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Legislating the Libido

On the UK’s new anti-pornography laws

It was certainly one of the more unorthodox protests in living memory: red-blooded women straddling the faces of submissive, supine men outside London’s Parliament House. This orgiastic pantomime was prompted by a recent amendment to the UK’s Communications Act of 2003, banning the depiction of an assortment of sexual scenarios, ranging from spanking to penetration-by-objects to verbal abuse to fisting; as well as the aforementioned face-sitting.

Critics have noted that many of the acts being rejected by these regulations are those based in the female body. Indeed, it does appear there is a gendered inconsistency regarding what is, and is not, allowed under these new regulations. Why is face-sitting banned, but a phallus receiving oral attention allowed? Why is female ejaculation anathema, but male ejaculation gets a pass?

The answer can only be found in a deep-seated and long-held fear of female sexuality in the heart and home of the Anglosphere. Different bodily fluids have different levels of respectability: there is a hierarchy of excretions, which wavers between cultures. (Although tears are usually at the top, as a sign of humanity, rather than animality.) Semen, apparently, is visually appropriate, since it is a sign of culturally legitimate potency. Female “squirting” upsets the established order of things, and could lubricate the slippery slope to polymorphous multisexuality.

Part of the American Dream is having unfettered access to a space to realize your fantasies. There is thus (currently) more freedom given to the porn industry here; although there is also a constant struggle between sexual libertarians and censorious moral crusaders. One should never take Pornhub’s smorgasbord of options for granted (even as this galaxy of choices itself obscures and forecloses erotic paths not taken). American Puritanism creates visible exceptions, like activist porn-stars and politically-engaged sex-positive feminists of all stripes. English Puritanism is still hampered by decorum and Downton Abbey style “keeping up appearances.” One can do whatever one wants in one’s own home, so long as the servants are blindfolded, and Uncle Roger doesn’t tell the Brigadier. Americans fight for the right on principle to live how they choose, without having to explain themselves.

Hence the notion of “the Nanny State” in the UK. Mary Poppins is their totemic superego and Benny Hill their Id (and I say this as someone who has lived in both London and New York). The great modernist author, Elizabeth Bowen wrote, “There is vice now, but you cannot simply be naughty.” One way of reading the ban on quintessentially English past-times like spanking is a nostalgia for a time when sex was simply risqué, and not some kind of traumatic contest. (And here it’s interesting to note that the body banning the depictions of these acts is the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport.) As cultural critic, Nina Power, has asked, “What would humanist pornography look like? . . . What if porn stopped being such a brute and actually started to deal with the question of pleasure?”

Given the global architecture of the Internet, the new regulations are perhaps more symbolic than pragmatic, since UK citizens will still have access to their favorite fetish, just with different accents. (Although one should never discount the erotic power of an accent – even if it’s one’s own.) The Cameron government, however, has ensured that porn consumers will be suitably ashamed before they have access to their mediated jouissance, since the entire country has installed a default “porn filter,” which households need to actively opt out of in order to get their fix. (Thus creating a handy database of “perverts.”) As feminist philosopher, Margret Grebowicz, has argued, “What is striking about Internet pornography, however, in contrast to previous forms of hard-core moving-image pornography, is the metalevel discourse of information sharing in which it is situated. There is something about the imaginary of democratized information that immediately makes it porn-friendly, or that at the very least makes people take off their clothes” (51). Indeed:

pornography is problematic, not because a certain kind of image causes its consumer to commit a certain kind of act, or because this imagery produces gender-as-inequality, or that it distorts the truth of normal sexuality. It is problematic as an instrument of the kind of democracy that requires the disappearance of the secret existence and the auto- intoxication of the social. Given its success, Internet porn is arguably the most important tool of a social order which requires transparency of its subjects. (58)

Perhaps the people have an inkling of this. Indeed, the pendulum seems to be swinging from the transparency of Big Brother — where the voyeuristic viewer could see through walls — to the new British reality TV show called Sex Box, in which couples have sex inside an opaque cube within the studio, and then describe the encounter to a panel of “sexperts.” This would suggest that we want to preserve an imaginative space, not colonized by the actuality of the image. In which case, this is about attempting to restore the secret within the harsh interrogation light of the panopticon. This is post-Snowdon nookie.

Ultimately, the English may be “perversely” attempting to maintain a sense of transgression within the flood of filth that is the red-light district of the Internet. If so, it would be less a reactionary attempt to control the visual diet of their citizens, than an attempt to salvage or protect the last few avenues for erotic thrills in a world of ubiquitous obscenity (by maintaining the golden age of the public/private split). I have written about “peak libido” before — the notion that our individual and collective desires are being exhausted by contemporary hyperconsumer culture. Desire, like fossil fuels, are being fracked away and depleted. One way to perhaps make libido sustainable again is to consciously scale back the solicitous avatars that tug at our eye-balls, loins, and wallets. (But again, this doesn’t account for the gendered hypocrisy here, and the implicit censoring of non-hetero practices.)

Clearly something is off-kilter when 50 Shades of Grey is a best-selling book world-wide, yet fantasy depictions of “physical restraint” and “humiliation,” are on the banned list in an alleged modern democracy. Indeed, it’s probably most accurate to see this suite of regulations as dovetailing with Fortress Europe’s attempt to wind-back the clock to a time when national identity wasn’t threatened by immigration or the internet. That is, to a time when Orwell was found in the fiction section, rather than the template for government policy. And when Page 3 girls were the tip of a taboo ice-berg which reassured the power-brokers that the working class were doing their dirty jobs, and not having more dirty fun than their overlords.

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Dominic Pettman

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