Thursday, 25 July 2013

Some thoughts on p0rn filters and criminalisation, young people and context

First up, let’s explain where I stand on this whole porn filter/criminalisation of rape and torture porn. I (slightly tongue in cheek) describe myself as a sex positive, anti porn feminist. Tongue in cheek because I think in many ways it’s disingenuous to try and define anything as ‘anti porn’. But I also want to reclaim the term ‘sex positive’ as I believe that saying a dislike for porn means you are ‘sex negative’ is to say that good sex is intrinsically linked with the sex industry. I don’t believe that. I believe that enjoying sex, being sexual and having a sexuality can happen without buying into a huge multi billion dollar industry based on the commercialisation of women’s bodies. I don't mind what other people do, I just resent how the term 'sex positive' excludes women and girls who don't watch porn. It's just a bit insulting, don't you think?

So, this week the two stories that have dominated the headlines both relate to public ownership or interest in women’s bodies. One – the royal baby. Two – the government’s plans to introduce porn filters on every internet connected computer and criminalise porn that depicts rape or torture of women (and men, I assume. Although this hasn't actually been mentioned in the media). 

As a feminist who sincerely believes porn is problematic and can have a harmful influence on how young people view women’s right to consent, desire, or pleasure, it would make sense for me to feel support for this move. As it happens, I don’t – particularly. 

Why? Well firstly because I am always wary of anything that is aimed at preserving ‘childhood innocence’. Not the same as child protection of course. I am concerned that the government frames the problem of depicting rape as something that should not be seen by children – not as something that may have an impact in glamorising or normalising the epidemic levels of violence against women. So much of the government's rhetoric on sexualisation seems to work on the assumption that treating women's bodies as commodified objects magically becomes ok when you hit a certain age. This isn't true. This is backed up by the way Cameron continually gives the thumbs up to Page 3 - his whole attitude towards the treatment of women as sex objects simply doesn't add up. 

Secondly, it’s all very well trying to hide this from children’s eyes, but unless this move is accompanied by comprehensive sex and relationships that focuses on respect and consent then it’s not going to have much impact on improving the disturbing levels of teen intimate partner violence. Seeing as the government is ideologically entrenched against sex education, this isn’t happening soon. Which confirms my suspicions that this is more about ‘won’t somebody think of the children!!’ than ‘how can we seriously combat disturbing levels of teen intimate partner violence.’ Remember, according to NSPCC and Bristol University research, 1 in 3 girls aged 16-19 have experienced intimate partner violence including coercion into sexual contact they do not want to have. One survey found 75% of girls reported emotional abuse, 33% of girls had suffered sexual abuse including rape, and 25% reported physical abuse from their boyfriends. The rate of physical abuse rose to 75% for girls with partners who are more than two years their senior. 

Thirdly – and this relates to the other two points – this idea seems unworkable in terms of web technology. The whole thing makes me think this was more about David Cameron having an easy win that panders to the Daily Mail. A paper who, with their constant ‘older than her years’ and ‘all grown up’ headlines are in no position to say anything about sexualisation. 

So, those are my reservations about this proposed legislation. 

But. 

Do I think we need to be talking about porn that depicts rape and torture? Well, yes. We need to talk about this - sensibly and in a grown up manner. And as well as talking, we need to listen to the voices of the girls and boys who this legislation is designed to "protect".  

As the debate has raged across Twitter, a couple of things have really stood out for me. One has been the concern (I’m being charitable) that people living with parents or in shared houses might not be able to watch free online porn any more. 

I think we need to step back and just think a bit harder about that statement, and it’s obvious rejoinder. 

No one has ever died from not watching porn. 

If you live in a shared house and your landlord has applied the filter to your internet connection, I’m sorry but so fucking what? You don’t have an inalienable right to watch porn online. It’s not a human right. I know some people may find it hard to believe, but everyone having internet in their homes is a fairly new thing. The last 13 years really. Before that, people didn't have instant access to porn depicting women being raped.

That's just a personal gripe. It seems a bit silly to focus on 'my right to watch free online porn' when surely the debate we want to be having is about sex education, impact on violence against women and, of course, what it all means for censorship.

Fiona Elvines, from Rape Crisis South London, makes many interesting points in her head-to-head article with Anna Arrowsmith in the Guardian on 24 July. In it, she explains one of the key misconceptions - that the proposals are trying to state a causal relationship between rape and rape depicted in porn.

