The vocal demands for free speech and political efforts to bring the likes of PayPal under control seem to become very quiet as soon as you mention sexual freedom.
Forgive us, once again, for being specifically British here – but perhaps some of this will translate through to your own local situation. Perhaps not. So much about censorship is uniquely and weirdly British.
Britain is currently in a curious place – well, yes, you might think, that’s an understatement given the recent and almost certainly unfinished political chaos. So let me narrow that down. Britain is the home of a very curious, very specific battle over free speech. Free speech, free expression, call it what you want, has never been a big thing for our Great Leaders. Oh sure, they’ll pay lip service and talk about our great freedoms when criticising some dictatorship or other – but the truth is, we have a myriad of complex and vague laws controlling what we say and where we say it, what people can do and what licences they need to do it, what opinions and ideas and actions are deemed acceptable at any particular time. These might change over the years, but by and large, any liberalisation is outstripped by additional legislation. Even the most libertarian of governments have shown themselves to be only too keen to micro-manage actual liberties, especially if they are sexual liberties.
Let’s make something clear: we’re talking about legal activities here. Things that are allowed in some circumstances but not in others, things that are legal but must be licenced and approved and pre-judged and controlled. Sex shops and strip clubs must be licenced by local councils that cannot make moral judgements but can set the number of such venues in their jurisdiction as low as ‘zero’ should they choose and can set the fee for annual licencing at such restrictive levels that it acts as a deterrent from even applying. Shops and publishers have to ponder the vagaries of the Indecent Displays Act, the Obscene Publications Act and other laws that allow one thing in one place but not in another (and, of course, generally won’t tell you which is which). Adult channels have to watch for OFCOM or rival channels spotting a micro-second of content that breaks the rules when shown at four in the morning on a subscription service. There are endless petty rules that govern what we can do, see and produce, some so vague that neither the police nor the courts seem to understand them, which leads to unnecessary convictions because defence lawyers who are unfamiliar with the minutiae of the Extreme Porn laws will advise their clients to plead guilty.
None of this exists to the politicians who are currently pushing through amendments to current legislation to – ahem – protect free speech. More specifically, the speech of people that they approve of. In the wake of recent, heavily publicised events involving The Free Speech Union and PayPal, Tory MP Sally-Ann Hart has tabled an amendment to the Financial Services Bill to make it “illegal for a financial services provider such as PayPal to withhold, de-monetise or withdraw service from a customer on purely political grounds.” All very good – as these financial organisations become more powerful and monopolising, there is a strong argument that they should not be allowed to silence ideas. But you’ll notice that there is no mention of protection from services being withheld, de-monetised or withdrawn on moral grounds. Financial services – including banks and credit card companies – have been doing that to sex workers and sex establishments for years, and not just in those high-profile cases of bringing sites like PornHub into line after questionable and religiously-motivated exposés. Sex toy retailers, sexual freedom organisations, models, swingers’ clubs, fetish clubs, burlesque events… they can all tell you stories about being demonetised and refused financial services. Will Sally-Ann Hart’s legislation protect them? Unlikely. Will she even care? Even more unlikely, but I’m happy to be proven wrong. Perhaps the Free Speech Union will lobby over moral censorship as vigorously as it does for the rights of moral censor Julie Bindel – but so far, it has been oddly silent on the matter.
On a similar basis, it’s heartening to hear that the new Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan is considering ditching the notorious ‘legal but harmful’ clause from the forthcoming Online Safety Bill. This clause would, infamously, have forced social media companies – and others – to restrict material considered to have “a significant adverse physical or psychological impact on an adult of ordinary sensibilities”. Well, that could be anything and would certainly lead to an ‘if in doubt, remove it’ approach. The new wording will apparently restrict this to material that is targeted at children. Yet the Bill’s restrictions on porn sites remain, unquestioned. The reworded Bill will allow unpleasant people to say unpleasant things without restraint (the government is also pushing back against the laws that currently allow the prosecution of people for saying offensive things online, and rightly so) but will make it increasingly difficult to access consensual adult content in the UK unless you are willing to hand over personal ID information. Porn is the wrong sort of ‘legal but harmful’ I guess. These sites are no more aimed at children than the others now apparently being removed from restriction but are being treated differently – even though there’s an argument to be made that XHamster is much less dangerous for anyone than pro-anorexia or self-harm sites. No one is suggesting credit card-only access to those sites or to politically extremist propaganda sites – just to porn and any other sexually-focused sites (including, we suspect, educational sites) that are caught up in the legislation. Overreach here will be certain – just look at how many non-hardcore porn sites are cancelled by blockers on phones and PCs. That’s annoying – but imagine if those shoddy blockers were legally binding. Again, the Free Speech campaigners seem oddly silent about this.
