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Abstract and Keywords

The effects of pornography and sexual media are endlessly debated. The debate runs the gamut from fears of moral decline, through coarsening of attitudes, to the promotion and normalization of male violence against women and the rising problems of sex and/or pornography addictions. Historically, pornography has been understood in relation to the category of obscenity. In other words, it depicts actions, functions, and identities that lie on the outer edge of the permissible and have the potential to “deprave and corrupt” likely viewers. In more recent times, the focus has moved away from ideas of corruption of individual viewers toward the broader category of cultural “harms” and effects on society.

Keywords: addiction, moral, pornography, sexual media, violence against women

Pornography is often understood as the ‘lowest of the cultural low’ (Williams 1989)—as one of the ‘body’ genres, its effects are ‘registered in the spectator’s body’ (Dyer 1985) with the potential to transgress the ‘limit between viewer and image’ producing an ‘instability of the distinction between subject and object of representation’ (Dennis 2009, pp. 3–4). The effects of sexual media are endlessly debated—from fears of moral decline, through coarsening of attitudes, to the promotion and normalization of male violence against women and the rising problems of sex and/or pornography addictions. Historically, pornography is understood in relation to the category of obscenity—that is, as depicting actions, functions, and identities that lie on the outer edge of the permissible, and with the potential to ‘deprave and corrupt’ likely viewers. In more recent times, the focus has moved away from ideas of corruption of individual viewers toward the broader category of cultural ‘harms’ and effects on society.

Of course, pornography is not a monolith, however much its detractors might like to assert singular intentions, forms, and effects. As a genre, pornographic media have histories and national and international contexts. There have been changes and continuities across centuries and, in the fast-paced media age, across decades, years, and even months. With the idea of variety in mind, this essay cannot cover the expanse of pornographic materials, their status across individual jurisdictions, and the regulatory frameworks pertaining to production, distribution, and consumption; instead I take a broad-brush approach focused primarily on the Anglo-American contexts to highlight the ways in which the idea of pornography exists as a legal entity while understood as potentially detrimental to the social order and articulated to forms of criminality.

Section I of the essay briefly explores the cultural and social factors that impact current constructions of pornography as an object of legal interest. Section II uses recent U.K. legislation—the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act of 2008—as a case study to explore the move from prosecuting producers to criminalizing simple possession of pornography, drawing out the ways in which calls for legislation attempt to position interests in pornography as outside ‘normal’, ‘healthy’, or ‘safe’ behaviours. Section III (p. 585) examines an area of seeming consensus—the widespread understanding of sexually explicit images of children as ‘documents of abuse’ and subsequent criminalization of ‘child pornography’—and the actions taken to limit access to such materials. The final section draws together the different shades of the challenges and controversies pornography excites, focusing on the ‘seepage’ of pornography into mainstream media cultures; its place in ‘rape culture’; debates about porn addiction; and worries over new technologies and the attendant accessibility of sexual content via the Internet. Legislative moves are often culturally illiterate and focused on worries about effects; thus, this section draws together the complexities of ‘protection’ versus ‘expression’ and reflects upon the problems of attempting to criminalize the sexual imagination.

I. Cultural and Social Constructions of Pornography

Film scholar Linda Williams defines pornography as ‘the visual … representation of living, moving bodies engaged in explicit, usually unfaked, sexual acts with a primary intent of arousing viewers’ (Williams 1989, p. 30). Another film scholar, Peter Lehman (2006, p. 89), emphasizes the ‘masturbatory function’ of pornography, underlining the genre’s affective elements, although that focus on sexual affects as a primary response to porn is perhaps a part of the ‘problem’ of pornography, where public discourse privileges sensory elements and their potential effects over recognizing the specifics of textual elements—aesthetics, genre, narrative. In other words, pornography’s potential to physically arouse consumers is understood to override all other responses, particularly those related to empathy, ethics, and even (for some commentators) basic humanity.

Beyond questions of definition, many people hold strong views on pornography. For some it is not only a problematic media form but it is criminal, in its modes of production, its consumption, and its possession. For others, pornography is also a matter of significant cultural harm, creating the conditions for the dehumanization of, particularly, women and children, and enabling ‘rape culture’. For still others, pornography is a matter of freedom—the liberty to engage in explorations of sex and sexuality even if those explorations may offend others.

Pornography has been primarily understood, at least in Western contexts, as a matter of obscenity. Under British law an item is judged to be obscene ‘if its effect … is, if taken as a whole, such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, in all circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it’ (Obscene Publications Act of 1959). Similar definitions have been used in other jurisdictions, although, since 1973, a tripartite test has been used in the United States to judge items according to ‘community standards’ and ‘applicable state law’ and as a matter of ‘freedom of speech’—that is, whether the work has other important (literary, artistic, political, or scientific) values.

(p. 586) ‘Obscenity’ judges representations as ‘indecent and vulgar, dirty and lewd, gross and vile and thus morally corrupting and potentially illicit’ (Mey 2007, p. 2). Originating in the Greek phrase ob skene or ‘off stage’, obscenity conceives of certain texts as those which should be kept out of view (Mey 2007). It is not only the ‘subject matter of bodily functions, sex, violence and death’ that renders a representation obscene but also the accompanying ‘lack of self-restraint being sought or elicited in the audience or viewer; treating persons as objects; public indecency’ (Kieran 2002, p. 43) that creates concern generating calls for restriction and regulation.

