Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Think of the Children

I've never been one for graphic novels - a grievous deficiency, I have no doubt, in my aesthetic appreciation. I'm told, however, that the work of Alan Moore is highly regarded, and is the source of several films, some of which I may even have seen. It's unlikely that his most notorious work, Lost Girls, will be translated to celluloid any time soon however, given that its conceit has three of literatures best known girl heroines telling all about their rampant underage sexual experiences - and the illustrations leave little room for doubt.

Despite such perverted doodlings, Moore himself is clearly not a danger to society. Nor would he fit into the category of "dirty old man" whom the Conservative MP Edward Garnier recently imagined might get his kicks from "creating grossly offensive, disgusting or otherwise obscene images". He clearly has his eccentricities: according to the ever reliable Wikipedia he is "a vegetarian, an anarchist, a practicing magician and occultist, who worships a Roman snake-deity named Glycon, which he acknowledges to be a complete hoax. He also sports a beard that would not look out of place on in early Seventies rock band. But these things are not yet crimes. Lost Girls, however, might be.

Ever mindful of the need to protect children from the paedophile monsters who, the Sun assures them, are lurking in every shrubbery, the government is currently legislating against pornographic images of children. Section 49 of the alarmingly wide-ranging Coroners and Justice Bill goes into some detail about the kinds of images - which include computer-generated pictures and drawings, but not photographs or "tracings" posed by real, flesh and blood children - that are to be outlawed. A minister, Maria Eagle, claimed last week that only truly depraved images would be caught. "These images", she maintained, "are at the highest, most explicit and disgusting, unpleasant end of any spectrum ...They are highly detailed, explicit drawings, cartoons and computer-generated images that look real and depict horrific scenes of child sexual abuse".

Yet the law is so broadly drafted that almost anything might be caught by it. For a start, there's no requirement for pictures to be even vaguely realistic. Sexually explicit drawings of adults will be illegal if there's an imaginary child in the picture. "Child" is defined not as a prepubescent but as anyone under 18 - including an imaginary child. The bill adds, confusingly, that an image is caught if "the impression conveyed by the image is that the person shown is a child" even if "some of the physical characteristics shown are not those of a child". This produced perhaps the most surreal intervention from Ms Eagle:


It is important to cover circumstance in which a person may try to avoid prosecution by amending the image of a child slightly—for example, by adding antennae or animal ears, and then suggesting that the subsequent image is not a child. That is a real concern.

If nothing else, such remarks speak volumes about the strange thought-world inhabited by the framers of such laws.

In the couse last week's debate, Garnier and the Liberal Democrat Jenny Willott both put forward reasoned amendments aimed at tightening up the proposal so as to catch only pictures that might plausibly pose a real danger to children. Garnier wanted to make the focus on "publication" of an image so as not to criminalise the aformentioned dirty old man, while Willott was concerned by the vagueness of the terms "image" and "child". Both pointed out that crimes should not be created without any evidence of actual harm. In response, Eagle - aided and abetted by George Howarth - produced a series of justifications placed on speculation, emotional blackmail and moral disapproval. Here are a couple of her choicest remarks:

Just because we cannot prove real harm to specific children at this minute, we should not allow such loopholes—effectively, created by developments in technology—to continue to make a mockery of the law that is intended to protect our children.

Children see cartoon images regularly in day-to-day life. They are a well-accepted form of entertainment for children, and the characters are often well known. An offender could easily exploit that familiarity, using explicit images created in such formats, and such graphic cartoon images could be a powerful grooming tool.

As Jenny Willott pointed out, there's no clear evidence that seeing obscene drawings leads viewers to commit acts of actual abuse. There are, in fact, two possibilities:

One is that non-photographic images legitimise abusive behaviours in the minds of offenders, leading them to act out the images and display abusive behaviour—the images, therefore, pose a risk to children. The other view is that they are not photographic, so there is no victim as such, and they act as an outlet for individuals who have those tendencies and predilections—they act as a release, and therefore reduce the risk of abusive behaviour towards children. From what I can gather, it is actually very unclear where the balance lies between those two arguments.


But this legislation isn't so much about logic or preventing real harm as about "sending a message", of course. And a couple of the supportive interventions from government MPs make one wonder, not perhaps for the first time, about the intellectual quality of our legislators. Here was Madeleine Moon, for example:

If we are talking about images of children of a sexual nature, how does that square with people growing cannabis for their own use but not selling it, or engaging with consenting adult friends in sado-masochism but not inviting those who are not consenting adults to take part?


And George Howarth:

If the hon Gentleman doodles on the back of a piece of paper during the course of the Committee, screws it up and throws it away, but somebody retrieves it, and then it is discovered that it is grossly offensive, disgusting or of an otherwise obscene character - an image that could be of such a nature that it would be solely or principally used for the purpose of sexual arousal - what he had engaged in would be improper and should not be approved of or sanctioned by the law.


Ye gods.

Of course, the law isn't aimed at art. At least, I don't think so. But that doesn't mean that it won't impact on legitimate artworks. It has plausibly been suggested that even some of the creations of Aubrey Beardsley would fall foul of the legislation. Many in the industry are alarmed enough to have set up the Comic Alliance to campaign against them.

