Pornography and censorship

Submitted by cathy n on 25 August, 2006 - 6:50

The government intends to make viewing and possessing so-called “violent pornography” (much of it distributed over the internet) a criminal offence. Sofie Buckland discusses some of the current debate over pornography and issues of censorship.

In feminist circles today talking about pornography, except in the exclusively negative sense, can get you into trouble. It is seen as being deliberately provocative. Addressing the subject in online discussion forums and elsewhere, I’ve encountered Stalinist-style shutting down of debate, with lots of personal abuse. And no one from the pro-censorship side would share a platform with me at the recent Workers’ Liberty London Forum on porn. Nor would they attend the Feminist Fightback conference on 21 October ( There’s a sense that we shouldn’t talk about things that might politically divide the feminist movement. That is not a democratic approach. Whilst we may want and need maximum unity in action, we also need honest discussion of our differences.

First of all, I wouldn’t want to be a cheerleader for mainstream heterosexual pornography — much of which is as sexist as the anti-porn side say. This kind of porn encapsulates pretty much everything we find objectionable and upsetting about representations of women and of sexuality as a whole so it’s no wonder emotions run high over this.

The important thing for socialists to recognise, however, is that the debate over pornography has to be political, not something about which we draw conclusions from a personal morality or as a way of expressing distaste. When radical feminists call for state censorship of pornography they claim it’s not the sexual content they object to, but the ideas expressed in porn about gender and sexuality. But these are political ideas and calling for state censorship or regulation of adult porn (as opposed to child pornography which is a special categroy) is calling for state control of ideas we disagree with.

It’s shockingly naive to entrust the state, which isn’t democratic and serves the interests of the ruling class, with the power to decide which ideas ought to be allowed. Feminists and socialists have the most to lose from political censorship.

Some feminists call for state censorship of porn on the basis that its reactionary messages about gender cause violence against women. But aren’t all ideas potentially dangerous in the wrong hands?

The suppression of communists, real communists as well as Stalinists, in 1950s America was at least partially justified using that kind of reasoning. In this case the Cold War warriors said a working-class revolution would be harmful to vast numbers of people.

Anyone with politics that demand a radical overhaul of society cannot support censorship.

We also absolutely rely on freedom of speech. Socialism will mean the defeat of entrenched power by mobilising millions of downtrodden people, people who will at that point have had to break from ideas handed down to them by official society. To do that the working class needs free debate! This free debate cannot be limited to those ideas we find acceptable — as Rosa Luxemburg said, freedom [if it means anything] is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.

Even non-socialist feminists are being at best short-sighted when they call for censorship. It is possible to imagine a situation, as long as the state has powers of censorship over us, when feminist advocacy of abortion rights is made illegal — on the basis that it could potentially lead to harm of a foetus. What’s to stop the spreading of educational material about contraception being made illegal on the basis it could “harm” teenagers who might be incited to have underage sex? Anyone with half an eye on American politics knows that’s not an unimaginable scenario.

Women’s liberation depends on being able to talk about, agitate and advocate political ideas about sex and sexuality.

The point has been made in recent weeks that violent pornography is an exception to these general points about censorship. In this case it’s not about banning ideas we don’t like but protecting women from immediate physical threat. The government’s definition of the violent pornography is that it is “real or appearing to be real acts of violence which appear to be life threatening or likely to result in serious, disabling injury”.

They say — despite the evidence of government reports commissioned in the past — that looking at violent pornography causes violence.

There is no conclusive evidence that adults looking at porn, or other violent material, leads to copy-cat incidents or sexual violence in general. We don’t have to defend the content of pornography to oppose the way pornorgraphy and violence are conveniently linked. In the same way we object when the Daily Mail scapegoats computer games as a cause of real-life violence, without in any way defending the content of such games.

Drawing a direct causal link between consumption of violent pornography and violent crime massively oversimplifies human psychology and adults’ ability to reason. It undermines our humanity to pretend that most people can’t draw a pretty distinct line between fantasy and reality, between what they see on a screen and what they do in real life. It also ignores the quite varied reasons people have for watching such material.

