Wrong turn for British censorship law

by on January 3, 2009  •  In Culture

Will the porn wars never end?

The next act in this drama: a new British law criminalizing "extreme pornography." Following is the report from The Independent: (HT Gayle Rubin)

Critics, including at least two lords, say that legislation coming into force next month forbidding the possession of "an extreme pornographic image" will criminalise thousands of previously law-abiding people who have a harmless taste for unconventional sex.

Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 comes into force on 26 January and makes owning offending pictures a criminal offence punishable by up to three years' imprisonment. An image is deemed to be extreme if it "is grossly offensive, disgusting or otherwise of an obscene character" and portrays in any way an act which threatens a person's life, or which results or appears likely to result in serious injury to someone's genitals or breasts.

The law was passed earlier this year following a mother's emotive campaign after her daughter was killed by a man who claimed he was addicted to violent porn.

Opponents have no problems with two provisions banning images of bestiality or necrophilia – both of which are already illegal to do – but fear that the other definitions are so vaguely worded that even images of consenting adults engaging in fictional violence will now be outlawed, giving Britain the toughest anti-porn laws in Europe.

Members of Britain's BDSM (bondage, domination and sado-masochism) community, as well as those in the gothic and alternative scenes, complain that they are being unfairly targeted. "The Government seems to be convinced that if people like us look at pictures for too long we'll end up turning into abusers. That's outrageous," said Claire Lewis, a 35-year-old disabled rights activist from Manchester who has set up the Consenting Adult Action Network (Caan).

Caan campaigners plan to burn their pornography collections outside Parliament. A second group, Backlash, is hiring lawyers from the leading human rights firm Bindmans to contest cases when they come to court.

Caan supporters include the photographer Ben Westwood, eldest son of the fashion designer Vivienne. He fears some of his pictures, which often show images of people bound and gagged, could be outlawed in the new year. "I simply don't believe it is the Government's business to interfere in people's sexuality," he said.

The outlawing of extreme porn won the backing of the Home Office, under the former Home Secretary David Blunkett, after a three-year campaign by Liz Longhurst. Her daughter, Jane, was strangled by Graham Coutts in 2003. During his trial, Coutts said he had a fixation with asphyxiation porn and necrophilia. A petition started by Mrs Longhurst to outlaw violent pornography garnered 50,000 signatures.

The Bill went through the Commons unchallenged and only in the House of Lords was there any significant opposition. Baroness Miller, the Liberal Democrat peer, argued that the legislation would justify the Government "walking into people's bedrooms and turning them into criminals simply for viewing something".

The law is a significant change in direction for policing pornography in Britain because it shifts the burden of guilt from those making the pornography to those viewing it.

Enthusiasts of gothic horror and burlesque shows – which often feature pseudo-violence such as fake knives and participants covered in mock blood, say they are concerned that their artistic creativity will be stifled.

There are also concerns about how the law will be policed. Caan has taken a dossier of images to three major police forces: not one could yet say which pictures would be deemed illegal. One month ahead of the legislation being enacted, the Association of Chief Police Officers has yet to draw up any guidelines on how it is to be policed.

Yesterday, a spokeswoman from the Ministry of Justice said the new law would only be used to target the most extreme cases. "The new offence only covers the possession of images, it does not limit private sexual behaviour," she said.

It is little consolation for Westwood who has vowed to continue his erotic photography regardless: "I'm not going to stop what I do and nor should anyone else. There are already laws in place to stop people harming each other."

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