The only ones shocked by Tulisa's sex tapes are the adults

The way to guarantee teenagers access porn is to ban it outright.

Technological advancement has always complicated sex, and the internet has been throwing a mixed bag of Freudian issues at us since before we even worked out the webcam. It's no secret that today's teenagers have almost certainly seen more pairs of breasts sodden in variations of bodily fluids than they've had hot dinners - and suddenly, everyone's concerned again. In the same breath that middle aged parents thanked their local vendor for a (horrendously unsexy) copy of Fifty Shades of Grey, they began a tirade of complaints about sex scenes and triple-X websites last week. And as the traumatised few got vocal with their protestations that Black Swan "should have just been a movie about ballet", N-Dubz vocalist and famed X Factor judge Tulisa walked out of court and onto the front pages of a number of national publications, proclaiming that the ex-boyfriend who tried to sell her blow-job technique to the world had "messed with the wrong woman".

The way in which we handle sex, in a world where one hour on ChatRoulette can tell you more about the human libido than Kinsey ever dreamed of, is therefore a continuing conundrum. The record number of complaints about lesbian sex scenes in Black Swan - a number that vastly overtook other films' official complaints about deadly violence - speaks volumes about the way in which we have moved towards American attitudes (violence and guns are OK; willies and nipples are not) about the beast with two backs. After all, Black Swan went to cinemas with a rating of 15, meaning that the youngest viewer (presuming all guidelines were met) was only one year under the legal age of consent. There's no denying that the subject matter was psychologically challenging - but as for masturbation and a cheeky bit of third base in the bedroom, which apparently prompted more uproar than the protagonist's mental breakdown, it seems like we're all collectively kidding ourselves about the innocence of teenagers. Nobody wants to see a five-year-old prancing around in "sexy and I know it" branded bikinis, but whether we like it or not, schoolyard knowledge of websites like XTube and YouPorn amongst their older siblings is widespread and well-known.

This knowledge will soon be stamped out, David Cameron has informed us, by more stringent controls on ISPs and presumably a big dose of fairy dust.
The new "opt in" policy that it is currently fighting its way to officialdom is a system where all content judged to be "too adult" is automatically blocked from view unless you specifically request to see it.

In other words, it's a system that will shame you into openly declaring the real reasons why you opted for Virgin Media fibre optic like the pervert that you are, and no children at all will be able to view sex on the internet ever again. Just like when they banned the Pirate Bay, immediately and decisively solving the problem of illegal file-sharing forever. Phew - there was a danger that we might actually have to address a wealth of social perceptions there, but luckily we've sidestepped all that with the long arm of the law.

As we've previously said until we're blue in the face, the provision of porn on triple-X sites across the globe remains startlingly unsatisfactory relative to its breadth and availability. The only way to guarantee teenagers definitely access it, as well as to shut down any mature dialogue we might have had with them about it, is to ban it outright. And since "sexting" recently made its way onto the PSHE curriculum, there's surely more of an argument to widen our scope of discussion with children who will be hit with a tidal wave of sexual imagery throughout their youngest years whether we attempt to control it or not (hello, Herbal Essences commercials), rather than creating even more wildly exciting taboos for us all to enjoy flouting.

Perhaps if we focused on the real person behind the baby-oiled butt cheeks on predictable, sex-by-numbers wank fodder made for men only, we might begin to educate about sex and technology more effectively. Rather than rushing to turn off the computer screen, we might expose it through serious conversation as the very thin veil that it often is between an ambivalent viewer and the joyless life of physically demanding toil on the part of an actor who doesn't really want to be there. We could invite debate about empowerment and personhood - hell, we could forge a veritable utopia of sex and technology for the generations to come. By the time we have children ourselves, they could have healthy attitudes about hand jobs and not even want to download the latest Hot Girls XXX app on their souped-up iPhone 600s. They might - oh, happy day - wonder who the hot girls are, and why they got there, instead.

