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Britain’s Porn Pass threatens all our free speech rights

“Harder”, we can imagine the wife moaning, our minds shaped by pornographic cliché, as her young lover takes her in a frenzy of lust, even as her boorish, ale-sodden husband snores like a horse in the next room. The lover’s companion, meanwhile, has made his way into the bedroom of the family’s fair-haired young daughter, whose large breasts and buttocks he’d been staring at all day. Terrified, she almost cries out, but it’s too late — and before daybreak, she is his loyal sex-slave.

In March, the United Kingdom announced plans to make age-verification passes mandatory to access adult websites, a bid to protect us from this kind of distasteful smut. To access adult content, internet users will have to purchase passes that will be sold online on uploading appropriate legal identification or at newsstands for a modest £4.99 (approximately Rs 450).

 Britain’s Porn Pass threatens all our free speech rights

Representational image

Except, this distasteful smut isn’t distasteful smut; it is Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Reeve’s Tale, one of the most venerated texts in the literary canon, translated from Middle English into Porn-ese.

I have thries in this shorte nyght
Three times in this short night
Swyved the milleres doghter bolt upright,
I screwed the miller’s daughter upright

Britain’s so-called ‘Porn Pass’ has widespread social approval in that country. Like in India, there is growing concern over the impact porn has on young adults. Pornography has been blamed, with some justification, for legitimising sexual violence. Democracies across the world are considering the Porn Pass-model to regulate access to digital content.

Film ratings systems — the model the Porn Pass intends to replicate in the digital world — seek to safeguard children from damaging content. That aim is laudable.

But the Porn Pass also gives governments the power to fence-off content, and monitor who accesses it, raising the risk of police rule over culture and the arts.

Filth — explicit representations of sex, deviance, even excrement — are, indisputably, a part of our cultural inheritance. Lucius Apuleius’ Metamorphosis, written between 124CE and 170CE, and the only Roman novel in Latin to have survived in its entirety, has its protagonist transformed into an ass, who among other things, accompanies a catamite priest on his journeys, is subjected to sexual advances by a legionnaire, and is made to have public sex with a murderess.

Literary worth — quality that separates Metamorphosis from smut — is a curious, shifting thing: a film documenting Lucius the Ass’ bizarre journey would, more likely than not, never pass the censors.

The Tudor writer John Heywood’s 1533 morality play, Play of the Wether — a powerful satire on monarchy, and case for religious moderation — has no shortage of sexually-perverse innuendo and humour: There is good spedde the devyll and all they grynde! But whether that the hopper be dusty, Or that the mylstonys be sumwhat rusty, By the mas, the meale is myschevous musty!

The “hopper”, an inverted-pyramid shaped funnel that receives the seed grain, is an obvious metaphor for the penis; the “meale” the result of the entire botched grinding operation. The “grinder”, simply put, has put his tool to the wrong hole.

The sexually-explicit isn’t, of course, just part of the European canon. Pre-Islamic poet Imra’ul Qais, for example, described ‘the contentment of love’ as “hugging, kissing, and belly-lapping/then hair-pulling and body-rocking that floods the eyes”. Even following the rise of Islam, the tradition continued: Abu’l Ala al-Ma’arri’s magnificent Epistle of Forgiveness, despite its religious themes, is charged with bawdy, irreverent humour.

Explicitly-sexual themes, in Indian tradition, feature not just in poetry, like Amru’s famous Sanskrit poetry, but in the great temple architecture of Khajuraho and Konark. In the 19th century, though, obscenity replaced religious heresy as a threat to the moral order. Europe was awash with pornographic work, fixated on transgressions of the era’s two great taboos — race and class. Governments saw this as a major threat to order and society.

Literature, too, came under assault. DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, and James Joyce’s Ulysses were among the masterpieces assailed for obscenity.

In 1963, United States supreme court judge Potter Stewart sought to distinguish highbrow obscenity from what he called hard-core pornography with this pithy dictum: “I know it when I see it”.
The phrase inspired cartoonists across the country, but did little to bring definitional clarity.

Is the threat that governments could end up censoring literature and the arts, using our fears about porn, a worthwhile price to pay to protect society? For one, the evidence on a casual relationship between porn and violent sexual behaviours is mixed. Two government commissions in the United States — one made up, in the main, of liberal experts and the other packed with religious anti-porn crusaders—came to very different conclusions.

In an authoritative 2007 study, criminal justice experts Christopher Ferguson and Richard Hartley concluded that it was time to “discard the hypothesis that pornography contributes to increased sexual assault behaviour”. Their meta-analysis concluded porn could make those already prone to violent behaviour more likely to carry out crimes but not those without the propensity.

The United States, the world’s largest consumer of pornography, has seen its rape rate decline even as internet resources became more widely available — from 42.5 per 100,000 population to 30.7 in 2017.

Perhaps more important is the notion that what we read, or what we watch, needs policing by government. There is no simple causal linkage between consuming ideas to acting on them.

Terrorism researchers who spend their working hours reading jihadist manifestos, for example, are not known for their propensity to become suicide-bombers.

There’s some irony in what Porn Pass walls off, and what it doesn’t: the United Kingdom doesn’t, for example, censor misogynist youth culture, advertising which sexualises young adults or violent video games.

Protecting young people from harm is vital, but decisions on what ideas children ought be exposed to — whether sex in film, or violence in the news — should rest with parents, not bureaucrats. There are plenty of digital tools that allow parents to regulate what their children can access.

From Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses to VS Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness or Joseph Lelyveld’s Great Soul, Indians have already seen their intellectual life savaged by governments who pass off their pursuit of power as public interest. Ideas do not kill. Forcing us not to engage with them won’t stop anyone who does.

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Updated Date: Apr 12, 2019 12:31:43 IST