There are various things that we could and should be asking for to improve current legislation and to take the moral tutting and purse-lipped disapproval out of our legal system. For a start, the current legislation and legal amendments to protect access to financial services should be extended to cover moral censorship – pretty easy this, it literally involves adding a couple of words to the current amendment. No one should be denied a bank account because they are a sex worker. The ‘porn blocker’ laws – which we might recall had already been abandoned once as unworkable – should be kicked aside permanently. We should instead focus on education – for parents to set restrictions on their children’s devices, for kids to understand that porn is fiction, for better sex education all around.
If the government is genuinely committed to free speech, then the laws forcing sexual entertainment venues and sex shops to be licenced by local councils should be scrapped – or at least amended to make it impossible for such licences to be refused except for clear legal reasons (the owners having criminal records in. The evidence of harm caused by any such venues is pretty non-existent if you disregard moral outrage and the claims that women are essentially incapable of making their own decisions when it comes to sexual expression. Indeed, the restrictions on sex shops – which these days mostly sell sex toys and lingerie – could be seen as a restriction on female sexual empowerment. Licencing is little more than a protection racket at the moment and needs to go.
I was going to suggest that the restrictions on R18 movies – that they can only be bought, in person, from a licensed sex shop – also need to go because it is an irrelevance that just makes physical releases almost impossible now unless you also own a chain of shops to sell them in. But as I thought about it, a more radical idea hit me. Let’s just scrap the Video Recordings Act entirely and make BBFC approval voluntary. There is no reason why this couldn’t work. Most major labels would still put their content through the BBFC anyway – look how they slavishly resubmit films every time they are reissued despite the content remaining the same – and supermarkets would almost certainly only stock BBFC-approved content. For smaller labels, it would remove a crippling financial burden and allow more niche content to be released. Given that there are so few physical retail and rental outlets now, the arguments about children (or ‘vulnerable adults’) being able to buy unrated and unapproved content feel like a panic from over two decades ago. No doubt the BBFC would argue that this would open the floodgates to illegal content but Blu-rays and DVDs would still be subject to other laws – if a film features animal cruelty, libellous material or such, it would still be subject to prosecution but wouldn’t have to go through the BBFC’s rather subjective and wobbly interpretation of those laws.
Of course, we’re all free speech hypocrites – we might be against censorship but probably support restrictions that seem sensible to us, be it on disinformation or hate speech or something else. That’s the nature of the beast. But at least we recognise that. It seems that the current batch of free speech absolutists are rather less absolute than they would have us believe – when it comes to sexual freedom, they often seem every bit as stiff-lipped and disapproving as their more traditional right-wing predecessors. No amount of twisting and turning to explain why spouting hatred towards minority groups should be allowed but swinger’s clubs should be banned will cut it though. It’s all or nothing. Most British moral censorship is overly excessive, deliberately vague and wildly out of touch with reality, having been drafted and made law in a past barely recognisable. We have the chance to change all that – but we won’t because no one sees any profit in it. Sex laws that control the activities of consenting adults are passed because of shame and remain in force for the same reasons – no one is going to put their neck out to support the sex industry and politicians can still make a name for themselves with fatuous moral campaigns that everyone knows is bullshit but which continue without criticism nevertheless. The free speech campaigners that have the ear of politicians could change that if they wanted to. But clearly, they don’t want to.
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