Let’s ban ‘violent pornography’… and then what?

by Stephen Tall on August 30, 2005

To campaign for freedom of expression is an uneasy trade. Despite the parental exhortation to teased children everywhere that ‘Sticks and stones may break your bones, but names can never harm you’, we all know it just ain’t so. Verbal abuse – whether it’s a barbed remark, or a full-scale raging tirade – is painful to whoever’s on the receiving end. It’s all bad, and the world would be a better place rid of it.

Those of an authoritarian bent (and they’re at least as prevalent on the left as they are on the right) argue it is the duty of government to intervene: to make laws which draw a line between what society accepts as decent and what it condemns as indecent. It’s an easy corner to fight because there will always be victims who’ve been hurt, and who will applaud laws they feel might have prevented that hurt. Liberals who are instinctively sceptical of state interference, and believe in freedom of expression (see www.stephentall.org.uk/articles/23.html), have the tougher prospect of arguing against those who deserve our sympathy, and run the risk of appearing heartless bastards. Such are my thoughts today on hearing the news of Labour’s plans to crack down on what it loosely terms ‘violent pornography’.

This follows a long campaign by Liz Longhurst, whose daughter, Jane, was murdered two years ago by a friend’s boyfriend, Graham Coutts, who had spent hours viewing images of women being strangled and raped. These images depicted acts of violence exerted on unwilling victims: it would be illegal to own such material in print or on film, but it is legally available for download from foreign websites. This particularly tragic case is an open-and-shut case of a legal loophole that deserves to be closed without delay.

But will the Government stop there? Not if the pronouncements of its politicians are to be believed. “Violent pornography is abhorrent,” says Labour’s Scottish Parliament Justice Minister, Cathy Jamieson. “If it is found that the law can be strengthened to cut violent pornography from our society, then we will take action.” Such bold statements hang, of course, on the definition of ‘violent pornography’. Does this refer to the filming of non-consenting acts of violence causing actual bodily harm or worse (my definition); or might it also encompass consenting adults doing what they please – even though that may displease others – behind closed doors?

Now this is where the argument gets tricky, and needs to be acknowledged as such. Because though the Longhurst case is clear-cut, there will doubtless be other murders and/or rapes in which the perpetrator is found to have been an avid consumer of legally availably pornography involving scenes of bondage, or sado-masochism, in which pain is inflicted, though the actors willingly participate (even when their characters appear not to). Similarly, films like A Clockwork Orange, Child’s Play 3, Natural Born Killers and Straw Dogs, have all at some stage stood accused of inspiring copy-cat crimes. How can liberals like me possibly defend the legality of such works if they are linked to crimes of violence?

The first obvious point to make is this: there is still no proof, after half a century’s research, that watching violent films causes people to commit violent acts. If there is a causal relationship of any sort, it is, I believe, that those who are inclined – owing to personal, family or social circumstances – to commit acts of violence are more likely to be drawn to images which depict violence. In other words, ‘violent pornography’ reinforces attitudes, it doesn’t create them. So what effect will banning it have? It will simply mean that those who currently get off on such images will either swap what’s banned for other, legal stimuli, interpreting this in their own warped manner; or, alternatively, continue to view the material that’s illegal, and risk arrest.

Try this analogy for size: I became a football fan at a young age both because my older brothers and most of my school-friends were, and because I grew up in Liverpool, a city in which soccer is a fetish not a hobby. As a result of catching the soccer-bug, I watched various Everton home games at Goodison Park, and followed all the Division 1 matches on the telly. (Ah, those were the days.) Of course, if I hadn’t been able to watch the games in person, or on screen, I would have listened to radio commentary, or read newspaper reports, or simply chatted with friends to share my love of the sport. Not being able to watch would not have stopped me being a football fan.

But the bigger point is this: true personal responsibility means accepting the buck stops with me, and with no-one else. I cannot be made to be drunk by longer pub opening hours. I cannot be made to be obese by fast food retailers. I cannot be made to get into debt by loan companies. And I cannot be made to commit violence by watching a film. If I want to end up a drunk, fat, overdrawn recidivist then that is my fault, the end-product of my personal choices. The role of society – and, by extension, government – is to ensure I am sufficiently well-educated and well-informed to understand the decisions I’m making, and their consequences, and to ensure I don’t harm others along the way. And it is this tenet up for which liberals have to stick. Even, and especially, when it means opposing Government crackdowns on easy targets.