First they came for the porn stars: the problem with an online filter

The idea that you can tackle misogyny with a porn filter or a plastic bag is one of the more ludicrous conceits of social conservatives in modern times.

A few days ago, Conservatives received an email from David Cameron Himself, boasting of his new porn filter, a filter that will “protect childhood itself”. Underneath his signature, written in teeny-tiny text, was the message: “Blocked by your spam filter? Add bulletin@news.conservatives.com” to your address book.” Even the best filters still catch out the morally pure. 

The Co-op supermarket have implemented a filter of their own, demanding that lads’ mags be delivered in opaque modesty bags. The move comes after pressure from campaigns like “Lose the Lads’ Mags” run by Object and Feminista, who would prefer it if the Co-op would stop selling such titles altogether. Their spokesperson referred to the bags as ‘misogyny bags’, which is the point where the logic of their campaign falls apart.

Let’s take two examples, and in the comments below you can tell readers which you think is more misogynistic, more objectifying.  In the first example, Kelly Brook is on a beach, wearing a bikini. She has travelled there to work consensually with a photographer and editor on a professional collaboration, producing pictures on her terms that she likes. One of the pictures is printed on the front cover of FHM with a caption saying that Kelly Brook competes with the desert to see who’s hottest. It is obvious that she is looking at the camera, interacting consensually with the photographer.

In the second example, Kelly Brook is on a beach, wearing a bikini. She is on holiday. A paparazzi photographer takes pictures of her from an unflattering angle. They find their way to the desk of Heat magazine, who publish the picture on the front cover with the headline: “Does Kelly Brook look fat to you? Readers give their verdict.” Doubtless Heat would argue that they were joining the debate in Brook’s support, highlighting the absurdity of calling an obviously beautiful and healthy woman "fat". But if Heat really wanted to tackle the vile culture of body-policing that pervades modern media, they could simply choose not to participate in it.

The idea that you can tackle misogyny with a porn filter or a plastic bag is one of the more ludicrous conceits of social conservatives in modern times. The digital version of drug prohibition, it is a gesture to traditional values that allows politicians to give the impression of action without addressing the root issues. For all their talk about misogyny, campaigners seem more interested in tackling sexuality. For all their talk about the safety of porn stars, campaigners seem more interested in driving them out of their jobs than reforming the industry.

That’s the other effect of filters – they censor. Deborah Orr, writing in the Guardian, sees no problem with censorship. But then why should she? Orr is middle-class, and has regular access to a newspaper column in which to express her opinions. Her voice is safe, and if others aren’t that’s their problem. Her writing treats such people with contempt - women who enjoy "violent" porn are, to Orr’s eyes, picking up “useful tips on fictional rape”. But it’s precisely that sort of bigoted attitude to minority sexual preferences that inspires unease about the increasing efforts to censor the internet in accordance with "mainstream" tastes.

Of course for Deborah Orr there is no censorship, because Deborah Orr is a privileged middle-class woman with considerable personal agency – she can simply press the button at any time and have the filter deactivated. It doesn’t seem to occur to her that not everybody is in the same position. If you don’t own a house, if your landlord, partner (or abusive partner), parent, flatmate or university owns the connection, you may not have the same choice that Orr does. Anyone can choose not to seek out porn, not everyone can choose to have access to it.

And of course it won’t just be porn. It can’t be, because filters simply aren’t good enough to make a clear distinction. As Wired reported over the weekend, all other kinds of "objectionable" content could be included too. “As well as pornography, users may automatically be opted in to blocks on "violent material", "extremist related content", "anorexia and eating disorder websites" and "suicide related websites", "alcohol" and "smoking". But the list doesn't stop there. It even extends to blocking "web forums" and "esoteric material", whatever that is. "Web blocking circumvention tools" is also included, of course.”

To date, advocates of a porn filter have failed even to adequately define porn, let alone demonstrate that it causes significant harm in our society, or that a filter will have any impact in reducing that harm. Meanwhile the negative consequences of a filter are demonstrable. Thousands of people will be barred from legitimate exploration of their sexuality, and have their access to advice on sexual health, sexuality, and mental health issues removed. The most vulnerable people in society will be the least able to circumvent the block.

