Opinion: Will our MPs show us their liberalism’s more than just words?

Try to imagine a law that said “you can watch this film totally legally at your local multiplex, but it’s illegal to possess a still image from the film and you could be imprisoned if you do.” Sounds a little odd?

How about a law saying “you can engage in a wholly legal activity and take a legal photograph of that activity, but if you keep the photograph, you could be sent to prison.”

In fact, just such a law is currently passing through parliament and, worryingly, it isn’t clear that the Liberal Democrats will even oppose it.

The legislation in question is section 64 of the Criminal Justice Bill, concerning the possession of extreme pornographic images.

The use of coercion and of children or non-consenting adults in creating any pornography is already, quite rightly, illegal. There is certainly a case for a new law to punish someone viewing such material in the knowledge that it was created illegally. But this legislation goes much further, criminalising the possession of pictures or videos of staged or consensual sexual violence.

Many people will see violent pornography (however created) as something unpleasant and “not what normal people do”. I can well understand that the path of least resistance might be to make it illegal: a petition calling for just that was signed by 50,000 people in 2006. Many people will feel simlarly about violent pornography to the way previous generations felt about homosexuals: immoral, not something normal people do and probably dangerous to themselves and others.

But it’s popular enough in films (which are exempted from the proposed law), and millions of cinema goers enjoy watching graphic sexual violence in films like Hostel, Grindhouse and Saw (often called “torture porn”) that regularly feature in the UK top 10 box office. However, the legislation says that if someone takes a small section from a legal film and views it for sexual purposes, it suddenly becomes illegal.

The whole justification for the law stems from one legal case, that of Graham Coutts, convicted of the murder of Jane Longhurst. Whilst everyone must feel for Jane and her family, making laws based on one case has never been a very good idea. There’s little evidence linking the viewing of violent pornography to committing sexual crimes, and expert opinion is divided on whether there’s any connection at all (the last decade has seen a staggering increase in the quantity and availability of violent pornography to anyone with an Internet connection, but no equivalent rise in violent sexual crimes).

The Backlash campaign group are lobbying against these provisions, there’s been some limited debate in the media and some MPs are, to their credit, kicking up a fuss about this and proposing amendments. Labour MP Harry Cohen is one of the leading opponents of the legislation as currently written. But more voices are urgently needed to avoid yet another piece of repressive, pointless and foolish legislation reaching the statute books. So come on Lib Dem MPs – you can talk the talk about individual liberty, here’s an excellent opportunity to show you really mean it.

* Iain Roberts is a Liberal Democrat member in Cheadle.

EDIT: There’s an excellent reply from David Heath MP in the comments (No. 19) below.

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  • Liam Pennington 4th Dec '07 - 4:57pm

    I am totally against the provisions of this act, but look at Section 6 – most R18 DVDs will NOT fall into these descriptions unless the BBFC feels “pressured” to take the new rules into consideration.

    I take very serously the point you make about films like “Hostel” or “Saw”. If you freeze frame an image from that and take it home for “personal use”, or take a film magazine home, are you now in posession of snuff?!


    An “extreme image” is an image of any of the following—

    an act which threatens or appears to threaten a person’s life,

    an act which results in or appears to result (or be likely to result) in serious injury to a person’s anus, breasts or genitals,
    an act which involves or appears to involve sexual interference with a human corpse,

    (d. a person performing or appearing to perform an act of intercourse or oral sex with an animal,

    where (in each case) any such act, person or animal depicted in the image is or appears to be real.

  • Peter Dunphy 4th Dec '07 - 5:25pm

    There is a list of exclusions but then an exception to the exclusions as follows:

    But such an image is not an “excluded image” if—

    it is contained in a recording of an extract from a classified work, and

    it appears that the image was extracted (whether with or without other images) solely or principally for the purpose of sexual arousal.

    This is criminalisation based on thoughts alone. You can have a classified, completely fictional work, with adult actors depicting an entirely legal activity (e.g. consensual S & M) and be prosecuted if it arouses you. If there was ever a case of a nanny state creating a victimless crime then this must be it. You could imagine this of the Taleban.

