Despite opposition from anti-censorship campaigners, on 9 May a new ban on “violent pornography” came into force. This wide-ranging ban not only criminalises photos of genuine consensual S&M sex, but also “realistic” illustrations, pictures posed by models and computer-generated images. The penalty for possessing banned material is up to three years in jail and entry on the Sex Offenders Register.
Until the law is tested in court, no-one will know exactly what is illegal. The definition is broad: it covers actual or realistic depiction of serious violence (or threatened violence) in a sexual context. One candidate for banning is Madonna’s 1992 book Sex, which shows an S&M scene of Madonna tied up with a knife to her throat. Index on Censorship estimates that there may be 100,000 copies of Sex in circulation in the UK. Illustrated editions of various books by the Marquis de Sade may also contravene the new law, while many artists are concerned about its impact on their work.
Although the Government has conceded that it will not be against the law to possess images of yourself and your partner engaged in S&M sex, it will be illegal to possess similar pictures of your friends, even though what they are doing is perfectly legal in itself.
The law was passed following a long-running campaign by Liz Longhurst, whose daughter Jane was killed in 2003 by a man with a history of looking at violent porn. While the particular case was clearly distressing, repeated academic studies have failed to find any causal relationship between viewing pornography and a tendency to engage in sexual violence. In any case, given the international nature of the internet, it seems very unlikely that the ban will seriously restrict the activities of people determined whatever the law says to seek out violent imagery. It is far more likely to affect people who enjoy consensual S&M, who can no longer look at pictures of others doing the same without risking prosecution.
This is a populist move on the part of a Government simultaneously buying into radical feminist ideas that all porn is sexist and keen to promote its “tough on crime” credentials against the resurgent Tories. Central to the ban is its moralistic, anti-sex attitude. Only imagery of violence in a sexual context is banned. Ultra-violent films like Hostel are apparently okay.
We shouldn’t trust the state to decide what is or isn’t acceptable viewing, but given that the motivation for the ban is supposedly to prevent violent crime it does seem illogical to ban images of someone getting pleasure out of masochistic sex, but not images of someone being tortured to death.
Worse still, the ban places the onus on individuals, rather than on distributors of porn, to decide what may or may not be acceptable. There is no way of checking which images in your collection are legal or illegal — it is up to you to get rid of any potentially problematic ones (even if they were perfectly legally acquired in the past) or take the risk of going to court.
The Backlash coalition, which led the campaign against the new law, is now arguing that it contravenes the Human Rights Act, and activists’ focus is now turning to possible legal test cases. Backlash is a coalition of groups which includes S&M group Unfettered, the International Union of Sex Workers and Feminists Against Censorship but is also supported by some right-wing libertarian organisations. It was due to meet on 31 May to discuss the way forward.
While it is certainly possible that the ban — or parts of it — will eventually be deemed to conflict with human rights law, campaigners should be wary of relying on the courts to defend freedom of speech. Furthermore, we need to make it clear that while the law supposedly aims to prevent women from the threat of violent crime, there is no concrete evidence that it will do so — and in fact it threatens to criminalise many more women for the so-called “offence” of owning pictures of kinky sex.
• More: www.backlash-uk.org.uk