A woman looks at pornographic videos and DVDs at a stand at the 2010 Venus Erotic Fair at Messe Berlin. Photograph: Getty Images
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Laurie Penny on the porn debate: the genie of unlimited filth is out of the bottle and no law can stop us polishing our lamps

The worst thing about this debate is that it turns a real-world, complex problem into a simple moral choice.

When ordinary human beings do evil, unspeakable things, it is always tempting to look for something to blame and to ban. In May, Mark Bridger was convicted of the murder of April Jones, aged five, and the newspapers, keen to impose an overarching narrative on his senseless crime, chose to blame internet pornography. It was reported that Bridger had been watching violent porn only hours before he killed April, and anti-porn campaigners have seized on the chance to draw a causal link. It’s the latest development in a handy alliance between social conservatives, antiporn feminists and those who seek to restrict access to communications technology for more sinister reasons.

This summer, with the relaunch of Spare Rib magazine and the centenary of various suffragette protests, the mainstream press has temporarily rediscovered feminism. Sadly, most of those who have been given broadsheet and broadcast news slots to define what “feminism” means have been middle-class, white women campaigning against porn and prostitution. The anti-smut group Object has launched a campaign against lads’ mags even though the internet seems to be destroying the audience for corner-shop, softcore skin mags all on its own. Internet porn is also being targeted in the name of protecting young people. That child murder has not increased since online pornography became widely available does not matter, and nor does the fact that we already have strict laws against the possession of images of child abuse.

The parents of murdered children are often called on to make an emotive rather than an evidence-based case for censorship. The last round of anti-porn legislation was led by Liz Longhurst, the mother of Jane Longhurst, the music teacher strangled by a pervert in 2003. Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill 2008 outlawed the possession of very limited kinds of specialist images involving animals and pretend corpses. One of the most significant results of this piece of legislation was that in 2009 a man was cleared of possessing a film depicting a sexual act with a tiger, after it was proved conclusively that the beast in question was not, in fact, a real tiger. Meanwhile, women and children continue to be abused, raped and murdered, sometimes by strangers, but more often by their intimate partners, parents and other close relatives.

We’ve been here before. The debate about the causes of sexual violence has been going on since the feminist porn wars of the 1980s, which were both more and less exciting than they sound and involved a great deal of shouting in draughty meeting rooms. The internet is the current culprit, but the arguments against explicit material are exactly the same as they were when the main smut delivery systems were rental videos and grubby mags. In 1981, the writer Ellen Willis noted that “if anti-porn feminists see pornography as a brutal exercise of predatory male sexuality, a form of (and incitement to) violence against women, the right also associates pornography with violence and with rampant male lust broken loose from the saving constraints of God and Family”. Today, the same social conservatives who are cutting child benefit and closing domestic violence shelters still borrow freely from feminist rhetoric about exploitation of women and children when it suits them.

The worst thing about this debate is that it turns a real-world, complex problem into a simple moral choice: porn is either good or bad, right or wrong, and not one shade of grey can be permitted, let alone 50. Having watched a great deal of pornography in the name of research and recreation, I can assure you that not all of it is violent, and indeed that almost any sexual taste, from the placid and petal-strewn to the eyebrow-raisingly reptilian, is catered to online for a modest fee. It is equally true that there is something traumatic about a lot of modern-day pornography, something repressed, violent and deeply involved with a particularly vengeful misogyny that has been on the rise only since women have become more economically independent over the past two generations. Some people like that sort of thing; others have grown up learning it as an erotic script, because sex is fundamentally a social idea. To say that dirty pictures are the problem in themselves, rather than a structure of violent misogyny and sexual control, is to confuse the medium with the message.

One of the most common retorts to the anti-porn alliance is that to campaign against online smut is to do something disgusting and decidedly post-watershed into the wind. The genie of unlimited filth has been let out of its dodgy bottle and no amount of legislation will stop us polishing our lamps.

That’s true, but it’s inadequate. After all, I spend my life, as an idealist and a feminist, arguing that vast, ambitious social change is not only possible but essential. Controlling the consumption of online pornography would require an enormous programme of state and corporate censorship, and the argument against this sort of socio-sexual state control should be not that it is unfeasible, but that it is monstrous. I do not want to live in a world where the government and a select few conservative feminists get to decide what we may and may not masturbate to, and use the bodies of murdered women or children as emotional pawns in that debate.

It is supremely difficult to achieve radical ends by conservative means. Feminists and everyone who seeks to end sexual violence should be very cautious when their immediate goals seem to line up neatly with those of social conservatives and state censors. I believe in a world where violence against women and children is not routine. After all, the idea of a world without sexism is no more unrealistic than getting rid of pornography – and a lot more fun.

 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 10 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, G0

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.