Misleading Claims

A number of claims have been made in support of the legislation. Those that have received the most attention can be summarised as follows:

  1. most respondents to the consultation supported the proposal
  2. the proposed legislation will affect only a small number of people (those who possess the “most extreme” material)
  3. material of this kind encourages violent behaviour
  4. much material of this kind features genuine abuse of non-consenting participants
  5. the proposed legislation is simply an “update” of the Obscene Publications Act (OPA) that addresses the “loophole” of internet access to pornographic material

These claims have been taken on face value by many, but they are at best extremely dubious, if not straightforwardly false. Grounds to suspect them are as follows:

Most respondents to the consultation supported the proposal. False

The Government cited 223 individuals against, 90 in favour;

18 organisations against, 53 in favour.This gives a total of 241 against, 143 in

Of the organisations in favour, 21 were police forces/organisations. If
the police are taken as a single entity, the number of organisations in favour
drops to 33.

Much has been made of the 50,000 who signed the petition organised
by Martin Salter and the Jane Longhurst Trust. But note the wording of that
petition: signatories were invited to oppose “extremeinternet sites promoting
violence against women in the name of sexual gratification”. Anyone would
object to material “promoting” violence against women (as would this document).
But the scope of the legislation is much wider than this. It criminalises
material featuring consenting adults engaging in staged or controlled fantasies.
Responses to the proposal on forums such as the BBC’s discussion boards suggest
most people do not support this.

The legislation will affect only a small number of people. No – a great deal of material, featuring consenting participants,
typically enjoyed by the BDSM community, the Goth community and enthusiasts of
thrillers/horror films could “convey a realistic impression of fear, violence and
harm”, depending on who was judging that question. The number of people affected
almost certainly runs into the hundreds of thousands, and probably the
The material encourages violent behaviour. The Government’s own consultation paper explicitly says that the evidence does not support this.
Supporters such as Martin Salter MP went on TV and made the claim anyway.
The material features genuine abuse of non-consenting participants. Almost certainly false. Consider:

The Government was not able to cite a single site featuring
genuine abuse. The ones it has mentioned – apparently the “most extreme” that can
be found – feature staged scenes with consenting actors, and say so explicitly on
their front pages.

If people really were being maimed, murdered etc, such
productions would leave behind either living, seriously injured adult victims or
bodies that would need to be disposed of. Producers would also need to deflect
investigations instigated by family members, etc. Furthermore, assuming a rate
of one production per producer per month (many sites offer several per week),
the numbers would soon become unmanageable. It is worth remembering that despite
the considerable interest in “snuff” films, not one genuine example has been
discovered, as a recent documentary on Channel 4 showed.

Much of the relevant
material is produced and hosted in the US, where sites must conform to
regulations requiring actors to sign release forms indicating that they are of
legal age. Unless the Federal authorities are guilty of a massive dereliction
of duty, it seems likely they would notice if actors were going missing or
turning up in hospital with life-threatening injuries. (Again, the sites
mentioned by the Government conform to these regulations.)

Most pornographic
sites appear to use a small number of actors on a regular basis. With
“extreme”material, these actors would have to reappear each time miraculously
recovered from the serious or even fatal injuries they have appeared to suffer
previously. Either the Government has an explanation for this miracle, or the
actors are not actually being injured.

The proposal is simply an update of the OPA. This is highly misleading.

An OPA conviction requires a jury to decide that
material would be likely to “deprave and corrupt” people exposed to it. With the proposed
offence, it would only need to be shown that violent acts (which may
be staged/consensual) feature in material intended to arouse sexually – a far
less demanding test

The move from policing what may be published to policing
simple possession is not a mere “update”. Rather, it constitutes a serious
incursion into private life. Such incursions can in principle be justified if the
arguments are strong enough (as with child pornography), but it is misleading to
describe this as merely “closing a loophole”.

Child pornography

Without making any clear statements on the matter, the Government has implied that there is a connection between this issue and that of child pornography. The truth is that the material in question features consenting adults and is aimed at consenting adults, and references to child pornography are, once again, extremely misleading.

The British Psychological Society

The Government has cited support from the British Psychological Society for its proposal. However,this is misleading.

The official BPS response was written by two psychologists who offered their own particular view on the topic rather than a representation of opinion within the profession as a whole. A genuine survey would haveshown that opinion within
the profession is deeply divided on the effects of pornography – hence the Government’s admission that the research is inconclusive – and that many psychologists would inany case have felt uncomfortable about endorsing a law of this kind. However, once the official BPS response emerged, it was too late for dissenters to contribute.

A letter of protest representing one group was sent to The Psychologist. The BPS president’s reply did not dismiss the group’s position as that of a negligible minority – it simply observed that they had had their chance to include their views in the official response, and had missed it.

Extract from The Psychologist, Volume 19, Part 5 (May 2006)

Letters Pages: 268-273

Extreme pornography consultation.

We write to express our deep concern at the Society’s response to a Home Office consultation paper on internet pornography.

