Drawing lines

In which we discuss pornography, consent, and legal proposals


Today’s Top News Story: the government is planning to ban extreme pornography.

Now, as this idea goes: where’s the downside? It’s going to be a vote-winner, and the Opposition are bound to take the “well, we would have done this years ago!” line. But it does open up a rather nasty can of worms which, being your stereotypical Woolly-Minded Liberal,* I have no idea what to do about. The question is: what is porn? More importantly, what is extreme?

There’s no doubt that an awful lot of the stuff out there on the internet is only going to be attractive to a tiny minority of people. If you think you’re the only person out there with your particular fetish, then you’re wrong: someone somewhere will probably already have created a website devoted to it. The problem with that, of course, is that some people’s fetishes really are not things that anyone else is going to approve of. Now, I personally have no problem with what anybody wants to do in private, but the keyword there is consensuality. Where fetishes involve doing things without the other person’s consent, it’s not acceptable to me.

The can of worms comes into it, though, when you consider that the proposed law would outlaw pornography that shows illegal acts. The problem is that in British law, the legality of a lot of S&M sex is a very grey area. Even if you want your partner to do certain things to you, it might not be legal.** The second can of worms is that, looking at downloaded graphics, it can be impossible to tell if consent was given at the time. Indeed, some writers and campaigners would claim that no porn is consensual at all, because of the cultural context surrounding it.

There’s a lot of stuff out there, and a lot of it makes me sick to the stomach. But, even so, I’m fully expecting that this law – and it will become law – will go too far, and that we will see people being prosecuted for downloading images that, to my mind, are entirely harmless.

* I’m even a Guardian reader.

** The most famous legal case in BDSM circles is the Spanner Trial, in which a group of gay men were convicted and imprisoned for actual bodily harm even though the “victims” had consented; it is not the only one, though.

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