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31 August 2005Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Kneejerking off over violent porn
The government's declaration of war on ‘extreme material’ is about politics more than pornography.

by Brendan O'Neill

So the government has declared war on extreme and violent porn. Where did that come from? Yesterday was your average, boring, no-news August day when officials suddenly revealed that they were looking into criminalising the possession - ie. downloading - of 'extreme material' from the internet, specifically material that depicts 'intercourse or oral sex with an animal', 'sexual interference with a human corpse', 'serious violence in a sexual context', or 'serious sexual violence'. They propose a maximum three-year jail term for individuals who download such material. In the space of 24 hours, we went from news reports about Britain's hot weather and Kylie's first post-cancer appearance in public to handwringing headlines about rape, bestiality, necrophilia, and the threat posed by grossout porn to the fabric of society (1).

It sounds scary, but this is merely a mutation (or perhaps a perversion) of the silly season story. Government officials have transformed a minority pursuit - looking at degrading porn on the web - into a moral panic, and presented themselves as brave crusaders who are 'determined to act' against material that 'would be abhorrent to most people and has no place in our society' (2). This is about politics more than porn: in our anything-goes age - where 'normal' porn has been made cool by Hollywood, trendy art galleries and even WH Smith's (more of which in a minute) - the authorities are scrabbling about for something, anything, on which to hold the line. It doesn't say much when they can only pose as moral crusaders against weirdos who like to roleplay rape and shag sheep.

In the Consultation on the Possession of Extreme Pornographic Material, published by the Home Office and the Scottish Executive, the authors claim 'there has been increasing public concern about the availability of extreme material'. Where? The vast majority of people don't look at violent porn, or think very much about it; they certainly aren't agitating publicly for the government to save our souls from it. The document says the public's concern is 'highlighted by the case of a young woman who was murdered by a man who had been accessing extreme porn', referring to the 2003 killing of Jane Longhurst by Graham Coutts, who was apparently 'addicted' to extreme porn sites that depicted women being strangled and raped (3). Longhurst's family has been campaigning for new laws.

The murder of Jane Longhurst is mentioned three times in the document - every time a reference is made to 'increasing public concern', in fact. It would be more accurate to describe this consultation as a kneejerk response to a horrible, isolated murder than a consideration of the public's concern about violent porn. The authorities are proposing new legislation in response to the actions of one demented individual; they have transformed an exceptionally rare incident into a gruesome morality tale about the alleged impact of extreme porn on people's volatile minds, and reserved the role of protector of public safety for themselves.

For a consultation on extreme pornographic material, the document says seriously little about what this material is, where it is, how many people are accessing it, or what its effects can be. What exactly is extreme porn? 'It is not possible in a public document like this to give a great deal of graphic detail or description of the material in question.' Does such porn really warp people's minds and make them do bad things? 'We do not yet have sufficient evidence from which to draw any definite conclusions as to the likely long-term impact of this kind of material on individuals generally.' (Though this doesn't stop them from arguing, more than once, that aberrant sexual material might drive individuals to commit 'aberrant sexual acts'.)

How many people are accessing violent porn? 'According to a major research study…57 per cent of 9 to 19-year-olds who use the internet at least once a week had come into contact with pornography online. [But] the study did not distinguish between types of pornography.' In short: dunno.

The authorities have lost the argument about everyday porn
The document also blurs the distinction between depictions of violent acts and real violent acts. It proposes criminalising possession of both 'explicit actual scenes' of violence and 'realistic depictions…which appear to be real and are convincing, but which may be acted' (4). I'm no expert on violent porn (but then again, neither are the authors of this report) but I would hazard a guess that most of this stuff is made by consenting adults, for cash, who are only pretending to do nasty things to each other. Yet this document lumps together acted-out rapes with real rapes, as if it's easy to download a video of woman being raped for real from the internet. Again, little evidence is presented that actual, criminal rapes are widely available, or even available at all, on the world wide web. What next: a consultation document on outlawing snuff movies?

The authors tie themselves in knots over what will be allowed and what won't be. So it will still be okay to possess images of 'milder forms of bondage and humiliation, which are common place in pornographic material', so long as you don't cross the line into imagery that 'depicts suffering, pain, torture and degradation of a kind which we believe most people would find abhorrent'. Who will decide when that line has been crossed? Will acts of bondage have to be re-enacted in a court of law, so that a jury or judge can decide if it's only 'mild humiliation' or something more 'abhorrent'? (Insert joke about judges and bondage here.) The document proposes that only possession of photographs or videos should be criminalised, so it will be all right to possess text or cartoons that describe or depict violent sexual scenarios. Yet if the authorities truly believe that extreme pornographic material can provoke extreme acts of violence, why should we be free to read about this stuff but not look at people acting it out?

It isn't especially surprising that the document reveals little about the availability or impact of violent porn, and that it gets confused about how to define it - because violent porn isn't really the issue. Rather, this is a highly politicised attempt by government officials to score some moral points. One reason why they have chosen to do that by launching a war against the extreme fringes of the porn world is because they have lost the argument about everyday porn. There was a time when governments railed against pornography, banging on about how it cheapened sexual relations, demeaned women, and posed a threat to family values and morality in general. But today, porn has gone mainstream: art institutions like the ICA host debates about porn; Hollywood has glamourised porn in movies like Boogie Nights, Wonderland and The People Vs Larry Flynt; the once-stuffy BBFC now passes, uncut, films that show explicit sex; teenagers wear t-shirts that say 'Porn star in training', and can even buy Playboy pencil cases and stationery from WH Smith's (5).

This mainstreaming of porno-culture isn't a consequence of some positive impulse to challenge censorship or usher in a new era of sexual liberation. Rather it points to deep moral uncertainties in our 'anything goes' age. As the BBFC said when it passed the sexually explicit 9 Songs at the end of last year, it feels less able to make 'moral decisions' because 'what is morally wrong for one person is not morally wrong for another' (6). In such a climate, feeling their moral authority draining away, the authorities are forced to look for new lines to hold - which explains their turn towards porn that depicts extreme, violent, rapacious or bestial sex. And the more they lose their moral bearings the more, and harder, we can expect them to clamp down on what is still seen as unacceptable, on things that are 'abhorrent to most people', as the consultation document says again and again.

This consultation suggests that the government has a pretty low opinion of the public. Despite its self-confessed lack of evidence that extreme porn provokes extreme behaviour, it still justifies its proposal as an attempt to 'protect society' from material 'which may encourage interest in violent or aberrant sexual activity' (7). In short, we are rapists-in-the-making, who might be excited into committing a terrible act if we happen upon degrading pictures or videos (but not text or cartoons, apparently). They see us as perverts or potential perverts - which is a bit rich coming from those who made violent and extreme porn into a big issue in the first place. Who knows, they might even have inadvertently encouraged some individuals to go looking for such material.

Read on:

The new dirty mac brigade, by Brendan O'Neill

(1) On the possession of extreme pornographic material (.pdf 171 K), Home Office and Scottish Executive, 30 August 2005

(2) On the possession of extreme pornographic material (.pdf 171 K), Home Office and Scottish Executive, 30 August 2005

(3) Ban on violent net porn planned, BBC News, 30 August 2005

(4) On the possession of extreme pornographic material (.pdf 171 K), Home Office and Scottish Executive, 30 August 2005

(5) 'It's porn, innit?', Rachel Bell, Guardian, 15 August 2005

(6) Key three unfazed by real sex in 9 Songs, Hugh Muir, Guardian, 25 October 2004

(7) On the possession of extreme pornographic material (.pdf 171 K), Home Office and Scottish Executive, 30 August 2005

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