Backlash Update

BCN 85 cover

This originally appeared in BCN issue 85, Spring 2007

Dr Meg Barker, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at London South Bank University, examines the proposals.

I’m a psychologist who has taught and researched sexuality and gender for several years now, including presenting and publishing work on SM and pornography. As a sex therapist I also work with clients who use erotic fiction and images to learn about their sexuality and to enhance their sex lives.

I have several concerns about the proposal to ban violent pornography. Fundamentally I do not think that consensual sexual acts should be criminalised and I am concerned that such legislation would do so on the basis of very little evidence at all.  The existing laws in the UK are sufficient to cover any actual illegal or damaging acts (such as abuse of animals, murder, rape, child abuse, and other sexual assault).  Images of consensual, or fictitious, acts between adults should not be criminalised.

The current fears around the possible impact of ‘violent pornography’ on the internet seem very similar to previous ‘moral panics’ there have been from penny dreadfuls in Victorian times, to horror comics in the 1950s, to video nasties in the 1980s.  Time and time again research has challenged the simple cause-effect relationship between exposure to such media and violent behaviour, but it is an easy scapegoat in a society which doesn’t want to look at the more complex and insidious reasons for crime and violence (for example issues around poverty, class, and the kinds of gender roles that are valued).

Dennis Howitt, a psychologist who has informed the Home Office on such issues in the past, sets out all the available evidence regarding the impact of pornography in his book ‘Crime, the Media and the Law’.  Increase in violent sex crime is not clearly linked to increases in availability of violent pornography, either on-line or in other forms.  In fact many areas of the world which have high levels of violent pornography have the lowest levels of sex crime and vice versa.  There is also no evidence that sex offender behaviour is a response to exposure to violent pornography.  In fact, rapists first see pornography later on average than non-rapists.

From my own research with members of SM and gay communities, I have found that many people use Internet material for educational, as well as for sexual, purposes.  It seems entirely possible that SM and other sexual practices would be considered ‘serious violence in a sexual context’ or ‘serious sexual violence’ under this proposal.  This could mean that SM practitioners and members of other sexual minority groups would no longer be able to access material about how to practice safely, and this may actually increase the risk of physical damage.

There is also evidence that ‘kinky’ and SM activities are on the increase amongst heterosexual couples (with rates of over 30% of people fantasising about, and trying out, practices like bondage and spanking).  Again, these people may be denied access, not only to sexual materials, but also to material which might be used for educational purposes in order to practice both safe SM and safe sex. High levels of anxiety amongst individuals in all these groups may well prevent them from accessing useful information because they would be concerned that they could face prosecution.

I’m concerned that such legislation could send out a sex-negative message which could increase the taboo around sex that already exists. Rather than trying to legislate against possession of ‘violent pornographic’ images, the government should focus on improving sex education and sending out a message of acceptance of the diversity of consensual sexual practices that are conducted in this country so that people will not have to feel so much shame and secrecy around sex.

This piece originally appeared on the Backlash website at


Editorial Comment:

A few issues ago BCN carried an article looking at government proposals to regulate internet porn.

For several months these seem to have been going nowhere fast, but there are rumours that they will be resurrected shortly, perhaps as part of establishing a Blair / Reid “legacy” during the handover to Gordon Brown.

The proposed restrictions on violent material (something so hard to define – exactly when does spanking your partner turn from playful fun to inappropriate?) seem to be in response to one particular crime rather than any significant pattern.

Now, I don’t imagine all BCN readers are avid consumers of the material which the proposed legislation is supposed to cover, but nonetheless it seems to me it may be important to defend against this one.

While Meg examines (right) the academic case against it, what concerns me most about it is the prospect of judges and juries – still steeped in years of homophobia and heterosexuality as the “norm” no matter what the recent legal changes may have been – having to determine what is “bad” enough to warrant a prosecution.

I don’t believe that is going to prove to be balanced in its response to ‘straight’ and ‘gay’ or bi/queer material, and so no matter how the law is drafted even after it bounces between the Commons and Lords a few times, it will in practice become a law which targets lesbian, gay and bisexual people unfairly.

So like Section 28, this could become a law created to appease tabloids and seem tough, which acts by threat to affect many people at whom it was not aimed.