A shy young farmer is showing his girlfriend around the farm. He shows her the haystacks and the milking machine, and then they come to a field where a cow and a bull are doing what cows and bulls do when farmers put them in fields together. The farmer and his girlfriend watch for a few minutes and then the farmer ventures: 'Er...do you know, one day, I'd like to do that.'
'Well, it's your cow,' she replies.
We are all much less screwed up about sex than we used to be. Everyone is glad to be gay. We don't tell children that if they play with themselves they'll go blind. Sado-masochism is openly discussed in the pages of Woman's Realm. But it is still relatively rare to come across an 'out' necrophiliac. Dead people don't put up postcards in phone boxes. If I were to walk in on a friend having sex with his ex-girlfriend, I would probably say something slightly stronger than, 'Well, it's your corpse.'
Why is sex with a dead body necessarily more depraved than, say, sex with a manikin? You or I may think that both pastimes are a bit yucky, but 'yuck!' is not really an argument. Norman Tebbit thinks it is yucky for two men to have sex together, even if both of them are still alive, to which the only answer is 'That's all right, no-one asked you to watch.' Norman would probably reply that it's the whole idea of a man having sex with another man which he finds yucky, to which I would reply: 'Well, I think the idea of John Major having sex with Edwina Curry is pretty yucky. Or indeed, the idea of anyone having sex with Edwina Curry. Or, in fact, John Major. Do you want to ban that as well?' Aesthetic judgements are a very bad guide to morality.
We think that desecrating a corpse is an offense against the family of the corpse's original owner: but we no longer think that desecrating corpses in general is an offense against humanity in general. There was a time when we tried to prosecute artists for doing challengingly post-modern things with the dear departed. But now we permit 'Body Worlds', even though it is an exhibition of high-tech human taxidermy, because all of the exhibits signed legal documents agreeing to be filleted and put on display when they die. So what would be the moral difference if someone willed their mortal remains to be used for some much less educational, but possibly more enjoyable, artistic venture?
The only rational objection to necrophilia is the practical one. It's rather difficult to pursue the hobby without a dead body; and it's rather difficult to get hold of a dead body without killing someone or digging someone up. (There are also questions about hygiene and public health, even if you wear a condom and don't share shrouds.) We object to necrophilia because we don't think that you should interfere with human remains. The fact that some people find interfering with human remains a sexual turn-on is is beside the point.
I mention this because necrophilia is one of the categories covered by Tony Blair's proposed law against 'extreme' pornography. The others are sexual violence and bestiality. At present, it is illegal to produce or distribute certain kinds of dirty book. But what the world has been crying out for is a law against even having such material in your house, in a cardboard box under your bed, or, and especially, in a file on your hard-drive marked 'Very boring bank statements, do not read.' I have never been entirely sure what a rubicon is but I am pretty sure that we have just crossed one.
Prime Ministers have always regretted the fact that they can't legislate about what goes on in our minds and in our trousers. But with the advent of the World Wide Wank it is theoretically possible for Tony Blair to spy on all of our wet dreams. In the past, we drifted off to sleep turning dodgy little paraphilias over in our heads, hardly remembering them the next morning. Nowadays, we type 'Doctor, Rose, Dalek, tentacle, slash, threesome' into Google and see our most secretest fantasies dance before our eyes in living colour. Or so I have heard.
Tony can't stop you thinking about naughty things; but it is now fairly easy for him to discover what naughty things you have been thinking about and if he doesn't like them, to send three big uniformed police officers to your house to confiscate your computer, handcuff you, conduct an intimate body search and then take out their big, manly truncheons, and
I don't think that looking at images of necrophilia, sexual violence or bestiality is one of my more fundamental human rights. It's a right I'm perfectly willing to give up, along with my right to shout 'fire' in a crowded theater, my right to drive on the right hand side of the road and my right to put potato peelings in my wheelie bin, so long as it does some good. But I would quite like to know what kind of good the new law is supposed to do.
Are cemeteries being vandalized in order to provide models for a booming necro-porn industry? Is the RSPCA worried about an epidemic of cows with sore bottoms? Then by all means, let's take action. Let's impose a criminal penalty on people who look at pictures of non-consenting bovine sex, in the hope that by cutting off demand, you will put the suppliers out of business, as has worked so successfully in the case of hard drugs.