One colossal failure of sex marketing on the internet, of course, was demonstrated by Tulisa's ex boyfriend MC Ultra. Following his humiliation in court, it was reported that he and some acquaintances had somewhat optimistically hoped to make about £6m each by selling some grainy video phone footage of what Tulisa euphemistically but rightly referred to as "an intimate moment". It was a commercial flop, making the group about £30 in the day after its launch, but more significantly, it brought down its distributor with it. The young pop star Tulisa, who used to gyrate next to a bad rapper called Dappy and graduated into arguments with Simon Cowell on prime time telly, reacted with incredible dignity and humanity in the face of extreme public humiliation. A self-produced YouTube video showed her proclaiming that there was nothing shameful about being sexual on camera with a person that you trust; rather, that the person breaching that trust should be ashamed. Encouragingly, a major chunk of the British press agreed.

Whole new levels of shaming our peers are available at the poised fingers of each internet user nowadays. With the click of a button, lives can literally be altered forever - and allowing a move back into conservative attitudes about sex will only make these threats even seedier and more likely. The only way to tackle a sexual environment made threatening by the terrifying freedom of the world wide web and the control afforded to each user is education (on fellation, ho ho.) We all know in our hearts that censorship by default doesn't lead us down a road we'd wish to tread - and it's a very sad day when what we know in our hearts is overridden by what stirs in our pants.

 

Tulisa leaving the Royal Courts of Justice in London. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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Excitement, hatred and belonging: why terrorists do it

A new book by Richard English suggests that killing can bring its own rewards.

Like most questions about terrorism, why large numbers of people join terrorist organisations can only be answered in political terms. However terrorism may be defined – and disputes about what counts as terrorism are largely political in their own right – we will be ­unable to understand how terrorist groups ­attract members if we don’t consider the politics of the societies in which the groups are active. But terrorism’s appeal is not ­always political for everyone involved in it. Richard English, in his wide-ranging new book, highlights some of what he calls the “inherent rewards” of terrorism gained by members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA). According to some former members, involvement in PIRA operations brought adventure, excitement, celebrity in local communities and sometimes sexual opportunities.

Terrorist activity also brought other intrinsic benefits. As one Belfast ex-PIRA man put it, “You just felt deep comradeship.” Or as another said, regarding involvement in the Provos: “Now I felt I was one of the boys.” Yet another reflected tellingly: “Although I was ideologically committed to the cause, for me, in many ways, being in the IRA was almost the objective rather than the means”; conspiratorial “belonging” and “comradeship” were, in themselves, rich rewards. Friendship, belief, belonging, purpose, community and meaning. One ex-Provo described his PIRA years as “days of certainty, comradeship and absolute commitment”. A bonus was that PIRA members’ actions could gain them influence and standing in their own communities; one ex-PIRA man reflected on how he saw himself after having joined the PIRA, in the simple words: “I felt important.”

English is a professor of politics and director of the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews. He has studied political violence in Northern Ireland for many years and, for him, these inherent benefits are one of four ways in which terrorism can “work”. The other three comprise strategic victory in the achievement of a central or primary goal or goals; partial strategic victory, which includes determining the agenda of conflict; and tactical success, which may lead to strengthening the organisation and gaining or maintaining control over a population.

Understanding terrorism, English writes, requires taking it seriously: “treating it as the product of motivations and arguments which deserve serious, respectful engagement; and also assessing it as something worthy of honest, Popperian interrogation”. He is sanguine – surprisingly so, given the conflicts with which he is concerned – regarding the practical results such an inquiry might bring. Finding out how far and in what ways terrorism works has “practical significance” – indeed, its importance may be “huge”. As English makes clear, he “is not arguing that if we understood more fully the extent to which terrorism worked, then everything would have been fine in the post-9/11 effort to reduce terrorist violence”. He is convinced, however, that understanding how far terrorism works can greatly improve the struggle against it. “It does seem to me strongly possible that if states more fully knew how far and in what ways terrorism worked (and does not work, and why), then they would be able to respond much more effectively to it in practice.”

