Friday 16 January 2009

Whipping boys: a post for International Fetish Day

Before I start, I'd like to say that this seems like such a small thing to write about compared with what's happening in Gaza right now. With blood and butchery and human grief being unleashed by the most hypocritical nation on the planet, whether or not a few Brit spank-fetishists get to enjoy their pornography of choice seems worse than trivial. Spoilt, even. But I'm going to write about it anyway, because right now the big things to care about are so big and heartbreaking that even considering that I might have anything to say makes me feel like a small and ignorant child. Until I'm good enough and strong enough to be reporting on the ground, I'm going to put my head down and keep on caring about the small losses, the small outrages, because hell knows somebody's got to, and because it's about responsibility, and choices, and how we deal with the violence of our own hearts. If you want to hear about the other thing, go and read Ewa's columns at Red Pepper, because they are wise and fantastic.


On the 25th of January, a bill to outlaw certain types of violent pornography will finally come into force, and a batallion of British fetish-fanatics are going to demonstrate in parliament square. I will be there, but not for the reasons you might think, and no, not because I fancy my chances of being handcuffed to a fence by Ben Westwood.

I met Jane Longhurst, once. I grew up in Brighton, and Jane was a music teacher with my youth orchestra. I remember the sense of shock that infected everyone in the weeks after her body was discovered; I remember standing on Waterloo road with my friends who lived in the area, watching the police search Coutts' house; I remember the tribute concert, I remember her former pupils crying and clutching each other in the string section. Good kids, who couldn't understand why this lovely, bright young woman had been so foully murdered, just like I couldn't, just like I still can't.

But I can tell you one thing: a collection of dirty pictures can't explain the deep brutalities of the human psyche. I'm grown now, and I know the difference between desire and action, and I've read and watched and researched a great deal of feminist and criminologist thought on violent pornography and I'm still convinced that we're looking for the root of evil in the wrong place.

Just to make my own position clear here: I do not indulge in kinky photography and films, although some of my best friends are spankers I have a dear clutch of friends and adopted family who variously watch, make and model for the stuff. And they enjoy it. I know they enjoy it, because I share a bedroom wall with one of them. I've been to fetish clubs, and had an averagely agreeable time; I've done voluntary shifts at the (now sadly disbanded) Coffee, Cake and Kink establishment in central London. Some of this particular pornography turns me on; some of it I can appreciate on an artistic level; some of it makes me giggle, and some of it leaves me baffled. But I can understand why some people like it - why some people need it - and, in fact, I have much more respect for those people who explore their weird fetishes gently, who bring them out into the light where they are harmless, than I do for people who torture themselves and nurse their violent desires in darkness and in shame. For that reason if for no other, I'm going to be at the demo on the 25th.

The point is that, as human beings, we all have dark and violent fantasies - whether we admit them to ourselves or not. Have you ever woken from a wet dream, sticky and muggy and consumed with bewilderment at the violence of your own subconscious? Have you ever received a parking ticket at a particularly awkward moment and imagined - however briefly - beating the attendant's face to a bloody pulp? Maybe? Yes? But did you actually do it? No, because if you did you'd be rightly condemned as a violent thug,like this chap, and you'd probably go to prison. Have you ever become incredibly angry, or violently turned on, and wanted to do damage to somebody, or wanted someone to do damage to you? Then you should be able to understand that what makes us decent human beings, what makes us able to live in society, isn't the desires that we have but the way we respond to them.

And it's that aspect of the new law that worries me most. Are we really naive enough to think that Graham Coutts murdered Jane Longhurst and defiled her body because some pictures made him do it? Are we naive enough to think that it was violent pornography by itself that allowed him to realise his fantasies? If so, then we'd have an epidemic of murderers stalking the streets of this country. What makes the difference between someone who enjoys pain-play and someone who enjoys abusing and killing people is the capacity to distinguish between fantasy and reality, desire and action, that is one of the basic categories of adult humanity. We need to be adult about our own dark desires, if we are ever to overcome them. That's why I'm disgusted by the very idea of a law which tries to outlaw normal outlets for normal, horrible desires. I'm disgusted by the idea of a government which wants it to be illegal to have naughty thoughts. There's a word for that.

Of course, this is about sex, and we are weird about sex, particularly in the UK, so it's not ever ever ever going to be clear cut. And we need to pay very close attention to Andrea Dworkin's porn philosophy: specifically, to her reminder that filmed and photographed pornography happens in real time, to real people. It's not just fantasy: those whippings and beatings happened. What this moves us onto is the issue of consent, which is another thing that we haven't even approached being adult about as a society.