  • Peter Bancroft 4th Dec '07 - 5:39pm

    There’s no way our MPs should ever be voting for a thought-crime. This is the clearest cut liberal issue that we’ve been wavering on since late night licensing laws in pubs.

    Laurence, nobody else can tell you why you joined the Lib Dems, but hopefully some part of that was to speak up for the liberties of people who do things which you yourself aren’t interested in?

  • No Boycey, no….

    It’s very easy to be a Liberal when you’re not confronted with hard choices. In the 1960s, homosexuality was in the same position & whilst Labour & Tory politicians vilified, condemned & destroyed lives with their laws, the Liberal party & Liberal MPs took the correct stance, the only stance that a Liberal can take.

    Especially for Boycey, some commonsense Liberalism:

    A Q&A with Dr Petra Boynton

    Dr Petra Boynton is a sex and relationship psychologist who lectures at University College, London. She has published over 40 peer-reviewed papers and specialises in sex and relationships and evaluating research methodologies. Her PhD was for research into the effects of pornography. Her website is drpetra.co.uk

    Do you think porn is woman hatred?

    This was a very popular view (and still is to an extent) amongst some anti-porn groups. It presumes that porn is one thing, which isn’t accurate. I think its easy to see that some aspects of porn are not always pro-women, but that doesn’t mean that all porn is either a representation of woman-hatred or driven by a hatred of women.
    Do you think the fact that some killers use pornography means we should ban porn?

    I think that takes us down a dangerous road. Although there have been some tragic cases where porn has been claimed as a factor in violent crime, there are also an equally tragic number of cases where people have committed violent crimes or murders but have not used any porn at all. Rather than banning porn completely we need to talk about what drives different people to commit violent crime. If we decided to enforce a ban who would decide what kind of pornography drives crime – currently we can’t even agree what pornography is, so it would be even harder to agree upon its effects.
    Do you think banning some sorts of pornogrpahy will make women safer/ society better?

    I think it’s been suggested that if we ban some kinds of porn we’d reduce rape, but that assumes that rape is directly caused by certain kinds of porn, and that rape is mostly a stranger crime. We know that while people who commit sex crime may have used porn it doesn’t mean it makes them act abusively, and in many countries where there’s little or no access to porn the rates of rape and child abuse are very high. Addressing male sexual violence, sexual coercion, women’s confidence and gender inequalities are all things that could help make women safer and should be considered rather than simply suggesting a ban on porn.
    Or do you think there is a risk that by accepting the views of porn-hating women we could be endangering women’s sexual health?

    I think if we accept the idea that a. porn is one thing and b. it is all harmful it makes it very difficult for women who get aroused by porn. In the past anti-porn groups characterised such women as victims or having some form of false conciousness so they couldn’t see how liking porn was bad for them. Sexual materials can be a source of pleasure, education and information. Sadly many women don’t always get access to sex positive materials or items that can turn them on. There are moral and ethical problems where one group of women decide what another group of women are allowed to be entertained, aroused or educated by.
    Do you think feminists who criticise pornography as objectification of women have a point?

    I do think they have a point since they get us to think about issues around gender politics, women’s health, and what’s going on in porn. They are also often able to extend the debate to show how areas of mainstream media that we may overlook can also be negative towards women. I think problems and tensions arise where all sexual materials are seen as negative, and where everything becomes so sex-negative you can’t talk about pleasure or arousal at all – or only in very limited ways.
    Should all, any, or some pornography be banned? why?

    I’m sure most people would be in agreement that pornography showing the sexual abuse of children or non-consensual abuse of adults is not okay. This is already illegal, although it doesn’t stop it being available. I’d be happy to keep such areas illegal, as well as images featuring animals or abuse of dead bodies (which are also currently illegal). Outside of this area it becomes more complicated to judge, but if someone complains they were abused in the making of porn then that should be investigated and if necessary prosecuted.
    Do you think women only say they like porn to please their partners?

