Porn should be reformed, not banned, argues Laurie Penny
Since the first caveperson picked up a flint to hack an enormously bosomed gnome out of granite, pornography has been a fact of life. In July this year, in one of his first acts as prime minister, Gordon Brown tabled the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill 2007. This bill included legislation banning the downloading and possession of violent or ‘extreme’ pornography, in response to a large scale media reaction to the sexually-motivated killing of Jane Longhurst in 2004. Ignoring the widely accepted fact that there is not a shred of evidence to support a direct link between violent sexual crime and ‘extreme’ pornography, the state has leapt upon the opportunity to further police the sexual mores of its citizens.
Handing control of pornography to the state is never going to end well. Conveniently, since the bill was introduced in 2004, the government’s definition of ‘extreme’ pornography has been expanded to include some kinds of homosexual porn. Giving the state license to say what is and is not criminal pornography gives it license to suddenly decide that the tastes and interests of any non-mainstream group should be penalised – to decide, for example, that whilst it’s no longer a crime to be gay, it is a crime to download certain pictures of men having intercourse with other men.
How old were you when you took your first illicit peek at dirty pictures – 13, 14? Quite possibly younger if you’re male, since ogling forbidden filth remains practically a rite of passage in schoolboy culture. Censoring pornography does not work. Even in the UK, arguably the most restrictive of English-speaking cultures in terms of anti-porn legislation, pornography is everywhere. It’s on the top shelves of newsagents, splashed across the front pages of Nuts, Zoo and Loaded. It’s widely available on most high-streets, in adult shops up and down the land, in the ‘explicit’ sections of every bookshop and print-store and, most of all, it’s on the internet.
Censorship of pornography is also illogical. Since when did forbidding something fun do anything other than increase its illicit appeal, make it more enticing to the public and cause an explosion in rates of crime associated with the new contraband? In the US, for example, not only did national alcohol consumption actually increase between the beginning of Prohibition in 1920 and its repeal in 1933, but the result was a massive upsurge in violent and organised crime in connection with alcohol. Stricter legislation on pornography is likely, moreover, to drive the producers of ‘extreme’ pornography underground, depriving participants of legal safeguards and making working conditions considerably more unsafe for porn models, actors and actresses. Legislation to increase pornographic censorship would be immeasurably socially damaging.
Fundamentally, porn itself – the explicit representation of the human body or sexual activity with the goal of sexual arousal and/or sexual relief –is not harmful. What grates is that so much of the porn that is being produced and disseminated is so very, very dire. Much of the contemporary porn available is tacky, limited, demeaning, badly executed, badly scripted and – often, but by no means always – exploitative to those that participate in its production and consumption. It is the type of pornography that is saturating our culture that is harmful, not porn itself.
Supply dictates demand, and if what is being supplied is countless images of women being demeaned, humiliated and, most of all, made voiceless sex objects, then this will be taken as the baseline for desirable sexual activity by young men and women who – despite legislation that is already in place – grow up watching this abominable, tragically limited trite. Our cultural sex-narrative has gone wrong. Our response to this should not be to criminalise sexual images, but to radically re-think the way in which we explore sexual desire.
What I’d like to see is pornography with a plot: pornography in which grown men and women are equal players, in which sex is joyful, playful, soulful, awkward even, and never abusive. I’d like to put that most dangerous and illicit of things, tenderness, back into scripts, screenplays and directives. I’d like pornography to be beautiful. I’d like it to be made by producers, models and actresses who are enjoying what they are doing and who are union-protected. I’d like my porn to be artistic, I’d like it to play with fantasy and desire whilst keeping within the boundaries of non-harmful sexual and emotional exploration. Then, I’d like this kind of pornography to be government-subsidised, and to be distributed freely online and in schools as part of a validated PHSE curriculum, so that growing children and teenagers can explore enriching, non-abusive sexual desire in an open, positive manner.
Finally, in this sexual utopia, I would restrict so-called ‘extreme’ pornography – pornography that includes, for example, violent BDSM games, rape and abuse fantasy or necrophilia – to over 18s, who would hopefully be adult enough to explore valid kinks in a mature way that would ensure that they remain fantasy. A pornographic market overflowing with widely available, quality, joyfully explicit plot- and character-driven, sexually equal pornography would both benefit the sexual and emotional health of the next generation and reduce people’s drive to indulge abusive kinks at vulnerable, impressionable ages.
If we really want to reduce violent and sexual crime against women, only a radical re-think of our attitude to pornography, encompassing a long, hard look at our social and sexual mores, will cut it. A warped, limited and misogynist cultural sex-narrative is the problem, but censorship is definitively not the answer.