The EU may have successfully banned fish dumping and incandescent light bulbs but porn, it seems, is safe – at least for now.
Earlier this month, the EU parliament returned a split vote relating to a ban on ‘all pornography in the media’ proposal, made in an own-initiative report on gender stereotypes by the EU’s women’s rights and gender equality (FEMM) committee. Granted, it wasn’t quite the ‘EU bans porn’ story the tabloids were leering over but Article 17 was still as extreme as it was perverse – mainly because neither ‘porn’ nor ‘the media’ were defined anywhere in the document.
Even many liberal feminists are now agreeing with their radical counterparts and the conservative right that porn is destroying our enjoyment and expectations of real sex. But while academic reports continue to offer evidence both in support of this and to the contrary, anti-censorship feminists such as myself, radical sex workers, and responsible adult industry figures and ‘porntrapreneurs’ such as Cindy Gallup are reassessing current pornographic representation and production and developing alternatives.
There are those who think that ethical porn, like feminist porn, is an oxymoronic impossibility. But even if you don’t have a problem with focusing on the parts rather than the person from time to time (after all, isn’t that what capitalism does to us all?), then many are unpersuaded that, in a saturated market, anybody would watch ‘ethical’ for cash when they can watch the regular kind for free. That of course was the criticism levied at the fair-trade model back in its inception. Now Kit Kats are fair trade.
In fact, the notion of an ethical porn stamp is actually pretty popular amongst those in the adult industry. Businesses might not like regulation but they like meeting the government when it means protecting their operations; the porn business is no different.
And yet censorship is bigger business still, at least in the UK. The Authority for Television On Demand (ATVOD) is the body that regulates video-on-demand (VOD) content here in Britain. Yet ATVOD has no parliamentary mandate to do so, having effectively ‘bought’ its remit from Ofcom, and, in the past two years, has managed to shut down most of the adult VOD companies registered in Britain through a series of punitive fines and censorious demands, generating thousands of pounds of revenue for itself, despite industry leaders such as Jerry Barnett, former head of the Adult Trade Association, offering to meet ATVOD to compromise.
In the wake of ATVOD’s heavy-handedness, British companies have merely re-registered abroad, pushing them further out of the UK’s control. Out of sight, out of mind has been the policy – but it is hardly the mark of a responsible government.
Meanwhile, it’s clear that those in power are as unaware of the regulation process as the rest of us. At a porn debate held as part of the WOW 2013 festival last weekend, Baroness Helena Kennedy proposed that companies like PayPal should be made to turn down money from adult businesses. Fact is, they already do.
The real problem of course is that someone would still need to define what we mean by ethical porn. Extreme pornography law already does that to some extent, and any adult video content producers that take money from their viewers are already required to age-verify their performers, and to ensure sexually transmitted infections (STI) tests have been conducted every 28 days, for example.
But while those in the adult industry are willing to work with the censors, perhaps an ethical porn stamp would only reinforce the notion that only some sexual acts performed between consenting adults are deemed acceptable, while others remain deviant. How would an ethical porn stamp cope with BDSM, for example?
Technically speaking, short of an outright Saudi Arabian-style ban, there’d be no way of preventing access to adult material in a continent protected by fundamental civil liberties. And when it comes to those liberties, where to start?
Even if we were to pronounce 99% of internet porn ‘detrimental to sex’, the relationship is rather more like that of fast food to general health; something lots of us enjoy on occasion, at our own behest, knowing that to eat it all the time would negatively impact on our health. Obesity is rife in the Western world and yet education, not prohibition, is presented as the solution. Forcing people to give up fries would be deemed fascist. Provided it featured consensual adults, why not the same line for porn?
And so we come full-circle - to the problem of calling a sex act a sex act, ethical or otherwise. If there can be no fixed legal definition of porn in the first place, we may ask how there can be a concrete charter decreeing what is ethical and what is not. Yet while the validity of obscenity may have seriously been called into question by last year’s R v Peacock trial, English law still upholds that there are certain acts that take sexual ethics too far - hence extreme pornography legislation.
Given that one man’s ultimate fantasy is another’s routine visit to the dental hygienist, context is clearly all. But as a new wave of porn debate breaks, you can bet your regulatory dollar that someone is going to try and fix porn once and for all.
Nichi Hodgson is a regular commentator on sexual politics and the law