Criminalising extreme porn

Feminists are split over government plans to ban so-called extreme porn with some groups arguing cen

A bid to prevent people viewing images of rape and sexual violence has split opinion among feminists with strong opposition being voiced within some sections of the women's movement.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw wants to make owning, downloading or viewing bestiality, necrophilia or severe sexual violence illegal as of next January via an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act.

The move has won the support of many women who believe it will help reduce gender violence. Dr Sasha Rakoff, director of lobby group Object, said: “We are not talking about fluffy Ann Summer's handcuffs here, we are talking about the depiction of rape, mutilation and abuse so graphic that it is impossible to tell whether or not it is real or simulated.

“The case against banning the possession of such material is deeply flawed and misleading.”

Many have argued against the proposals though; on 22 October a handful of protesters demonstrated outside parliament calling for the government to “ban crime, not sex”.

This opposition is deeply disturbing, Rakoff argues, in a society where one in three women experience male violence, and where sexual violence has become increasingly main streamed in the porn industry and wider society.

That abuse of women is unacceptable is not up for debate.

As Rakoff said: “The feminist point of view is a human rights point of view.” How best to tackle it involves on-going argument, however.

Laura Schwarz of Feminist Fightback said: "To focus on porn as the primary cause of violence against women is not only reductive and simplistic but politically dangerous. It prevents a more in depth analysis of the causes of sexual violence and ignores other forms of violence - police violence, state violence or the violence of the capitalist system."

Avedon Carol, of Feminists Against Censorship (FAC) goes further: “This legislation only has value in a police state because it does not do anything to prevent violence against women. It suppresses sexuality, which can only create more problems later."

The planned law changes have come about following the murder of Jane Longhurst in 2003 by Graham Coutts - a man who was addicted to violent porn sites.

Longhurst's mother, Liz, has argued easy access to extreme online images had tipped her daughter's killer over the edge.

However, there is little evidence to show there has been an increase in violence against women with the increase in availability of images depicting it, on the internet and elsewhere. This argument is repeated by those who feel the amendments are a token effort that avoid the root problem of violence against women.

Female porn director, Yoshki Greenberg, is a rarity. She is one of a small handful of women who stand behind the camera on the film set, rather than lie in front of it. Perhaps more surprisingly she makes (consensual) 'niche narrative' films, some of which may be affected by the new legislation that will ban pictures of slavery or captivity.

Despite the violent nature of some of her films she was vehemently against abuse of women, although she shared Object's opinion that 'porn as punishment' films are increasingly popular with the mainstream.

She said increased censorship won't help: “I obviously have no issue with the quest to reduce violence, I just don't think this will achieve it. To ban extreme porn is to ignore the issues of why people want to watch it in the first place- what it is that triggers violent behaviour in people”

Erotic photographer and ex-escort Karen, who won Sex Worker of the Year in 2004 for setting up an ethical escort agency, believes the move will have absolutely no effect on increasing women's safety, in the sex industry of otherwise, but is rather about increasing government control over our lives.

Straw rejects this. He has said the government's intention is to combat the circulation of extreme pornographic images, not to limit private sexual activity. Ministers point to the consultation paper which indicated men who were predisposed to aggression or sexual violence were more susceptible to the influence of extreme porn.

But FAC's Avedon Carol claimed: “It happens every time there is a real concern about violence against women, the government think they can soothe it by eliminating pictures of violence against women. It's not tackling the real issue.”

Of course the vast majority of women who experience violence and sexual abuse do so from someone they know.

Perhaps prioritising Rape Crisis centres, tackling domestic violence and ensuring effective prosecution would help far more than criminalising the small minority who enjoy extreme porn.

But then it would also cost a lot more money.

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

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.