The UK porn block and the concept of obscenity

I made a passing reference the to the UK’s new plan to block all porn but I decided that it, and obscenity in general, required a more thorough examination. In short, David Cameron feels that UK internet service providers need to block all porn by default to protect children. In short, again, that idea is stupid. It’s stupid partially because it will not work and partially because the mindset behind it is one that should not be accepted.

Before we get onto the failures of the block I do want to bring up two other points. Part of this block (but not the whole focus) is on child pornography. However, child pornography is already illegal and this porn block doesn’t make it any more so. In that sense this will have very little effect on protecting children directly. On a slightly more academic, but nonetheless interesting, note, there is actually a possibility that making child pornography more difficult to acquire might, ironically, lead to more child abuse. That brings us to the second point, making it illegal to possess depictions of rape.

Rape, too, is already illegal, so this block will not improve protection there. What I understand this to mean is that it will now be illegal to have porn that simulates rape, even between consenting actors. I find this extremely troubling as it is making a crime of an action where no one is harmed, a problem I already pointed out in the legal treatment of BDSM.

If no one is harmed and there is no victim then on what grounds will we ban the action? If we ban it on the grounds that genuine rape is harmful then we are being ethically inconsistent. We already allow depictions of illegal acts, for example murder, as completely legal in films. If it’s illegal to depict rape on the screen then it should be illegal to depict murder in a film under exactly the same principles. The only reason I would say this doesn’t happen is that society, in general, wrongly treats the act of sex completely differently to all other physical acts.

In any case, let’s return to why the UK porn block is a problem. First, it’s just not going to work. Or, more accurately, even if it does everything it’s intended to do it won’t prevent access to porn. As PZ Meyers recalls:

I’m sure Cameron remembers growing up in a world without the internet; I know I do. Does he remember buddies smuggling pages torn out of Playboy so school, and everyone huddling over them at recess? How about the myths about sex kids told each other on street corners? Reading National Geographic for the photos that showed exotic women with bare breasts? We weren’t innocent then, and we were struggling frantically to lose what little innocence we had.

I went to school just as computers, the internet and then cellphones were taking off. I don’t recall a huge amount going on with magazines at school but I do know that in high school one of the issues that was going around was people using their cellphones to record their sexual activity, essentially sexting. That hasn’t stopped, is unlikely to stop and a ban on internet pornography is, if anything, only going to exacerbate it. It’s just not possible to prevent children from getting access to pornography and this block can have other, problematic side-effects.

Sexting (Source: http://www.uknowkids.com)

For example, as has been seen before, blacklists are not perfect. Sites that shouldn’t be blocked (such as educational and medical websites) can quite easily be cut off and sites that should be blocked will not be blocked. I doubt I would’ve been able to write this post behind the UK filters, even though I didn’t go to a single porn site. Whoever controls those lists has the power to control what the rest of the country sees. If you can’t access those sites you’re also not going to have a way to confirm that that they are appropriately blocked. Do you really trust the government or a contractor to decide what you can and can not see and read?

Just as worrying is the possibility for those filters to be turned to other purposes. Once the government can control what is available, all for the greater good and with little oversight, who is to say that they won’t decide other content is harmful and needs to be blocked? It’s happened before. In fact, it’s happened even from the time I planned this post to when I got around to writing it. Reports of discussions between UK ISPs and Open Rights Group suggests that the filter will not only block porn but violence, terrorist-related material, suicide related websites, smoking, alcohol and esoteric material.

These attempts to block “harmful” material are seldom about protecting anyone. They are about control and enforcing one’s views onto everyone else. What’s more, they don’t fulfil their supposed purpose very well. Let’s take a look at a recent South African example. Of Good Report was a film that was meant to open the Durban International Film Festival but was banned for containing scenes of child pornography. That sounds very reasonable but here are some more details which make the decision a little harder. The film depicts a sexual encounter between a teacher and a 16-year-old girl. The age of consent in South Africa is 16, although it is illegal to portray sex with anyone younger than 18. The actress in this film is actually 23. Already we can see a bit of a conflict both between the relevant laws and with what was actually happening.

The decision was widely discussed and criticised. Constitutional law professor Pierre de Vos said that the censors had neglected the context of the film and that it had artistic value rather that just appealing to eroticism. I think that distinction is of dubious value and just a further example of how sex is treated separately to any other physical action. It’d probably be difficult to find anyone arguing that a video of someone playing golf had to have artistic value rather than just appealing to the sportsperson or some other such term. In any case, the decision to ban the film was later overturned and it was screened on the final day of the festival. The point being that these systems of censorship are not reliable. If that decision was made in secret before anyone had a chance to see the film do you think that it would have ever been overturned?

