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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle