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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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.