Drawing attention to content (sex) and intentions (to sexually arouse) often points to the ways in which pornography achieves a particularly singular transgression—showing sex ‘for its own sake, for the sheer hell of it’ (McNair 2013, p. 18). In this, porn is often understood as a form without style, aesthetics, or meaning. Aesthetics have been associated with the study of ‘high culture’—art, music, and literature, focusing on values of expression, intellect, and beauty—and cultural hierarchies of texts persist, obviously so when contemplating images of sex and the body. It is in the presumed proximity between the representations of sexual feeling/practices and working upon viewers’ bodies that pornography appears to have inordinate powers of persuasion, as described in this newspaper report from 2009: ‘Youngsters’ minds are being turned after exposure to a disturbing amount of indecent and even hardcore imagery which encourages them to copy what they have seen, says a shocking new study’ (Cox 2009).

While obscenity remains an important test for many commentators, fear-mongering of the kind above draws on newer problematizations of pornography originating in the feminist movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Feminists have argued that pornography should not be considered via moral judgements but should instead be recognized as harmful, in particular to women and girls, individually and socially. Pornography is identified as a special category of representation, part of an armoury (also including rape and domestic violence) to eroticize men’s power over women and their bodies. Andrea Dworkin (1981), a leading figure in the debates now known as the Porn Wars of the 1980s, described porn as systematically dehumanizing women by characterizing them as dirty, masochistic, and desirous of sexual pain and that this has an effect upon women’s status in culture.

That framework has been considerably reinvigorated in the last 10 years or so with the rise of a new radical and campaigning feminism that has narrowed critical focus on pornography to a one-dimensional understanding of it as ‘big business’ exploiting sexual insecurities, while expanding understanding of pornography’s potential harms. In this view, porn has a negative impact on women’s citizenship; curtails children’s rights to an innocent childhood; undermines healthy sexual development and practice; contributes to the breakdown of relationships; and creates the conditions for ‘rape culture’ (Tankard Reist and Bray 2011).

The anti-porn feminism underpinning campaign groups such as Stop Porn Culture has been extensively critiqued for its lack of theoretical rigor, questionable evidence base, and similarities to other highly conservative views of sexuality and gender (Vance 1984; Valverde 1985; Rubin 1993; Johnson 1997; Segal 1998; Attwood and Smith 2013; (p. 587) McNair 2013). Yet it has gained significant purchase in academic and ‘populist’ spheres and, crucially, policy arenas even as it is ‘increasingly rejecting academic terrains of analysis and debate in favor of appeals to common sense and emotional intelligence precisely because this is the ground on which their arguments find most fertile purchase’ (Smith and Attwood 2013, p. 47).

As Walter Kendrick (1996, p. xiii) observed in his study The Secret Museum, the identification of a problem, with its attendant victims, villains, and experts, makes possible the categorization and containment of ‘pornography’ and creates an ‘imaginary scenario of danger and rescue’. The definitional narrative obscures the ways in which power and authority are fully implicated in the problems—of stigmatization, harassment, and blame, as well as protection and punishment—borne by those whose sexual identifications, interests, and practices lie outside what is considered ‘acceptable’, ‘healthy’, ‘normal’, and ‘safe’.

Pornography has frequently been the subject of ‘panic’ wherein ‘notions of what constitutes a “good sexual citizen” or a “righteous sexual citizen” carry with them a variety of narrow prescriptions about good bodies, good sexual practices, and good discourse surrounding sexuality’ (Fahs, Dudy, and Stage 2013, p. 3). Of course, these notions are closely tied to the moralizing practices of power and privilege that attempt to place themselves inside ‘the charmed circle’ (Rubin 1984) of good sex and to heap blame upon those ‘others’ who fall outside.

We can understand this culture of blame through the concept of the ‘sex panic’: a scholarly paradigm for the extreme emotional reactions such as fear, anxiety, anger, hatred, and disgust that erupt in, for example, news stories where new technologies enable young people to engage in ‘risky’ sexual practices, or where the availability of pornography has led to increases in ‘sex addiction’. These reactions have considerable force because they are conventional in a particular time and place (Irvine 2008)—drawing together a complex web of issues (changing attitudes toward sex, sexuality, and the body, communications, generational differences/conflicts, and so forth) in what Lancaster (2011) calls a wider ‘politics of fear’.

Increasingly, to frame, name, and delineate the ‘problem’ of pornography, campaigners and politicians alike deploy ‘emotional intelligence’ and the ‘politics of fear’. Problematizing the naming and describing of pornography is crucial to recognizing how the ‘harms paradigm’ is in the ascendancy in headlines such as ‘So, Minister, when were the civil liberties of porn users more important than those of children?’ (Phillips 2012). There are other emotional appeals, such as worries about ‘healthy sexual development’ or the attendant risks of ‘addiction’ to porn, that may be more effective at hiding their conservative politics. Even if anti-pornography critiques cite gender justice, protection of children, and sexual equality as their goals, their operation through the ‘harm’ frame and calls for increased government regulation can reinforce gender, class, and sexual inequalities.

It is therefore important to see how various positions in debates over pornography—from the ‘right-thinking person’ and ‘concerned parent’ through to the ‘rape crisis worker’—each set themselves apart from those who are supposedly only interested in (p. 588) sex for sex’s sake. Each stakes a claim to a particular way of speaking, judging, and responding, a response that must and ‘can resist the affective address of the work or artefact’ (McDonald 2012, p. 109). In the following sections, activists’ and policymakers’ designations of certain textual materials as beyond the pale are not to be dismissed as mere hyperbole or hysteria (aka moral panic); they are also important practices of distinction (Bourdieu 1984) that demonstrate the ways in which the ‘offence’ and the ‘offender’ are established and the state is encouraged to regulate what might be considered ‘offensive’.