Of course this causal relationship doesn't exist. To say rape is caused by porn would be to remove the agency of the perpetrator. It would also mean - as per my point above - that 13 years ago we had fewer problems with sexual violence. However, porn depicting rape exists in a context of high - extremely high - levels of sexual violence against women. Where there are nearly half a million sexual assaults every year in the UK alone. I agree with Fiona that porn depicting rape:

'contributes to a conducive context for violence against women through eroticising men's violence and women's non-consent.'

Rape Crisis Centres are well placed to understand the role porn depicting rape often takes in grooming victims and legitimising perpetrators' actions. From my own conversations with Rape Crisis workers, I've heard over and over again how violent porn has been used within cases of abuse. These scenes, this footage - none of it exists in a vacuum. They exist in a patriarchal, capitalist society where there are up to 90,000 rapes every year and a conviction rate of 6.5%.

This is not to suggest that every one who watches porn depicting rape is an undiscovered rapist. It frustrates me that feminists who question rape porn are immediately accused of this strawman argument. That argument is clearly, obviously, ridiculous. Instead, I believe we need to understand how we live in an unequal society with high levels of sexual violence, and so we need to ask questions about how different media portrays rape and violence against women. We need to recognise that porn doesn't exist outside our patriarchal society and therefore discuss how it fits into our culture.

The other argument has been around how these proposals seek to control women's own fantasies around submission, or stigmatise BDSM. I think the important distinction here is that fantasies are just that - fantasy. Women may fantasise about being dominated etc. and that's ok. A huge part of feminism has always been about empowering women's sexuality and that means respecting and celebrating how women want to express that sexuality. My point is however that the very fact of fantasy means consent is present. It's not a rape fantasy - it's a fantasy of controlled submission. Similarly, BDSM is consensual. Rape is not consensual - that's the point. There's a world of difference between women consenting, negotiating and agreeing how they want to have sex with their partner, and the videos targeted by these proposals. Most of the videos under discussion are those where consent is unimportant, disregarded. They are from the rapist perspective. It's a rapist fantasy – not a controlled submission fantasy. They don't celebrate women's sexual autonomy, they elevate male domination and eroticise male violence.

A further argument against these proposals is the question of why the government is picking on porn when film and TV have rape scenes in them all the time. Well, firstly I for one wish there were less rape scenes in film and TV. They're upsetting, many women and girls find them triggering and they're always, always glamorised or unnecessary. Sometimes they are added in for no reason at all - see The Other Boleyn Girl. It often feels that it's a tickbox to add to the script - everything needs a rape scene.

So if there was a campaign to reduce the number of explicit and distressing rape scenes in movies, sign me up.

However, whenever this argument is made that if it's ok on film, why is porn different, I think we need to remember why porn is, in its very nature, different. The sole purpose of porn is to aid masturbation or sex. Films and TV aren't. Porn depicting rape is inviting the viewer to experience one of the most intense and pleasurable feelings any human can have whilst watching a woman experience a horrific, traumatic and violent assault acted upon her.

I know it's not a popular, fashionable opinion but I do find this troubling. I find it particularly troubling that with the dearth of sex education, young people are seeking out porn, finding porn that depicts rape, and associating those images of violence and non-consent with sex, or with what women want. With no context, with no education about consent and respect, the videos shape an understanding of sex and sexuality that eroticises violence and lack of consent. We need to understand the impact this has on young people's approach to consent and sex.

So we need to have this conversation. We need to talk about what an eroticisation of violence means in a culture where violence against women is endemic. We need to discuss what porn depicting rape teaches young men who have no other context to talk about sex and consent. We need to ask why so much porn is based on non consensual violence and non consensual degradation. And we need to listen to how this is impacting on girls.

To me, none of this is about kink, BDSM or any consensual sexual practise. The issues feel very separate and they should be kept separate. This isn't about saying all men who watch violent porn are potential rapists or all women who enjoy violent porn are oppressed. None of those arguments stand up - they're disrespectful and unscientific. It is frustrating that a lot of mainstream media are deliberately blurring the lines on this debate.

This is about the what place porn that depicts rape has within an unequal society with high levels of sexual violence, and what that means in a society that lacks comprehensive sex education.

