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6 January 2012updated 27 Sep 2015 1:46am

It’s time to abolish the obscenity law

Obscenity law robs us of agency. And it tells us that we are depraved.

By Nichi Hodgson

“Do they even HAVE obscenity trials any more?!’ my old editor at the Erotic Review exclaimed, when I told him I was live-tweeting from one this week (read David Allen Green on the not guilty verdict here).

Well, yes, they do, and it’s a pretty surreal experience to think that statute from the burgeoning permissive society is still being used to make judgments about life in Britain 2012, a place where it’s all too easy to have an expectation of sexual liberty and free speech, and a sense that the only person you need to gain permission from is the one you’re doing something with.

That the precedent for obscenity trials quoted is still the Lady Chatterley trial of 1960 (R v Penguin Books) is even more bizarre, particularly if, like me, you studied the case at university. It’s evidence of a time where artistic merit had barely evolved as a defence for literature with dirty bits.

Clearly, the artistic merit of pure pornography is even more contentious, where it’s even appropriate, and while the evolution of English obscenity law has been marked by two seminal cases since – the Oz magazine trials of 1971, and the trial of Inside Linda Lovelace in 1977 – neither of these offer much in the way of obvious and direct relevance to prosecutors and jurors examining the kind of internet and DVD porn comprising obscenity trials today.

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Take a look at the Crown Prosecution Service’s directions on the OPA 1959 if you want to see what now constitutes ‘obscene’. The list is ‘not exhaustive’ but includes sex with animals; sex with minors; fisting; torture, activities involving perversion and degradation (urination, vomiting and excretion). We’ve certainly moved on from being mortified by the egregious use of the word ‘fuck’, as those who brought the Lady Chatterley to trial were.

But the test of obscenity – whether something ‘depraves and corrupts’ – remains the same: ‘to deprave means to make morally bad, to debase or to corrupt morally. To corrupt means to render morally unsound or rotten, to destroy the moral purity or chastity, to pervert or ruin a good quality; to debase; to defile it.’

Obscenity law posits that boundaries of decency must be drawn somewhere. Obscenity is culturally relative. It is about moral judgment. It has to be in order to protect the moral fibre of the society it is serving. It just so happens that this frequently means castigating sexual subcultures by labelling their activities as debased, often with little attempt to understand practices which are outside the average person’s experience.

Perhaps most curiously, the OPA 1959 makes a crime of publishing material featuring acts which are not illegal in themselves. Prosecuting those who distribute obscene material isn’t about preventing physical or sexual harm, nor is it about avoiding provocation of crime, or illicit behaviour. It’s about deciding whether the sanctity of a mind and character of the person exposed to the so-called obscene materials is at stake. Go back to the CPS definition of what constitutes obscene and you’ll see we’re not talking about mainstream porn, but the kind you only find when you know what you’re looking for.

In its bid to establish moral standards, Obscenity law robs us of agency. And it tells us that we are depraved merely because we have thoughts about the acts designated as depraved; thoughts other than revulsion.

Does obscenity law even have any place in 21st century English law then? Should it perhaps not be abolished, as blasphemy law was in 2008, and treated as a similar cultural and legal anachronism? Surely yes, if the precedent for it is still a trial in which a conservative white male establishment failed to grasp the concept of artistic expression as a means of defence, and instead sought to impose standards on a society that was relaxing its morals faster than it raised its hem lines.

The outcome of R v Peacock — a landmark because the defendant pleaded not guilty — sets a contemporary precedent for discussing pornographic obscenity which should have little to do with its potentially degenerative effect on wives and servants as the Chatterley trial did – unless that’s the point, of course.

Nichi Hodgson is a 28-year-old freelance journalist specialising in sexual politics, law and culture.

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