    No, women have stated they do enjoy a range of sexual materials. Frequently women are introduced to porn by a partner which can limit their range of enjoyment, but that doesn’t mean they can’t find other areas that arouse them. For many years there’s been the argument that women don’t really like porn and only say they do to please a partner, but this infantilises women and denies their views. Obviously if a woman is saying she likes porn to keep someone happy that’s a sign there’s a problem within their relationship, rather than a problem caused exclusively by porn.
    Can porn provide positive models for women?

    Some women have said that they learn a lot about sex from porn. That can include ways they’d like to appear sexually, things they’d like to try, and an idea of what doesn’t turn them on. It can allow women an idea about how to express themselves sexually. There is the criticism that porn is becoming quite samey in what it offers – positions, activities and how people look when they’re aroused. That can be limiting to women’s (and men’s) enjoyment. However porn can offer positive ideas about sex, you just have to decide what works for you.
    Are there other ways in which pornography can benefit society?

    The problem with using the term pornography is it is very loaded and seen as negative, which means nobody can see it being of benefit to society. I’d say that some forms of sexually explicit materials can be arousing, some can educate us about sex, some can give us ideas on how to improve our sex lives.
    Do you think the liberalisation of access to pornography has had a positive effect for women?

    I think we have to be careful not to overgeneralise on this point. For some women access to porn has been positive, but those women are often more likely to have independence, their own income, and greater confidence or a willingness to explore sex. Many women do not have these opportunties. That’s not to say access to porn would give them these options, just that for many women access to porn is as limited as access to equality and access to a satisfying sex life.
    Do you think there are any acts that it is dangerous for people to look at?

    That assumes that if you look at something you’ll be compelled to copy it, and evidence of this effect is very mixed. What is perhaps dangerous is that some people are aroused by non consensual and abusive activities and want to make porn or view porn of that nature. However, even within this area, as controversial and upsetting as it may be, we have to work on a case by case basis as not everyone who views abusive images automatically wants to copy what they see. We need a considered debate on what to do about such cases, but in the current climate this doesn’t seem possible.
    Do you think there are some pictures that are dangerous?

    See my answer above
    Have you any other comments about pornography?

    I think we do need to have a balanced view. Porn isn’t just one thing, and currently we get overly focused on the negative – with lots of public debate on porn addiction (which seems to have replaced the porn = rape views of the 80s). By taking this approach we miss that porn can have negative effects but these are more prevalent but less dramatic. Such as porn can misinform people about sex – but that’s also because we don’t have decent sex education to help us balance out what we’re seeing. Mainstream porn is becoming increasingly samey which doesn’t encourage sexual exploration and adventure. However it can be a means of pleasure, enjoyment and learning, and we should recognise there are many genres and many different outcomes for porn – not just the sensational and overly dramatic.

  • Geoffrey Payne 4th Dec '07 - 5:50pm

    Violent porn may show sex involving SM. If it is consensual, there is no reason to outlaw it.
    If it shows a man raping a woman, and if it shows the actual penetration, then there is the question does this porn cause men to want to rape woman?
    If yes, then it should be banned. If no, then there is no reason to ban it on those grounds, although there is still the question of “what if children get to see this?”
    To answer these questions we have to look at the evidence. It is argued that “there is little evidence” that explicit rape scenes causes men to rape women. But is the converse true; can you prove that it doesn’t?
    It may well be the case that we do not know, and it is hard to find convincing evidence that proves one way or the other.
    Some people make the mistake of thinking; “When I look at violent porn, it doesn’t make me want to go out and rape women”. Well that is your own subjective experience. It is wrong to project your own experience onto everyone else. In science, a sample of 1 proves nothing.
    Given what is at stake, that men rape women, the burden of proof should be on those who want to justify legalising non-consensual violent porn.

  • Well Geoffrey, I wonder why rape, child abuse & sexual assault is so much more common in Muslim countries where possession of any sort of porn will get you locked up?

    Perhaps it’s because Mohammed had a 9-year old wife, so it’s very definitely OK? Time to ban Islam too?