A third problem is that I believe a large part of the problem with sex and nudity is actually self inflicted. I worry that these obsessive attempts to cover up our bodies will lead to an unhealthy view of ourselves that goes beyond just sex. For example, a UK group is requiring magazines with semi-naked models to use opaque packaging. This is itself sexualising bodies, I doubt for the better. It’s entirely possible to separate nudity and sexuality and has been done in some cultures.

I’ve heard nudity is far less of an issue in the Netherlands and the one of the few things I remember from life orientation in school was when our teacher told us that her and her family are often nude at home. This also seems to be less of an issue in Sweden and there are psychologists who feel nudity at home can be helpful for children. Given the choice, shouldn’t we rather strive for people who are comfortable with their bodies rather than repressed and anxious about them? I haven’t read much on the topic but a some quick searching suggested that nudity in the home may actually have positive effects. In any case it’s better than arresting people for being naked in their own home!

I would posit that we need to critically examine what we find offensive and obscene and decide whether these are things that really require laws. It’s also good to recall that there are huge differences between countries. So, for example, in the US one might get charged for using a dildo as a microphone in the street but, in India, sex toys are illegal. It’s worth noting again that the use of a sex toy is a victimless “crime.” But, in these situations, it seems people are not worried about who (or even if someone) is harmed but about forcing their own idea of what is decent and what is obscene on others.

Homosexuality, for example, is a harmless, private choice between consenting adults. What people do in the bedroom doesn’t concern anyone outside of that bedroom (and to be clear, by bedroom I don’t mean just the bedroom) yet there are only a handful of countries where homosexuals enjoy the same rights as heterosexuals. That’s one of the few things one can be proud of in South Africa. Russia may be making the news now for it’s controversial (internationally) law forbidding “gay propaganda” but let’s not forget that there are many other countries where homosexuality is not only illegal but carries the death penalty.

Gay rights around the world (Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/08/12/40-maps-that-explain-the-world/)

Gay rights around the world (Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com)

Morality is not made up of objective facts. It is something which we are constantly striving to improve and which has, and will continue to, change over time. To borrow a line from Cole Porter:

In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking.

Being a part of the majority is no guarantee that you are in the right. I first remember learning this in junior school when our library teacher told the class stand in a certain place if we though gold, silver, platinum or iron was the most expensive metal. Myself, and the majority of the class, chose gold. Most of the others took silver and no more than four chose platinum. The most expensive at the time was platinum. We were wrong and it didn’t matter how many of us disagreed. We disregard majority as a valid way of decisions so let me end with something to think about.

There are those that think nudity in public is perfectly acceptable. The majority are in favour of clothes and find public nudity in bad taste and offensive. There are others who think people should be completely covered from view, most notably some Muslims who think women should be covered but, among the Tuareg, it’s males who wear the tagelmust. For those people seeing any skin or hair is offensive. Why should one view be privileged over the others? If it’s purely by numbers then surely Russia’s anti-gay law is just as valid as laws against nudity? From my side, I have thought about it a couple of times but I’ve never been able to find a reason why any one of those views is more acceptable than the other.

So what is the lesson the UK, and world, should take from this? While they may be worrying about semi-naked models on magazines, their forefathers were worrying about ankles showing and when they did… well, nothing happened. Not only has it not led to the downfall of civilisation but I’m not aware of nudists going on regular rampages. Nor do I constantly see nude or topless beaches in the news for a constant stream of antisocial behaviour. I might go so far as to say such a situation may be better for society. Those semi-naked magazines grab your attention because they stand out. I may be wrong but it seems to me that no one would pay them any mind if we were used to nudity.

Not everyone wants to see all the material out there but I think filters and educating children should be the purpose of parents and teachers, not the government or ISPs, especially when they protection is forced on those who might neither want nor need it. If one wants to protect children then make filtering options available for those who need them. By all means, mark potentially offensive content as such and use age recommendations. That empowers people to make their own choices and we need people that can make their own choices rather than follow what everyone else is doing.

3 thoughts on “The UK porn block and the concept of obscenity

  1. Pingback: Falling nations | Evidence & Reason

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