Jemima Lewis: Sadism, masochism and misogyny

Human sexuality is such a Gordian knot that it is almost impossible to untangle any incontestable truth


A friend who practises S&M - the full shebang, with dungeons and gags and strategically placed clamps - rang me this week in a panic. She, like others of her inclination, foresees painful times ahead, and not in a good way. The Government's forthcoming Bill outlawing the possession of violent pornography will, she fears, criminalise people like her for looking at images that - though they may not be to everyone's taste - show consensual acts in which no one is harmed.

The Bill, announced this week, comes in response to a two-year-campaign by Liz Longhurst, whose daughter Jane was killed by a man said to be obsessed with violent pornography. After strangling her with a pair of tights, Graham Coutts kept Miss Longhurst's corpse as a trophy, visiting it several times at a lock-up in the Big Yellow Storage Company. When police searched his home they found hundreds of images of rape, strangulation and necrophilia on his computer.

Longhurst's grieving mother is no Mary Whitehouse. She is not against pornography per se: only the sort of extreme imagery which she believes fomented and "normalised" Coutt's pre-existing tendency towards murderous misogyny. She has many supporters - among them the British Psychological Society, which cites new research showing that people who are predisposed towards sexual violence are more likely to "act out" if they are exposed to such material.

The research may be new but the argument is as old as the hills - and so is the counter-argument. Libertarians insist that merely looking at an image cannot possibly create a murderer or rapist: it must be something in their nature. S&M enthusiasts, meanwhile, point out that the vast majority of these images, however bloody they may appear to the untutored eye, are staged by consenting adults who emerge from them unscathed. Prosecuting people for enjoying such harmless pleasures in the privacy of their own home is tantamount to the creation of a thought crime.

Human sexuality is such a Gordian knot it is almost impossible to untangle any single incontestable truth from this debate. Generally speaking, any attempt to legislate our private desires should be regarded with alarm. The so-called "spanner trial" of 1990, in which 16 men were found guilty of assaulting each other after the police got hold of a video of their S&M party, demonstrated the perils of allowing the law through the bedroom door.

At that trial and the subsequent appeals, consent was ruled to be no excuse for inflicting bodily harm. "Pleasure derived from the infliction of pain is an evil thing," thundered one judge - a sentiment that seemed preposterously old-fashioned even then. In an age when women's magazines routinely prescribe bondage, role-playing or a little light flagellation as "pick-me-ups" for stale sex lives, S&M has become just another lifestyle choice. The wording of this Bill will have to be impeccably precise if it is not to criminalise great swathes of Middle England.

And yet the libertarian argument is, in some respects, wilfully naïve. It requires us to believe the human psyche is incorruptible: that we come into the world with our predilections set in stone, impervious to outside influences. This is nonsense. We are all affected by the things we see; that is why advertising works.

It will always be impossible to prove a direct causal link between what we see and what we do. Studies show that women who look at pictures of skinny celebrities instantly feel depressed about their own bodies; but that doesn't mean that fashion magazines are solely responsible for the rise in anorexia. What one can say is that they contribute to an atmosphere that compromises female happiness.

The same is true of violent pornography. A friend of mine used to work as a film censor, which meant watching a great deal of extreme pornography. By no means an unworldly fellow, he is still haunted by the things he saw. "It's really bad stuff," he says. "Toxic. And it's compromising because it's designed to make you aroused, so you find yourself going with the flow. Before you know it, you're being turned on by the blade against the flesh, and then the blade cutting through the flesh. It may not make you go out and kill someone but it infiltrates your imagination and makes you a worse person."

Unlike sado-masochistic sex - in which consent is paramount, and women are allowed to be dominant as well as submissive - the kind of pornography favoured by Coutts is brutally misogynistic. It hardly matters whether footage of a rape victim having her throat slit or limbs sawn off is real or fake: its message is one of savage hatred of women.

True S&M enthusiasts should have nothing to fear from a ban on downloading such gruesome fare, provided it is worded with exquisite care. Neither should libertarians. Even in a liberal democracy, freedom is not absolute. We always reserve the right to protect ourselves, however imperfectly, from things that are bad for our bodies or souls. Like drug abuse or racism, misogyny is a social cancer which we should be unashamed to fight.

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