Feature: Extreme porn and civil liberties

Politics.co.uk
Politics.co.uk

By Ian Dunt

From Monday, it will be illegal to own images or video of what the government describes as 'extreme pornography'. The move to ban the material followed the unpleasant case of a man named Graham Coutts. An addict of internet images showing women being raped and strangled, he was eventually convicted of murdering Jane Longhurst. The government took the opportunity to act on pornography it considers 'depraved' or 'disgusting'.

But there are problems. The legislation has been framed so widely lawyers are warning it could affect all sorts of material, such as the Stanley Kubrick movie A Clockwork Orange. Libertarians complain the law tells people what sexual preferences are allowable, regardless of whether their behaviour is entirely consensual. And privacy advocates warn the law could be used an excuse for the police to snoop on your hard drive.

So what kind of pornography will be banned, exactly? Any act which appears to threaten someone's life or which results - or is likely to result - in serious injury to a person's anus, breasts or genitals. Most of the material described is actually very common, particularly in the sado-masochism community, but is nearly-always played by actors. The new law doesn't care whether the scenes depicted are real or not. Even if the images come from a husband and wife with curious tastes filming each other in their own home, their possession of the newly-filmed tape would make them criminals. There are also bans on depictions of sex with animals or human corpses, regardless of whether the animal or corpse is real.


Most ownership would involve the downloading of a file onto a hard drive, or buying a disc from a vendor. But it is also possible to be prosecuted by streaming the video from a website, because the images will remain, in some form, on your computer, and you will therefore own it.

If you're thinking this won't apply to many people, you're underestimating the popularity of this sort of thing. According to Myles Jackman, a qualified lawyer who advises on censorship law, statistics indicate ten per cent of the population have some interest in sado-masochistic or bondage culture.

"You have to be cautious when people answer any questions about sex, because they tend to lie," he tells politics.co.uk. "But some figures show up to 50 per cent of people having interest in light spanking or bondage, so presumably a significant proportion of the population would look at that kind of pornography.

"We've had indications that the government is only looking at harder stuff, but we don't know what they mean by harder stuff. It's impossible to say where the line will be drawn until someone's charged."

Privacy campaigners have two objections to the new law. Firstly, they don't like the sound of a government proscribing sexual activity between consenting adults. But there is also a second camp, which views the law as an opportunity for the state to increase its intrusion into people's private lives.

Baroness Miller, a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords, has been campaigning against the law since it was first announced.

"If you've got two consenting adults I can't see how it matters what they both consent to," she tells politics.co.uk. "Some people's sexual practises are completely weird, but who are we to tell them it's not ok?

"And how are they going to enforce this?"

"We can either have police going into a house and looking at people's computers or through remote access to people's hard drives. If you haven't committed any crime at all why would the police be looking at your computer in the first place? Are they going to trawl everyone's web traffic to see if they're doing this?

"The government is quite clever because obviously no one likes child abuse or extreme pornography, so they use that to open the door to spying on what people are doing on their computers."

Some of the objections to the scheme come from unpredictable quarters. Many feminists, for instance, oppose what the government is doing.

"In order for women to have some sort of freedom, you need to not infantilise them," says Alex Dymock from Backlash, an anti-censorship group. "You need to make men who have violated women responsible for themselves and not blame pornography. This law assumes men are sexual predators and that women have no individual autonomy, and that's a particular problem for me as a feminist.

"Also, people forget a great deal of this sort of porn is about females beating men. There are far more male fantasists than female fantasists."

Victim's groups are willing to put all this to one side if the change in the law prevents a single murder. But the evidence for the causal chain is weak.

"I've read so much research on the effects of violent pornography but there's no conclusive evidence to suggest it would make a difference," says Dymock. "In fact, some papers suggest it reduces sexual crime, because people loosen their release valve."

Baroness Miller agrees. "This won't stop people with sick minds committing sick murders," she claims. "If I thought it would, I would think about supporting it. But there's no evidence it will make a difference so what on earth are we doing putting it on the statute books?"

By the time a law hits the books, all the legal and ethical arguments in the world can't make a difference. On Monday, millions of pornographic images and video freely available on the internet will become illegal. We won't know how stringently the government is planning on following through with it until the first case comes before a magistrate. Watch this space.

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