When it comes to British politics, sex doesn’t sell. Amid a war on pornography, there has been no mention of it during the election nor any promise one way or the other about how it should be treated.
The British press loves sex when it comes in the form of scandals or scantily-clad young women, but it’s not so keen on covering it as part of the news. Political parties feel no need to discuss their policy on sex or pornography, so major changes to the law, such as clamp-downs on online porn or significant changes to the rules around sex work, are ignored at election time and often passed with little debate during a parliament.
That, unsurprisingly, has also been the case this year. The Tories have launched an all-out war on porn in government. David Cameron set up opt-out porn filters which will have stopped few teenagers accessing porn, but certainly did stop many of them accessing information about contravention or sexual abuse. The Tories presided over a change in the law which all-but banned esoteric, mostly female-empowering porn. And they have moved to ban rape and revenge porn, the latter with good reason, the former less so.
Labour has supported all these initiatives. Its own track record in government is broadly similar, having outlawed so-called extreme porn and cartoon representations of underage sex in power as well as tightening up rules on prostitution in a way which made sex worker’s life far more dangerous.
Apart from the ban on revenge porn, all these measures were problematic. But they had one other shared quality too: they were all legislated for with little understanding of the cultures they were impacting on or the technology being used. Take Labour’s ban on extreme porn. A woman named Jane Longhurst was horribly murdered. Her killer admitted being addicted to violent internet pornography. And so Labour passed a law banning the representation of any act which looked like it might cause serious harm to the anus, breast or genitals. Of course, that is the whole of the BDSM community. The Home Office were informed. They pressed ahead anyway.
The same mixture of factual indifference, moral laziness and technological illiteracy is present in Tory promises. Last month media secretary Sajid Javid promised to stop children accessing pornography following a made-up NSPCC report into child porn addiction. There is, for the record, no accepted definition of porn addiction or even agreement that it exists. Nor is there any reliable data to suggest that children are prone to it. It was a nonsense report based on online surveys, but the NSPCC published it anyway and the government promised to legislate within the same day.
What Javid failed to tell newspaper readers is that there is no technological way of stopping children accessing pornography online, unless all internet users are forced to hand over passport or bank account details before accessing the web.
This is the standard of debate over sex, sex work and pornography in this country. Politicians seize on voters’ legitimate concerns in a lazy and self-promoting manner. Journalists fail to inform their readers of the way in which they are being mislead. Parliament passes laws, usually with Tory and Labour support, which are then used against consenting adults, which put people who work in the sex industry in danger, and which do nothing to protect children and in fact put them at much greater risk of harm.
So how is someone who cares about these things to vote? There are precious few options. Labour and the Tories are as bad as each other. I don’t say that in an instinctive, lazy way. I am quite used to assessing the way in which both parties are bad but one is worse than the other. I mean it quite literally: on this subject, they are pretty much evens.
The Greens appear even more interfering and paternalist than either. They want to ban the sale of lads’ mags and pornography in shops. Ukip, for all the nonsense talk of them being somehow ‘libertarian’, have easily the most authoritarian of all members. In fact, it is hard to find a single libertarian policy in their name, except for an end to the pub smoking ban – which will be replaced by a ban on smoking in parks. Try to make sense of that if you will.
So we are left with the Liberal Democrats, whose historic mission is to take on unpopular causes. In my experience, liberals are always talking about doing that, but when it’s porn they rarely manage to live up to it.
Actually the Lib Dem record is mixed. They failed to stand up to the rape porn law, which was an attempt to criminalise consenting adults. However, they rightly campaigned hard on revenge porn. Revenge porn is, by definition, a non-consensual act. The object of the video did not consent to it being published online, or else the revenge would not pertain. There may be legal complexities in how you deal with that situation, but it was a valid and important campaign to have undertaken.
However, on two cases, Nick Clegg really stuck his head above the parapet. The first was the opt-out filter. It takes guts to stand up to the scare machine about kids and porn, and it’s so much easier to just go with it and play it safe. The Lib Dems didn’t do that. Then-party president Tim Farron took the arguments head on – not just about this particular solution but about the reliance on filtering technology in general.
The second was on the de-facto ban on pornography featuring scenes of female domination, such as face-sitting and female ejaculate. Again, Clegg said clearly the ban was wrong and an unacceptable interference in the business of consenting adults.
The Lib Dem record on liberal issues has been far from perfect. They have failed to challenge the Tories’ efforts to strip citizens of their legal powers to stand up to the state, for instance through judicial review. But Clegg deserves credit for what appears to be an instinctive liberalism. He does not always have it, when he has it he does not always act on it, and when he acts on it he is often overruled. But it is there.
This is, let’s face it, slim pickings. A tiny party, disreputably trying to keep a toe-hold in government which is not commensurate with its popular vote, occasionally standing up to authoritarian populism when it notices it is even happening. But British politics is very often a game of assessing which picking looks the least slim before plumping for one and protecting it vigilantly. And in this election, only the Lib Dems show any sign of protecting freedoms around sex and porn.
Ian Dunt is Editor of politics.co.uk