With all its caveats, this is a strikingly bold claim. It assumes that the failures of the post-9/11 “war on terror”, which no one can reasonably deny, were largely due to intellectual errors. But was it a lack of understanding that rendered these programmes ineffectual or counterproductive? Or was it that some of the West’s allies – Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and, more recently, Turkey – have been less than unequivocal in taking a stand against terrorism or may even have had some complicity with it? If so, it was the geopolitical commitments of Western governments that prevented them from taking effective action. Again, much of the current wave of terrorism can be traced back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Voicing a long-familiar consensual view, English criticises the US-led occupation for being “ill-planned”, leading to the destabilisation of the Iraqi security situation. But it is not clear that more forethought could have prevented this result.

If Western leaders had thought more carefully about the likely consequences of the invasion, it would probably not have been launched. With the regime and the state so closely intertwined, topping Saddam Hussein always risked creating a power vacuum. It was this that enabled al-Qaeda and then Isis and its affiliates to emerge, gain control in parts of the country and then project their operations into Europe.

Errors of analysis may have played a contributory role in this grisly fiasco. When British forces were despatched to Basra, it may have been assumed that they could implement something like the pacification that was eventually achieved in Northern Ireland. But the kinds of allies that Britain made in Belfast – and before that in the successful counterterrorist campaign in Malaya in the 1950s – did not exist in that part of Iraq. Like the overall programme of pacifying a country whose governing institutions had been dismantled abruptly, the mission was essentially unachievable. But this was not accepted by either the US administration or the British government. The invasion was based in ideological conviction rather than an empirical assessment of risks and consequences. In this case, too, high-level political decisions were far more important in unleashing terrorism than any failures in understanding it.

As has become the usual way in books on terrorism, English begins with his own definition of the phenomenon:

Terrorism involves heterogeneous violence used and threatened with a political aim; it can involve a variety of acts, of targets and actors; it possesses an important psychological dimension, producing terror or fear among a directly threatened group and also a wider implied audience in the hope of maximising political communication and achievement; it embodies the exerting and implementing of power, and the attempted redressing of power relations; it represents a subspecies of warfare, and as such can form part of a wider campaign of violent and non-violent attempts at political leverage.

This is a torturous formulation, not untypical of the academic literature on the subject. English tells us that his book is intended for readers in “all walks of life”. But the style throughout is that of a prototypical academic text, densely fortified with references to “majority scholarly opinion” and buttressed with over 50 pages of footnotes fending off critics. As a storehouse of facts and sources, the book will be a valuable resource for scholars, but its usefulness to the general reader is more doubtful.

The most interesting and informative of the book’s four main sections – on jihadism and al-Qaeda; Ireland and the IRA; Hamas and Palestinian terrorism; and Basque terrorism – is the one on Ireland, where English’s knowledge is deepest. Extensive interviews with people who had been involved in terrorist campaigns in the province led him to what is perhaps his most instructive generalisation: those who engage in and support terrorism “tend to display the same levels of rationality as do other people . . . they tend to be psychologically normal rather than abnormal . . . they are not generally characterised by mental illness or psychopathology . . . the emergence and sustenance of terrorism centrally rely on the fact that perfectly normal people at certain times consider it to be the most effective way of achieving necessary goals”. Terrorists are no more irrational than the rest of us, and there is no such thing as “the terrorist mind”. In many contexts, terrorism has functioned principally as an effective way of waging war.

As English notes, there is nothing new in the claim that terrorism is a variety of asymmetric warfare. The practice of suicide bombing has very often been analysed in cost-benefit terms and found to be highly efficient. The expenditure of resources involved is modest and the supply of bombers large; if the mission is successful the operative cannot be interrogated. The bombers gain status; their families may receive financial reward. (Religious beliefs about an afterlife are not a necessary part of suicide bombing, which has been practised by Marxist-Leninists of the Tamil Tiger movement and in Lebanon.) An enormous literature exists in which asymmetric warfare has been interpreted as demonstrating “the power of the weak”: the capacity of militarily inferior groups using unconventional methods to prevail against states with much greater firepower at their disposal. Understood in these terms, there can be no doubt that terrorism can be a rational strategy.

