An article on the issues of societal morality and legal measures with regard to pornography

Porn, again

Libertarian Alliance, January 2015

Recent discussion indicates that we are in the throes of a fresh wave of censorship concerning sexual matters; specifically new restrictions upon pornography produced in the UK that effectively seeks to hobble it so that it cannot compete with foreign-produced alternatives, readily available to the consumer online. Naturally, the major foreign producer is the United States. Is there, perhaps, some connexion with the Prime Minister’s favoured and incoming TTIP[1], one effect of which (we are told) may be that “jobs switch to the US, where labour standards and trade union rights are lower”?

It is dispiriting to find ourselves in the second decade of the twenty-first century having to re-open arguments that were decided pretty conclusively some fifty years ago so far as the censorship of the theatre, books and films were concerned. Then as now, there was an argument that particular material, be it sex, violence or aberrance of some other form, tended to deprave and corrupt. The closer that argument was examined, the more flimsy its foundations came to appear. Certainly, some of those who watch unpleasant content go on to commit unpleasant crimes. But many more do not, and the correlation of cause and effect in such cases is based on no reliable scientific data. Indeed, the argument that observing particular violent acts within a fictional environment, or today, participating in those acts via a virtual environment such as a computer game, may in fact be therapeutic in expiating the desire of individuals to engage in such acts in real life is rarely heard or examined.

The idea that quangocrats and politicians should act as censors regarding what people might watch or indeed do with other consenting adults in private is in itself odious and should be rejected ab initio. This is tyranny, and it is but a small step from the regulation of sexual content to the regulation of anything else that is deemed immoral or inconvenient to those in power.

The better religious arguments against pornography point out that its chief difficulty is that it shows too little of the actors concerned rather than too much. Sex divorced from an environment of genuine intimacy becomes merely gymnastic, and as such is a debasement of an ideal that depends not on youth, athletic prowess or physical endowment but instead on the more elusive human virtues of love, generosity, mutuality and commitment. That ideal is, for the Christian, expressed in marriage. And yet that value is hardly enshrined in our modern society, which has done more in a few years to dismantle marriage than had been accomplished in two millennia previously. The definition of marriage that is now upheld by the law is not one that depends upon any specific sexual act; such legal concepts as non-consummation and adultery are now consigned to history. How, then, can we form a moral basis upon which our society can judge the sexual practices of its members? The chief moral stance of the law in marriage is to refrain from judgement; to declare that, regardless of the many who profoundly disagree, homosexuality and heterosexuality are in every respect equal, and that in consequence a number of sexual practices previously subject to virtually universal condemnation are now blessed by the State.

This stands in contrast to the present restrictions on pornographic production, and the previous open-ended criminalization of “extreme” pornography, a phrase which remains without any agreed definition. There is no logic in a society whose films permit the depiction of certain legal and consensual sexual acts but censor others. Nor can the judiciary, which surely has enough problems to deal with as things are, be reasonably expected to exercise such a nebulous and ill-defined task as to convert diverse and often conflicting religious and moral perspectives into universal principle.

We are, therefore, currently confused as a nation. Part of that confusion is caused by a narrowness of viewpoint. Because sexual practice is generally a shared experience, and marriage a public commitment, it is by nature cultural. If you spend much of your time in the company of religious conservatives, or indeed readers of the Daily Mail, you are likely to form conclusions on sex that are broadly similar to theirs. If on the other hand, you belong to a sexual minority, or have tastes that take you outside the mainstream, you are compelled from necessity to take a broader and in many cases starkly contrasting viewpoint. In 1996, the Libertarian Alliance published an educational and instructive article by William Landells entitled Cruising for a Bruising: Fun on the Sado-Masochistic Group Sex Scene.[2] Landells’ account is eye-opening in many respects and I commend it to those for whom it may be unfamiliar. Since then, I am told, E.L. James’ novel Fifty Shades of Grey, shortly to be released on film, explores similar territory and has resulted in the sale of over 100 million copies worldwide (it is the fastest selling paperback of all time in the United Kingdom). Prudishness on such matters, then, would seem to be markedly out of step with popular opinion and tastes. The variation in our society’s sexual practices and in its resultant sexual moralities is broadening, not narrowing. One person’s excess is another’s parsimony.

It remains the case that attitudes to sex are, in many cases, deeply entrenched. Indeed, the proverbial man on the Clapham omnibus may regard the rather jolly account provided by Landells as inherently odious or corrupted. Why, then, should he tolerate these practices? Because, ultimately, they are the result of living within a civilized society. The law should not be used to punish victimless crimes; where consenting adults engage in behaviour in private, that is their own business and no-one else’s, however much we might regard their conduct as immoral or disgusting. The alternative is to revert to a society such as the last days of Ottoman Turkey; I recall reading an interview, I think with Georges Simenon, in which he reminded us that in that society, sodomy was punishable by death – and therefore that the Turks took every opportunity to engage in it. The criminalization of sex, be it prostitution or pornography, does nothing to stem the demand for it, but it does make life considerably more difficult and often dangerous for those who are engaged in its trade. There is also the potent argument that what is made illegal is thereby made more transgressive and therefore more desirable to certain parties, and that any moral panic may simply have the effect of focusing greater participatory interest on the practices in question.

So, if the government wishes to preach to us on the immorality of certain sexual practices, it needs firstly to make that case convincingly in the public forum rather than seeking simply to suppress it via the dead hand of legislation. In practice, it cannot make that case. A law that is directly contrary to public mores is both unjust and, ultimately, unenforceable. There is no doubt that the community of those who wish to participate in, and watch others participate in, BDSM and related activities is large. It is not unreasonable to think that its members today include individuals who can be found in prominent positions in politics and elsewhere in public life – for it certainly has done in the past[3]. It should not be thought that those who are rightly expected to guard the nation’s morals are exempt; far from it[4]. It is, indeed, time for our society to grow up about sex; to recognize that there is no merit in treating consenting adults as if they were naughty children. Only if we first do this, can we then stand a chance of forming some degree of a shared sexual morality that rests upon informed consent and not upon mere coercion.

[1] Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership: see


[3] See, for example, the manner of the death of Stephen Milligan, MP.

[4] Michael Arditti’s novel Easter, based upon the lives of London clergymen, is instructive in this regard.