Erotic Review Magazine

Three reasons not to ban rape porn

by Ian Dunt / 12th June 2013

Is yet another law controlling pornography either workable, desirable or ethical?

When you’ve got the Daily Mail and the Guardian after you, you must be in trouble.

This month, both newspapers have been making decidedly critical noises about online porn. The Mail is on full-on campaign mode. Its columnist, Amanda Platell, wrote possible the most morally and intellectually bankrupt piece I have ever read, in which highly questionable accounts of online child abuse videos were interspersed by arguments which conflated child and adult pornography.

The Guardian was guilty of the same errors, although it had the good grace not to include protracted passages describing child rape to back up its argument. Rape support groups have seized on the opportunity to push for a ban on rape porn. They describe rape porn as a loophole in the law against extreme pornography in 2010. This legislation is already highly problematic and has been used on rare occasions to destroy the reputations of people who did not deserve to have their reputations ruined.

Britain’s rape support groups are composed of some of the most decent, compassionate and hard-working people in our society. The work they do – amid disastrously low conviction rates, an occasionally unhelpful police response and the continued misogyny of some parts of society – should be widely celebrated. They are the best of us. However, on this issue, they are wrong. A ban on rape porn would be unworkable, undesirable, unethical and highly authoritarian. Here’s why:

1)     This would be a law against the activity of consenting adults. No-one is claiming that these are real rapes. They are acted out – usually very badly, according to the Whitehall sources who ruled out legal prohibition – by paid porn stars. They are professionally lit and recorded. They are watched by consenting adults. This is a consensual activity.

2)     There is no evidence of a causal link between rape porn and sexual assault. I do not want to get deeply into the studies on this. They disagree with each other, but where there is a correlation it is a weak one suggesting that the free sale of pornography may reduce instances of sexual assault. I go into some of the historic studies here, but they are all weak. They are weak because there is a difference between the reporting of sexual assault and occurrences of sex assault. Countries with the most sexual assaults may also have the lowest reported instances, because of cultural obstacles. Also, there are so many variables in sexual assault reporting – police reform, cultural change, generational attitudes etc – that any correlation will be highly questionable. But what we can say with some certainty is that there is no evidence of a causal relationship. Even the rape support groups writing to the prime minister did not claim anything of the sort. There was a ten per cent decrease in recorded sexual assault in England and Wales between 2005 and 2011. Over this period, we have seen a massive increase in access to ever-harder pornography. If there was a causal link, we would expect a corresponding surge in reports of sexual assault. There has not been one. There has been a moderate and unsustained reduction.

3)     It would be unworkable. The extreme porn law, which was itself highly problematic, at least had the good sense to ban certain acts: sex with animals, acts which would be likely to cause damage to the breast, genitals or anus etc. But this law would ban the appearance of an act. At which point does it get classified as rape? Almost all the pornography from Japan features women who appear at best uninterested and at worst actively opposed to having sex. Under a strict interpretation, the majority of Japanese pornography would fall under the law. This is not just for the hard stuff. Some time ago I reviewed the film 3D Sex and Zen for this magazine and mentioned that I was uncomfortable with some of the scenes depicting rape. This film was advertised on the London Underground and given a cinema release. Under this law it would be banned. Or take rape scenes in mainstream cinema. While we may be certain of the difference between this and pornography, no law can specify it. Defining pornography is a famously tricky business. I always liked United States Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart‘s test: “I know it when I see it.” But the US Supreme Court’s definition – “of no artistic merit, causes sexual thoughts” – was laughably weak. As comedian Bill Hicks observed, it serves for almost any object on earth, including buses and trains.

The push for a ban on rape porn from parts of the left is its equivalent to the right’s campaign against video nasties in the ’80s. Both confuse the desire to watch something with the desire to do it. People watching the most violent and grotesque horror movies are no more likely to turn into serial killers than anyone else and same holds true for those watching the more extreme end of online porn.

This is a prime instance of a group of people finding something they do not like, being offended, and demanding it be banned. Many radical feminists, who appear to hold ever-more conservative social positions, would find that their campaign literature offends the frothing-at-the-mouth lunatics who leave comments on the Daily Mail website. England, alas, is full of people who are eager to be offended and desperate for whatever offends them to be banned. It is the responsibility of adults to ensure everyone enjoys the full expression of their ideas. To do so they must abide by a simple logic framework:

Does the activity restrict the freedom of others? If people were being raped, it obviously would. If the dramatised rapes were leading to real rapes, it obviously would. But where neither of those points hold, and where any legislative response would invariably criminalise those whom it does not target, we must reject it.

Is yet another law controlling pornography either workable, desirable or ethical?

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