Yet there is a problem with understanding terrorism on this basis, and it lies in the slippery word “rational”, with which English juggles throughout the book. Terrorists are not always rational, he says; they are prone to overestimate the impact of their activities, and they make mistakes. Even so, what they do can be understood as rational strategies, and in these terms terrorism often works, if only partly. Here, English is invoking a straightforwardly instrumental view of reason. What terrorists do is rational, in this sense, if there is an intelligible connection between the ends they aim to achieve and the means they adopt to achieve them.

This means/end type of rationality typifies much terrorist activity, English maintains. But some of the ends achieved by terrorism are internal to the actual practice. “Inherent rewards from al-Qaeda terrorism might potentially include aspects of religious piety; the catharsis produced by revenge and the expression of complicatedly generated rage; and the remedying of shame and humiliation.” In this case, “hitting back  violently and punishingly at them [the US and its military allies] has offered significant rewards in terms not merely of political instrumentalism but also of valuable retaliation in itself”.

The inherent rewards of terrorism also include the expression of hatred. “The vengeful, terrorising punishment of people whom one hates, or with whom one exists in a state of deep enmity,” English writes, “might be one of the less attractive aspects of terrorist ambition. But it might also (perhaps) be one in which we find terrorists repeatedly succeeding fairly well . . .” Here, he may have understated his case. Killing cartoonists, customers queuing at a Jewish bakery in Paris and families celebrating Bastille Day in Nice will be a rational act as long as it succeeds in venting the terrorists’ hatred. Even if the operation is somehow aborted, the attempt to inflict mass death and injury may still serve as a type of therapy for those who make the attempt. If “hitting back at people whom one holds to be (literally or representatively) responsible for prior wrongs” can be rational on account of the emotional satisfaction it brings the terrorist, how can terrorism fail to work?

Clearly something has gone badly wrong here. Without mentioning the fact, or perhaps without noticing it, English has switched from one conception of rationality to another. Much of what human beings do isn’t the result of a calculation of con­sequences, but more an expression of their sense of identity. Philosophers describe this as expressive rationality, an idea they use to explain why voting in circumstances where you know your vote can make no practical difference can still be in accordance with reason. But is expressive rationality beyond rational criticism? In order to understand terrorism in Israel-Palestine, Ireland and Spain, English tells us, we need to understand the national context in which the terrorists act. This doesn’t imply “a comfortable acceptance of any single national narrative”, given that various terrorist groups “have done much to open such narratives to a very brutal interrogation”.

But is the terrorist narrative exempt from questioning? The reader might think so, as there is nothing in English’s account that fundamentally challenges the narrative of Hamas, for example. There is no discussion of the endorsement in the Hamas Charter of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and no examination of the influence on Hamas’s policies of the delusional world-view that this infamous anti-Semitic forgery articulates. If this is a Popperian interrogation of terrorism, it falls short of the impartial critical rationalism that Karl Popper recommended.

An analysis of the intrinsic rewards of terrorism may be useful in considering the outbreak of Isis-affiliated ­terrorism in Europe. In contrast to that of the IRA, including its ultra-violent Provisional wing, this cannot easily be understood in terms of instrumental rationality. Even when compared with its predecessor al-Qaeda, Isis has been notable for making very few concrete demands. No doubt the present outbreak is partly a reaction to the jihadist group losing ground in Iraq and Syria. But as English suggests, we need to ask for whom terrorism works, and why. When we do this in relation to Isis, the answers we receive are not reassuring.

Nothing in human conflict is entirely new. There are some clear affinities between anarchist terrorist attacks around the end of the 19th century and jihadist “spectaculars” at the start of the 20th. However, there are also certain discomforting differences. Anarchists at that time made public officials, not ordinary civilians, their primary targets; they attacked state power rather than an entire society; and they never acquired a mass base of supporters and sympathisers. Bestowing identity and significance on dislocated individuals and enabling them to discharge their resentment against a hated way of life, terrorism by Isis is of another kind. Against the background of deep divisions in European societies, these rewards could become an increasingly powerful source of the group’s appeal.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is “The Soul of the Marionette: a Short Inquiry Into Human Freedom” (Allen Lane)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue