Please let’s not follow in the footsteps of Britain’s moral panic on porn

Mass-circulation porn isn’t an online-era invention—and efforts to stamp it out have, historically, failed. There’s more than even odds, though, that the hearts and minds of India’s online censors will soon be fired up by Britain’s silly project.

Praveen Swami July 23, 2013 09:50:45 IST
Please let’s not follow in the footsteps of Britain’s moral panic on porn

It’s disgusting, the things you see these days: a mural, running from wall to wall in a public place, with gigantic paintings of a tanned man, his erection visible, approaching a naked woman; another of a woman sitting nude on her lover’s lap; a third of two men doing something unmentionable to a woman who is bent over. It’s a menu of sexual services—and it’s out there in full public view.

Full public view, at the carefully-excavated city of Pompei, obliterated in 79AD: the Lupanere, you see, is one of the great treasures of our shared heritage as humans, telling about Rome’s slave economy and prostitutes who sold their bodies for not much more than would buy two loafs of bread.

Yesterday, British prime minister David Cameron—yep, the same guy known for having fixed Britain’s economy, immigration crisis and foreign policy fiascos—announced a slew of measures to address the really big issue facing his nation: online pornography. Internet Service Providers will soon be obliged to offer new subscribers a default filter restricting access to obscene material. Google and Yahoo, Cameron argued, also need to block specific search terms and websites.

Cameron’s proposals are being hailed by Britain’s tabloids as a great blow for moral order—even though internet professionals say these filters will be unworkable and experts on crime say they’ll be useless.

Please lets not follow in the footsteps of Britains moral panic on porn

Cameron’s proposals are being hailed by Britain’s tabloids as a great blow for moral order. Reuters

They story of the Lupanere tells us that the moral panic over online porn that drives these proposals is just plain silly.

MASS-circulation pornography isn’t an online-era invention. In his path-breaking 1964 work, The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth Century England, the great literary critic Steven Marcus recorded the existence of an “immense literature of flagellation”.

The historian Colleen Lamos, who returned to the issue in a 1998 essay, noted that Victorian Great Britain was “awash in flagellant pornography”. Eugen Diihren, a German sexologist who surveyed England’s brothels, concluded it was “the classic land of sexual flagellation”.

Like now, elements of the mass media whipped up public hysteria: in 1885, the Pall Mall Gazette reporter WK Stead railed against the practices of what he called “Modern Babylon”. News like this found an eager audience in Paris: brothels there celebrated whipping “Le vice Anglais”.

Early in the nineteenth century, campaigns against mass-circulation gathered momentum. In 1802, the Society for the Suppression of Vice began strivings “to preserve the minds of the young from contamination by exposure to the corrupting influence of impure and licentious books, prints, and other publications”.

The difficulties of this project, the society lamented, “have been greatly increased by the application of photography, multiplying, at an insignificant cost, filthy representations from living models, and the improvement in the postal service has further introduced facilities for secret trading”.

From the Leisure Hour of 13 January, 1872, we know it’s strivings were energetic: it seized “140,213 obscene prints, pictures, and photographs; 21,772 books and pamphlets; five tons of letterpress in sheets, besides large quantities of infidel and blasphemous publications; 17,060 sheets of obscene songs, catalogues, circulars, and handbills; 5,712 cards, snuff-boxes, and vile articles; 844 engraved copper and steel plates; 480 lithographic stone ; 146 wood blocks ; 11 printing presses, with type and apparatus; 81 cwt. of type, including the stereotype of several works of the vilest description”.

Yet, porn flourished. From the 1880s and 1890s, new technologies allowed for an explosion of visual porn—including film and mass-circulation postcards. Lisa Siegel, in a 2000 study, noted that the new technologies democratised access to pornography, making it available to new audiences among the working class, people of colour, women and even children.

The authorities responded by setting up an ever-growing surveillance establishment. In 1905, Britain’s postmaster-general even hinted at a foreign hand, recording “a large increase in the number of post-cards, principally of foreign manufacture, sent by the post bearing pictorial designs of an objectionable and in some cases indecent character. Siegel notes that “the National Vigilance Association, the police, the Home Office, and the Postal Service, believed that the expanded audience for pornography and its social repositioning fundamentally disrupted an intrinsic moral order. They responded with increased vigilance in policing working-class space”.

“However”, Siegel concludes, wryly, “the expanded audience appeared to believe that the consumption of pornography remained consistent with that same moral and social order”.

Like every other moral fraud, Cameron’s raised the usual red flags on online porn: paedophilia and rape. These are extremely serious issues. It’s less than clear, though, that there’s any causal connection between either of these things and content found online. India has, according to studies reported in Firstpost, some of the highest rates of sexual crimes against children in the world: in 2007, 53% of children reported one or more forms of sexual abuse. This can’t possibly, given low levels of internet access, be linked to online porn.

Ironically, Cameron’s actually cut funding, in real terms, for the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Service, CEOPS—leading its chairperson, Jim Gamble, to resign in protest. Gamble says online pedophiles will laugh at the kinds of filters Britain is proposing. He also states CEOPS detected 50,000 child predators downloading images from peer-to-peer networks last year—but could make only 192 arrests because of limited resources.

For what it’s worth, I’m not a big fan of porn: for the most part, its sweaty, tasteless representation of sex takes me back to a time of my pimply adolescence that fills me with self-loathing, rather than desire. I’m, fascinated though, by the insights porn offers us into society: into what it tells us about what men and women are really thinking, as opposed to what they’ll tell other people they’re thinking. To my mind, a lot of the moral outrage over porn is in fact about internalised shame over our own desires.

The historian Thomas Babington Macaulay famously lamented that he knew of “no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality”. That’s just what we’re seeing today—a self-loathing and shame driven fit. The panic is silly: it’s worth remembering that the nineteenth century, explosion of pornography notwithstanding, was one of the greatest periods of artistic and scientific creativity the world has ever seen.

Where White Master goes, though, Tonto tends to follow—and there’s more than even odds Cameron’s unworkable moves will presently fire up the minds and hearts of the United Progressive Alliance’s ever-eager online censors.

Let’s please, please not do it: online porn may or may not be disgusting, but blocking it is unworkable—and opens the way for state restrictions on all kinds of other legitimate content. India just can’t afford that.

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