It's time to abolish the obscenity law

Obscenity law robs us of agency. And it tells us that we are depraved.

"Do they even HAVE obscenity trials any more?!' my old editor at the Erotic Review exclaimed, when I told him I was live-tweeting from one this week (read David Allen Green on the not guilty verdict here).

Well, yes, they do, and it's a pretty surreal experience to think that statute from the burgeoning permissive society is still being used to make judgments about life in Britain 2012, a place where it's all too easy to have an expectation of sexual liberty and free speech, and a sense that the only person you need to gain permission from is the one you're doing something with.

That the precedent for obscenity trials quoted is still the Lady Chatterley trial of 1960 (R v Penguin Books) is even more bizarre, particularly if, like me, you studied the case at university. It's evidence of a time where artistic merit had barely evolved as a defence for literature with dirty bits.

Clearly, the artistic merit of pure pornography is even more contentious, where it's even appropriate, and while the evolution of English obscenity law has been marked by two seminal cases since - the Oz magazine trials of 1971, and the trial of Inside Linda Lovelace in 1977 - neither of these offer much in the way of obvious and direct relevance to prosecutors and jurors examining the kind of internet and DVD porn comprising obscenity trials today.

Take a look at the Crown Prosecution Service's directions on the OPA 1959 if you want to see what now constitutes 'obscene'. The list is 'not exhaustive' but includes sex with animals; sex with minors; fisting; torture, activities involving perversion and degradation (urination, vomiting and excretion). We've certainly moved on from being mortified by the egregious use of the word 'fuck', as those who brought the Lady Chatterley to trial were.

But the test of obscenity - whether something 'depraves and corrupts' - remains the same: 'to deprave means to make morally bad, to debase or to corrupt morally. To corrupt means to render morally unsound or rotten, to destroy the moral purity or chastity, to pervert or ruin a good quality; to debase; to defile it.'

Obscenity law posits that boundaries of decency must be drawn somewhere. Obscenity is culturally relative. It is about moral judgment. It has to be in order to protect the moral fibre of the society it is serving. It just so happens that this frequently means castigating sexual subcultures by labelling their activities as debased, often with little attempt to understand practices which are outside the average person's experience.

Perhaps most curiously, the OPA 1959 makes a crime of publishing material featuring acts which are not illegal in themselves. Prosecuting those who distribute obscene material isn't about preventing physical or sexual harm, nor is it about avoiding provocation of crime, or illicit behaviour. It's about deciding whether the sanctity of a mind and character of the person exposed to the so-called obscene materials is at stake. Go back to the CPS definition of what constitutes obscene and you'll see we're not talking about mainstream porn, but the kind you only find when you know what you're looking for.

In its bid to establish moral standards, Obscenity law robs us of agency. And it tells us that we are depraved merely because we have thoughts about the acts designated as depraved; thoughts other than revulsion.

Does obscenity law even have any place in 21st century English law then? Should it perhaps not be abolished, as blasphemy law was in 2008, and treated as a similar cultural and legal anachronism? Surely yes, if the precedent for it is still a trial in which a conservative white male establishment failed to grasp the concept of artistic expression as a means of defence, and instead sought to impose standards on a society that was relaxing its morals faster than it raised its hem lines.

The outcome of R v Peacock -- a landmark because the defendant pleaded not guilty -- sets a contemporary precedent for discussing pornographic obscenity which should have little to do with its potentially degenerative effect on wives and servants as the Chatterley trial did - unless that's the point, of course.

Nichi Hodgson is a 28-year-old freelance journalist specialising in sexual politics, law and culture.

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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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage