the burning issue for the censor

Pornography Part two : In the porn debate, passions run high, dogma rei gns and the two sides remain poles apart. So how are the rest of us to make sense of the arguments?
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If feminism was ever a monolith, the debate over pornography cleaved it. There are passionate feminists who oppose porn. There are equally passionate feminists who defend, even celebrate it. Each side reviles the other. One side accuses its opponents of being funded by pimps. These supposed pawns of porn fling the counter-accusation that the proposed remedies will limit free expression, art, political debate and even health information.

The first problem is one of nomenclature. Just as abortion demagogues have picked shiny little names (Pro-Life! Pro-Choice!), you won't find many feminists claiming to be Pro-Porn. This lobby rallies instead under the Anti-Censorship flag. "It's basically all about suppression," says Avedon Carol, of the pressure group Feminists Against Censorship (FAC), "though people deny it and say it's just about guys wanking off."

Yet it's the anti-porn crusaders, in America at least, who are willing to get down and dirty with porn, exploiting its shock value, while anti- censorship campaigners prefer to evoke lofty concepts of free speech. Nadine Strossen's book Defending Pornography cites the case of Feminists Fighting Pornography (FFP) who, when told to remove a graphic display at Grand Central Station in New York, sought assistance from the New York Civil Liberties Union "to champion its free-speech right to display pornography".