But no plague of pornography-fueled sheep-buggering corpse-shaggers has so far been detected. Instead, we're told we need a new law because extreme pornography is 'repugnant', 'abhorrent', 'disturbing', 'repellent' and 'unacceptable to the vast majority of people' which is as much as to say, being interpreted, yucky. Those of us who point out that maybe some people find the stuff you look at quite yucky; and that in any case we doubt whether everyone who looks at yucky stuff ought to go to jail, are told that some of this stuff is very yucky indeed. Feminists in particular are inclined to say that they once saw, or heard about, a movie in which a woman was tortured, or appeared to be tortured, and that this was so yucky that if you had seen it, you would have been sick. They think this settles the question. If you persist, and say that, even assuming genuine 'snuff' movies exist, you don't see how sending a few Internet masturbators to prison is going to help, they seem not to understand the question. The representative from the Home Office explained to the BBC that:
By banning the possession of such material the government is sending out a strong message - that it is totally unacceptable and those who access it will be held to account.
It has to be banned because it is unacceptable. We are are going to ban it because it's the kind of thing which should be banned.
Some people are prepared to give actual reasons why yucky things should be banned. The most common argument is that we have to ban the possession of extreme porn because extreme porn harms the people who possess it. There are three versions of this argument. On one view, extreme porn is cleverly put together by pornographers who understand how your sexuality works. If you look at pornographic images of sexual violence, you will start to be turned on by those images. This will make you a bad person. This seems to me to be a circular argument, roughly equivalent to saying: 'It is bad to look at yucky pictures, because they will make you the sort of person who looks at yucky pictures, which is bad.'
The second, and more common form of the argument is that looking at extreme pornography is likely to turn you into a criminal. If you look at yucky pictures, and become the sort of person who likes to look at yucky pictures, then sooner or later, looking at yucky pictures is not going to be sufficient: you are bound to actually go and dig up a corpse. This is every censor's argument: people are too weak and stupid to distinguish fiction from reality. Fredric Wertham said that any comic book which depicted a crime (in any context) was a 'crime comic', and that 'crime comics' by definition turned the youth of America into criminals. Christianist extremists have said that the depiction of 'magic' by J.K Rowling is likely to turn children into disciples of Aleister Crowley. When the BBC put the question to the man from the ministry, he went completely to pieces:
There is no conclusive proof that in every case certain types of images will have a certain impact on every individual but we know that in that particular case....that these images do have an impact, do feed certain fantasies in certain individuals and we believe that it is our responsibility to prevent that from happening.
Does anyone know what it means to 'feed' a fantasy? And has it been proved that if you did feed one, it would get bigger and stronger and eventually burst out of its cage and bite someone's head off? Isn't it just as possible that it's lean, mean, starving fantasies which do the harm, and the best thing that anyone can do with one is to keep it well fed and docile?
If there were concrete evidence that people who looked at pictures of people having sex with kittens went out and had sex with kittens, then it wouldn't necessarily follow that the best way of protecting kittens would be jailing anyone who owned a sexually explicit kitten picture. As it stands, the argument is circular.
'We must ban yucky pictures.'
'Because they harm the people who look at them.'
'What is your evidence for that?'
'It is intuitively obvious.'
'Because they are so yucky.'
The third form of the argument, and the only one which I think has any credibility, is that looking at pictures of people doing weird sexual stuff is inclined to 'normalize' the weird stuff that you might want to do, and make you more inclined to do it. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this can be the case. You spend thirty self-loathing years thinking that your are the only person on earth who is sexually excited by teddy bears - and then one day you discover www.arctophilia.com, spend a happy hour downloading teddy-porn, and post a message to the teddy-porn forum saying 'I never knew anyone else was interested in this...I thought I was the only one...' With the encouragement of other arctophiles, you might even come out of the toy-cupboard and admit your fetish in public.
But this pre-supposes that your interest is eccentric but basically harmless. If what you are interested in is obviously criminal, then it's another matter. Your parents, your teachers and your community leaders have taught you that murder, rape and child-abuse are morally wrong. Your conscience tells you that you shouldn't kill people or have sex with them without their consent. Your sense of empathy tells you how horrible it would be to be murdered or sexually molested. And your common sense tells you that if you do these things, you will be shunned by your community, sent to jail, or, in primitive countries, executed. Yet the tendency of certain images to 'normalize' or 'legitimize' deviant behaviour is so powerful that it over-rides your upbringing, your conscience, your morality, your empathy and even your fear of punishment, causing you to go out and do something which you know is wrong. This is an extra-ordinary claim; extra-ordinary claims require extra-ordinary evidence. The burden of proof is on those who believe that these images possess this power. But the only proofs cited are circumstancial evidence that many people convicted of violent sex offences have violent pornography in their posession; vague metaphors about 'feeding fantasies' and 'mental furniture'; and general assertions that some images are so nasty that they probably have some kind of effect. This is insufficient to establish that some images have can turn normal individuals into ammoral psychopaths.
There are a certain number of people whose moral conscience and sense of empathy was flawed or non-existant even before they plugged their computer in. These are certainly dangerous and scary individuals. But it isn't smutty website that have made them so. (*)
I have been assuming that the reasons for introducing the new law are rational ones. But, of course, they aren't. Laws are no longer about spotting crimes and working out realistic ways of preventing them. They are about 'sending signals'; they are about creating newspaper headlines; they are the government's attempt to create a popular 'narrative.'
In 2003 a young woman had unspeakable things done to her by a not-at-all well man who got off on doing unspeakable things to young women. Not surprisingly, he also spent some of his spare time looking at pictures on the internet of young women having unspeakable things done to them. The relatives of the victim believed that these pictures had in some sense caused the murder. They organised a campaign to get 'violent porn' prohibited. The new law is a response to this campaign. 'Victory for mother in war on violent porn' explained the Daily Mail. Even our own dear Guardian found the narrative – 'out of this great evil must come something good' – too appealing to resist, and referred to it in three separate headlines. 'Violent Porn Ban 'a memorial to my daughter'; 'Legacy of Jane Longhurst'; 'Jane's Legacy'. Without even noticing it, we have replaced jurisprudence with soap opera. Last month, the Home Secretary was referring to his pro-lynching initiative as 'Sarah's Law'. Right at the beginning of his reign of terror, Tony Blair said that he had made it illegal for grown-ups with licences to fire guns at paper targets, not because it was a good idea but because 'We owed a debt to the people of Dunblane.' I find this tendency very disturbing. Laws should be made because they will serve a clear and tangible purpose: not because they provide an uplifting ending to grotesque murder stories.
You may wish to say that I am being flippant. You may think that murder, corpse mutilation and cruelty to animals are crimes; and that it is self-evident that there shouldn't be a trade in pictures of people committing crimes. We could have a terribly interesting debate about medieval child brides, the age of consent in Sweden, Shirley Temple movies, and what the hell's going on in those night clubs where people dress up in school uniforms and listen to old Boney M records. But as soon as we start to talk about actual pictures of actual people actually doing things to actual children, then we would all be in agreement: it's illegal, it's always been illegal, and it ought to be illegal. You may think that images of women actually being tortured and graves actually being vandalized should be treated in the same way. I would probably agree with you. But Tony Blair's new law goes much, much further than this.
The governments consultation document states very clearly what kind of pictures they want to lock you up for looking at:
15: In summary, material would need to be:
c: Real or appears to be a real act...
16: It would cover
i: serious violence *
ii: intercourse or oral sex with an animal
iii: sexual interference with a human corpse
* by serious violence we mean appears to be life threatening or likely to result in serious, disabling injury (my italics)
In case you missed this, the paper goes on to define it's terms.
'The second threshold would be an objective test for the jury in respect of actual scenes or depictions which appear to be real acts...By actual scenes or depictions which appear to be real acts we intend to catch material which either is genuinely violent or conveys a realistic impression of fear, violence and harm.' (my italics)
So. New Labour's legacy will be to re-define 'real' as 'fictitious' and 'actual' as 'simulated'. For years, people have argued about whether or not 'snuff' movies really exist. Tony has brilliantly circumvented the question: looking at a clever special effect in which someone appears to be killed will be defined, under English law, as just as bad as watching a film in which someone is actually killed.
Owning a movie in which someone is killed or appears to be killed in a horrible way will not, in itself, be a crime, which is a relief for those of us who bought the DVD of The Passion of the Christ. We can only go to prison if the violent film is also pornographic. In case we don't know, pornography is defined as:
material that has been solely or primarily produced for the purpose of sexual arousal...We believe that this first test should eliminate, for example, photographs of works of art, news and documentary programmes by mainstream broadcasters which are of public interest and works classified by the BBFC
So; everything depends on the intention of the person who created the film. If someone makes a film of someone digging up a corpse, with the intention of making me violently sick, traumatizing me, and giving me nightmares for a month, then I am not committing any crime by owning a copy. But if someone makes a film of someone digging up a corpse with the intention of giving me an erection, then if I have a copy of the film I can go to prison for three years. (If I do get a hard-on while watching it, then we're in the clear provided no-one intended me to; if they intended me to get a stiffy but I actually find it a complete turn off, then I can still move directly to jail.) If what I'm watching is only a very impressive special effect, it makes no difference: a sexy special effect is against the law, a merely disgusting or horrifying one isn't.
