‘Violent porn ban’ revisited

by Stephen Tall on August 31, 2006

There’s been a healthy debate among various Lib Dem bloggers – here, here and here, for example – taking to task the Government for what is being labelled the ‘violent porn ban’, following the tragic death of Jane Longhurst.

I wrote about this (here) a year ago, when the proposals were first brought forward, arguing:

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
, 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.

The Government has (of course) not been able to resist going further than closing this loophole. The Telegraph reports that the ban will cover “material featuring violence that is, or appears to be, life-threatening or is likely to result in serious and disabling injury.” [My emphasis.]

How this will be interpreted is anyone’s guess – but I worried last year, and I worry now, when laws deliberately blur the distinction between make-believe and reality, between actual and pretend:

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.