Do I agree with this proposed legislation? I think it's a moot point. I don't believe it's workable, it doesn't come from a feminist place, it's not about women and it's all about the Mail. Without sex education it's meaningless and will likely have a negative impact on any teenager trying to google 'am i bisexual?'

But do we need to talk about this issue. Yes. 

6 comments:

Rustam said...

Hi Sian,

I think you may have mixed up the two issues the new law seeks to cover. The first is the "internet filter" which will block all porn websites automatically. This is what the Government has been use the "Think of the children!" defence to implement and has been highly controversial.

The other slightly separate issue which almost everyone agrees with is the new illegal status of possessing porn depicting rape. This hasn't been covered in the media much so I couldn't say what reason the Government gives, but it may well be the reasons you have expressed in this post (and I hope it is!). As it hasn't been controversial, most news articles have just tagged it on to more sensationalist articles about the mass filtering of all pornography.

So having made that distinction it would be nice to know your views on non-rape porn and its filtering.

I'd like to take issue with your statement that "You don’t have an inalienable right to watch porn online. It’s not a human right.", which implies it's therefore not an issue. There are many things that aren't human rights, such as reading books, drinking alcohol or even accessing the internet that aren't human rights. However, if the government banned books, alcohol or the entire internet there would definitely be an outcry. The Government shouldn't interfere with what media we consume, as long as it doesn't hurt others (as rape porn or videos inciting racism would). I'm sure there's more topics around filtering we could discuss, but you didn't go into much detail in the post as I think you confused the two new laws, so I'd be interested to know your views.

sian and crooked rib said...

hi,

I do understand the difference between the filter and the criminalisation of porn depicting rape. I assume we move in different circles as there has been much debate over the latter and not everyone supports it. I deal with some of the arguments why not in my post and - hopefully - dispute them.

As per the comment re human right to watch porn, this post by Deborah Orr is interesting on this subject: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jul/26/why-such-outrage-porn-filters

I don't often agree with her but in this instance I do.

The filter will not interfere with what media we consume. It just means people will have to actively opt in to consume that media. To use your books example, it is like me going into a bookshop. I don't press a button to find a stocked library appear in my living room. The filter means that the emphasis is on those who want to consume porn to take action to do so, whilst those of us who don't want to consume porn can carry on not doing so.

Ursula said...

how do we know that we're watching simulated rape? We don't. This isn't an industry I would trust, no more than I trust the bankers who caused the world wide recession.

Money talks, men own the most property in the world and part of that 'property' is women's bodies.

Tim said...

Hi,
I fully see that there is a difference between rape porn, and bdsm, etc. The problem I see though - is that whoever is in charge of deciding what is filtered may not understand that difference. So, my worry is that far more will end up being filtered than should be.

Historically, I think this is a fair worry - anti-porn laws have in the past lead to the disproportionate suppression of lgbt+ materials in Canada, for example ( http://glasgowsexworker.wordpress.com/2013/06/26/history-lesson-what-happened-when-canada-enacted-a-feminist-anti-porn-law/ )

Further (and this is my biggest worry), there is a real danger that once this technology is installed and accepted, "mission creep" will set in, with more and more "objectionable" content being filtered - starting with "extremism" and ending up with the filtering of any view the government doesn't like. And there's some evidence that this is already happening ( http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-07/27/pornwall )

That said, it is really good that this discussion is happening, about whether/what kinds of porn are acceptable. If an opt-out filter does happen, at the least it will make objectification seem less socially acceptable.

Rustam said...

Hi again,

I'd though that my original post was deleted when I logged into blogger, but now I see it was indeed posted I'm in a very happy mood! Please delete the one I've just submitted as it was a pretty bad rehash at what I originally posted.

I didn't know there had been much debate over the banning (rather than filtering) of rape porn. I hadn't seen it in the mainstream media I was looking at, though maybe it was in social media (I stopped looking at twitter a while ago). I'll give your comments some thoughts and respond when I have a chance (which will hopefully be less than a week away this time...)

danfactor said...

It's not just porn and rape porn the ConDems r going after it's ANYTHING remotely sexual and anything that features underdressed women.
For example on of their and the Daily Mail's big gripes is pop music videos featuring the likes of Katy Perry and Rihanna dancing sexily with very little clothing on.
Do you have a problem with this? Is this all bad? And as so many feminists seem too they end up sounding more like the Daily Mail.