The fantastic Pandora Blake is one professional porn model with a very incisive outlook on the issue.

'The actual wording of the legislation is dangerously vague. Spanking and CP material isn't necessarily illegal, but given an unsympathetic judge armed with waffly, imprecise language, it could be... If I'm arrested, I'll defend my sexuality in court.'

In fact, the spanking and fetish porn industry has, in general, much better safeguards against industry abuse than any other branch of the porn world, partly because it needs to. Thomas Cameron, another fetish porn actor, told me that 'yes, there have been a couple of cases where producers have been abusive. And you wouldn't believe how quickly they've been run out of town. There are measures in place to protect our own.'

I have written before
on the fact that the nastiest, most misogynistic pornography out there isn't even addressed by the act. I will repeat: the really nasty scenes, the sick low-level fetishisation of male dominance isn't going to be banned, not now, not soon, probably not ever. Not only is banning ordinary misogynistic porn not the answer, it isn't even the question yet. As I said one year ago:

The question of whether pornography directly causes or does not cause sexual violence somewhat evades the real issue. The reason that pornography is such a sticky problem, the reason that many feminists hate and fear pornography, is the same reason that many in the pro-patriarchal sphere are willing to go to the wire to defend it: mainstream, heterosexual pornography as it is mass-produced by western society holds up an accurate mirror to the violently misogynist world in which we are living.

Let me repeat that for the confused or post-orgasmic: the fact of pornography itself, however ‘extreme’, is not socially harmful, but the messages inherent in most western pornography, never mind the ‘extreme’ end, re-enforce social paradigms of sexual inequality, male sexual subjectivity and violence against women. When I say that ‘the quality of most porn is dreadful’, this is what I’m talking about.

By contrast, I have never encountered an erotic culture with as much respect for women, with as much respect for humanity in general, as the fetish industry and scene. Because the true nature of the perversion is accepted for what it is, the necessity of drawing a distinction between fantasy and reality, the importance of empowering and looking after the models and actors, is very much insisted upon. That's what gets me about this bill. I'm against censorship, but if I had to pick one type of pornography to ban, I would come to the fetish and BDSM scene last of all. Because we are what we jerk off to: fetishists are merely honest about it.

The BDSM scene is the only erotic scene I have ever encountered where I have ever felt that if I said the word 'no', it would be respected. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the BDSM scene is the only forum in the country where people are actually adult about sex and aware of what does and doesn't imply consent. And this is why I find the upcoming bill baffling - particularly as amendments which would have put in place a defence if the consent of the performers is provable (say, if they are willing to provide personal or written statements) was rejected out of hand. This proves that the point of the bill isn't to protect the women involved, but to police the sexual habits of the nation.

Liz Longhurst is a perfect public face for the anti-kink campaign, as her legitimate grief for her daughter makes it incredibly hard to put forward counter-arguments without seeming callous. The fact remains, however, that the linking of violent pornography to violent sex crime is a logical fallacy - and legislation against the former is an extremely fucking worrying move indeed.


  1. "Have you ever woken from a wet dream, sticky and muggy and consumed with bewilderment at the violence of your own subconscious?"
    Uhhh... in a word, no.

    Yes, this law is absolute bullshit. What I really can't understand is why watching spanking is considered worse than watching the evening news. The current events in Isreal are actually considerably more likely to provoke a violent response than seeing someone getting tied up. Is newsnight next?
    I probably shouldn't give them any ideas.

    Think happy thoughts.

  2. And we need to pay very close attention to Andrea Dworkin's porn philosophy:

    Way to raise my heckles....

    specifically, to her reminder that filmed and photographed pornography happens in real time, to real people.

    Well she actually said a lot more than that (some deranged ramblings can be found here: gotta love the copious use of the word "Collaborators" and the seemingly random usage of the phrase "National Socialist") but its nice to see that she at least left a hentai get-out clause.

    As always, though, I'm nit-picking. Great post.

  3. Thank you so much for writing about this issue. And more - doing so with such intelligence.

    I am a firm believer that actually, the most harmful anti-women messages tend to be found in the most socially-acceptable forms of sexual imagery: advertising, "Lads mags" and the like.