Linda Williams has argued that, in the United States, the prosecution of sex crimes has ‘moved away from the notion of explicit sex and towards the targeting of scapegoat-able “deviants” ’(Williams 2004, p. 166). What constitutes ‘acceptability’ has changed over time, drawing, in legal contexts, on the idea of ‘community standards’ and, in less institutional frameworks, on ideas of ‘liberation’. Images and practices previously associated with porn and obscenity have become re-categorized as chic, cool, or indeed unremarkable (McNair 2013), whilst others are relegated to the realm of the taboo. ‘Extreme explicitness of representation’ (Williams 1992, p. 233) is no longer the measure of obscenity; instead, the problem has mutated to a focus on the potential for perverse imaginings and practices on the part of those who ‘possess’ pornography.

II. Legislating Extreme Pornography in the United Kingdom

Even if explicitness is seemingly no longer so worrisome, the notion of extremity has come to the fore. There is a longer history of targeting representations, particularly cult cinema texts, for their ‘obsessive’ interests in ‘sex and violence’. It is not possible to cover that topic here, but the continuing assertion of the existence of ‘snuff’ movies, for example, ‘marks the nexus of a [persistent] set of cultural fears and fascinations that cluster around fantasies about extremity, the exceeding of limits, and the exercise of violent power in the service of eroticism’ (Downing 2015, p. 249). Such fears and fascinations were given a thorough airing in the United Kingdom during the late 2000s, resulting in the passage into law of a set of provisions colloquially known as the ‘Dirty Pictures Act’ designed to combat ‘extreme pornography’.

Since January 2009, when the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act came into force in England and Wales, more than 5,000 people have been prosecuted under its provisions outlawing the possession of any image if it is both ‘extreme’ and ‘pornographic’ and portrays, in an explicit and realistic way, any of the following—

  1. (a) an act which threatens a person’s life,

  2. (b) an act which results, or is likely to result, in serious injury to a person’s anus, breasts or genitals,

  3. (p. 589) (c) an act which involves sexual interference with a human corpse, or

  4. (d) a person performing an act of intercourse or oral sex with an animal (whether dead or alive), and a reasonable person looking at the image would think that any such person or animal was real. (Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 (c4) Part 5)

In part, these provisions were a response to Graham Coutts’ murder of Jane Longhurst in 2003. Evidence was presented in court that ‘Coutts had been downloading pictures of dead women, strangulation, rape and murder … for eight years’ (Brighton Argus 2004). Following the guilty verdict, the victim’s mother gathered a petition of 50,000 signatures calling for a ban on websites, such as Necrobabes, that Coutts had visited. The Longhurst campaign garnered support from various British newspapers and two Ministers of Parliament, who argued that whilst Coutts may not have been driven to murder by the images he viewed, they had ‘normalized’ his perverse sexual interests, and that the murder was indicative of a wider cultural shift: ‘[Longhurst’s murder] could have happened only in this high-tech age, committed by someone whose murderous fantasies were fuelled by appalling images freely available on the Internet’ (Daily Mail 2004)1. ‘Extreme pornography’ was imagined, by campaigners and supporters, as a new problem, with images more graphic, more violent, and more real than ever seen before, supposedly exacerbated by the newness of the technology2, that enabled the breach of U.K. boundaries and evasion of its existing regulatory frameworks. Particular emphasis was placed on the possibilities of ‘harm’ being caused to viewers and the rest of society by the ‘normalizing’ of asphyxiation, bondage, domination, and submission. Campaigners also argued that the United Kingdom’s primary piece of legislation governing pornography—the Obscene Publications Act of 1959—was no longer fit for purpose in the Internet age.

The hideous object was brought into view through forms of description, creating considerable concern about the excessiveness of so-called extreme images while at the same time rendering those images unseeable. MP Vernon Coaker demanded, ‘Such material has no place in our society … We must move to tackle this’ (quoted in Branigan 2006). Even in the government’s rapid evidence assessment (REA) produced to justify the proposed legislation, pornographic imagery was considered so problematic that even to describe individual images was likely to render the work of the commissioned academic researchers ‘unscientific’ (Itzin, Taket, and Kelly 2007, p. 4)3.

Pornography (of all kinds) was supposedly so ‘powerful’ that legislators, researchers, and other interested readers must be protected from themselves, a framing that re-energized claims that to engage on any level with material designated as ‘extreme’ by MPs, campaigners and news media outlets was to lay oneself open to the possibility of copycat behaviours or, for those such as Conservative peer Lord Hunt who spoke for the provisions, the likelihood of becoming very ill:

I actually felt very sick [seeing the images], because they were pretty disgusting images, and I frankly find it horrific that they are available and that people can see (p. 590) them. I am sorry, but I do not take this very liberal approach of ‘if it does no harm to the people taking part, why should we worry about it?’ I do worry about it, and about the access that people have to that kind of disgusting material.

(Hunt, HL Deb, 21 April 2008, c1357)

The ‘public’ were invited to respond as ‘ordinary people’ to the horrors of this material—to recognize its inherent dreadfulness and to trust in its categorizations by the ‘experts’ in favour of legislation. Writing in the academic Journal of Information, Law and Technology, Julia Hornle (2011, p. 8) had no qualms in admitting that her understanding of extreme pornography was based on assumption and trust:

Most ordinary people (including the author!) regard extreme pornography as disgusting and extremely offensive. Although I have not conducted empirical research into this area, I assume that many examples of extreme pornography depict violence by men against women in a sexual setting and if the new provisions contribute to preventing the social acceptability of such material, this seems an important step to protect the bodily integrity and dignity of women (or indeed other subjects of extreme pornography). [emphasis added]4

Such approving commentary might suggest that the legislation was intended to ensure that those appearing in pornographic imagery were not harmed in its production; however, such protection was not a primary issue for members of Parliament or the upper house—as Lord Hunt clarified during the House of Lords’ debate: ‘We are targeting that material not on account of offences which may or may not have been committed in the production of the material, but because the material itself, which depicts extreme violence and often appears to be non-consensual, is to be deplored’ (Hunt 2008, c1358).

The climate of consensus was made possible by commentators doing their utmost to condemn any interest in ‘this extremely nasty pornography that in no circumstances could be counted as art’ (Hunt 2008, c1358) because it was sick, pathological, and dangerous and the material itself was without nuance or merit, straightforwardly evidencing an interest in committing murder or violence against women. When such claims were met with counter-argument (about recognizing individual privacy, pornography as representation and not ‘acts of violence’, and the likelihood of consensual activities being caught under the purview of the law), proponents retorted that ‘it is plain common sense that when people continuously use some of these revolting images it has an impact on their behaviour’ (Hunt 2008, c1361).

The provisions have been in operation for five years now and have resulted in prosecutions far in excess of the numbers predicted in 2008 (estimates were as low as 30 per annum). The vast majority of prosecutions have been for images of bestiality where the provisions are transparent—possession of images of sex between humans and other species is illegal—but prosecutions have not always been clear-cut. One of the first prosecutions was R. v. Holland 2009, where the defendant was indicted for possessing a video of a woman having sex with a tiger. Unfortunately for prosecutors, who took the case all the way to court, the case was thrown out because the ‘tiger’ in question was actually (p. 591) a man in a tiger skin costume who ‘turned to the camera and roared: “That beats the Frosties advert!” ’ (Telegraph 2009). Laughable as that case now seems, other problems persist. Prosecutions under Sections a through c (quoted above) have demonstrated that perhaps the law’s conceptions of ‘extremity’, ‘realism’, ‘harm’, and ‘injury’ can be used in regressive ways. Some prosecutions have been deployed against sexual minorities, charging them with possession of images of acts it is legal to practice (R. v. Walsh 2012), and with scant regard to the particular provenance or contexts of the materials on the charge sheet (e.g., R. v. Webster 2010, discussed in Smith 2015). Each of these cases raised concerns about how prosecutions are conducted and about the state’s interference in an individual’s privacy when even police and prosecutors are unclear what acts, when represented in photographic or video form, constitute ‘extreme pornography’.

III. Child Pornography

The difficulty, of course, is that all pornography raises the problematic relations between representation and practice, performance and life, seen and concealed, fake and authentic, documentary and fiction, fantasy and reality. So long as the fantasies represented are ‘acceptable’ and fit within sanctioned boundaries of human sexual practice, pornography can be tolerated in law. As always, the problem lies with the fantasies that are more ambivalent and more transgressive—those that bring to the fore questions such as: How can those people do that? How can people like that? What on earth might these interests mean for individuals and society?

While standards of morality, age regulations, and aesthetics may differ across various jurisdictions, there is a fairly settled definition of child pornography as representations that abuse and exploit children for sexual stimulation. The category ‘child’ includes all pre- and post-pubescents under the age of 18. Child pornography is illegal and censored in many jurisdictions in the world. The United Nations and the European Commission, as well as individual national law enforcement agencies, are working to globalize the criminalization of child pornography (Akdeniz 2008).

In the United States, a number of laws have been introduced since 1977’s Protection of Children Against Sexual Exploitation Act, the first federal law to ban the for-profit production and distribution of child pornography. Definitions of child pornography were widened by Congress’s Child Protection Act in 1984, followed up by increased penalties for repeat offenders in the Child Sexual Abuse and Pornography Act of 1986. In 1990, 19 U.S. states prohibited possession of child pornography, but by 2015, all 50 U.S. states had such laws.

In the United Kingdom, a similar picture of multiple legislation covers child sexual abuse imagery. The Protection of Children Act of 1978 makes it illegal to take, make, distribute, show, or possess an indecent photograph. This was extended by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994 to cover ‘pseudo-photographs’—images that appear to be photographs. A further extension was added by the Criminal Justice and (p. 592) Immigration Act of 2008 to cover tracings and other works derived from photographs or pseudo-photographs. The following year, all sexual images depicting children under 18, not just those from photographs or pseudo-photographs, were criminalized by the Coroners and Justice Act of 2009. Further updates are likely. In adding possession to the criminal code, we have seen, as Jane Fae (2014, p. 154) comments,

a shift in thinking in respect of censorship: the idea that material should be censored not simply because it is morally repugnant—not the sort of material that should be available in a civilised society—nor even for the harm it might bring about indirectly, through corruption of those exposed to it, but because such imagery is of itself a criminal fact.

Although pornography featuring children circulates clandestinely, various agencies have seemingly no difficulty in suggesting that the problem is quantifiable and known. For instance, the First World Congress Against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, held in 1996, concluded that ‘While impossible to obtain accurate data, a perusal of the child pornography readily available on the international market indicates that a significant number of children are being sexually exploited through this medium’ (ECPAT 1996). The United Kingdom children’s charity Action for Children (formerly National Children’s Home) believes that demand has fuelled an increase in sex abuse cases. Most agencies agree that new technologies—digital cameras and Internet-enabled dissemination of images across national borders—have resulted in a massive increase in the availability, accessibility, and volume of child pornography. Estimates are rife. A report attributed to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) stated that 20 per cent of all pornography traded over the Internet was child pornography, and that since 1997 the number of child pornography images available on the Internet had increased by 1,500 per cent. In 2007, the British-based Internet Watch Foundation reported that child pornography on the Internet is becoming more ‘brutal’ and ‘graphic’—the CEO commented, ‘The worrying issue is the severity and the gravity of the images is increasing. We’re talking about prepubescent children being raped’—and that the number of images depicting violent abuse has risen fourfold since 2003 (Zheng 2007). The U.S. Department of Justice has claimed that ‘At any one time there are estimated to be more than one million pornographic images of children on the Internet, with 200 new images posted daily’ (Wortley and Smallbone 2006). Much of the trade in child pornography takes place at hidden levels of the Internet, so it is difficult to verify or indeed to challenge many of the statements made by various agencies, but as Nancy Willard (2007) has argued:

Internet fear-mongering is undermining our ability to effectively address the risks to young people online. In their zeal to address these concerns, some individuals and organizations are exaggerating the problem. They present poorly documented statements and misleading claims. Here is one example: One in seven young people has been sexually solicited online.

(p. 593) Inflated claims of children at risk tap into parental anxieties and justify forms of legislation. As with extreme pornography, politicians, campaigners, and commentators favour the intuitive reasoning that interest in images and texts presages action. Yet a study by Wolak, Finkelhor, and Mitchell (2011, p. 22) states that ‘rates of child sexual abuse have declined substantially since the mid-1990s, a time period that corresponds to the spread of CP online… . [T]‌o date, there has not been a spike in the rate of child sexual abuse that corresponds with the apparent expansion of online CP’. Unfortunately, the evidence for a causal link between child pornography and child sexual abuse has not been rigorously examined. Some experts believe that the existence of, and engagement with, child pornography increases actual sexual abuse of children, while others suggest that child pornography can prevent those who are sexually attracted to children from actually offending (Goode 2010).

As the issue has become one on which it is difficult to offer any oppositional view (at least to the idea that creating images of children in potentially ‘sexual’ poses is de facto a crime), child pornography remains off-scene, but of course this means that most believe that such imagery must be horrific and always depicts actual sexual activities between adults and children. The picture may be more complicated—what counts as sexual or erotic imagery is often in the eye of the beholder. The terms ‘child pornography’ and ‘child abuse imagery’ may well cover a lot of ‘innocent’ imagery too, leading to a variety of prosecutions and attempted prosecutions of imagery previously considered ‘artistic’ or otherwise innocent of ‘perverse’ sexual intent. Adam Stapleton (2013) has discussed this in relation to the controversies over photographs taken by Nan Goldin, Bill Hensen, and Sally Mann.

Even so, various jurisdictions such as Canada and Australia have now instituted laws banning cartoon, manga, or written materials in which characters under 18 engage in sexual activities, and others require ISPs (Internet service providers) to monitor Internet traffic to detect such materials. Other forms of detection are being developed to deal with photographic materials. In 2008, Google announced its collaboration with NCMEC to automate and streamline the sifting of millions of images to help child protection officers identify victims of abuse. The U.K. government has opted to extend initiatives such as Cleanfeed (content blocking) with automatic web filters on home accounts, filters on mobile phones, and search engines being reminded of their ‘moral duties’ to block and report attempts to search for ‘blacklisted’ terms.

Whilst child sexual abuse is a serious problem and children certainly have the right to live their lives free of rape and/or coercion, we should perhaps be worried that the methods for detecting and detaining offenders (under child pornography legislation) can exceed what might normally be considered proportionate. Sting operations have been used to trap individuals. For example, the FBI was reported to be posting hyperlinks on the Internet that offered illegal videos of minors having sex, tracking clicks, and then raiding the homes of ‘offenders’, not all of whom proved to have been guilty of any offence (McCullagh 2008). Other investigations, including the U.K.’s Operation Ore, have been criticized for their heavy-handedness and worrisome tactics. Operation Ore identified 7,250 suspects and more than 4,000 homes were searched. Over 3,000 (p. 594) arrests ensued, but of those just over 50 per cent were charged, resulting in 1,451 convictions and 493 cautions (Arthur 2007). As the extent of false arrests became clear, and an estimated 33 suicides followed police actions, the legitimacy of the operation was questioned, although it has had no obvious effect in lessening calls for more punitive measures (Campbell 2005; Leppard 2005; Laville 2009; Campbell 2011). Vigilante actions have also followed: in October 2011, hacking collective Anonymous announced they had located and removed child pornography websites on the ‘dark net’ and had released alleged user names on a pastebin link (BBC 2011).

Worries about child sexual abuse imagery are unlikely to diminish, although there is rising disquiet about some unintended consequences of the legislation, as Willard (2007) observes:

Young digital natives are dismissing fear-based Internet safety guidance because they perceive that adults fear what they do not understand. As a result of this fear-mongering, they may be less inclined to report serious concerns to adults, even when they should. They have reason to fear that adults will overreact. Increasing their disinclination to report is a serious and damaging consequence of the irresponsible fear-mongering.

If prohibitions on sexual images of children are designed to protect children, recent cases in relation to the phenomenon of ‘sexting’ have resulted in the punishment of children. Sexting involves using cell phone messaging to send nude or semi-nude images to others (e.g., friends or dating partners). Like any digital imagery, sexts can be passed on to others or posted on the Internet. In recent years, some teenagers have been charged with possessing and/or distributing child pornography under legislation designed to protect minors (Pilkington 2009; Solon 2015). The British press is currently deliberating on the repercussions attendant on forms of ‘protection’ of minors that pay little attention to the nuance of the ‘crime’, as this recent report outlined:

The dealings with the police have been incredibly upsetting for the 17-year-old, particularly now that so many strangers—police, solicitors and child protection agents—have seen the private images. ‘I am finding it hard to have any sexual intimacy now as every time we start I just remember the horrible detective leering at me and judging me during the interview, as if I’d behaved in a completely immoral way,’ [said the girl].

(Solon 2015)

Legal professionals and academics are also worried that the use of ‘child porn laws’ in relation to sexting is ‘extreme’ or ‘too harsh’. David S. Seltzer (2008), a cyber-crimes blogger and attorney based in Florida, observes, ‘I do not believe that our child pornography laws were designed for these situations … A conviction for possession of child pornography in Florida draws up to five years in prison for each picture or video, plus a lifelong requirement to register as a sex offender’. Researchers in the United States and Australia have found that many young people are unaware of the full legal ramifications (p. 595) of sharing their images or, indeed, possessing images they have taken of themselves, and that the current use of child porn legislation refuses to recognize consensual activities between teens (Draper 2012; Albury, Crawford, and Byron 2013; Hasinhoff 2013).

IV. Criminalizing the Sexual Imagination

This final section draws together the complexities of ‘protection’ versus ‘expression’ and reflects upon the problems of attempting to criminalize the sexual imagination. As we have seen, pornography has become a significant touchstone for political parties of all shades, and across and within national boundaries. The Internet’s ‘triple A’ engine of ‘accessible, affordable and anonymous’ (Cooper 1998, p. 187) sexual possibilities has created bumper opportunities for outrage. From concerned accounts of youngsters in thrall to evil images, through mature relationships that have gone sour ‘because of’ pornography, to accounts of sexual crimes facilitated by mobile technologies, politicians and news media have fallen over themselves to comment on the sexual phenomena they characterize as ‘everywhere’. Newspapers in the United Kingdom have worried about young people’s obsessions with sex and sexual representations: ‘Children Grow Up Addicted to Online Porn Sites’ (Peev 2012); ‘How internet porn turned my beautiful boy into a hollow, self-hating shell’ (Martin 2012). And, in Time magazine’s reporting on ‘cyberporn’ (Elmer-DeWitt 1995), illustrations of a pale, transfixed child and ‘a naked man, his arms and legs wrapped around a keyboard and computer monitor, seeming to dissolve into the screen’, made clear the connection between body and screen as unwholesome, overwhelming, and masturbatory whatever the consumer’s age (Patterson 2001, pp. 104–105). Victims of pornography are also graphically depicted in the Josh McDowell Ministry’s video 1 Click Away5, where men, women, and children are shown being assailed, cajoled, and controlled by grasping hands while a voiceover speaks of the disintegration of the family and community as an effect of porn.

Porn addiction has also become a well-established motif of narratives of consuming pornography. Michael Leahy, the evangelist and author of Porn Nation, claims porn is America’s number one addiction (2008). British journalist Decca Aitkenhead (2010), writing for the Psychologies magazine campaign against pornography, described boys sitting ‘in silence, staring at hardcore pornography on their phones, swapping images of astonishing sexual violence as if they were Pokémon cards’. Child abuse and coercive sex work are both blamed on the ‘narcotic’ force porn exerts on viewers. For Australian campaigner Melinda Tankard Reist, porn and ‘sexualized’ media act ‘as a de facto pimp for the prostitution and pornography industries’ (2009, p. 20). U.S. anti-porn feminist Rebecca Whisnant describes men as victims of ‘grooming’ by pornographers—‘abused’ and ‘consumed’ (2010, p. 115) and the ‘target for ruthless commercial exploitation’ (2010, p. 132).

(p. 596) Reports and surveys have proliferated, as have calls for something ‘to be done’ to protect children in particular from ‘the possible impact of pornography on them and their relationships’ (Berelowitz, quoted in Topping and Georgieva 2013). Commissioning three investigations into ‘sexualization’ and the effects of pornography on young people in as many years (Bailey 2011; Horvath, Alys, Massey, Pina, Scally and Adler 2013; Papadopoulos 20106) as well as contracting academics to write documents to justify proposed legislation (Itzin, Taket, and Kelly 2007), the U.K. government has lighted on Internet pornography as an object of particular concern, and other states look on with interest.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has insisted that further regulations are required to stop children from ‘stumbling across hardcore legal pornography’ (on BBC’s Woman’s Hour, 23 November 2013) and has begun the business of instituting and consolidating regulations that already exist. In the traditionally British way, regulatory bodies, some more ‘institutional’ than others, are seen as key to protecting citizens. Classificatory institutions such as the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) perform their duties with regard to possible ‘effects’ on likely viewers, seeming most worried by the cinematic materials that blur generic boundaries: classification is easiest when romances remain romantic, horror refrains from the comedic, and sex stays firmly in the what is not said explicitly. Singling out material that is ‘likely to encourage an interest in sexually abusive activity’ for cuts in order to receive a certificate (BBFC 2014, p. 24), BBFC guidelines seek to categorize harm as ‘includ[ing] not just any harm that may result from the behaviour of potential viewers, but also any moral harm that may be caused by, for example, desensitising a potential viewer to the effects of violence and reinforcing unhealthy fantasies’ (BBFC 2014, p. 3). Other statements from the BBFC show a seemingly reasonable set of concerns about ‘graphic rape or torture’, ‘sadistic violence or terrorization’, and ‘sex accompanied by non-consensual pain, injury or humiliation’. But they are only reasonable in light of the discursive constructions of extreme porn discussed earlier, which posited that all ‘right-thinking’ viewers would recognize that fantasies of sexual violence and/or rape are surely unhealthy.

The representation of driven and disturbing porn viewing is often used to ‘explain’ other criminal behaviours. Just as supporters for the extreme porn provisions claimed that viewing violent porn led to Jane Longhurst’s murder, proponents of the rape porn provisions to be included in the Criminal Justice and Courts Act of 2015 made much of the fact that two convicted murderers, Mark Bridger and Stuart Hazell, possessed pornography, associating their viewing of pornography with the commission of their crimes. Sad cases such as these are often used strategically, but they cannot in themselves justify prohibition. Even so, in their book The Porning of America, Carmine Sarracino and Kevin Scott make larger claims for pornography’s influence on society, linking the torture at Abu Ghraib to the guards’ interest in pornography. The guards, they claim, were ‘intensely involved, on a daily basis, in porn’ and ‘were fluent’ in ‘the visual language of violent and degrading pornography’ (2008, pp. 139–144) that they carried through into their off-duty activities—an ‘easy-to-imagine evening of entertainment’: ‘a little porn, a little abuse, a little more porn, a little torture, and then some more (p. 597) porn’. Although there is no evidence that the soldiers had actually watched any violent pornography themselves, Sarracino and Scott argue that ‘Given the presence of porn in their lives, it seems likely that the guards perpetrating the abuse at Abu Ghraib deliberately imitated the violent porn that now thrives on the Internet’ (2008, pp. 149–153).

