All Hanging Separately: Why The Moralisers Win

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A thought: censors and moralisers continually succeed not just because politicians of all stripes are by nature morally conservative and stiff-lipped, and because the media is full of people who love to whip up moral panics to increase sales and further their own agendas, and because both groups are too cowardly to ever stand up against those who noisily call for more censorship, more controls on what we can do with our own bodies and less freedom of expression. Those things help, but they are not the prime reason. The  censorial succeed because they are relentless and determined when it comes to their campaigns. They gnaw away at it like a dog with a bone, slowly but surely building a head of steam that takes their ideas from the fringes into legislation. They convince people that they represent public opinion because they are so damned public. And just as significantly, they all sing from the same hymn sheet, by and large. There might be different groups, often with wildly different wider agendas – like anti-porn feminists and religious fundamentalists, who will happily work together on sexual issues – but when it comes to shared interests, they don’t undermine each other. No one group is looking to steal a march on another. They all know what the bigger picture is, and they all work together.

That’s something that the rest of us can’t say in all honesty. Partly, it’s simply because we have more going on in our lives than the forces of prohibition – we like to have fun, and they don’t. That’s why they are trying to stop the rest of us enjoying ourselves in the first place, whether it be by having the sort of sex that they disapprove of, or drinking too much (and in their eyes, any amount is too much) or staying out too late or getting vicarious thrills through outrageous entertainment. These are people who have a Puritan view of life, and so have a Puritan work ethic when it comes to campaigning. It’s not only the determination to stop everyone else indulging in total depravity, but also the time and energy to devote to the cause. It’s not as though they have anything else going on, after all.

As for the rest of us – When some new piece of legislation is put in place to outlaw or restrict raunchy music videos or strip clubs, or when the BBC publish stories supplied by prohibitionist groups or report uncritically on the latest campaign against sex workers or Page 3 or gobby internet firebrands, we don’t complain en masse and launch a campaign against the proposed new laws or the uneven press coverage. We might moan for a week or two on Twitter, but we just don’t have the same determination. And we all too often split into petty factions that never see the bigger picture. There’s too much self-interest, too much in-fighting and, quite often, too much fear. Way back during the video nasties era, the sex film producers offered little support for the labels being prosecuted for releasing ultra-violent horror films; indeed, they felt aggrieved that the horror films had brought the wrath of the courts down on everyone else. Today, the horror fans who are outraged by BBFC cuts to films like Soulmate say nothing about the routine evisceration of porn films or the extreme porn laws. Everyone has the blinkers on, and only sees their own narrow field of interest, seemingly unaware that it’s all connected.

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Worse than a bloody-minded denial that one group’s problems are everyone’s problem is that way that all too often, people or organisations will seek to somehow claim the moral high ground over others in order to show that they are socially conscious citizens – that yes, they are aware that we need restrictions and censorship to control the excesses of the more outré, dangerous elements of society – we just don’t need it to control their excesses. Rather than standing up and say that placing restrictions on any material made by and for consenting adults is wrong, they will instead join forces with the moralists by saying that there are indeed reasons and validations for these restrictions. Those who fought against the Independent Press Standards Organisation in the UK were happy to see lad’s mags effectively forced out of print, often cheering such campaigners on, for example.We’re seeing this on a grand scale on social media right now, as the right and the left engage in a fight to the bottom, each trying to score as many scalps as possible – Alex Jones here, James Gunn there –  in order to score petty points against their opponents, seemingly unaware that the only winners in this fight are the people who want to legislate every thought that is put online and ensure that no thought that could offend anyone is ever given voice. Such short-sightedness. Or they’ll engage in whataboutery – organisations campaigning for the legalisation of cannabis will all too often talk about how less dangerous it is than alcohol, simply giving the moralisers more fuel to attack both drugs rather than making a positive case for allowing freedom of choice.

