Better porn with de Botton

There is scope to re-think the porn industry.

Not content with ruminating on work, happiness, or airport queues, philosopher Alain de Botton has now turned his restless attentions to the promotion of an ethical porn movement, as reported here on Friday by the New Statesman’s Helen Lewis. De Botton plans to launch the "Better Porn" campaign and website promoting "pornography in which sexual desire would be invited to support, rather than permitted to undermine, our higher values." Sex-positive feminists and ethical sex enthusiasts, particularly within the kink community, have of course been espousing this for a while. Yet even if he is late to the party, de Botton’s campaign is ripe for the championing. Contrary to popular myth, the sex industry is not entirely recession-proof and while commercial porn will never run dry so long as there’s money in circulation, the faltering flow of finance makes it a good time to dump quantity for quality.

As idealistic as de Botton’s project may sound, even in the face of the internet’s daemonic libertarianism, there is nothing inevitable about the ethical paucity of our porn. 30 years ago, before the internet had tempted adult fantasy over to the crass side, Angela Carter encapsulated the sentiment in the opening line to The Sadeian Woman: “Pornographers are the enemies of women only because our contemporary ideology of pornography does not encompass the possibility of change, as if we were the slaves of history and not its makers”. Replace "women" with "21st century humans" and there is De Botton’s campaign. Right now, we may have the porn we deserve but we can make better. Mass production of anything, food, furniture, fashion, may serve a market but usually at the price of ethics.  Porn is no different. Blaming poor porn on atavistic urges is lazy and historically inaccurate. Better porn just requires letting our brains, rather than consideration for our bank balances, lead our late-night Google searches.

Following the murder of Bristol architect Joanna Yeates, in which it was revealed that her murderer Vincent Tabak had a taste for strangulation porn, the reactionary cry from the left and right, feminists and conservatives alike, was that such porn needed banning. I suggested we produce an ethical stamp for porn, something which has always been particularly resonant for the BDSM/kink kind, where social and legal prejudice, and the complications of the pleasure/pain-driven dynamic has heightened the need to prove harmless production. The responsibility of companies like kink.com in stepping up to the ethical mark proves it can be done, and De Botton should look to such models as he builds his Better Porn campaign.

Imagining that De Botton is successful, such is the relationship between need and want, between desire, its permissions and possession, a subculture of unethically produced porn would be bound to persist. But it would be cowardly to reject an ethical model on that basis, and what price the reduction of the populace’s guilt if we knew most porn stars were genuinely and consensually performing?

The most difficult challenge for de Botton won’t be persuading people that his kind of porn is better, but that it’s sexy.  As Camille Paglia observed wryly, if somewhat unfairly, about feminism, "leaving sex to the feminists is like letting your dog vacation at the taxidermist’s". The personal is political has rarely made for hot interracial or doctor/nurse tableaux. So while ethical porn will always face the taxidermist test, the last thing we need is an obsession with cleaning up our desirous taboos until what’s an offer is a dry as an Equalities Commission guide to getting it on. De Botton claims to recogise that what makes porn unethical isn’t its fantasies or explicitness, but the means of its production. He could do a lot worse than take an Arts and Crafts-style approach to his project. Avoid elitism, invoke passion, and society will be better off for its production. (Stuffed animals probably need not apply).
 

Photograph: Getty Images

Nichi Hodgson is a writer and broadcaster specialising in sexual politics, censorship, and  human rights. Her first book, Bound To You, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now. She tweets @NichiHodgson.

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The Femicide Census honours the victims of gender violence

The survey shows that the majority of women who are killed by men suffer their fate at the hands of a current or former partner.

 

The phrase “isolated incident” often turns up in media reports when a man kills a woman. The police use it at press conferences. It’s a code: it means the story ends here, no one else is in danger, the rest of the world can sleep safe because this particular killer does not have his sights on anyone else.

Thanks to the Femicide Census – a collaboration between Women’s Aid and nia, two specialist services dealing with violence against women – we now know how many of those “isolated incidents” there are, in England and Wales at least. Between 1 January 2009 and 31 December 2015, it was nearly a thousand: 936 women (aged 14 and over) were killed by men in seven years.

As the census reveals, the killing of women follows a very different pattern to the killing of men, although there is one thing both groups of victims have in common: their killers are almost always men.

But female victims are more likely to know their killer than male victims. In fact, they usually know him very well: 598 (64%) of the women were killed by a current or former partner, 75 (8%) by their son, 45 (4.8%) by another male family member. Killing is often what the census describes as “the final act of control”: not an “isolated incident”, but the culmination of a long campaign of coercion and violence.

This means that trends in femicide – the killing of a woman by a man – don’t match the overall homicide trend, as a 2011 UN study found when it noted that the overall rate of homicide had fallen while killings of women remained stable. But official records have long failed to recognise this difference, and there were no statistics specifically on men’s fatal violence against women until 2012, when Karen Ingala Smith (CEO of nia) started cataloguing reports of women killed by men on her personal blog, a project she called Counting Dead Women.

That was the start of the Femicide Census, now a high-powered data project on a platform developed by Deloitte. The list has been expanded so that victim-killer relationship, method of killing, age, occupation, ethnicity, health status and nationality can all be explored.

Or rather, these factors can be explored when they’re known. What gets reported is selective, and that selection tells a great a deal about what is considered valuable in a woman, and what kind of woman is valued. As the census notes: “almost without exception, it was easier to find out whether or not the victim had been a mother than it was to find out where she worked”.

Killings of black, Asian, minority ethnicity and refugee women receive vastly less media coverage than white women – especially young, attractive white women whose deaths fulfil the stranger-danger narrative. (Not that this is a competition with any winners. When the press reports on its favoured victims, the tone is often objectifying and fetishistic.)

Women’s chances of being killed are highest among the 36-45 age group, then decline until 66+ when they jump up again. These are often framed by the perpetrators as “mercy killings”, although the sincerity of that mercy can be judged by one of the male killers quoted in the census: “‘I did not want her to become a decrepit old hag.”

Another important finding in the census is that 21 of the women killed between 2009 and 2015 were involved in pornography and/or prostitution, including two transwomen. The majority of these victims (13 women) were killed by clients, a grim indictment of the sex trade. The most chilling category of victim, though, is perhaps the group of five called “symbolic woman”, which means “cases where a man sought to kill a woman – any woman”. In the purest sense, these are women who were killed for being women, by men who chose them as the outlet for misogynist aggression.

The truth about men’s fatal violence against women has for too many years been obscured under the “isolated incident”. The Femicide Census begins to put that ignorance right: when a man kills a woman, he may act alone, but he acts as part of a culture that normalises men’s possession of women, the availability of women for sexual use, the right to use force against non-compliant or inconvenient women.

With knowledge, action becomes possible: the Femicide Census is a clarion call for specialist refuge services, for support to help women exit prostitution, for drastic reform of attitudes and understanding at every level of society. But the census is also an act of honour to the dead. Over two pages, the census prints the names of all the women to whom it is dedicated: all the women killed by men over the six years it covers. Not “isolated incidents” but women who mattered, women who are mourned, women brutally killed by men, and women in whose memory we must work to prevent future male violence, armed with everything the census tells us.

 

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.