out there it shouldn't make criminals out of people who happen to like it. And if they really believed that viewing "extreme" images turned people into rapists and murderers, then they would make a bigger effort to stamp it out. There are, it would seem, no plans to ban extreme images on a site-by-site basis, as currently happens with pictures of child abuse (and the occasional old album cover). The Internet Watch Foundation's guidelines on Obscene Content, which have so far not been updated to reflect the new legislation, make clear that they are only interested in hearing reports of images hosted in the UK, which they will refer to the police. Nor, we learn from the Guardian, will the police "actively target" members of the public to track down extreme images. Not yet, anyway.

It's almost possible to sympathise with the campaigners who want the police to be more pro-active and reasonably wonder why, if the problem is such a serious one, more resources are not being devoted to tackling it. Sandrine Leveque, for example, of the anti-sex industry pressure group Object, commented,

Many women's organisations see this material as a factor in violence against women. For a law to have any effect there needs to be the feeling that you might be caught breaking it, and if that's not there it does undermine it.

Leveque is clearly unaware that there is very great concern, and fear, out there in kinkland, and she neatly elides the opinions of pressure group members and the exigencies of law enforcement. But I can see where she's coming from. Either the law is needed, in which case it should be enforced rigorously, or it is an unwarranted intrusion into people's private sexual fantasies, in which case it should never have been passed in the first place.

It's unclear where the estimated 30 convictions a year are going to come from. Presumably, they will be people who come to the police's attention in other ways. Some might be suspected of sex crimes, but with insufficient evidence to convict. It's likely that some computers seized on suspicion of, or which are otherwise found to contain, child pornography will also contain "extreme" images of adults. But the police seize many computers in the course of investigations quite unconnected with porn. Looking further in the future, the government's enthusiasm for data retention will provide police with a massive new tool should they want to trawl for evidence of websites visited.

To mourn the passing into law of this strange and sinister measure CAAN staged a demo outside Parliament on Sunday. Veteran campaigner Peter Tatchell turned up: apparently it was his birthday. CAAN organiser Clair Lewis described it as "not a farewell party, so much as a celebration of sexual preferences that we believe the government now has in its sights", adding,

Monday may prove to be the high water mark for all those bigots who have so far disguised their contempt for the sexual choices of hundreds of thousands of law abiding citizens behind language that harks back to the days of queer-bashing...One of the most unpleasant aspects of this whole debate has been the way in which Mr Salter appears to have taken pleasure at the very real fear that this law has created amongst people who would never harm another human being. Perhaps it is time to rethink who is sick and who is merely trying to get on with their own lives.

More photos from the demo in the Dungeon.

I don't think I've personally seen the sort of material this law was aimed at, at least if it really does catch only the truly extreme and repulsively violent as the government claimed. Nor, being naturally of a squeamish disposition, would I want to. But I struggle to see why my personal taste boundaries should legally be enforced on anyone else. That may just be because I'm not a politician.


lost causes said...

At least now it's on the books we can finally see how it will be applied.

Why doesn't someone from kinkland submit their harddrive to the police as for a bit of martyrdom and self-fladulation. That way there's be a good test case of someone who clearly isn't actually a criminal. Take it to the European court of human rights maybe?

Much of this stuff is pretty vile, but as you note, if they're not actually going after anyone, what's the point?

Oh they got it wrong on drugs again too with canabis going back to class B. ALL HAIL THE NEW PURITANS!

Anonymous said...

The3 feminists seem to regard anything to do with heterosexual activity as vile.
Excepting if females are displayed when they will say it is exploitation.

Letters From A Tory said...

I agree with what you said and blogged about this issue recently.

The only problem is do the Conservatives want to be party to bring back extreme pornography after Labour ban it?!

Waltz said...

@ Letter from a Tory - I'm sure it can be framed in a way that doesn't put it quite like that ... :D

Anonymous said...

Thanks for another brilliant and informative blog.

You rock..

Heresiarch for Prime Minister!


Anonymous said...

Object isn't an "anti-sex industry pressure group" btw - its anti-objectification.

emarkienna said...

"Object isn't an "anti-sex industry pressure group" btw - its anti-objectification."

They supported this law, and don't seem concerned whether the images concerned objectify the participants or not (of course, they'd probably tell us that all images objectify the participants, but in that case, the definitions become equivalent anyway).

Having read their consultation response, they're not just talking about objectifaction - they were claiming that viewing images causes harm. They clearly supported this law, and are not simply concerned about objectification.

(They also wrote off critics as being the "porn lobby" - despite the fact that they are a lobby group, and most criticisms came from concerned individuals.)

FrankFisher said...

The Guardian have launched a new Liberty Central sub-site on Comment Is Free. There, too, this debate is little in evidence.

hey I did my best H.

And the subject will be raised at the Convention on Modern Liberty - I'm running a session at Cambridge Union on Feb 28th, you are MOST welcome to come along! tell your friends...

C Lewis said...

Looks like CAAN may be taking part in the Liberty conference, at least in Manchester - we'd like to talk to Cambridge if there's space there too?

C Lewis,

The Heresiarch said...

I see from your profile, Frank, that you haven't written anything since last year. I've been looking for your new piece on this - did they spike it?