Thus, for some, pornography is a form of propaganda (Jensen 2011, p. 25), a kind of miasmic presence in the culture, that contributes to the training, for men, ‘to view sex as the acquisition of pleasure by the taking of women’ (Jensen 2011, p. 27) and thus to uphold the values of ‘rape culture’. Campaigners from Stop Porn Culture have suggested that

The pornography industry has pushed its way into our lives, distorting our conceptions of sex and sexuality [and that] after viewing pornography, men are more likely to … report decreased empathy for rape victims, believ[e]‌ that a woman … dress[ing] provocatively deserves to be raped [and have] increased interest in coercing partners into unwanted sex acts.

Here, then, we see the problem of pornography as ‘offence’ mutating, and the ways in which ‘offender’ and ‘victim’ are sometimes collapsed into one another where men are both victims and perpetrators. As the main ‘users’ of porn, men are viewed as the champions of porn, learning from it and ‘using’ it to victimize women, but at the same time they are victims of pornography as it poisons their minds, their sexuality, and their relationships. This collapse of distinctions has one particular impact: porn users must be protected from themselves.

Too often politicians and media outlets look for explanations and effects at the level of the individual (although, as we see above, this can extend to encompass all men, given the wrong messages). This modelling of media effects in certain traditions of research supports depoliticized and deculturalized preoccupations with ‘attitudes’. Thus, pornographies (from written texts through to Internet videos) have been accused of having magical powers to persuade—altering behaviours and emotions, encouraging debauchery and perversions, and depraving and corrupting viewers7. Even if media theory and audience research have demonstrated that in other media forms (e.g., TV, film, novels) those powers of persuasion may not be as strong as once believed, pornography is still understood to have a significant educative role, teaching male audiences about sexuality in ways that override social and cultural understandings of ethics, morality, and subjecthood.

A project undertaken by psychologist Brett Kahr using a representative survey of 19,000 U.K. adults found that 90 per cent of men and 60 per cent of women have viewed pornography at some time. Twenty-nine per cent fantasize about playing a dominant role during sex; 33 per cent fantasize about playing a submissive role during sex; 4 per cent fantasize about being violent toward someone else; 6 per cent fantasize about violence being done to them by someone else (Kahr 2008, p. 588). Thus, many people enjoy submissive fantasies, but the reasons for such enjoyment are complicated—see, for instance, recent publications exploring the complex interplay of women’s involvement (p. 598) in BDSM rape-play and experiences of sexual assault (Bergner 2013; Hammers 2013). There is little systematic academic research on consumers of ‘mainstream’ or ‘ordinary’ pornography, and even less on the particular interests in fantasies of rape, even as such fantasies form the basis of many kinds of narrative from formula romances (such as Mills and Boon), through cinema and television, and ‘high culture’ literature. Representations of rape and sexual violence constitute a significant part of the phenomenon of ‘extreme cinema’. Understanding audience pleasures and engagements with these is, thus, a fraught and risky business. The idea of showing sexual violence carries with it a host of perceived worries; a key one is the fear that depictions of rape may cause sexual arousal.

Our culture maintains a tight line on this: any depiction judged likely to arouse viewers, especially male ones, is per se dangerous. There is, however, a powerful discourse of ‘redemption’ for representations of sexual desire (especially in ‘art house’ cinema), whereby critics and regulatory bodies, such as the BBFC, redefine unusual and/or dangerous images as ‘unerotic’ in order to make them ‘safe’. To admit to films being sexually arousing is to attach a smell of danger to them, because arousal is seen as basic, compulsive, and overriding. Equally, representations explicitly targeted to female audiences are often justified as ‘safe explorations’ of rape—interesting to women precisely because they allow them to experience the possibility of ‘giving in’ to kinds of sex they would avoid in ‘real life’. Men are not given the same ‘excuse’: for a man to fantasize rape, or to enjoy a rape fiction, is to be complicit in actual violence against women.

The recognition of female rape fantasies has generated its own difficult concerns. Brought to prominence by Masters and Johnson’s (1966) research and made concrete by Shere Hite’s Hite Report (2003) and Nancy Friday’s (1973, 1975, 1991, 2009) work into women’s sexuality, ‘force fantasies’ are enjoyed by a substantial proportion of women; a recent meta-study concludes that between a third and half of all women experience rape fantasies (Critelli and Bivona 2008). However in, for instance, judgements by the BBFC on films containing ‘sexual violence’, that has aroused powerful fears that women’s rape fantasies might be misread. Arguments in favour of criminalizing extreme pornography are presented as a matter of protecting women and eradicating violence against them. The research indicating that large numbers of women engage with fantasies of rape also suggests that women viewers may well be criminalized by proposals to outlaw rape porn: making many women’s most private thoughts the subject of public criticism and even prosecution will not operate in women’s best interests.