You don't have far to look to find innocent works of art that have nothing to do either with paedophilia or pornography yet have found themselves at the centre of police action. The law under which the Internet Watch Foundation decided it had to censor Wikipedia because of a naked child on a thirty-year old album cover was designed for sex offenders and the paedophilically inclined, so was the law which saw an Australian man convicted for possessing an obscene image of Bart Simpson. The law is a very blunt instrument - and whatever is in the minds of legislators a broadly drafted act is liable to be stretched and manipulated far beyond what any normal person would think reasonable. But when dealing with the technicalities of law enforcement normal conceptions of reasonableness often take second place to other factors such as arse-covering, conviction targets or the activities of persistent, highly-motivated campaigners.

This is an area of the law plagued with inconsistencies: most obviously, that a "child" for the purposes of child pornography legislation may be an adult for the purposes of the age of consent. Indeed, if one of the government's more cynical vote-grubbing ideas comes to fruition, they may even be voters. At the same time, the law makes no distinction between pre- and post-pubescent children, so that (technically at least) a physically mature seventeen-year old is bracketed with a child of eight or ten, whereas a more-or-less indistinguishable eighteen year-old is put in a wholly different category. This is, almost literally, insane.

Where the law is not merely an ass but braying at the moon, clearly there's something deeper going on. I have suggested before that it reflects - and displaces - the guilt and cultural confusion surrounding the sexualisation of society and in particular of children. Idealising and sentimentalising childhood seems to go hand in hand with restricting, fearing and criminalising actual children. The Mail had a report today about the growing phenomenon of "sexting" - teenagers sending each other explicit photographs of themselves. Technically, this makes them "producers" of "child pornography" - and in the United States a growing number of children and teenagers have been prosecuted under such legislation. When the very people the law is supposed to be protecting are the ones being turned into criminals, something morally very strange is going on.

At the moment it is difficult for any politician (or journalist for that matter) to question the current consensus. As Edward Garnier said, "it becomes difficult in the court of public opinion—to use a phrase which the Government now seem so fond of—to discuss this rationally." But future generations, I have no doubt, will be astonished that so much legislative time, so many law-enforcement resources were devoted to prosecuting drawings of imaginary children. Especially when those same authorities allowed so much actual abuse - sexual and otherwise - of real children to go uninvestigated and unpunished.

8 comments:

Olive said...

Despite such perverted doodlings, Moore himself is clearly not a danger to society.

Moore didn't actually draw the illustrations in Lost Girls. They were done by his wife Melinda Gebbie.

found causes said...

If a stranger punches you in the face on the streets of London it is barely investigated, yet our elected retards have time for this shit. They should live in the real world for a bit. It is we adults who need to be protected from the kids!

By the way, if you have a photo of a woman in a school uniform being cained, are you breaking one law or 2?

valdemar squelch said...

Not hugely interested in Mr Moore's work either, but it seems he may star in a rerun of the Lady Chatterley trial. 'Would you allow your daughters to read this book?' Or suchlike nonsense.

Anonymous said...

These legislators are totally out of touch with reality. The vast bulk of what they would define as "child pornography" is today produced by exhibitionist teenage girls (many clearly under 18) on their own, or occasionally in groups, in their bedroom getting their kit off in front of their webcams for hundreds of admirers through services like http://www.stickam.com or http://www.smotri.com

If I were, with her consent, standing mute in that room then, as far as I know, I would not be committing an offence. But viewing the show by webcam apparently makes it illegal. Recording it, more so presumably.

So the various archives of such webcam shows which are readily available online, such as: http://www.anonib.com/_stick/index.php?b=1&g=0 or http://w18.easy-share.com/f/1325935351.html# are surprisingly accessible and long-lived.

As is, regrettably, more and more often the case these days, the lawmakers are making asses of themselves.

And, by the way, if the girl encourages her pet lap dog to enjoy whipped cream from choice parts of her anatomy (not an uncommon occurrence) then is the sentence for the online viewer greater?

Chris said...

Sean Gabb once pointed out that, thanks to weaselly re-wordings of clauses in several Acts through the (mis)use of statutory instruments, the definition of child pornography in British law is now so broad as to be meaningless.

Under the law as it stands having a photograph of an adult female dressed as a schoolgirl (at one of those tasteless "School Daze/Disco" parties, for example) on one's Facebook or Flickr page makes you *technically* guilty of distributing child pornography under British law.

IIRC the phrasing runs: "Any image or pseudo image of a child, or appearing to be of a child, or which can be construed as being of a child..."

Kneejerks and net spreading make for bad law.

Anonymous said...

...and they'll probably have ro prosecute everyone who's ever watched either that TaTU video, let alone anything featuring Britney...

Grumpy Bob said...

An excellent article. Knee-jerk reactions do lead to bad laws, and there are so many examples...

Matt said...

I swear the things they chuck in the statute book get more bizarre by the day. Hey, is that a "Daily Mail" logo they've glued to the cover??!