At least here, there is sometimes a form of naivety or a personal morality. After all, there really are pornographers who are upset by violent horror, horror film makers and fans who are opposed to porn, pot smokers with a temperance attitude to booze, people who genuinely believe that anyone expressing a differing political opinion to theirs is a threat to society. And there are people who will simply not care that much about some individual issues. I’m not suggesting that everyone should have to take a libertarian attitude to everything, though I would suggest that if you take a conditional approach of free expression, you are probably going to find that it comes back to bite you in the arse eventually. But I do at least understand where this misguided approach is coming from.

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Let’s get onto the unforgivable.

Much worse than the desperate deflection, revenge fucking and misplaced moralising by those who should know better are those who will undermine efforts to fight censorship and cheerfully stitch up others within their own circle out of a cynical and woefully misguided self-interest.

In the British sex industry in particular, there all too often seems to be less interest in fighting the forces of censorship than in fighting each other. The desire for progress and the loosening of censorial restraints is (sometimes) there, but all too often only at the expense of a rival. It’s a form of short-sighted madness that seems to be driven by the bizarre idea that the forces of oppression will only ever come after your business opponents and not you. That they will draw an unmoving line in the sand that you will always be just below, rather than see their victories as just the first step in a wider campaign that will ultimately swallow you up just as surely as it has everyone else.

An example. Some eight years ago, sex shop owners in London – instead of fighting against the unnecessary need for licensing, which gives oppressive powers to local councils to price or legislate shops out of existence – instead spent their energies going to court to demand that Ann Summers shops be subjected to the same restrictions. An organisation called Large Cause – that’s Licensed Adult Retail Group Encourage Councils Abolish Unlicensed Sex Establishments, a snappy name if ever I heard one – took out a private prosecution against the Ann Summers Soho shop. They also wrote to shopping centre managers across the country telling them that the could be prosecuted for allowing the unlicensed sex shops to operate on their premises. But the case was thrown out in court, with District Judge Michael Snow blasting Tim Hemming and David Boothby – the men behind Large Cause – for setting up a shell company to bring the prosecution, for being motivated by profit rather than legal issues and for effectively running a campaign of harassment against Ann Summers. They were left with legal bills of £100,000.

£100,000. Plus the money pissed away on hiring private detectives to investigate the chain, plus the costs of setting up their scam company, sending the harassing letters and all the other expenses that come from mounting such an idiotic campaign. Imagine, for a moment, people less motivated by short-term personal profit sinking that amount of cash into campaigning against the fact that sex shops need licensing at all. Just think how much better that time could have been spent in lobbying against the onerous business restrictions – huge annual licensing fees, local councils that can arbitrarily refuse to grant or renew licences – that sex shops are forced to labour under.

Similarly, when the law changed in 2009 to require lap dancing clubs to have ‘sex entertainment’ licenses – a move specifically designed to help local councils put as many of them as possible out of business – instead of protesting, quite a number of burlesque performers applauded the law, ‘othering’ mainstream strippers and never thinking that the law would affect them. Using the same weird moral posturing that used to see Page 3 girls looking down on the models who appeared in magazines like Penthouse, a large number of burlesque performers maintained that the girls who worked in clubs like Secrets were grubby sex performers, and the strip clubs hives of exploitation. Burlesque shows, on the other hand, were art, and the audience – being mainly women – were out to celebrate female empowerment. Imagine their surprise, then, when several local councils decided that as far as they were concerned, any event where women took their clothes off on stage, nipple tassles or not, was a sex show. After all, who would’ve thought that local councils, under the cosh of feminists and church groups and taking a jobsworth approach to the law, would not differentiate between the two? Had the burlesque scene actually shown support for the strip clubs instead of throwing the lap dancers under the bus, perhaps things might have been different. Perhaps the legislation could’ve been fought and, at the very least, modified. But no. Self-centered self-interest again won the day.

