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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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.