“Big brother is watching you masturbate” was the slogan on a placard in Parliament Square on Sunday. It was carried by professional fetish model Pandora Blake. Along with up to a hundred other campaigners, she was protesting against new legislation on “extreme violent pornography” that came into force this week.
Despite being very passionate about civil liberties, I’m hesitant about defending pornography. The pornography industry is full of abuse and exploitation, with young women and men routinely pressured into going much further than they would wish and giving “consent” that is neither informed nor meaningful.
So does the legislation aim to stop this sort of exploitation? Cynics point out that New Labour’s agenda does not give priority to effective legislation to prevent the powerful exploiting the vulnerable. This law focuses on sadomasochist images that are generally produced on a far less industrial scale and sometimes owned only by people known to the individuals featured in them.
How can this be worse than the legal material churned out by the more traditional pornography industry? “There’s a lot of mainstream porn that is very exploitative,” said Maria, a campaigner who was enthusiastically leafleting passing drivers, “A lot of the kinkier porn is nicer in the way that it is made and the way the models are treated”. She declares her belief in “fairtrade porn”.
But even those reluctant to accept that pornography can be ethical have reasons to be worried about this law. If legislation restricting civil liberties is ever necessary, it should surely be worded as precisely as possible to prevent misuse. In contrast, the law on “extreme violent pornography” is so vague that if taken literally, it could mean that an adult couple who engage in a consensual sexual activity and take a photo of it could be arrested for possession of that photo.
It is what appears in the image, not what was really taking place, that counts. If a couple happen to enjoy taking a photo with one of them holding a knife to the other’s throat, they could be breaking the law – even if the knife is made of plastic and is dropped the moment after the camera clicks.
The protesters were clearly concerned that the ‘kinky porn ban’ would affect their own lives. “The law criminalises lots of things that we do consensually at home for fun which aren’t harmful” insisted Jessika, 26. Meanwhile Denny, 35, said he was worried that the legislation was about “thought crime”.
This view is shared by Julian Petley, Professor of Film at Brunel University. He describes the legislation as written in “the over-heated language of the moral crusader, not the dispassionate prose of the legislator”. He points out that the law covers material produced “solely or principally for the purposes of sexual arousal”. Films certified by the British Board of Film Classification are therefore exempt from the law, but not extracts from the films. If you put together a collection of violent clips from Tombraider, and a court thinks you have chosen them because they turn you on, you could be breaking the law.
In other words, the legislation invites a court to make subjective judgments about defendants’ own subjective thought-processes.
This laughable – and frightening – absurdity is just one reason why we should not dismiss this legislation as a trivial issue of interest only to the “kinky” community – although their rights should be as important as anyone else’s. Laws concerning sexual morality could well end up being used to restrict political dissent. Such a possibility does not seem so remote when we remember the ease with which anti-terrorism laws have been used against peaceful campaigners. We should be worried about any measure that gives the authorities even easier access to our computers.
I was struck by the real fear that many of the protesters seemed to exhibit that kinky sexual activity was on its way to being criminalised. This in itself may be an over-reaction, but it is understandable in the context of the government’s sustained assault on civil liberties. The same authoritarian impulse that has led ministers and commentators to attack freedom of religious dress has also motivated their attacks on sexuality. The right to engage in consensual adult sexual activity is based on the same principles of human dignity and freedom as the right to liberty of religion.
In this context, it is frustrating that campaigns to uphold free expression are not more united. We cannot afford to defend only our own preferred freedoms, leaving others to defend theirs. Campaigners against this week’s new law need the support of all who care about civil liberties.
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This post was written by Symon Hill