God only knows how many may grow up to be men and women, having their principles and habits corrupted and tainted by these seeds of vice, so easily implanted in them! Women who have nothing so great as virtue to recommend and adorn them, and who would otherwise retain it unsullied, being thus early debauched, are liable to be led into every species of iniquity.
– magistrate in an obscenity case, 1802
‘Pornography a public harm like smoking, warn MPs,’ read the headline in the Daily Telegraph this week. ‘Report calls for it to be treated as a health issue and claims it has fuelled rise in sexual harassment.’
That was a slightly distorted account of the report by the Women and Equalities Committee of the House of Commons. The title of the report – Sexual Harassment of Women and Girls in Public Places – gives a fuller impression, and in fact only twelve of the 200-odd paragraphs are about pornography at all. As it happens, though, they’re the paragraphs that interest me.
To start with, pornography is a slightly odd thing to include in a report on behaviour in public places, because it’s always been a private, rather than a public, vice. ‘The greatest men,’ wrote John Cleland in Fanny Hill (1748), ‘will not scruple adorning their private closets with nudities, though, in compliance with vulgar prejudices, they may not think them decent decorations of the staircase or saloon.’
There was a time in fairly recent memory when this wasn’t quite the case, when pornographic magazines were publicly displayed on the top shelf of your local newsagent and corner shop. But even then, the consumption of the material was essentially private: it wasn’t really the done thing to keep a copy of Fiesta or Whitehouse in the magazine rack, nestling alongside TV Quick and Bella.
In any event, those days have passed, along with the magazines themselves. For historians of the subject, there was a symbolic moment in 1997 when W.H. Smith announced that it would no longer stock Penthouse because its sales had fallen so markedly that it wasn’t worth bothering anymore.
It is now perfectly possible to go about your day’s business without ever encountering pornography, unless you choose so to do. Certainly, there is more of it, and it is more easily accessible than ever before, but it’s almost entirely confined to the internet and fairly avoidable, if you don’t wish to view it.
But if porn has always kept itself to itself – in Britain, at least – that hasn’t stopped attempts to stamp it out.
The first legislation on the statute books, as opposed to common law, was the Vagrancy Act of 1838, which banned the display of obscene materials in shop windows. In other words, what was objected to was the intrusion of what should have been private into the public sphere.
The Obscene Publications Act of 1857 – giving police and magistrates the power to seize material believed to be obscene – was fiercely opposed in the House of Lords until it was amended to refer only to items held ‘for purposes of gain’. The law was aimed squarely at shopkeepers, not at gentlemen who might have their own private collection.
That division between the public and the private held through until the Protection of Children Act 1978, which dispensed with the ‘for gain’ element, and redefined publication – in the instance of an indecent photograph of a child – to mean ‘part[ing] with possession of it to … another person’.
Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 went a giant-step further: ‘It is an offence for a person to be in possession of an extreme pornographic image.’ And here ‘extreme’ referred to ‘explicit and realistic’ portrayals of necrophilia and bestiality, as well as acts which might threaten a person’s life or be likely to result ‘in serious injury to a person’s anus, breasts or genitals’.
The 2008 legislation also provided for the first time a statutory definition of pornography: ‘An image is “pornographic” if it is of such a nature that it must reasonably be assumed to have been produced solely or principally for the purpose of sexual arousal.’ This was presumably an attempt to protect serious artistic endeavours, such as the many representations of Leda and the Swan (though it would be fun to see a court case in which Rubens’ honourable intentions had to be proved).
The longstanding division between private sin and public crime has thus been eroded over the last four decades, and now we have a parliamentary committee looking specifically at public behaviour deciding that pornography falls within the same remit.
So, what are the justifications for its inclusion?
First, pornography ‘is increasingly being used by young people as a source of sex education, with negative consequences’. Further, ‘men in particular believed that pornography was harmful because it engendered unrealistic expectations of sex’ (para 92). If this changes their public behaviour, then porn is not simply a private matter. If…
The concern over young people is very old. In introducing the 1857 Act, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Campbell, had been clear that it ‘was intended to apply exclusively to works written for the single purpose of corrupting the morals of youth’. And it goes back still further: in 1802 the trial of Thomas Ganer for the common law offence of obscene libel hinged on the allegation that he had sold obscene prints to ‘three ladies’ schools’. No evidence was provided for this, but – judging by Walter’s sexual memoirs, My Secret Life – it was certainly true that in an era when discussion of sex was vigorously suppressed, pornography was for many the primary source of information on the subject.
