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      David Cameron's War On Internet Porn Lacks a Smoking Gun

      July 23, 2013

      By Martin Robbins

      From the column 'Here Be Dragons'


      Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader in a spanking scene from The Secretary.

      A surprisingly large amount of porn involves death, destruction, or violence—but then so does a lot of film. Vore fetishists fantasize about people eating each other, and Anthony Hopkins acts out a similar fantasy in 2001’s Hannibal. Macrophiles might imagine giant women rampaging through cities, leaving carnage and crushed bodies in their wake. Attack of the 50 Foot Woman is tame in comparison, but city-smashing violence is featured in every other film these days.

      In porn, rape fantasies are far more common than any of those scenarios, but depictions of rape have also appeared with some degree of regularity on the big screen. Take Irréversible, for example, which the late Roger Ebert described as, "a movie so violent and cruel that most people will find it unwatchable." At times, the only difference between cinema and violent porn is that one has to pass under the eyes of a censoring board and the other gets instantly pressed to DVD or uploaded to the seedier corners of the internet.

      Soon, though, those seedier corners may be off limits to people in the UK. David Cameron announced yesterday that he is working with ISPs in England to implement a blanket ban on violent porn. (He will also be making it compulsory for adults to actively "opt in" to internet porn access.) The prime minister's declaration comes after sustained pressure from both the Daily Mail and a coalition of groups and individuals led by End Violence Against Women. EVAW drafted an open letter to David Cameron calling for a ban on what they call "rape porn." To accompany it, they wrote a briefing paper that sets out their reasoning, with links back to some academic research that they think supports their campaign. It’s a serious issue and their overall mission is one that needs as much support as possible—if there is a link of causality between rape porn and real-life rape, then any sane person would find it hard to dispute that its presence in the media should be minimized or completely eradicated. However, as much as there's a need to protect children and adults alike from sexual violence, that link has yet to be detected by anyone.

      Their main claim is this: “That sexual violence as a form of 'entertainment' causes a huge cultural harm to our society.” Unfortunately, nowhere in any published document is there a shred of anything that might support that idea. And, in fact—as pro sexual liberty campaigner Obscenity Lawyer’s blog has pointed out—they outright admit that science has never been able to show a causal link between violent porn and sexual violence.  

      Instead of changing gears and campaigning against legitimate causes of violence toward women, like cultural practices and legislative complacency, they hand-wave at “rigorous research in the US” that has apparently “long found a significant link between arousal to rape material and a ‘propensity to rape.’" This turns out to be a paper dating from 1981, which showed only that rapists may be slightly more likely than non-rapists to find porn depicting rape arousing. More recent research doesn’t help them much, either; in-depth reviews by Malamuth et al in 2000 and Ferguson & Hartley in 2009 failed to find any meaningful link.

      Rape is a terrible thing, and obviously not something that should be defended in any imaginable shape or form. But it seems odd to undermine an entire campaign from the get-go by citing inconclusive and outdated scientific research.   

      Another elephant in the room is the question of whether sexualized violence in porn is different to sexualised violence in any other form of entertainment. Malamuth’s paper makes the point that it isn’t really possible to separate "pornographic stimuli" from the effect of mass media images, generally. To the viewer, does a sexualized image of a 14-year-old girl posing in a bikini published by Mail Online suddenly become "different" if it is posted on an internet forum for pedophiles?

      Take the new Superman reboot, Man of Steel. It’s a pretty good film, but one of the most striking features for me was the Kryptonian villainess, Faora. Hailed by some as a feminist icon, this is a woman who can beat up Superman. In one scene, a general empties first his machine gun then a hand pistol against her body, the bullets “ricocheting impotently off her chest.” She could stop him at any moment, but she just stands there and lets him see exactly how superior she is. And it’s insanely hot—the ultimate dominant power trip. 

      Scenes like this are a classic example of "fetish fuel." The TV Tropes website used to list examples of this from film and TV, but the page now carries a disclaimer: “We no longer collect examples of fetish fuel. We did so for long enough to establish that literally everything is someone's fetish fuel, and that some individuals are quite willing to go on about theirs at length.”

      People can find pretty much anything sexy, and given the close ties between kink, domination, and control, it’s not surprising that a lot of fetishes involved physicality and violence. But they’re fantasies, and people older than single digits generally understand the difference between fantasy and reality. On leaving the theater, I didn’t feel compelled to pick up a gun and shoot a strong-looking woman in the boobs; and yet to some people the mix of guns, violence, a woman being shot, and mild sexual arousal would be evidence that I’m a sick deviant and a potential danger to society.

      A much more disturbing scene in recent cinema was the rape of Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo. I found it incredibly uncomfortable to watch when I first saw it. Natasha Vargas-Cooper at the Feminist Film blog took a rather different view, choosing to examine the degree of eroticism in the movie: “The scene will be at best forgettable and at worst arousing. It’s a scene played out thousands of times on porn sites, its called ‘rapeplay’… everyone there is professional and they are ‘playing’ with the notion of rape—rough sex, resistance, and force, saying no no, while everyone looks great.”

      The problem here, as with anything else involving sex, violence, and a video camera, is that human sexuality is a lot more complex and diverse than people are willing to admit. When one person’s "ew" is another’s "ooh," what does it mean to try to "ban" scenes of violence because they arouse people? Should the Dragon Tattoo scene be banned? What about Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader's spanking scene in The Secretary? Why is a ban necessary for porn, but not for film or TV productions that many will find equally arousing? What exactly about a particular scene makes it harmful? Is it the nudity, the violence, the context, the objectification, or some other factors? I believe misogyny in porn is a problem, just as I believe misogyny on TV and in newspapers is a problem, but how does banning or restricting arbitrary categories of media produced by and for consenting adults deal with that?

      And how does any of this tackle the monsters among us? Using a real-life case study, EVAW's idea that Stuart Hazell behaved the way he did because porn exists is just misguided. Let’s leave aside the fact that the images of child abuse Hazell downloaded are already illegal—a point confusingly glossed over in EVAW’s letter. The man didn’t do what he did because he was just a normal guy who was suddenly "provoked" by lust, he did it because—in common with the average rapist—he was a serial abuser who coldly controlled and manipulated his victims over many years.

      The truth is that I don’t know the answers to a lot of these questions, but it frustrates me that so few campaigners are willing to tackle them. The ill-defined spectre of "extreme porn" has been built up into a looming evil, casting its shadow across society, arousing such strong emotions that it’s hard to have any sensible debate about the topic, especially when, as Laurie Penny points out, campaigners are using “the bodies of murdered women or children as emotional pawns.”

      And it’s hard to escape the feeling that this is a bit of a culture-war-by-proxy. The response to porn versus endemic misogyny in other media—the Sun's Page 3, for example, which Cameron has so far refused to publicly condemn—is so inconsistent that it’s hard not to see an element of sexual policing at work here—people trying to censor things that offend them. While EVAW and the Mail will be celebrating their "moral victory" today, I’m right with Penny when she says: “I do not want to live in a world where the government and a select few conservative feminists get to decide what we may and may not masturbate to.”

      Martin Robbins is a writer and talker who blogs about weird and wonderful things for the Guardian and New Statesman. Here Be Dragons is a new column that explores denial, conflict and mystery at the wild fringes of science and human understanding. Find him on Twitter @mjrobbins, or email tips and feedback to martin@mjrobbins.net.

      Follow Martin on Twitter: @mjrobbins

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      Topics: Martin Robbins, Here Be Dragons, rape porn, porn, porn censorship, extreme porn, End Violence Against Women, campaign, David Cameron, porn ban, opt in, Laurie Penny

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