The doublethink that allows tabloids to campaign against online porn

A teenage rapist was excused by a judge because he had been "corrupted" by online filth. Where's the evidence?

Two fourteen-year-old children, separated by an ocean but united in the pages of the Daily Mail.

One, a British boy, tied a “Hello Kitty” apron around the eyes of a five-year-old girl and made her perform a sexual act on him. Wearing his school uniform in the dock of Cambridge Crown Court, he listened as Judge Hawkesworth blamed “the world and society” for allowing him to become “corrupted” by his exposure to sexualised material on the internet - further evidence of the need for the Daily Mail’s ‘Block Online Porn’ campaign.

The other, an American girl named Kylie Jenner, is famous for being the younger half-sister of Kim Kardashian, a woman who achieved fame through the release of a sex tape in 2007. Kylie can be seen with her sister in the Mail “stripping off” to “pose in bikinis.” She is pictured “displaying her … trim figure for her two millions (sic) Twitter followers to ogle at.”

There are those who are concerned about the sexualisation of children, and there are those who think that it’s fine to print pictures of a 14-year-old girl posing in “skimpy bikinis” and “tiny wetsuits” to sell newspapers, but only an institution as morally bankrupt as the Mail could hold both views simultaneously. Only the sort of editor one can imagine stalking the newsroom with sparkling white semen stains decorating the crotch of his handmade trousers, sneering contemptuously at his own readership, sickened by the girls he pimps to them, his skin coated with a stickiness that no amount of scrubbing and showering can rinse away.

Judge Hawkesworth himself is now a victim of this schizoid doublethink. On Wednesday he “spared” a teen “corrupted by internet porn”, his sentencing a convenient hook for the Mail’s campaign; but by Thursday an article described him as a “soft sentence judge” - a headline later altered (note the URL) to refer to a “cheap sentence”. Hawkesworth’s fate is to be cast as a heroic villain, a dangerously-liberal conservative judge who endangers the children he protects.

The Judge deserves some scrutiny though, as this isn’t the first time he’s come to national attention for unusual rulings. In 2011 he gave a suspended sentence to a 26-year-old man who had groomed a 14-year-old school girl for sex, ruling that he was “simply a young man who was unable to control his sexual urges.” His argument invoked the myth of the self-guiding penis; the idea that men are helpless ballistic spunk missiles, a careless whisper away from deploying their payload over some innocent bystander. It’s an idea usually espoused by men trying to excuse their crappy behaviour; people like Brendan O’Neill, whose penis forces him to wolf-whistle at passing girls, and writes many of his columns.

Judge Hawkesworth blamed impulses in this latest case too, sympathizing with a young boy who, according to the Mail, “later admitted he regularly looked at hardcore pornography on a laptop at home.” “I’m satisfied it was impulsive and I believe you have become sexualised by your exposure to and the corruption of pornography,” the judge is reported as saying: “Your exposure at such a young age has ended in tragedy. It was the fault of the world and society.” Not the parents, nor the school, nor even the town – nothing so crudely specific.

The phrase, “sexualised by your exposure to and the corruption of pornography,” is syntactically dubious and semantically void. ‘Sexualisation’ is one of those terms like ‘big society’ that has become synonymous with “something I can’t adequately describe.” It is a mythical mental health issue invented by campaigners who feel that it’s ‘common sense’ that children are be damaged by sexually explicit material, but who are unable to define either the damage or the causes beyond terms that are so vague as to be meaningless.  In effect the judge seems to have invoked a new mental health condition for the purposes of giving the child a lighter sentence.

This condition - new to medicine - is brought on by exposure to a class of entertainment that covers everything from erotic fiction writing to water-sports via knee-jobs and macrophilia, but which emphatically does not include topless women (or 14-year old bikini models) in tabloid newspapers. It leads to the generation of ‘hormones’ – unprecedented in teenage boys - which in turn persuade  patients to do things like coercing a 5 year old girl into performing a sex act. If this model is true, and a majority of teenagers view porn, then only some miracle is preventing horny youth gangs invading nursery schools up and down the land.

“The case has fuelled demands for stricter controls to be put in place to stop children accessing online porn,” according to the Mail, who cite no examples. They fell foul of a PCC complaint by some bloke recently, and ended up removing an article that falsely inflated public support for an automatic internet filter. Still, their editorial line – one of them at least - has strong support from powerful politicians; people like the rising Conservative star Claire Perry, an MP who campaigns on her opposition to the sexualisation of children. I asked Perry on Twitter what she thought of the Mail’s regular bikini shots of Kylie Jenner. She didn’t reply. 

 

Kim Kardashian: "a woman who achieved fame through the release of a sex tape in 2007". Photograph: 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.

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.