If that remains the situation, then presumably it’s an indictment of sex education in British families and schools, and perhaps in society more generally. The answer, presumably, is to call for better sources of information and values.
Because the committee is, of course, entirely correct that pornography is ‘unrealistic’. Yes, it’s art, you see. And art is not supposed to be realistic. It is by definition selective, as Aldous Huxley explained:
In nature there are always so many other irrelevant things mixed up with the essential truth. That’s why art moves you – precisely because it’s so unadulterated with all the irrelevancies of real life. Real orgies are never so exciting as pornographic books … Art gives you the sensation, the thought, the feeling quite pure.
This is particularly the case with genre art, where the stated intention is to single out specific, defined features of human life and present them to the exclusion of others. That’s what pornography does; it’s also what horror, westerns and romance do. One might just as well condemn the works of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte because they ‘engendered unrealistic expectations of emotional relationships’.
(Just parenthetically, one might wonder why for centuries legislators have only ever tried to control the unrealistic fantasies aimed primarily at a male, rather than female, market. That’s surely a little bit odd, given that, in the words of Jess Phillips, a Labour member of the committee, ‘We live in a patriarchal, sexist society.’)
Paragraph 94 of the report follows the same lines: it’s reported that children say ‘exposure to pornography … is impacting on their attitudes and their behaviour’.
In between these two paragraphs, para 93 heads off in a different direction altogether (there’s not a lot of logical thinking in the structure of this report). It opens with a simple statement: ‘Our research did not find a strong relationship between attitudes towards pornography and attitudes towards sexual harassment.’ Which would seem to undermine the inclusion of this entire section.
But wait, the same paragraph then distinguishes between ‘people who find legal pornography acceptable … [and] people who find legal pornography unacceptable’.
What does ‘acceptable’ mean in this context? Is it to do with attitudes towards the law, or personal preference in consumption? Is it an acknowledgement of Cleland’s division between the private boudoir and the saloon? Or is it just wilfully loose terminology that’s intended to blur the definite statement at the start of the paragraph?
The attempt to find a link between pornography and behaviour has been going on now for over half-a-century, and still there is found no ‘strong relationship’.
I’m reminded of Polly Toynbee’s contribution to the ‘video nasties’ debate back in 1984. ‘It cannot be proved that violence and pornography corrupt people,’ she wrote, ‘but there is no proof that it doesn’t. Is it sensible to believe that there is no connection between the high levels of violence on the screens and the rising violence on the streets? Most people believe there is some connection, provable or not.’ Or, as her sister-in-arms Mary Whitehouse said: ‘You’ve got to get away from this silly business of having to prove things.’
Quite. When the evidence isn’t available, there’s always the last resort of appealing to common sense. We have, after all, heard quite enough from experts.
The first half of this part of the report ends – in para 95 – with that argument highlighted by the Telegraph: ‘Pornography a public harm like smoking’. It’s a startling comparison to make. Back in the days before smoking was banned in public places, anti-tobacco campaigners claimed that thirty people a day were being killed by passive smoking. Is pornography really on that scale? Where does this analogy originate? Why, in this:
One woman told us that the government should recognise pornography, sexism and objectification as a public health risk and use the media to inform society of the harms associated with them: ‘This could be done in the same way the amazing effort by the government worked in turning people’s attitudes around regarding smoking.’
‘One woman told us’? Is that it? We need more information than this, surely? Happily, the footnotes provide it; she is, apparently, ‘a member of the public’. So, there’s your authority right there.
The remainder of this section of the report – paragraphs 96 to 103 – turns to statutory and quasi-statutory matters.
The authors point out the inconsistencies in government attitudes towards pornography. The existence of the 18R certificate restricts ‘hard copy pornographic films to licensed sex shops and licensed cinemas,’ while the Audiovisual Media Services Regulations 2014 (amending the 2003 Communications Act) means that it’s unlawful for pay-sites on the internet to depict activities that would normally qualify a film for an 18R certificate.
