Trinity College Law Society

Trinity College Law Society

Deborah Hyde speaking in October 2007

In order to explain our position on the pain caused – or not – by porn, I will argue that ill thought out anti-porn laws cause the most damage to society.

Porn laws ignore the evidence about the use and impact of pornography, infantilise women and – if inappropriately applied – bring legal systems into disrepute.

The ground-breaking plans in the UK to criminalise the possession of pornography are a case in point.

When a government says there is no evidence a new law is needed, when there is no evidence of harm, and when MPs initiate a law simply to send a message that certain behaviours are unacceptable, we need to challenge their assumptions or risk all sorts of uninentended consequences.

Martin Salter, MP the main proponent of current proposals to criminalise the possession of a loosely defined “extreme porn” uses incendiary langage and refers to unproven, anecdotal evidence to justify this position.

In media interviews, the MP for Reading West talks about women killed to make porn even though no snuff movie has ever been found.

On the BBC, he criticised people who look at pornography and upload photos onto the Internet.

“No-one is stopping people doing weird stuff to each other but they would be strongly advised not to put it on the internet.”

I say assumptions like these fail to recognise decades of research into pornography, its use and its impact.

The language used also denigrates law-abiding citizens who are harming no-one, limits their freedom and stymagtising their sexual desires – all despite there being no evidence of harm.

Even the UK governement’s own recently released REA on the evidence of harm to adults relating to exposure to extreme pornographic material, published on 28 September 2007 failed to come up with any new evidence of need for a change in the law.

Dr Meg Barker, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at London South Bank University : “The proposal [ is based] on very little evidence at all. The current fears around the possible impact of “violent pornography” on the Internet seem very similar to previous “moral panics”, from penny dreadfuls in Victorian times, to horror comics in the 1950s, to video nasties in the 1980s.”

She says : Dennis Howitt, a psychologist who has informed the Home Office on such issues in the past, sets out all the available evidence regarding the impact of pornography in his book “Crime, the Media and the Law”.

Increase in violent sex crime is not clearly linked to increases in availability of violent pornography, either on-line or in other forms.

In fact many areas of the world which have high levels of violent pornography have the lowest levels of sex crime and vice versa.

There is also no evidence that sex offender behaviour is a response to exposure to violent pornography. In fact, rapists first see pornography later on average than non-rapists.

And even the government’s own report says there is no evidence – other than anecdotal evidence — that appearing in extreme porn harms the actors.

“The proposed legislation has been formed around moral judgements, rather than on any basis of fact or proof of harm …. It has been prepared without consultation with those actually involved,” said the Internatuional Union of Sex Workers.

And a 43-year-old mother of three who has acted in “extreme” porn told Backlash: “As a model, I did not once feel degraded or abused. I do however, as an adult woman, feel degraded by those who claim to know what’s best [and] who wish to criminalize me for simply being me!”

And resent research on the Internet says that claims that access to porn leads to an increase in violent crimes is just plain wrong.

In June 2006, Anthony D’amato found the incidence of rape in the United States has declined 85 percent in the past 25 years while access to pornography has become freely available to teenagers and adults. The Nixon and Reagan Commissions tried to show that exposure to pornographic materials produced social violence. The reverse may be true: that pornography has reduced social violence.

The findings were echoed by Todd Kendall in March 2007. Kendall found “The arrival of the internet was associated with a reduction of the incidence of rape”.

Laurence Pay, a leading criminologist who works with sex offenders, also points out that if the advent of porn was truly psoitively correlated to more criminal behaviour, we would be awash with incidents since the advent of the internet.

There are others that argue that porn should be banned because – whether or not anyone is harmed in its production — porn is innately degrading to women.

But this argument also denies the variety of human experience and women’s experience of using porn

Dr Petra Boynton says if we accept the idea that a] porn is one thing and b] it is all harmful it makes it very difficult for women who get aroused by porn. In the past anti-porn groups characterised such women as victims or having some form of false conciousness so they couldn’t see how liking porn was bad for them. Sexual materials can be a source of pleasure, education and information.