Legislation is often engaged in playing catch-up with technology and the uses to which it is put. As I have already noted, governments are increasingly worried that hard-core content distributed digitally evades particular national regulations. Julian Petley (2014) has recently explored the ways the U.K. government has sought to integrate European directives on digital services, outsourcing powers to various nongovernmental organizations who have advocated for more regulation (in order to justify their own existence), such as the BBFC, Ofcom, and its adjunct ATVOD. Thus a ‘precautionary’ approach with a distinctly censorious bent has become the U.K.’s default mode response to new technologies. Then Prime Minister, David Cameron (2010–16) (p. 599) suggested that he wanted to send a ‘clear message’ about the acceptability or otherwise of sexual representations but seemed completely oblivious to the ways in which legal frameworks may be productive of the very ‘problems’ they seek to address. While anti-pornography campaigners call for legislation to address regressive gender ideologies or sexual practices, the generative role of classificatory systems in producing intensely normative representations is often ignored8.

The BBFC has had a significant role in the delineation of what counts as legal pornography in the United Kingdom via the powers given to it in the Video Recordings Act of 1984 (Petley 2000), and those powers have recently been extended through the Audiovisual Media Services Regulations of 2014, which bring online video streaming (known as video on demand [VOD]) under their purview (Petley 2014). These amendments have now made the following acts unlawful on VOD: spanking, caning, ‘aggressive whipping’, penetration by any object ‘associated with violence’, physical or verbal abuse, water sports, female ejaculation, strangulation, face-sitting, and fisting. As numerous critics of the new regulations have indicated, that list enacts in law a particular disapproval of practices in ways which ‘stink of misogyny’. As journalist Frankie Mullin observes, ‘On what planet is female ejaculation dangerous? And why should being smothered by a pussy be considered more problematic than gagging on a cock?’ (quoted in Viney 2014). Moreover, the criminalization of fisting and urination can be seen as an attempt to target homosexual porn.

Yet further, there are worrying politics at work here that can serve to obscure genuine problems. We can see this in the United Kingdom, where ‘child pornography’ has come to stand in for the actual physical and sexual abuse of children; concerns about violence are displaced onto consensual sex practices such as BDSM, onto the figure of ‘a homosexual sadomasochist stalking defenceless children’ (Williams, 2004, p. 170), and onto extreme porn. Lancaster (2011, p. 2) has argued that sex panics ‘give rise to bloated imaginings of risk, inflated conceptions of harm, and loose definitions of sex’. Elements of these ‘bloated imaginings’ can be seen in the institutional responses to all kinds of contemporary representations9. While many people may worry about the ‘effects’ of pornography, the rush to legislate demonstrates a particular set of anxieties that refuse to acknowledge the complexities of sexual representations and their place in contemporary culture. As Feona Attwood (2014, p. 1187) notes, institutional responses to such imagery have expressed worries that culture is increasingly ‘cruel … a set of concerns which draw on familiar notions of media effects and the obscene [in which] media [are] immersive and contagious’. In the drama of extreme porn outlined in section II there is a collapse of anxieties about the growing sexualization and mediatization of society, exhibiting fears of a broader ‘turn to the extreme’ across a range of cultural forms and about an appetite for graphic spectacles of the body (Lockwood 2009). The kinds of concern around extreme media highlight the operation of horror and porn as ‘body genres’ (Williams 1991), presenting and provoking sensation and affect. In the current climate both register as extreme and unruly, and in the cacophony of concern about those effects ‘(hurt, anger, frustration, fear and nausea) … [are established] as the acceptable reaction to pornography’ (Paasonen 2007).


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                                                                                                                                                                                            (1.) A strategic rather than factual argument, as Carline has argued: ‘To construct this murder, as tragic as it is, as an unusual event caused by the impact of extreme pornography is problematic, and its supposed remedy—censoring extreme pornography—will do little to prevent the deaths of women in domestic settings’ (2011, p. 318).

                                                                                                                                                                                            (2.) Similar arguments have been deployed against other problematic media—see for example Martin Barker’s (1984a) A Haunt of Fears: The Strange History of the British Horror Comics Campaign; his edited collection The Video Nasties (1984b); the co-authored exploration of the controversy over Crash (Barker, Arthurs, and Harindranath 2001); and the edited collection Ill Effects: The Media Violence Debate (Barker and Petley 2002).

                                                                                                                                                                                            (3.) The very notion of a rapid evidence assessment is strange: actually, rapidity was the last thing needed on this topic. Specific problems with the REA are explored in Attwood and Smith 2010.

                                                                                                                                                                                            (4.) The significance of this studied ignorance is amplified when one realizes that Hornle is also a member of the board of ATVOD, the body that has been given delegated powers from OfCom to govern video-on-demand services in the United Kingdom and that has been given powers, introduced in the Audiovisual Media Services Regulations of 2014, to prohibit content that is refused a classification by the British Board of Film Classification on U.K. video-on-demand services.

                                                                                                                                                                                            (5.) Josh McDowell Ministries, Just 1 Click Away, available at (accessed 10 July 2012)

                                                                                                                                                                                            (6.) I pointed to the weaknesses in the Papadopoulos report elsewhere (Smith 2010), and the Bailey report has also received considerable critical attention, including the blog posts collected by the Onscenity Network available at

                                                                                                                                                                                            (7.) But as McNair (2014, p. 168) has recently argued, ‘Porn, like the knife in every household kitchen, is used by the vast majority of people in ways which cause no harm to others. Only a small minority will use it to injure another, which is why we do not ban kitchen knives (although some jurisdictions restrict possession outside the domestic zone)’.

                                                                                                                                                                                            (8.) For a discussion of similar issues in relation to Australia and its classificatory systems see Stardust 2014.

                                                                                                                                                                                            (9.) Not just in relation to pornography, we can also see these worries in relation to European art-house cinema whose images of sex and violence are both graphic and seemingly intentionally confrontational (Horeck and Kendall 2011) to the subgenre of torture porn and its spectacles of pain and terror (Jones 2013) and to the ‘Shock’ videos that circulate on the Internet as forms of 21st-century Grand Guignol ‘self-scaring’ (Kennedy and Smith 2013, p. 239).