As part of Polyamory UK’s support of freedom or speech, sexual expression, and anti-censorship principles today I am speaking with veteran activist Jerry Barnett from the Sex & Censorship group.
To begin the interview I would like to ask you what your definition of pornography is?
I think porn is simply erotica that people are uncomfortable with. And since that applies to all erotica, then porn and erotica are basically the same thing. As the quote goes: “What I like is erotica. What you like is porn.”
In reading the opening of your book, it’s interesting how you frame the current situation over free speech, censorship, and pornography within a historical framework. You see the main groups attacking pornography as being on the left now, is that correct?
Yes, the worst attacks on porn (and all free expression for that matter) today are on the left, whereas that wasn’t always the case. My book looks at fascism in a historical context. The fascism of the 1930s was right-wing in nature. Today’s fascists are on both wings of politics.
So how would you define fascism in this context? As I’m sure most of these groups and individuals would probably see themselves as against fascism. It’s like you are saying they have lost sight of the core values of freedom?
I define fascism as an attack on the values of the Enlightenment, especially: liberty, equality and reason. The book is primarily about free expression, a fundamental part of liberty. But I also look at attacks on equality in some detail. The core values of the old left of (say) the 1960s – solidarity and unity regardless of race, gender, religion etc – have been replaced with the complete opposite. I quote Orwell a number of times, because he had it spot on in Animal Farm and 1984. In both cases, he describes a left which adopts the very worst values that it had once opposed.
I give some examples of racism on the left: a new development which shocked me, having been so deeply involved in anti-racism. In one case, a feminist group campaigns for a rapper (Tyler, the Creator) to be barred from Australia on the basis that he’s “sexist”. They succeeded, and then Theresa May followed suit and banned him from the UK.
Yes, it seems there is a limit on free speech being applied based upon perceived offensiveness, or the believed danger in the words, It reminds me of the film Manufacturing Consent, when a young man asks Noam Chomsky about free speech, and Chomsky replies you either have free speech or you don’t, there are no half measures.
When it comes to sexuality and sexual imagery this ‘danger’ argument is often raised. Radical feminist Gail Dines for example claims that pornography is a public health issue. What are your thoughts on that claim?
Totally. Noam is of the “old left”. When I ask the question today, most people on the left say something like “free speech must have its limits”. The two greatest excuses for UK state censorship today are “porn” and “hate speech”. While the anti-porn attitudes come from left and right, the censorship of “hate speech” is a left-wing idea. Furthermore, hate speech has gradually broadened in scope.
The “health issue” thing is just the latest anti-porn moral panic – a core subject of my book. Dines simply jumped on that bandwagon. Because anti-porn arguments tend to become discredited, the language evolves rapidly. A couple of years ago, they were talking about “objectification” and “sexualisation”. Then “toxic masculinity” and “rape culture”. Now “public health crisis”. Next year, who knows?
The public health argument seems to have been the most effective, with Iceland deciding to censor, and other countries also buying into the idea pornography causes social and personal harms. Recently the homophobic religious organisation, Porn Harms, or The National Center on Sexual Exploitation as they are now calling themselves, have also been claiming evidence showing that pornography causes serious harms. In your opinion what does the science actually show?
I devote a chapter of the book to a summary of the evidence, and a little explanation on the science of sex. The evidence has been accumulating for 50 years, and there are plenty of studies. In a nutshell, the statistical correlations show a consistent decline in sexual violence as porn access increases. Even meta-analyses carried out by the UK government agree, although the government has been extremely shy in promoting its own findings. Yes, the British government has said that porn appears to cause a reduction in sexual violence. You’d think that would be a big deal, but it’s been virtually buried.
Do you think it has been virtually buried because they have actively banned what they deem to be violent pornography in recent years?
The “extreme porn” ban came in 2008, but is just one of a raft of anti-porn laws, including: the Obscene Publications Act; the Video Recordings Act; the Broadcast Act. Yes, the British government loves anti-porn laws. The fact that they ignore their own evidence suggests the agenda is nothing to do with “protecting woman and children”.
One of the little talked about aspects of the current attitudes towards pornography in the UK would be the attacks on individuals taking photographs during their private lives. The famous Spanner Case was an example of how sexual imagery made by consenting adults was used to criminalise people. More recently the case of Barrister Simon Walsh demonstrated how even when someone is found not guilty under these laws, the individual’s life can still be ruined.
This is an aspect that particularly affects our readers, many of whom are part of the LGBT+, BDSM and Polyamorous communities. What can people like us do to support the fight against these draconian measures and your work?
Yep, being accused of a “sexual offence” is taken by many to equate with “rapist” or “child abuser”. So when the offence involves consensual sex, or images of consensual sex, the authorities have a tool to destroy an innocent person’s life. People get attacked, their windows broken, lose access to their kids, whether they’re guilty of anything or not.
I’ve been campaigning for almost a decade. At the start, I was running an online porn business, but that closed (in part thanks to UK censors). So for the past 3 years I’ve been largely self-funded. People can support my work by buying Porn Panic! and spreading the word; also they can donate to the campaign via sexandcensorship.org/donate. I have a second book in progress, which looks more at the mechanics of state censorship, and will look in far more detail at “extreme porn”. People who buy Porn Panic! will help support me in finishing that book and continuing the campaign.
Many of the anti-porn campaigners seem to be effective at getting the message into universities, and before government officials, is one of your goals for the book to reach academics as well as the public? Do you think broadening the discussion to free speech in general might help?
I often get invited into universities and other places for debates. Speaking to government seems less fruitful, as there are powerful interests – Ofcom for one – behind the push to censorship. Yes, I think this needs to be part of a general discussion on free speech, otherwise it’s a constant firefight. You defend one thing and they come back with something else.
Some in the polyamory community might not feel pornography, and the issue censorship is relevant to them, could you comment on that?
Regarding polyamory, the point I’d make is that the anti-sex movement is strongly conformist and conservative. That’s as true of the feminist Gail Dines types as the religious ones. So although Dines doesn’t make clear what her ideal of sex is, when you read between the lines, she’s talking about traditional values. There’s also a clear overlap between religious groups and feminist ones; many fundamentalists identify as feminists because (presumably) it’s a more credible. So opening the door to anti-porn feminism empowers social conservatives in general.
Yes, and naturally such views lead to laws such as you’ve already mentioned that limit sexual freedom, and alternative lifestyles like polyamorous relationships.
Thank you for your work and taking the time to talk to Polyamory UK.
To find out more about Sex & Censorship and their important work please visit: http://sexandcensorship.org/