    The other thing to mention is that this may not be so small: after all, the Operation Ore (child porn) investigation caused the deaths of hundreds - many of whom may in fact have been innocent anyway. Who is to say that this law will not go the same way? Furthermore, the New Labour government is already rolling its censorship bandwagon on to drawn images (they're starting with drawn sexual images of children; but it doesn't take a genius to see where they'll go next if they get that one through). This is a clear and definite attempt by NL to control people's sexualities and introduce yet more mind control and thoughtcrime legislation. New Labour politicians are on the record as saying that the internet as an avenue of free speech needs to be curtailed (and indeed, since Cleanfeed came online under the auspices of the Internet Watch Foundation, they already have done so).

    It may look small, but we are not even at the start of the slippery slope: we're already halfway down it, and picking up speed.

  4. It's criminal as far as I'm concerned. Consenting adults should be left to stick what they want wherever they want. It's no business of the government's or anyone else's for that matter.

  5. The law got passed thanks to a hysterical reaction from a minority and a cowardly reaction from a majority of MPs who wouldn't dare speak out for common sense because they would be on the argumental side of a some perverts, and easy tabloid fodder.

    The most absurd thing about this rushed-in and garbled law is that consenting adults can now indulge in 100% legal acts, but if they were to take a photo of themselves half way through, they'd be not only criminals, but sex offenders.

    Most of what will be banned isn't for me, either, but as long as I can get back to London in time, I'll be there. See you in Westminster.

  6. Thanks for the links, and the heads up :)

    "particularly as amendments which would have put in place a defence if the consent of the performers is provable (say, if they are willing to provide personal or written statements) was rejected out of hand"

    Not entirely true. Here's the relevant section:

    66 Defence: participation in consensual acts

    (1) This section applies where—

    (a) a person (“D”) is charged with an offence under section 63, and

    (b) the offence relates to an image that portrays an act or acts within paragraphs (a) to (c) (but none within paragraph (d)) of subsection (7) of that section.

    (2) It is a defence for D to prove—

    (a) that D directly participated in the act or any of the acts portrayed, and

    (b) that the act or acts did not involve the infliction of any non-consensual harm on any person, and

    (c) if the image portrays an act within section 63(7)(c), that what is portrayed as a human corpse was not in fact a corpse.

    (3) For the purposes of this section harm inflicted on a person is “non-consensual” harm if—

    (a) the harm is of such a nature that the person cannot, in law, consent to it being inflicted on himself or herself; or

    (b) where the person can, in law, consent to it being so inflicted, the person does not in fact consent to it being so inflicted.

    Which still leaves space for a ruling that it's impossible to consent to the acts in question, but still. Not that it'll help me, of course - sure, the largest part of my violent porn collection are my own work, but I also have copies of most of the stuff my friends have made. And if I achieve my ambition to start producing my own queer, feminist-friendly kinky porn, then anything I'm not actually acting in might be illegal for me to own. Fun times.

    See you at the demonstration on Sunday. :)

  7. Harvey "Spanky" Proctor, sometime conservative MP for Billericay, liked buggery and recreational caning. When exposed, so to speak, his constituents axed him and gave his seat, so to speak, to Teresa Gorman who was and still is as loony as a moonie.

    Was that an improvement?

  8. I just want to say Bravo! for an excellent article.

    Many of the arguments in favour of this law seem to be based around the idea that women need to be protected from those evil men out there who, given half a chance and a peek at some Dangerous Pictures, will want to rape them and murder them, so these pictures must be banned to stop this happening by making sure that those men can't even *think* about such things.

    The fact that there's also a wide range of Female Domination material out there with women doing equally nasty things to *men's* bodies seems to have escaped their notice.

    Perhaps those men don't need such protection or those women won't be inspired to think "dangerous thoughts"?

  9. Simon Goldhill of Cambridge University, (who does like to talk cock on television), discussed the nature of pornography at length. He made persuasive points about the role of puritanism in creating pornography (as opposed to sexual or erotic imagery; note also the distinction there, which our society has difficulty with). His argument is that what marks pornography from erotica, is that looking at pornography is currently considered illicit. This creates the shifting-goalpost problem we've had ever since. It also neatly explains the infamous "I can't tell you what pornography is, but I know it when I see it" quote.

  10. I would love to see the following argued.

    When in pain, it is natural to want someone to make you feel better.

    When seeing someone in pain, it is natural to want to make them feel better.

    When suspending disbelief as to the cause of the pain, these responses allow good people to enjoy consensual bdsm as a form of foreplay.

  11. GiveMeMyFreedomBack30 September 2009 at 11:01

    Please show your support for the removal of this appalling, indefensible piece of legislation by signing this petition and informing people about this petition in places you think it would do most good.

    You must be a British citizen or resident to sign the petition.

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