Further to the pronouncement earlier last year that the Coalition government intend to ‘crack down’ on online pornography, the Prime Minister more recently stated that viewing ‘extreme’ pornography will become a criminal offence carrying a maximum sentence of three years in prison.
Having already been instructed to automatically censor pornography for new customers unless access is specifically requested, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are expected to be writing to existing customers over the coming months to ask whether they would like access to pornography. However, David Cameron’s latest announcement proposes that pornography involving consenting actors depicting non-consensual sex will be outlawed under obscenity laws, effectively levelling many varieties of BDSM and fetish porn with images of bestiality, necrophilia and child abuse.
This latest development in the criminalisation of pornography should not only cause alarm to pornographers and their viewers, but to anyone with even the vaguest sense of civil liberties. It should not be necessary to spell out that ‘rape porn’ involving seemingly non-consensual activity between consenting actors is completely different in kind from images of rape. In response to many valid concerns around the importance of reminding viewers that the actors are knowingly opting into safe, sane and consensual kink scenes, many leading production and distribution companies such as Kink.com now include as standard interviews with their actors out-of-character before and after a scene. The film will begin with an interview with the lead actor, asking her what she would like to explore in today’s shoot; the scene begins, a ruckus ensues, usually involving some combination of kidnapping, humiliation and sadism. Finally the money shot comes (literally, liberally) after which we’re brought back to reality with an interview featuring the cast talking about what a hilarious time they had.
This is a positive development, and any such efforts to incorporate the process of giving consent and negotiation in relation to pornography should be welcomed. However, we would be naïve to buy into Cameron’s prima facie claims that criminalising pornography is about ‘protecting’ women, presumably springing from some sense of paternalistic duty. I would confidently suggest porn is one of the foremost uses of the internet, alongside social networking and shopping sites. Surely a more responsible and effective way of empowering women would be to promote consent through the medium most likely to reach the intended target audience: pornography itself.
But this is all too obvious, and the solution would appear all too easy. Cameron abandons his position as saviour of women everywhere and switches to his second line of defence: “The children!” cries Tipper Gore, with a renewed sense of pietism. “Won’t someone think of the children?” Ah, but of course. The children, sat up in their bedrooms innocently stumbling across adult images: the familiar scenario of the most persistent moral panic since the majority of households had access to the internet. This is the setting of the corruption of children’s innocence as upheld by sudden expert Claire Perry MP, who is advising the government on the matter. Of course the traditional and perfectly reasonable response is to enable parents to set filters restricting the websites and images which are returned. Like anything online, these are never 100%, but children are unlikely to accidentally find anything worse than they are likely to see in advertising or tabloids.
However, Cameron and Perry know just as well as I do, that by the age of 12, a child may teach itself, inspired by its nascent pubescent lustfulness, to decipher the parental filter and carefully reset it once he or she has left the scene of the crime. Clearly at this age it becomes difficult to bar youngsters from looking at things they shouldn’t (at least legally) be looking at. The argument of ‘innocence’ surely loses its gravitas here. While we might look disapprovingly upon oversexed adolescents, can it really be claimed that by finding pornography online their otherwise-vestal innocence is being corrupted? Surely this is then actually an indictment on the content of the pornography itself. As previously stated, if we want to make an effort to halt the negative effects of pornography, the solution is to make better porn, which both allows the viewer to indulge their fantasies at the same time as contextualising the films with the consent which made possible their production.
The government’s own course of action, levelling ‘extreme’ pornography with a legal interpretation of obscenity befitting bestiality, necrophilia and even child abuse, clearly demonstrates they have no desire whatsoever to curb the negative aspects of porn, and even less to encourage better porn. Rather, the actions tie into a wider ‘ideology of moderation’, which places the wholeness of the nuclear family at the centre of the ideal societatis ad temperantiam. It is not coincidental that many have been quick to highlight the slippery slope of internet censorship, with several non-parliamentary political tendencies concerned they too will be labelled ‘extreme’ and censored.
Regardless of whether the measures end up going that far, the criminalisation of ‘extreme’ pornography is undoubtedly a crack-down on freedom of expression which will further marginalise kink communities. Campaigns in this area are worryingly lacking, with the Backlash campaign – launched in 2005 in defence of sexual expression and autonomy – losing momentum in recent years. A stiff response to the measures would, one might hope, include a varied campaign of both lobbies and public awareness, as well as a reflexive campaign to improve standards in porn. However, with Cameron’s crusade gathering pace, one fears that there is little time left to turn the tide.