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UK Pornography Law Changes on Monday 26 January

January 23rd, 2009

Dr Petra

This coming Monday the UK’s law will change so anyone in possession of what’s called ‘extreme pornography’ will be breaking the law.

This is a situation that’s caused a lot of anxiety among the BDSM community. People are worried they may be prosecuted for making, distributing or owning materials that may be judged ‘extreme’.

The campaign group Backlash have put together a number of very useful resources on their site that:
Explain and critique the forthcoming legal change
Outline some of the unintended consequences of the extreme pornography law
How you can remove any potentially illegal materials before the ban comes in
and what to do if you are arrested for possessing, creating or distributing extreme materials. I’d recommend reading through their whole site as it gives a very clear outline of the current legal situation and problems with it.

On Sunday 25 the Consenting Adult Action Network are going to demonstrate in parliament square in protest of the legal change and what they see as an infringement on the civil rights of those into BDSM and kink.

The issue of civil liberties and personal turn-ons is only one aspect of this story. Sadly it’s become an area where it’s become very difficult to raise a critical voice. Supporters of the extreme porn bill react with hostility if you raise reasonable questions about the process behind the legal changes. Their reaction assumes if you’re asking questions you’re condoning rape, child abuse and the exploitation of animals or dead bodies.

Those who indulge in such activities or record images of them undoubtedly deserve the strongest prosecution our laws allow. But the law as it stands does not tolerate rape, child abuse, necrophila and zoophilia. Which is why so many have questioned the need for additional rulings in these areas.

My concern, shared with other academics, educators, sex workers, activists and healthcare practitioners is the law has been altered based on rhetoric and opinion, rather than evidence.

The evidence base on the effects of pornography is not particularly clear, given that many studies are limited by small samples; riddled with experimenter expectancy effects and demand characteristics; poorly designed and poorly reported lab-based research that often features male undergraduates who’re not representative of the wider population.

Research is further hampered by failing to clearly declare what is used in such research as ‘pornography’, how materials were selected for study, and how outcomes can be considered transparent if there is a conflict of interest over who funds the research or the personal views of those conducting any studies (which frequently remain undeclared). Other studies that take a more qualitative approach are equally problematic as participants are often selected (or volunteer) because they’ve a particularly forceful pro or anti pornography perspective to share.

It’s not to say all porn research is bad, but because the majority of studies are so flawed it’s very difficult to draw any clear conclusions from them – particularly around direct causal links between images and actions. Unfortunately this confusion leads to both pro and anti pornography groups cherry-picking particular studies to suit their respective agendas.

Erotica, pornography, whatever you want to call it, it undoubtedly has an impact on us as individuals and at a societal level. It may serve to turn us on, to inform our sex lives, to make us anxious, or to mislead us completely about sexual behaviour. It can be used secretively, or shared. It may bring joy and fun to a relationship, or anxiety, jealousy and mistrust. It can make people feel great about themselves or completely insecure about their bodies. Some may use it to exploit, others to empower.

Sadly the changes to our extreme porn law have taken none of these factors into account. There’s been an assumption that extreme pornography exists and is easy to define and identify. All involved in using, creating and distributing it are constructed abusers, and if people consume it they are liable to commit heinous sex crimes.

This overlooks the fact that many people who commit the most shocking violent sex crimes don’t have access to pornography (or certainly to ‘extreme pornography’). For example, if you look at levels of sexual violence against women and children in the developing world/global south you’ll find high levels of extreme sexual violence and rape carried out against women and children. Abusers may have little or no access to the media, yet still carry out shocking crimes.

The argument that extreme porn causes extreme sexual violence simplifies the relationship people have with porn and avoids the more complicated question that most people who look at porn do not commit violent sex crimes, and those who commit sex crimes most often do not seem to enjoy violent/extreme pornography.

Focusing on the extreme also means we avoid some of the very real problems porn gives us that probably have a greater impact on our lives and risks to our health and wellbeing. It ignores how it misleads people about how their bodies work, or what a partner might want. It neglects how sex can be reduced to performance and positions in an increasingly reductive format. It implies that ‘great sex’ must now include several positions, some oral, anal and if you’re lucky some girl-on-girl action. It suggests you’re a prude if you don’t want this.

It allows us to conveniently ignore most people consume higher levels of sexual material through the mainstream media that we don’t deem extreme but still give very clear messages of what sex should be like – where lads should push to get as much hedonistic sex as they can and girls should learn the perfect sex technique to keep him happy.

The whole time our gaze is misdirected towards the perils of ‘extreme’ imagery we’re missing the lower grade sexism, pressure on men to perform, and women to service that permeates so much of mainstream culture. Perhaps our question should be less about how we deal with the extreme kinds of porn, and more about the impact of everyday sexualised culture that we have to operate in. And rather than wheeling on legal changes why don’t we look at providing better sex education to give people the critical ability to question whoever is telling them something about sex – whether it’s in porn, a mainstream lad’s mag or women’s glossy, from a drug company, or sex toy store.

The difficulty with this area is that there have been a number of horrific and high profile cases where women have been horribly abused and murdered at the hands of men who have reportedly consumed extremely violent pornography. Faced with such tragedy it is logical that people would want to take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Unfortunately this change in the law is unlikely to do that. It may surprise you to know there was a government consultation where people like myself pointed out the scientific evidence in this area, the flaws within said evidence, conclusions one could draw and where there were particular areas needing attention (some of which I’ve outlined above). Did the government pay any attention to this? No, they did not.

As an academic who has researched pornography (and the way pornography is researched) over more years than I care to remember I find it shocking that this information can be overlooked for political gain. While many will now be concerned over their civil liberties I’m just left with the feeling this is another sad day for science.

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