There is, then, a belief in government circles that pornography is inherently harmful and needs to be controlled. And yet the government ‘has no plans to address adult men’s use of mainstream online pornography’. (Maybe the clue’s in the word ‘adult’.) Further, the minister for women, Victoria Atkins, is only now ‘commissioning research on the impact of online pornography on attitudes towards women and girls’.
To its credit, the report does then quote Atkins’s comment that ‘the Crime Survey for England & Wales has shown a reduction in sexual violence since 2004–05, while online pornography has exploded exponentially’ (para 97). Since this would seem to deal a somewhat crushing blow to the committee’s assumptions, the authors choose not to address it; why would you want to deal with such inconvenient facts?
A further note (paras 100–101) points out that the government’s current proposal for age verification on internet porn sites is inherently inconsistent, since it does not include social media. This is indeed a little arbitrary and it’s far from clear how a line can be drawn. The thirtieth most popular website in Britain (according to Alexa) is xhamster.com, which allows members to upload videos, pictures and stories, and to comment on those uploaded by others, the whole thing being financed by advertising; it’s hard to see how a legal distinction can be made between this and a more orthodox social media platform.
More generally, the report is entirely correct about governmental confusion when it comes to regulating pornography. But that confusion has always been present. Censorship is always a hotchpotch of controls, exemptions and prejudices, because it’s never based on rational argument.
And nor is this report. Paragraph 99 is a recommendation for action:
There are examples of lawful behaviours which the government recognises as harmful, such as smoking, which are addressed through public health campaigns and huge investment designed to reduce and prevent those harms. The government should take a similar, evidence-based approach to addressing the harms of pornography.
Why should it do so? If we’re so keen on evidence, what is the justification for this clickbait parallel with smoking? ‘One woman told us…’ Well, on the same basis, a bloke down the pub once told me that professional football is a form of modern slavery; I don’t propose that we should re-direct government policy as a result.
How about singling out another substance ‘which the government recognises as harmful’, such as alcohol? After all, there are restrictions on the age of purchasers, the places licensed to sell it, and the places where it can be consumed (not on London Transport, for example). But there is also an element of trusting the individual; in the privacy of your own home, you are legally entitled to give alcohol to your primary-school-aged children. And – here’s my guess – alcohol is connected with more crimes, more violence, more bad behaviour than pornography.
Why not draw a parallel here? It’d be equally random. And perhaps more accurate. If pornography is really as bad as cigarettes, then presumably we need a suitably hard-hitting slogan for the health warning: ‘Stroking kills’, perhaps. Whereas if it’s like alcohol, then we can go for something less absolute: ‘Wank responsibly.’ Or maybe it’s closer to gambling: ‘When the fun stops, stop.’
But hell, if we’re plucking spurious and random comparisons from the ether, I’d like to nominate a Brian Eno comment in 1974: ‘There’s something about pornography which has a similarity to rock music.’
Having ranted, there are, of course, serious questions to be asked about governmental attitudes towards pornography.
Take that 2014 regulation that began the process of trying to control the internet by applying the same criteria to pay-sites as were used in giving an 18R certificate to a film. This covered practices such as spanking, caning, urolagnia, fisting and ‘physical or verbal abuse’. The list of activities has faced much criticism for its inherent sexism: female ejaculation is banned, for example, but not male ejaculation; similarly, there must be no facesitting, for fear of possible asphyxiation, but there’s no mention of aggressive fellatio.
Who came up with such an absurd list? It was the British Board of Film Classification (formerly Censors), a voluntary body founded by the film industry in 1912 in an attempt to head off the threat of government censorship, and brought into a quasi-governmental role by the Video Recordings Act 1984. Since then, this self-appointed, self-funding body has been gifted additional authority to include the classification of video games and, now, policing the internet. Why should an undemocratic body – still staffed by the film industry and answerable to neither you nor I – have such powers?
The report does have something to say about the BBFC, but only in terms of seeking to stiffen its sinews.