  • Peter Bancroft 4th Dec '07 - 5:58pm

    Ah, but if by women being fully clothed from head to toe without a face showing also decreases rape, would you legislate to make it happen?

    I’m not sure that you’ve got your logic right – consent is more important than in your assessment.

  • Geoffrey Payne 4th Dec '07 - 5:59pm

    Colin W posted at the same time I did. I agree with Dr Petra that porn should not show the “non-consensual abuse of adults”.

  • I think you misunderstand – she was referring to genuine non-consensual abuse, not STAGED non-consensual abuse, which is what this stupid law seeks to criminalise.

    Any depiction of real, non-consensual abuse, necrophilia or zoophilia is ALREADY rightly illegal.

  • Geoffrey Payne 4th Dec '07 - 6:24pm

    I argue for the precautionary principle; prove it is safe and then it is OK.
    Violent pornography depicting rape is possibly one reason why men rape women. There may well be other reasons as well.
    As for Mohammed marrying a 9 year old. From what we understand in our liberal society today, that is rightly unacceptable. What people understood in the 9th century may well have been very different. If it was not recognised back then as being a form of abuse then Mohammed or anyone else at the time are not guilty.

  • Angus J Huck 4th Dec '07 - 7:23pm

    an act which threatens or appears to threaten a person’s life,”

    Right. So stills of Lord Olivier playing Henry V will be out. Likewise Hamlet and MacBeth. And I don’t think Hercules Poirot and Miss Marple are going to fare too well, either.

    Oh, sorry. I wasn’t paying attention. Only acts which threaten or appear to threaten a person’s life where there is SEX.

    This clause is deeply insidious. It is an attempt by the state to intrude upon our lives and control us. Like ID cards, and a national DNA database.

    Little by little, step by step.

    Be warned: Anyone who opposes this ridiculous, overly vague and largely unenforceable clause will be called a sexual pervert and child abuser. We stand up to Brown and his bullies at our peril.

    Here was I thinking that the war against pornography waged by the likes of Mary Whitehouse, Frank Longford, Andrea Dworkin, et al, had been thwarted by the internet. Well, it looks as if I have to think again.

    The people behind this couldn’t give a stuff about sexual violence. Their agenda is CONTROL. (Indeed, a little bit of sexual violence makes people afraid and more willing to accept curtailments of their liberty.)

    The Williams Committee (which included feminists like Polly Toynbee) concluded that there is no decent evidence for a causal link between looking at pornography and acts of unlawful sexual violence. That was a quarter of a century ago. I am not aware that anything has changed.

    (Remember John Mortimer defending “Last Exit to Brooklyn”? Far from tending to corrupt and deprave – the legal test – the scenes of homosexual prostitution are so disgusting they are likely to have the effect of putting men off becoming homosexuals. I have read “Last Exit” twice and still haven’t grown horns.)

    There are laws against animal cruelty, I believe, which prevent the depiction of bestiality in films.

  • David Heath MP 4th Dec '07 - 7:53pm

    Wouldn’t it have been a good idea had someone actually looked to see what we did say on this issue (and no, we didn’t vote on it because Harry Cohen withdrew his amendments):

    Committee Hansard Thursday 22nd November.

    Mr. Heath: This is an extremely difficult aspect of the Bill, not simply because of the subject matter, but because of the difficulty of getting the law right. There are conflicting pressures on legislators and the Executive, but there is also a great deal of difficulty in constructing law that is effective against a real mischief, but not effective against those who are entitled to the liberty to conduct their life as they see fit, without the interference of others.