We are concerned that the response was based on virtually no evidence of harm, yet recommends extremely authoritarian measures.

The government is considering making it a crime to download sexually violent pornography. This will extend the legislation on child pornography to adult material that is defined as the realistic depicting or acting of a scene that would, if acted out, cause grievous bodily harm.

This would include a variety of bondage and masochistic scenes acted out by consenting enthusiasts, as well as images of the notorious Spanner trial of a decade ago (in which consenting men were imprisoned for sadomasochistic practices).

Simply viewing the material will now constitute a serious criminal offence. And anyone looking at bondage scenes where somebody is wearing a mask and might suffocate (if this scene were acted out “in reality”) must be prepared to defend themselves in court.

However, there is no engagement in the BPS response with the complex issues of consent and agency.

The BPS was asked to cite evidence of harm. Only three papers were cited, and the extensive literature pointing to no simple causal links between viewing pornography and committing crimes was ignored. The “evidence” focuses on the effects of pornography on either children or disturbed offenders. We do not dispute that psychopaths may be kick-started into action by all manner of things, including pornography. But there is no evidence at all that those not already predisposed to such action will be similarly affected.

In fact, the response is based not so much on evidence, but on assertion and argument. This is mainly that pornography degrades women. There is no mention in the response about violence towards and degradation of men, indicating its partial and selective nature.

The proposed legislation will make the possession of photographs (but not cartoons and text) an offence. The reason the government is concerned about sexually violent pornography is that atrocious crimes may be committed in the making of the material. But of course, this is already a crime, and rightly so. The government’s aim here is to punish consumers, not perpetrators.

Most worryingly, the report then goes on to recommend the toughest option for this new offence: three years in prison.

This cannot be based on evidence (no evidence on the effects of imprisonment is cited). We believe that the UK imprisons too many of its citizens, that generally, only violent criminals who are a threat to society should be incarcerated. We do not believe this as a result of evidence. It is a political position.

We find, however, that our Society takes a very different and authoritarian position. One of us was involved in the 1980s in the STOPP campaign to abolish corporal punishment in schools, and tried unsuccessfully to encourage the BPS to take a stance against it. But this was deemed too political. Any BPS response had to be based on hard evidence.

Since then, the BPS has refused to take a stance supporting other liberal issues such as apartheid and gay marriage. But it has rushed to support an authoritarian piece of legislation.

This response appears to have been made without any wide consultation. It also seems to fly in the face of the Society’s guideline that no recommendations can be made on the basis of partial or selective evidence.

If any of us were given the job of refereeing this report for publication in a peer-refereed journal, we would have to recommend rejection on the basis of an inadequate literature review and insufficient rationale for the conclusions.

Vivien Burr | Trevor Butt | Nigel King |Kate Milnes University of Huddersfield | Ralph Goldstein Chair-Elect, Division of Counselling Psychology John L. Smith University of Sunderland

…..and a reply from the President, Ray Miller:

To put the above letter and this reply in context it may help to quote from the Home Office consultation document on the possession of extreme pornographic material, to which the Society responded (see tinyurl.com/hc5us):

This document sets out options for creating a new offence of simple possession of extreme pornographic material which is graphic and sexually explicit and which contains actual scenes or realistic depictions of serious violence, bestiality or necrophilia. The material in question would be illegal to publish, sell or import here under our existing obscenity legislation…The material depicts activities which are illegal in themselves and the participants may in some cases have been victims of criminal offences. Any new offence would apply only to pornographic material containing explicit actual scenes or realistic depictions of: (i) intercourse or oral sex with an animal; (ii) sexual interference with a human corpse; (iii) serious violence in a sexual context; iv) serious sexual violence.

One of the measures of the success of the Society in advancing a knowledge of psychology is the increasing number of requests for responses to consultations. At any time some 30-40 may be under consideration. We welcome opportunities to influence decision makers and have established a Policy Support Unit (PSU) to assist members and subsystems (Divisions, Special Groups, Sections and Branches) in participating in responses.

On receipt of a request (sometimes we don’t wait to be asked) details are circulated to the relevant boards and all subsystem representatives on those boards. In addition all consultation exercises are logged on the Society website (at www.bps.org.uk/tiny/zee5gf). Any member can see what is current and the closing date for contributions. Members are encouraged to communicate their views through a subsystem, where appropriate, to ensure perspectives are collated and comprehensive.

This particular consultation was circulated and posted on the website with a closing date of 16 September 2005 for expressions of interest and circulated by the PSU to all members of the Research Board on 31 August.

Deadlines are set by government departments and we must respond on time if we wish to be heard. Sometimes deadlines are tight. It is important that subsystems and members keep abreast of issues of interest and have effective ways of communicating so that opportunities are not missed. It is not clear how consultation could be much wider as every member and subsystem has a chance to contribute. The more those with particular knowledge and perspectives do so, the more assured we can be that our responses will be truly representative.