No doubt a lot of users of extreme violent pornography, or extreme violent material in general watch it because they get off on it. But many humans are ambulance-chasing oddballs. Sometimes we watch deeply unpleasant things because we can. How many of us watched or know someone who watched the video of Nick Berg being beheaded by Islamists online? Why do we do this? The reasons are many and varied. And they do not mean we are prone to violence in real life.

The other argument is that violent porn, and indeed all porn, contributes to a general culture of sexism that in turn leads to violence against women. It’s reasonable to suggest that sexism in society is fuelled by sexist media. But pretty much all media are sexist — why place special emphasis on pornography?

It is strange the way sexual material is scape-goated. Representations of graphic violence that are coupled with sexual imagery are produced with the explicit intention of sexual arousal are banned, but representations of graphic violence in mainstream film and TV aren’t. The difference suggests two things.

First that there’s something about sexual violence which is uniquely bad, and specifically more likely to cause copycats than just plain violence. This premise, that sexual violence is uniquely bad, highlights the Victorian attitude that our society still holds towards sex and sexuality. As socialists, we’re for the open expression of sexuality, and for the recognition that people’s fantasies are not the same thing as their political attitudes or beliefs. Fantasising about rape does not necessarily mean thinking rape is acceptable behaviour in real life. (It is well documented that some women have fantasies about being raped. In real life no woman wants to be raped.)

I’m sure not all the groups calling for this legislation have backward beliefs about sex and sexuality but some undoubtedly do — The Christian Institute’s submission to the consultation comes from an anti-sex point of view, as does that of the Lilith Project, which calls for possession of “material which features naked women for the sole purpose of sexual gratification” to be punishable by up to five years in prison.

The demand for state regulation of all sexual material is chilling. It’s a tragedy that more than two hundred years since feminists starting agitating for the liberation of women, human sexuality is still seen in these terms — as something unavoidably dirty, shameful and wrong. This Lilith Project’s claim that sexual material is inherently oppressive, steamrollers over the fact it is possible (and in my view, desirable) to produce pornography without reactionary politics.

The second thing arising from the scapegoating of pornography is that prospect that we’re standing at the top of a slippery slope that starts with prohibiting violent pornography and ends with censoring what adults can watch on TV, play on games consoles or read in books.

To demonstrate this possibility we need only look at the “video nasty” scandals of the 80s, where campaigns against violent and gory movies like Driller Killer and Cannibal Holocaust by religious reactionaries like Mary Whitehouse lead to the Video Recordings Act of 1984.

Originally intended to “just” curb these reasonably extreme films on the basis they might inspire violence the Act lead to the refusal to grant film certificates to movies like Straw Dogs and The Exorcist. This example illustrates not only the danger of the reasoning that violent images lead to violence, but also that it’s basically impossible for campaigners to restrict state censorship or regulation to media they don’t like.

The example of video nasties also highlights the futility of what anti-porn campaigners are trying to do. None of the films mentioned above were impossible to get hold of even when banned. Over 20 years later, with the development of the internet, prohibited material is much easier to distribute. Even after gambling with our political freedoms, it’s extremely unlikely violent pornography will disappear. What does censorship achieve for feminists if all it does is push violent pornography underground without challenging the sexist messages inherent in it?

The flipside to all this is the women involved in making these videos are often horrifically exploited, not something that will be resolved by handing over control of such material to gangsters — guaranteeing minimum safe standards of working is basically impossible under such conditions.

Of course, when some radical feminists divide the world up into good women and bad, good fantasies and bad, the rights of workers engaged in the creation of pornography is not a primary concern. For socialist feminists, it’s the central question — a focus on women who are being exploited and put at risk by the sex industry, not ignoring them in favour of making abstract propaganda about the possible harmful effects of the pornography they appear in.

Unionisation of sex workers is one of the key ways to combat this, which is why activists in Workers’ Liberty have worked alongside the International Union of Sex Workers, now a recognised part of the GMB.

What’s the alternative to challenge the sexism inherent in much of mainstream heterosexual pornography? To build a feminist movement capable of posing real alternatives and helping to create better sexually explicity material. Taking on sexist ideas. Not gambling away our freedoms.

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