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Porn free

...and (non-user) Jennie Bristow would like it to stay that way

How do you feel when you flick through a copy of Men Only, or switch on a satellite porn channel? Maybe you are turned on, excited, interested at least. Maybe you are amused or embarrassed. Maybe you see porn as sexually liberating or even politically progressive. You can feel what you like; I really don't care.

But how about if you feel offended by Page Three, degraded by naughty websites and threatened by the Pirelli calendars at your workplace? Does that matter? If you are so upset by the calendars that you cannot work properly and feel you have to jack in your job, is that just your problem? Is the five minutes of fun enjoyed by the man with his hand in his pants more important than the basic self-esteem you need to get through life? As for the principle of free speech, that may be all right for the pornographer but as anti-porn crusader Catherine A MacKinnon puts it, 'who listens to a woman with a penis in her mouth?'. Free speech, they say, is of little use in healing emotional wounds.

This is the new radical feminist argument for banning pornography, which literally comes from the heart and which, in these caring times, nobody can dispute. Now that, I do care about. It's a low trick which makes hurt feelings the end of the world and depicts defending freedom of expression as the act of a callous, insensitive person who has never had to suffer the trauma of psychological debasement.

Of course there are other feminist arguments for banning porn, but even as a feminist I never found them convincing. 'Porn objectifies women': does it? If women still have a subordinate status in society it can hardly be explained by dirty pictures. 'Porn causes rape': no it doesn't! If all the schoolboys whose wet dreams were based on girlie mags went on to become rapists, Britain would be one big rape camp. 'Porn physically damages the women who act in it or model for it.' Only if you assume that all filmed rape scenes are real rape scenes, and even then there is already a law against rape.

But the latest argument for censorship, the porn-causes-emotional-injury one, really gets to you. Because what can you say? Of course people are hurt, offended and upset by some of the images they see. And in the self-obsessed, victim-centred society we live in today, how you feel is often elevated above all else. If you accept that what matters most is that people are not upset - or 'verbally abused', 'emotionally traumatised', 'mentally scarred', even 'psychologically raped', depending on how much you are against porn - you have an unanswerable case for censorship. Or self-censorship. Or 'sensitivity', as some might call it.

Take this example of how sensitivity meets censorship. At Leeds University in September, 2000 promotional copies of the men's lifestyle magazine GQ were pulped because its pictures of sexy girls were deemed to be an example of the 'objectification' of men and women. Leeds University students' union has always taken a strong line on this, having banned the Sun newspaper from sale four years ago; but since the ban was overturned the executive has been sensitive about restricting freedom of speech according to its own prejudices. So while the shop continued to sell GQ, the 2000 promotional copies, sitting downstairs, covered up by the women's society banner, were pulped. Why? Because one twentysomething graduate, a former women's officer and students' union life member, claimed that she felt 'harassed' by the concealed filth.

Or this example. At a feminist conference two years ago in Brighton, I interviewed Alison Lochhead, a feminist artist whose work had been removed from display in the main foyer and hidden in a tiny room at the top of a building. 'Rape news' and 'Telephone directories 1 and 2' were collages that counterpoised porn ads and images with newspaper articles about rape. The conference delegates who complained about the display had no doubts about its anti-pornography message. But the very fact that the images were there upset them to such an extent that they could not bear to have it in sight. As Ms Lochhead told me, 'I did this display to expose porn for what it is and to provoke discussion about the issue'; but in a conference where listening to women's feelings was paramount such a discussion could not be had.

Get the picture? You can have endless political discussions about the impact of pornography on women's rights. You can debate the evidence as to whether porn directly causes physical harm. You can even speculate, as some sexual-identity feminists now do, that pornography (or 'erotica') might be good for women's rights. But you cannot argue against the fact that porn upsets, 'emotionally harms', some women: even if you don't believe them you can't get inside their heads and prove they are lying, can you? Our post-Diana society seems to have decided that you are how you feel, that hurt feelings are as damaging as hurt bodies, and that protecting people from emotional harm is more important than defending freedom of expression. 'Are you really saying that his freedom to wank is more important than my freedom not to feel like I am being mentally undressed whenever I open a newspaper?' That kind of thing.

Pornography does not bother me one way or another. I don't think it advances women's rights or holds them back, and I would rather have sex than look at other people having it. What bothers me is that my freedom to express and experience contentious ideas or images of any kind should be constrained, because other people are assumed to be too weak to deal with an image that might make them cry. I particularly resent the assumption that I am like this too; that other people will restrict what they show me because they think I might be upset. As a person, 'as a woman', I am capable of much more than that; and for this, the inevitable label of 'insensitive' is a price well worth paying.

Reproduced from LM issue 115, November 1998



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