Author of “One For The Girls! The Pleasures and Practices of Reading Women’s Porn” agrees.

I don’t think that it is useful to think in terms of separating out forms of porn into “good” porn, “bad” porn without accepting that what one person might find positive, another finds repressive or disgusting.

However, exploring how porn fits into its readers/viewers’ lives does show that porn can have all kinds of uses including but not limited to masturbation and that any positivity there is in porn lies in the ways it fits into women’s lives.

For some, the positivity might mean a rejection of certain practices as not for them; for others an affirmation of their sexual pleasures – for example, there is plenty of evidence that porn has been a real resource for people who’s sexuality has been deemed “outlaw” such as gay men and lesbian women.

Meg Barker says “I’m concerned that such legislation could send out a sex-negative message which could increase the taboo around sex that already exists. Rather than trying to legislate against possession of “violent pornographic” images, the government should focus on improving sex education and sending out a message of acceptance of the diversity of consensual sexual practices that are conducted in this country so that people will not have to feel so much shame and secrecy around sex.”

There is though, the thorny question of the apparent positive correlation is between men pre-disposed to violence and their use of porm.

Even this though has not been properly tested as research has only been done on convicted sex offenders (not the public at large) and fails to take into account others correlations; alcohol use, poverty, class.

But so what if the government is legislating pointlessly and based on its own morality rather than on the evidence of need?

I would argue that long-term the impact of this kind of legislation is that this attitude brings an increasing disregard for law and for law-makers.

If people can be arrested for a victimless crime, for looking at pictures they know are evidence of consensual activity – such as sex with their own partners – simply because MPs don’t like the material, then where is the trust?

And if people who look at pictures MP’s find disgusting are added to the Sex Offender’s Register, how useful will the register be?

And what of the over-stretched police forces, courts and prisons?

Surely, we must be sure a law is really needed before we add to their workload?

The potential harm that can be done to society by imposing bad law has been highlighted by leading Human Rights barrister Rabinder Singh QC.

Discussing the current UK proposals, he said

  1. That the measures are disproportionate to the intended effect and could criminalise thousands of people who are causing no harm to themselves or others
  2. That the proposals introduce an unwarranted intrusion into and restriction of people’s rights to freedom of expression and privacy
  3. That the proposed law does not allow people to know for certain in advance if the images they own are illegal to possess
  4. That “pornography” is not defined in law and so makes the proposed law vague

His arguments are backed up by Human Rights lobby group Liberty.

In an initial briefing on the upcoming Criminal Justice Bill, Liberty called on the new UK government to drop the CJB.

Liberty described the massive Bill as “a last-ditch effort to dictate the future business for the new Cabinet” by Tony Blair and John Reid.

It called on the new Prime Minister, new Home Secretary and new Justice Minister not to plough on with this huge laundry list of unfinished business.

“We hope that the new Cabinet stops to think whether it really wants to continue the old trends of endless new laws on immigration and criminal justice, more and more new criminal offences and broader and broader police powers,” Liberty said.

While it said there are a number of welcome proposals, it said these were “too often drowned out by the meaningless political rhetoric of “Simple, Speedy, Summary Justice” and “Rebalancing the Criminal Justice System in Favour of the Law Abiding Majority”.

Liberty has accused the Labour Government of losing sight of the basic values underlying our criminal justice system: the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial before an independent court.

As for plans to criminalise the possession of pornography, Liberty said it had serious concerns which it would raise during the Committee Stage

Liberty said it “would want to assess whether

  1. there is a sound justification for extending the criminal law by creating the proposed new offence (including by assessing whether offences already exist)
  2. whether the proposed offence is certain enough, allowing citizens to clearly understand what is and is not a criminal offence) and
  3. ensuring that the offence does not go further than is justified.”We, at Backlash, already argue that no new law is neccessary, that the plans criminalise too many otherwise respectable, law abiding citizens without any likely benefit to society and unfairly stigmatises a number of sexualities.

    © Copyleft Backlash 2007