    I am surprised that we are returning to this subject so soon after the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which was intended to consolidate previous legislation in this area. That substantial Act dealt with and modernised several areas of law, and our colleagues who considered the Bill—indeed it was considered by the entire House—would have been aware of these issues and must have felt that the Bill’s measures were sufficient.
    As is always the Liberal position on these matters, I have to ask whether there is an argument for banning something that is currently legal, however distasteful or inappropriate some might think it. If so, what is that argument? I am finding it difficult to discern the argument for the measures, which go beyond legislating against people coercing individuals into an activity against their will. Clearly, that should be and is an offence, particularly when children are involved. None of us wants to see a case in which a child is coerced to do such things. Neither do we want to see it with adults, and that is already illegal.
    If the Government want to persuade us that the legislation is necessary, they must establish a degree of causation between what is to be banned and another illegal activity. The petition that has been mentioned was constructed on the basis that there is a causal relationship between such material and violence against women. Of course, anyone would be against it if that level of causation could be shown, but the evidence is extremely thin. If that causation exists, however, it must, as the hon. Member for Broxbourne said, apply to other violent images; it cannot be only violent images that are intended to produce sexual arousal that are causative agents of violent acts. If the Government were being consistent and believed that that causal link existed, they would extend the provision beyond what they propose, but it is difficult to establish that causation.
    It is also difficult to establish that the measures will not have the consequence of making illegal activities and images that are currently legal. That might seem an obvious point—after all, why would one make a new offence if it merely restated current offences—but if that is the case, there is a genuine concern among a significant number of people. I have no idea what percentage of the population is interested in sado-masochistic behaviour, bondage, submission and domination, but a constituent of mine came to talk to me about this issue this summer when I was on my village tour. He came up to me at an obscure little village in my constituency, which I shall not name, and told me about the company that he runs from a lock-up garage in the village, which specialises in producing material for this kind of interest. It was quite a surprise to me; I had no idea that that might be the case, but he said that he had a lot of local customers, so there is obviously a market.
    That brings me back to whether we are making something illegal for no sound reason related to the causing of other offences, particularly violent offences, and thereby depriving somebody of the liberty to do something that we as a group and others outside may not like but which does not constitute any problem for the rest of the community. My worry is that we are.
    Having said that about the principle, there are also problems with the detail of the clause and how it will work. I have mentioned the limitation to violence in a sexual context rather than a general one, which is puzzling. What is the argument for providing that images should be made illegal but narrative should not, and that one cannot look at a picture but can read a story portraying the same thing in a much more graphic way—literally, in this instance—than a picture could? A story will describe in the imagination of the consumer exactly what is happening but will not be illegal or considered an obscene publication.
    Why are we using the term “pornographic” in the clause rather than basing the language on existing legislation? Why are we introducing a new definition for the courts to decide on? A vagueness runs through the entire clause, which is difficult to construe legally. Much of it will have to be determined by a case being put before a court. That, too, is a problem for those who may wonder, “Is what I am doing illegal? Are these pictures that I have in my possession illegal? Should I destroy them as a consequence? Do they have a sufficient level of realism for me to be concerned, or can anybody see that they are staged?” The problem is that, even if they are not very real, they could fall foul of the clause. Even if we know perfectly well that no coercion was involved, and a couple engaged in activities of their own volition and by mutual consent, which they filmed themselves doing and watched later, they will find themselves falling foul of it. That cannot be the intention, even if we accept the arguments for the clause. There are so many areas of vagueness that will need further construction in the courts that we should be wary of accepting the clause in its present form.
    We shall come to defences later, and I do not wish to stray from the amendments, but we must be careful not to create anything that approximates to an absolute offence. Intent is important, and an individual’s reasonable belief that what he or she is looking at does not fall foul of the law should be at the forefront of considerations.

    I understand why the Minister has included the provisions, and I understand the perfectly proper pressure from some, considering that there are egregious internet sites and other places that promote violence against individuals. That worries me, whether or not it is done in a sexual context. Promoting violence against another individual is not what freedom of speech is intended to allow. However, the wording of the clause swings the pendulum too far the other way and will produce unexpected effects, putting people in a position of offending that they had never intended to be in, when they are not causing a problem to any other member of the community. There are big issues of the context of material and we ought to address those, too. I hope that the Minister will be able to deal with some of those matters today. However, the architecture of the provision as it stands simply cannot pass the tests that I am applying to it to make it an effective piece of legislation dealing with a real mischief, rather than a provision based on a view that something must be done about something that we do not like, but we are not quite sure what it is or what should be done.