"If you want to talk with me about freedom of speech," snaps Andrea Dworkin, the veteran American campaigner against porn, "I have plenty to say, as a writer who's tried to publish work which is politically disliked by so many people. The argument of the other side is that even to discuss what porn does to women is to advocate censorship." Even the most glib defence of pornography recognises one caveat: child porn. As FAC points out, existing law prohibits the abuse of children, and as for snuff movies: "The issue is murder, not pornography." Only Camille Paglia has declared that she would defend pornography up to and including the category of snuff movies. Despite concerted efforts worldwide, no evidence has ever been found concerning the existence of commercial snuff movies, so this proclamation is likely to be an outrageous soundbite r ather than a sensible proposal, but it's brave of Paglia to accept that this is the extreme extension of the pro-porn argument. Nigel Wingrove, director of the controversial film Visions of Ecstasy, which was banned by the BBFC, is clear about the implications of opposing censorship. "I know that when I say I don't believe in censorship for adults, I'm not just talking aboutNatu ral Born Killers, I'm talking about all adult material. Most critics avoid the issue of what 'no censorship for adults' really means." "The first thing I advocate is that people know what pornography is, rather than hiding it," says Dworkin. "They don't consume it and they don't see it in the ordinary parts of their lives, unless a partner introduces it." The idea of rabidly consuming offensive material in order to get off on finding it offensive is comical. This is the popular view about our own enthusiastic censors back home. "The National Viewers and Listeners Association is always going on about flood s of filth and violence on TV. Well, I can never find it," says a disgruntled Tom Dewe Matthews, author of a history of film censorship in Britain. On his own logic, surely James Ferman, director of the British Board of Film Classification, must be the most depraved person in the country. "Why aren't the police corrupted by the crime they deal with?" he replies smoothly. (Erm... discuss.) "We watch with a very professional regime, taking notes the whole time, asking, 'What interventions are necessary to make this acceptable? If it is corrupting, what is the test of British law? In what way is it corrupting? Would re-editing eliminate or ameliorate the problem?' The approach, emotionally and intellectually, is an analytical one." Ferman soothes notions that quality work will be slashed by slavering censors. Rape scenes in the The Accused and Leaving Las Vegas went uncut, while "the rape in Showgirls was taken down; it seemed totally exploitative". But objective notions of taste a nd quality serve to obscure a fundamental question of censorship. Since his bruising experience with the BBFC over Visions of Ecstasy, Wingrove has set up his own film distribution company, Redemption, and still has regular clashes with the board, most r ecently over the banned film Bare Behind Bars. "It's not a good film. It's a silly exploitation movie," says Wingrove. "Basically, it's Prisoner: Cell Block H without clothes. It's not well acted. So what happens is that the BFI, and critics who like to be seen as anti-censorship, don't get involved, though they'll harp on about certain films - Reservoir Dogs, Natural Born Killers - that aren't even banned. You can see them in cinemas." Ferman admits that public feeling has softened on nudity and bad language, but violence, especially sexual violence, is still controversial. He cuts hard on "porno-rape, which often has the woman responding and even thanking the rapist for this great exp erience. That's a scenario we don't allow. We say, 'You can have the rape, but treat it seriously, or you can have the sex, but you can't have violent rape and sexual pleasure in the same scene'." The anti-censorship response is that pornography which allows women to explore their sexuality, even fantasies of rape, humiliation and pain, might help women to deal with such agonising feelings of guilt. Women do use pornography, and latterly havebeen creating their own. The anti-porn campaigners are seen as threatening far more than mucky movies: in America, silly-season stories of safe-sex lecturers being banned and images of the Venus de Milo giving offence are legion. "I have tried to articulate and make people understand that this is an industry which operates for profit," says Dworkin. "It isn't an industry that's concerned with artistic expression or aesthetic values. It's a slave trade in women." "Some of the most horrible, hard-core porn makes direct reference to slavery on the plantations, or to the Holocaust," says a former spokeswoman for Campaign Against Pornography (CAP). Nor does the argument that women are making porn for themselves cut m uch ice with Dworkin. "If we decide we want to make 'erotic' images of women, we're not going to force a shutdown of the $10bn-a-year trade in women. It's not right for a woman to be treated as less than human, as a commodity. It's not right on the stree t corner, and it's not right on film, where a pimp can sell a woman's body long after she's dead." Dworkin, on the phone from Canada, sounds tired. "I'm here to talk to front-line sexual assault professionals about a horrible case to do with Paul Bernardo, who battered his wife, kidnapped two children, and tortured and killed them. He'd videotaped eve rything. He's a brilliant example of the product of a society in which pornography is the way in which men experience sexuality. He filmed the assaults, not thinking, 'I'm creating evidence,' but 'I'm creating a sexual show for myself'." But surely all m en are not to be treated by the standards of Bernardo? "I think it would probably be wrong to generalise from him to the world at large," she concedes, "but there's a lot at stake here in allowing sexuality to become so deeply voyeuristic. Bernardo's not that unique, unfortunately." The anti-censorship side bases its position on the absence of hard evidence of the link between monkey see and monkey do. Dr Martin Barker, an academic at the University of the West of England, and author of a forthcoming book of essays opposing censorsh ip, advocates funding more research. Tom Dewe Matthews agrees: "It's ironic that the Government has cut back on media studies when one of the big differences now is the vast increase of media. People have to understand it, in the same way as they had to understand the invention of the combustion engine. If you don't, you're just going to be on the receiving end. The media has a horrible habit of turning everyone into a receiver." But Ferman maintains: "They've had very good evidence for the past 15 years about the effects of sexual violence. For non-sexual violence, the evidence has never been quite as strong, but it is mounting." Dworkin is more blunt: "There's more proof that p ornography causes harm than there is that tobacco causes lung cancer." When I attempt to challenge Dworkin, she snaps: "This isn't just an intellectual argument we're having here. People's lives are at stake." Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon did their best to move the debate on when they argued that pornography violates women's civil rights. But with all the arguments and counter-arguments, the accusations and the vilification, it looks like the goalpostsmay have shifted, but the score remains nil-nil. 'I think we need as little censorship as possible, but from time to time one sees things which one feels are just not acceptable in civilised society. We are pretty clear that the films we see could have a harmful effect in their uncut state.' James Ferman, chairman of the British Board of Film Classification

'Research on sex offenders demonstrates that you are much more at risk from sexual repression than expression. We need to get rid of censorship and have good sex education instead.' Avedon Carol, Feminists Against Censorship

'The conclusions of numerous reports, in many different countries, and using a variety of different research methods, are markedly varied when it comes to assessing what influence, if any, pornography has on violence against women.' Liberty, from Human Rights, Human Wrongs

'The porn industry is on a roll because British women are are now prepared to do things that only Brazilian street women used to do. The fact is the industry is massively abusive: women getting involved are being seriously harmed. We are talking about se rious, serious crime here, and nobody seems to believe us.' Anne Mayne, Campaign Against Pornography