Lawyers will be able to have endless fun with this. If I get excited by looking at pictures of – say – a group of teenaged squaddies mud wrestling in the nude, then that's perfectly okay, provided I'm looking at a real film of real recruits being really abused in the sort of perfectly normal, heterosexual horse-play that made the British army what it is today. But if exactly the same scene is staged by a gay porn website for the benefit of the kind of people who like that kind of thing, then a crime is committed by anyone who looks at it. Mary Whitehouse famously tried to argue that since it would be criminally obscene to perform anal sex on the London stage, it must logically also be obscene to convincingly simulate the same act. But in Blair's Britain there are cases when looking at the real thing might be okay, but looking at a simulation is against the law.
A crime will only be committed if the pictures you are looking at are 'explicit', helpfully defined as
activity which can be clearly seen, leaves little to the imagination, and is not hidden or disguised, (e.g by pixilation.)
So; any notion that this law is needed to prevent unspeakable things being done to real animals, real cadavers and real, live women can be put aside. This law is not to protect them: it is to protect you. A picture of someone buggering a cow in which the naughty bits are pixilated out might be less likely to corrupt and deprave the person looking at it; and it might be less yucky for the rest of us. But it presumably doesn't make any difference to the cow.
Jemima Lewis, writing in the Independent provides a clue to what is really going on.
It hardly matters whether footage of a rape victim having her throat slit or limbs sawn off is real or fake: its message is one of savage hatred of women... We always reserve the right to protect ourselves, however imperfectly, from things that are bad for our bodies or souls. Like drug abuse or racism, misogyny is a social cancer which we should be unashamed to fight.
So. What we are legislating against is not the images themselves; not the real people hurt in the production of those images; not even the criminals who some people believe are created by these images. What we are making laws about is their subtext; their ideology; their message.
Joan Bakewell, writing in the Guardian, concurs
But the truth is that many people can watch films of cruelty and degradation without harmful effect. That said, extreme pornography degrades women and brutalises men, which is why I think that removing it from the Internet would be the best way forward.
(Isn't it cute that she thinks that making a law and locking up a few people, is the same thing as 'removing it from the internet'.)
But if what we're worried about is the sub-text, why stop at snuff movies and necrophilia? Half the top shelf of your average sub-urban news-agent could be said to be misogynistic and to degrade women. So, why not jail the consumers of that, as well? Jeremy Coutinho, also in the Guardian agrees. The new law does not go far enough. It does 'not in itself address society's attitudes towards women'. (It is not clear who said that it was supposed to.)
While I welcome this bill, the mainstream objectification of women has to be tackled too if the government is really serious about women's human rights.
He gives a number of examples of certainly yucky but presumably consensual and not life-threatening 'mainstream' images that he would like to 'tackle', such as novelty gentleman's toilets and pictures of men ejaculating in women's faces.
I think that misogyny is a Bad Thing. I also think that racism, anti-semitism, homophobia, islamaphobia and whatever-the-word-is-for-someone-who-hates-Christians are Bad Things. I am very doubtful whether people who own literature which express an racist or anti-semitic message should go to prison. You may not agree with me; you may think that some ideas are so offensive that even to possess a book or tape or disc which contains them should incur a term of imprisonment. In a way, that's not the point. The point is that this looked like a law against a particularly nasty kind of porn. But it is really ideas which are being censored. It always is.
* These two paragraphs have been edited following criticism. The original version read: "This pre-supposes that your interest is eccentric but basically harmless. Whether we are talking about kinky sex or trainspotting the Internet makes it much easier to contact fellow enthusiasts. If you find other people who like the same thing you do, it's much more likely that you'll go and do it together. If what you are interested in is obviously dangerous and criminal, then it's another matter. Everything in your up-bringing and your conscience tells you that murder, rape and child abuse are morally wrong: the only actual objection to teddy-sex is that it is slightly unusual. I simply don't believe that a web-site and a peer-group who say 'Digging up corpses is perfectly okay' is going to over-ride every piece of socialization you have experienced since you were born – unless, of course, you were a psychopath to begin with. In which case, it's not the the website's fault."