And it goes on and on. Who are the strange people who apparently subscribe to satellite TV soft porn channels and are then aghast when something a little too strong briefly appears at 3 in the morning? That’ll be rival broadcasters, hoping that with enough slip ups, a channel might lose its license, thus taking a slice of opposition out of action. Who backs censorship of internet porn that requires people to register with a credit card? Why, that’ll be Television X, who already have TV subscribers who’ve had to do just that. Wiping out the smaller web-based opposition and seeing US sites blocked is good for business, right? And PornHub are happy, too – after all, they have set up a payment gateway that websites can sign up to in order to remain legal and accessible. The fact that it costs more a month than your small-scale niche UK porn could ever make is neither here nor there. If the sites somehow scrape together the licensing cash, PornHub wins. If they go out of business, PornHub wins. Of course, the UK government has already shown itself willing to keep pushing on the issue of internet porn – from opt-out filters to bans on non-R18 kink to the current rules. Why TVX or PornHub think that they’ll stop now is anyone’s guess. Perhaps they don’t. Perhaps, like the rest of the British sex industry, they are just happy to grab as much short-term profit as possible before that line in the sand finally drops below the point where they can operate.

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Without the support of the people who actually produce the material, perhaps it is down to the rest of us to step up and protest. And some brave people have. But sadly, pro-sex protests invariably fizzle out. The SM Pride campaigns of the early Nineties, spawned by the notorious Spanner case, were hugely positive, but where did they go? After a few years, it all ground to a halt, while the legal issues remained as problematic as ever. And this was was about serious issues of sexual freedom and bodily autonomy. Imagine if the gay community had decided it was all too much effort after a few years of campaigning for rights? Where would they be now? Similarly, the much-publicised face-sitting protests outside Parliament after the government decreed that internet porn had to conform to BBFC standards in order to stay legal (leading to a lot of misinformation about what would or wouldn’t be banned) were a wonderful photo-op for journalists, but who listens to a single protest? Where did this indignation go? Why have there not been continual protests and media campaigns? While I know that the mass media quickly tires of a subject, I also know that if the campaigns against lad’s mags had consisted of one publicity stunt and a few TV interviews, we’d probably still have Nuts and Zoo on the shelves. Campaigns have to be relentless to have any impact. Politicians, and legislators are, for the most part, cowardly characters who have no particular moral compass – they will simply listen to the loudest voice. For as long as I can remember, the forces of liberalisation have been little more than a whisper, drowned out by the righteous roar of the moral crusader.

But I don’t blame pro-sex campaigners for getting exhausted. And don’t get me wrong. I know that there are people – all too often lone voices in the wilderness – fighting the good fight, like Jerry Barnett and his Sex and Censorship campaign. But as one of the people involved in past campaigns, I can attest that it often felt like a waste of time. I’ve watched campaigners throw in the towel, beaten down by a lack of interest, a lack of funding and an almost hostile response from some of the people who you are trying to support. Eventually, you do wonder: why campaign on behalf of an industry that nobody will defend, that the media will demonise or ridicule you for supporting, and where the very people you are trying to support will happily stab each other in the back, making your job even harder than it was already? It’s the very definition of a thankless task.

In the early 1970s, David F. Friedman famously told his fellow American smut film makers that “we must all hang together, or we’ll all hang separately”. Out of that came the Adult Film Association of America, the Free Speech Coalition and other campaigning groups that have helped present a united front in the face of moral censorship. But then, Americans have always been big on the First Amendment and free speech issues. In Britain, attempts at forming similar groups have fizzled out through a lack of interest and support from the very people who should understand that only a united front and a ferocious belief that you are on the forces of good will stop the censorship fanatics from running roughshod over our individual rights. But no. They’d rather stitch up a rival and act as appeasers to the very people who would like nothing more than to run them out of business.

And so we are where we are: caught on a virtually unopposed censorship firing range, where those in the firing line are too busy throwing each other in the path of the bullets to understand that when everyone else has been gunned down, there’s only one target left. It’s hard not to throw your hands up in despair and think that they get what they deserve, frankly.

DAVID FLINT