The BBFC says that when it’s censoring material, it takes into consideration ‘potentially offensive content relating to matters such as race, gender, religion, disability or sexuality’. Rather than query this restriction on freedom of expression, the committee says that the censors should also ‘be explicit about categorising normalised sexism as discrimination,’ and ‘should name sexual harassment as a form of sexual violence in order to be clearer about regulation of its depiction’ (para 103).
This is the final paragraph, the final recommendation, and it illustrates the muddled thinking that informs the whole.
How on earth is anyone supposed to be able to define ‘normalised sexism’? And would you and I both agree?
It’s difficult enough to identify pornography, which at least consists of artefacts rather than the vagaries of human behaviour. In the case of Jacobellis v Ohio in 1964, the US Supreme Court judge Potter Stewart refused to define hardcore pornography. ‘Perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so,’ he admitted. ‘But I know it when I see it.’ In 1980, the American feminist Charlotte Bunch took an identical approach: ‘every woman that I know … can tell the difference between eroticism and anti-female pornography.’ Would Stewart and Bunch both see the same things when they looked at the same material?
Worse, though, is that final comment that says we ‘should name sexual harassment as a form of sexual violence’. No, we shouldn’t. If the harassment is violent, then it’s violence; otherwise it isn’t. You can’t just decree that a word changes its meaning. Not only is it an insult to the English language, it’s surely an insult to victims of sexual violence to dilute the definition in such a way.
What it would do, I suppose, is boost those statistics in the Crime Survey to which Victoria Atkins made reference.
For what it’s worth, I think the distinction between public and private spheres of life is essential to a liberal society, and therefore to be highly prized.
As a footnote on porn itself: I subscribe to the view expressed by Donald Thomas in his magisterial history of censorship in Britain, A Long Time Burning (1969), that pornography is a form of satire. It revels in that which is disapproved of in society, deriving its power from an assault on the accepted moral ideology of its day, whether that’s manifest in the nineteenth-century incest fantasies that mocked the ideal of the bourgeois Victorian family, or the sexual enslavement of women depicted in Pauline Réage’s Histoire d’O (1954) and Jean de Berg’s L’Image (1956) – both published in the wake of Simone de Beauvoir’s Le Deuxième Sexe (1949).
Consequently, pornography is always a challenge to existing power structures, which is why societies that have sufficiently draconian authority – from the communist Soviet Union to apartheid South Africa to theocratic Iran – have been so resolute in suppressing it.
Where some forms of pornography are permitted, under governmental controls, regulation tends to reflect the values of those doing the regulating. In Britain, this used to be primarily about class. When Fanny Hill was yet again prosecuted as an obscene publication in 1964, it was the paperback – retailing at 2 shillings and sixpence – that was hauled up in court, not the more exclusive hardback at 42 shillings.
(Again parenthetically, one might ask why Fanny Hill was still being banned two hundred years after its publication, while the works of Karl Marx have always been available. What is about pornography that is so much more threatening to society than revolutionary communism?)
In the 1970s and ’80s, as imagery took over from words, the Mull of Kintyre test (determining what was known as ‘the angle of the dangle’) ensured that semi-erect – let alone erect – penises were not seen in over-the-counter pornography, even in the licensed sex shops of Soho. The result was that hardcore porn of the era would routinely depict a woman with legs spread, holding herself open, while a man stood flaccidly by, seemingly unstirred by the sight. It was sexist – even more so than the BBFC’s current guidelines – which reflected the sexism in the wider culture. And that meant that visual pornography had little appeal to women.
The committee’s report says that men ‘are far more likely to be regular users of pornography than women’ (para 92), and I’m sure this is correct. But since its footnoted reference for this is, risibly enough, an article in the Guardian, I feel myself equally at liberty to express my suspicion that more women are accessing porn now than ever before, and that the ratio of men and women is closer to evens than it has ever been. And that’s because the internet has been largely unregulated (though there’s an element of self-policing that wasn’t there in the lawless days of the late 1990s). Which means that it has responded to market demands rather than to state-endorsed prejudice.
But I’m not entirely sure why I’m wasting my time with this shabby, ill-considered piece of work. The modern debate over pornography has been underway in this country since the Hank Janson trials brought us the 1959 Obscene Publications Act. This report – with all its vague language and evidence-free assertions – adds slightly less than nothing to that debate.