  • Laurence, Geoffrey et al…please note, this is a REAL Liberal expressing the party’s line on this onnoxious legislation.

    I suggest you bone up on JSM, and consider whether you are really Liberals. If you don’t have a knee jerk reaction against this sort of thing then i have serious doubts.

  • Laurence, it seems to me rather obvious that liberals would stand up against the criminalisation of activities which are not harming anyone against their will. Defending liberties, whether they be minority or esoteric, is kind of what we’re about – or are we too shrink in the face of majority opinion?

  • Grammar Check 4th Dec '07 - 10:49pm

    I’m guess I’m just hoping we’ll grow up one day
    Sorry, have to correct your grammar there, Laurence. You used the first person plural in that sentence when surely you meant the first person singular.

  • Hywel Morgan 4th Dec '07 - 10:58pm

    As leader Charles made a reasonably public statement opposing this:

    The problem is that people with seriously deviant (and I mean criminal) behaviour patterns tend to use all sorts of material to reinforce their fantasies. There was a case of a sadistic sex offender in the 80’s who after his arrest was found to have edited the scenes from Star Wars VI where Luke is tortured by the Emperor into a loop as stimulant material (I don’t have a source for this other than it being in a documentary so you’ll have to trust me 🙂

    If this act went through then someone with a yearning for such material would only have to order up the DVDs for The Accused, Man Bites Dog, Baise moi etc

  • Grammar Police 5th Dec '07 - 9:03am

    Just btw – “Grammar Check” above is not me. I don’t think I’ve ever corrected someone’s grammar on LDV!

  • Grammar Police 5th Dec '07 - 9:31am

    I can remember my own name Laurence. My parents were very cruel when they named me!

  • I am grateful for David Heath’s wise intervention in Parliament and also letting us know about it here.

  • Iain Roberts 5th Dec '07 - 10:45am

    A couple of comments on the responses to my piece:

    First, many thanks to David Heath for bringing his comments to my attention. I hope we can get enough support across all parties to persuade the Government to think again.

    And in response to Laurence (22), of course it isn’t a “flagship” issue for me. It clearly isn’t the sort of issue that anyone would run an election campaign on, but that’s not the point. As a mainstream political party we have to take positions on all sorts of issues that, whilst important, are never going to feature in Focus leaflets or PPBs and it’s absolutely right that we do so.

  • Grammar Police 5th Dec '07 - 11:17am

    Worse, Laurence, worse.

  • Well done to David Heath for articulating a sound Liberal position in a minefield of popular opprobrium.

    Perhaps to offer Laurence a little succour – the Mrs Woodpecker is concerned that the general trend in liberalising mass media ‘censorship’ has not been accompanied by the liberation of some vulnerable people (mostly young women) from exploitation in the sex industry…

  • Hywel Morgan 5th Dec '07 - 12:22pm

    I don’t understand your question Laurence?

    Are you suggesting we should not tolerate (ie allow) the following:
    i) Roots
    ii) The Naked Civil Servant
    iii) The Accused

  • Iain Roberts 5th Dec '07 - 2:39pm

    Hi Laurence,

    The proposed legislation specifically excludes cinematic depictions of the sort of violence you mention. Not even Labour is proposing that we should ban that.

    Do you think we should? If so, why?

  • Laurence – I can see what you’re driving at but I find it hard to think of anything under that banner that would be sufficiently serious to merit action but which wouldn’t already be covered by existing laws we have either on assault (i.e. producing it in the first place involved the commission of a crime) or incitement/conspiracy.

  • Who said violent porn had to involve a woman anyway?

    And this is exactly the point – the new legislation doesn’t aim to protect ANYONE. If the material contained any depictions of REAL violence or non-consensual sexual behaviour then it would already be illegal under existing laws several times over. Banning something which does no harm to anyone because of the moral squeamishness of others is simply not what the government should be doing and when it tries, liberals should absolutely respond by opposing it.

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