But that’s okay, because Daily Mail readers will be able to sleep soundly in the belief that they have made an import contribution in the war on misogyny.

1955: A model leaves a photography studio after posing for pornographic shots, and walks out of the building into the light. Photo: Pryor/Three Lions/Getty Images

Martin Robbins is a Berkshire-based researcher and science writer. He writes about science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics. Follow him on Twitter as @mjrobbins.

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I'd only given a literary talk, but someone still told me to leave the country

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

So here I am at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Belgrave Square. Eventually. After a misunderstanding that finds me first, forlorn and bemused, at Olympia, with the London Book Fair closing down for the evening, watching my fee grow wings and fly away into the night air. I am called up and told where I could more profitably go instead – that is to say, the venue I should be at. On reassurance that my expenses will be met, I hop into a cab as soon as I find one (which, on Kensington High Street at 7pm, takes far longer than you would think. I will not use Uber).

I am going there in order to be on a panel that is talking about Benjamin Fondane (1898-1944), the Romanian intellectual, poet, essayist, philosopher and all-round dude. I know nothing about the guy beyond what I learned from reviewing a selection of his writings last July but this makes me, apparently, one of this country’s leading experts on him. Such is the level of intellectual curiosity in this part of the world. Fondane was treated much better in Paris, where he moved after finding studying law in Bucharest too boring; treated very much worse in 1944, when he was sent to Auschwitz.

A little corner of me is panicking a bit before the gig starts: I know next to nothing about the man, especially compared to my co-panellists, and I might betray this to the audience of around 80 (I refer to their number, not their age), sitting in their little gilt chairs, in a nice gilt drawing room, which is par for the course for European cultural institutes in this neck of the woods.

Another part of me says: “Don’t be silly, you’ll be fine,” and it turns out I am. I even manage to throw in a few jokes. During the course of one of my answers I say that the UK is a cultural desert and that there was a reason Fondane stopped moving when he got to Paris. The idea of coming to London to breathe the pure air of artistic freedom and inspiration was, and remains, laughable. It gets a chuckle or two out of the (mostly Mittel-European) audience, who like a bit of British self-deprecation as much as we do.

Or do we? Downstairs, and clutching my first glass of the evening (a perfectly drinkable Romanian Merlot), I chat to various people who come up and say they like my reviews etc, etc. All very pleasant. And then a man comes up to me, about my age, maybe a year or three younger, smartly tweeded.

“I was very offended by what you said about this country being a cultural desert,” he says. He is not joking.

“Oh?” I say. “Well, it is.”

He has the look of someone about to come up with a devastating argument.

“What about Shakespeare?” he asks me. “What about Oscar Wilde?”

“They’re dead,” I say, leaving aside the fact that Wilde was Irish, and that anywhere was better than Ireland in the 19th century for gay playwrights.

“So’s Fondane,” he says.

I think at this point I might have raised my glasses and massaged the bridge of my nose with finger and thumb, a sign for those who know me of extreme exasperation, and a precursor to verbal violence.

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

“Do not presume to tell me, sir, whether I should leave the country.”

He tells me he has a Polish wife, as if that has any bearing on the matter. He says something else, which for the life of me I can’t remember, but I do know that when I replied to it, I used only one word, and that the word was “bollocks”.

“Well, if you’re going to use bad language . . .”

“I’ve got more,” I say, and proceed to launch a volley of it at him. Things have escalated quickly, I know, but there is no jest in his tone and what I am detecting is, I realise, his strong awareness of the Z in my name, my nose, and my flawless olive complexion. One develops antennae for this kind of thing, after almost half a century. And there’s a lot more of it about these days.

In the end, I become pretty much incoherent. On stage I’d caught myself thinking: “Golly, talking is even easier than writing;” but now my fluency deserts me. But God, it’s fun getting into a fight like this.

I’ve left my tobacco at home but the Romanian government gives me a whole pack of Marlboro Gold, and more wine. Vata-n libertate ori moarte! As they say. You can work it out. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution