NOTE: This text is suitable for any person to read. In a way, that is the whole point. If you believe from the subject matter that this is not a topic for open and frank discussion, then that is part of the problem. Read on for why.
So now, three years deep into his regime's methodical dismantlement of British humanity, Prime Minister David Cameron would seek to crush pornography.
This is exceedingly dangerous. Censoring and monitoring a whole nation's internet usage and putting your name on lists if they do not like yours: even those most adamantly opposed to pornography should know that permitting this government an iota of that power, for any purpose, would be the blindest folly.
But the real problem runs deeper: to a set of mistakes of civilizational magnitude. While the focus here is on British society, these could just as easily be applied, with varying mutations, to societies all over the world in what has become one of the most calamitous, yet least confronted, global problems of our time.
1) We lack an informed understanding of sex. Sex and sexuality issues are far more complex than we tend to assume, and certainly more complex than is reflected in the current British national conversation about them. Where ignorance leads, paranoia and hysteria follow. A more informed and rigorous social mindset is needed if we wish to get anywhere with sex-related problems.
2) Sex is not inherently harmful. There is a distinction between sexuality as a whole, and harmful sexual outcomes (violence, the subjection of women, child abuse, and so on): and yet, through ignorance and fear, we tend to carelessly conflate them. Too often we assess sexual behaviour and material not through its outcomes, but through an ethical compass long mangled beyond recognition.
3) We are not clear on what pornography actually is. Pornography is not the problem, though certain things within its content or context can be. But to identify those, we need to be MUCH clearer on what we are talking about: because pornography can mean any of a thousand different things, or nothing at all. In the dire wreckage of the “war on terror”, we can no longer excuse ourselves for the consequences of crusading against things poorly defined.
Sex in Society: What are the problems? (And what are not?)
Sexuality is a complex matter. What great importance it has in our lives, is not an importance we have seen fit to attach to developing informed understanding of its social and political dimensions. Rather, we are at once obsessed with it and at once so dismayed that we dare not look it in the face. It is marginalized from mainstream discussion in private and public settings, even while most of us spend enormous time either thinking about it, exposed to it on television screens or newsstands (including those manifestations Mr. Cameron is mysteriously not so worried about), pursuing it on the internet, or just working out its implications for our own lives, too often painfully. Even to be critically engaged in it is to find no immunity to this paradox: it was precisely those bitter polarizations over how to regard sex, including pornography, that decimated the feminist movement from within in the 1970s and 80s.
Perhaps it is no surprise then that in the Cameron crackdown conversation, the language is of protecting the 'innocence' of children from the 'corroding effects' of pornography, or of 'sick' people typing 'abhorrent' terms into search engines. These are very strong words, with a severe emotive charge; and it is especially dangerous, given their role in policy generation, that their meanings or chains of causation are left to assumption, rather than being clearly set out.
So straight away, let's do Mr. Cameron's job for him. Let's actually define the problems. What are the outcomes regarding sex in society that are quite rightly fearsome and reprehensible, and that most require concerted policy attention?
- Sexual violence and abuse. Most of all, the endemic abomination that is rape, and our abject failure to culturally, let alone legally, establish this as one of the most shocking social afflictions of our time, and still less take effective action against it.
- Sexual subjection: That is, relationships of hierarchy or conflict between men and women, especially the subjection of women as a long-running human disaster. This includes concerns about objectification, i.e. the reduction of any human being to an object of another's sexual satisfaction.
- Essentialisms and prejudices: The reinforcing of stereotypical assumptions about the attributes and roles of men, women or otherwise. This can be manifested in hatred and persecution against people who do not conform to gendered expectations or sexual arrangements, including people of different, diverse sexualities, diverse forms of the family, or just sheer blatant sexism.
- Body image standards: The social valuing of particular body shapes and appearances above others – especially the establishment of a singular ideal of beauty or attractiveness that is inherently meaningless and arbitrary, but nonetheless subjects people to intense social pressure or anxiety.
We should note the additional concern for children as particularly vulnerable group to all of these; more on that in a moment.
All these are indisputable social ills, which have rampaged across our populations and grown to such prevalence as to become leading sources of human anguish worldwide, including in Britain. What we should notice, however, is that sex itself is the source of harm in none of them.
In sexual violence, including and especially rape, the essence of such crimes is that they are crimes of power. The underlying harm lies first and foremost in the use of force and the will to hurt others, especially as socially or culturally endorsed. Sex is not the origin of that harm but the medium for it, albeit the most horrifically destructive one. Coercion and violence also factor into sexual subjection, sexism, the problem of gender, and bigotries, where prejudice must itself be added as a fundamental social harm. And regarding the fixation with singular, arbitrary ideals of sexual attractiveness, prejudice gets added to commercial greed and expectations of social conformity as the underlying founts of human ruin.
In all those cases, the problems already exist before they take on a sexual aspect. Remove sex from the equation, and we are left in each case with monstrousnesses no less sordid.
Sex is not inherently harmful. In all these cases the real problems are grievous social, political and economic phenomena which are quite distinct from sex itself. And needless to say, any of us can look to our respective societies' histories, and find periods when coercion, prejudice, greed, the obsession with conformity, and pleasure in the suffering of others ripped apart our civilizations in bloodlust and strife; a particular world war is but one of too many examples.
Our Sexual Ignorance
A special concern of course is the protection of children from the aforementioned menaces, given that they may be particularly vulnerable. But what was that term Cameron used? Protecting the 'innocence' of children. 'Innocence', we should recognize, is neither here nor there.
The term persists as a whisper of a heritage that itself embodies our meta-sexual failure. The converse, 'guilt', invokes a conflation of our sex-related social problems – the aforementioned – with the very nature of sex itself. In short, sex-negativity, or the belief that sex itself is inherently a fearsome, tainted, morally dubious thing, has crippled our ability to come to terms with the sexuality of our kind. On sex, we value fear, not courage; ignorance, not critical engagement; impulse, not clarity of thought – and this has saddled us for centuries.
For now, its origins may be lost in the mists of time. In Britain, its Christian heritage is typically the easiest target, from the shocking deployment of sexuality as a plot device in the Biblical creation story, to its frightful treatment in the doctrines of Augustine. But it would be far too simple to single these out for blame. What matters is that sex-negativity became socially entrenched because somehow, in the places and times where it mattered, there were people who wanted it. And it has been sustained to this day, despite successive reactions, because there are still people who want it. It is ultimately to they that we owe the impoverishment and sensationalization of our sexuality discourse, and our resulting ineffectiveness at confronting actual sex-related social problems.
Cameron's use of labels like 'sick people' and 'abhorrent' search terms exemplifies this. The gist in this usage is moral revulsion at evil behaviour, but 'sick' of course also means 'ill': and if illness factors into that behaviour, it becomes a different problem altogether, and the conflation is stigmatizing and dangerous. If we stay only with the 'evil' connotations, 'sick' still means different things to different people: and only a small minority of sexual behaviours – the likes of sexually abusing children, or animals, or corpses, for example – may be nigh-universally and quite justifiably considered 'sick'. However, throughout history, societies – including you, Britain – have a spectacular record of considering sexual behaviours 'sick' not because they did harm, but because they were different.
The classic example is of course homosexuality, which was – and by too many, still is – considered 'sick'. This was a judgement systematically exported by the British Empire to places with no history of it, such that in too much of Africa, Asia and the Americas today, it still serves as the bedrock for killings, tortures and other persecutions directed against sexual minorities, and for the repressive laws that offer such bloodthirst impunity or outright encourage it. And what of other diverse sexual identities or behaviours, such as transgendered persons, cross-dressing, or the millions of so-called fetishes or paraphilias? What of unconventional relationships or forms of the family, such as unmarried couples or polyamory? Why is it that a great deal of us would still feel a negative reflex on hearing such things, if we have heard of them at all?
Wherever one looks, one finds the tyranny of heteronormativity still incumbent: that attitude that there is such a thing as sexual “normality”, and that all who deviate from it should be judged as morally inferior and punished. All such “normalities” are artificial; that is, chosen; yet too easily do they still generate hatreds and ruthlessness to consume societies from within. If you take the sum of all the judgements of 'sick' that people have passed in the history of human sexuality, it is fair to postulate that the judges, not the judged, have accumulated by far the greater record of atrocities against our kind – and in the light of that record, 'sick people' is a downright reckless problem statement to propose a law or a policy upon.
'Sick' is not the problem; the problem is when people get hurt. Our purpose must be to prevent real harm to real human beings; as a society we are not responsible enough to be trusted with judgements like 'sick'.
Returning to the matter of children, we come to believe as such that any exposure of our children to anything to be found remotely near the vicinity of anything to do with sex, is so unspeakable that they must be utterly insulated from it, and that to utter a hint of dissent at this is to warrant police attention. This, unfortunately, is a nonsense. Humans are a sexual species; sex is not inherently harmful, nor at the heart of any of those harms we seek to protect our children from. The harms are physical and mental violence, coercion and subjection, and the poisoning of their consciences to internalize a particular sexual paradigm in which, for example, men are held as superior to women; or one's sex is considered to determine how ones should behave or relate to others; or sexual minorities are targets of persecution; or what matters above all else in life is to appear sexually attractive, and that this can only be achieved by reconfiguring your body to look exactly like that actress, or sportsman, or that airbrushed chimera on the cover of that tabloid.
Sex is not harmful. But a sexual paradigm that is made of violence, subjection, prejudice, exclusion, and conflict, is. In short, the problem is not the sexualization, in itself, of inherently sexual human beings. The problem is not that society has a sexual atmosphere at all – it always will – but that it has in many regards a harmful one, of poisonous composition, that batters misery into the lives of those beneath it.
And it is quite right that none of us should be comfortable with our children growing up into such a world, where sexuality is bound into callous, violent predation and the sexes war eternally for dominance. But to think that reacting against sex in its entirety is any way to protect our children from these horrors? We might as well seek to protect them from depictions of eating because some people are cannibals.
And the effect is no less destructive. A society at peace with a healthy sexuality is vital to us all; can we even call ourselves human without it? We desperately need a better sexual paradigm, based on the equality of all persons in it; on consent; on inclusion; and on the primacy of one's sexual uniqueness and the content of one's character over all other lines of judgement: a paradigm that has the potential to be a wonderful thing for everyone in it. So long as we are a sexual species, nothing less will suffice.
We are far from such a paradigm. From where we are now, we cannot expect that insulation and ignorance will produce such a paradigm by default. Nor do we inform ourselves to the point where we can hold one up as a vision, as a beacon for transforming our societies – because we're just so damn scared of sex that we close down the conversation, and systematically ensure that each successive generation grows up without rigorous engagement in its social and political dimensions, above all in the education system. We teach our youth not to critically engage with it, but to absorb it, unthinkingly and sensationally, through what cracks in our barrier they can prise open: and to take it – horrors and all – as given.
And take it as given they will. To panic at any exposure of children to any matter with any connection to sexuality, is to deny them exposure to those vital alternative visions of sexuality that could serve as a counterpoint to that paradigm of violence, subjection and prejudice which will still reach them and gnaw at their psyches – through playground secrets, through corporate and media cunning, through films and books and the internet and the news, and through their own unimpeachable curiosity – and which will, despite your best efforts to paper over the cracks, recruit them to the perpetuation of humanity's sexual nightmare.
So rather than breaking into panic whenever 'sex' and 'children' are uttered in the same sentence, let us talk instead about rigorous sex education in schools, which addresses the social, political and cultural dimensions of sex – not just the anatomical ones – and encourages informed and critical deliberation on its themes. Instead of forcefully seizing that latest carnal output of Mr. Murdoch from your teenager's hand, let us sit down with him or her and actually have the conversation about what those images spur them to think, and what they might suggest about what society expects of men or women, and whether those expectations seriously represent either real people or the kind of world we want to live in. Instead of spewing populist poison at red herrings like pornography, let us identify all those interest groups intent on keeping us terrified, addicted, ashamed and disengaged with our sexuality, and starting with the very act of opening the discussion, take them to account. The very fact of our terror at even talking about sex, about allowing our kids the slightest exposure to anything to do with it, is the surest signal we could send them that there is something intrinsically dodgy about sex as a subject: the best path available for perpetuating the very ignorance and fear that has us in this sexual morass in the first place.
To protect our children from violence, fear, discrimination and the like, may be the most worthy goal in the world. To protect them from sexuality, on the other hand, is meaningless. Humans are a sexual species; and children are, first and foremost, humans. Healthy sexuality is as much a matter of political freedom, of thought and conscience and sexual experience, as it is of physical and mental safety. And for children to grow up to develop a healthy sexuality that is fulfilling for them and for all others they touch, and harms no-one, requires first that they develop an understanding of their sexuality, and of the social, political and cultural problems facing it today; and most importantly, an informed and critical mindset by which to identify, confront, and defeat those problems' drivers – however deeply embedded in society, politics or culture they may be.
What is pornography anyway?
The bitter contestations over pornography offers a perfect example of society's sexual ignorance: the first concern is that we do not even know what pornography is.
Seriously: it does not seem entirely sensible that we should devote such enormous energy to debating the effects, and morality, of anything we do not deign to coherently define what that thing is the first place. In this regard, it bears comparison to “terrorism” as something we mobilize considerable resources to fighting against, while lacking a clear and consensual conception of what it is, let alone a solid legal definition.
That readiest of references these days, Wikipedia, presently identifies pornography as 'the explicit portrayal of sexual subject matter for the purpose of sexual gratification.' Such a thing itself innocuous enough. Without further information as might evidence harm, pornography by that definition alone must be taken as morally neutral. And yet, the word has acquired a stigma, a judgemental normative charge which acts to cheapen whatever work or producer we label with it. This is unfounded.
Again: sex is not inherently morally inferior. What is 'sexual subject matter'? Humans are sexual animals: as such any portrayal of humans, to humans, can have sexual content construed in it. There is no logical place to draw the line: different cultures assign sexual value to different parts of the human body, and any culture – every culture – can be and often is wrong. (Especially when we consider the gendered double standards by which this is applied more to women's bodies than men's.) And what of the 'purpose of sexual gratification'? The gratification of whom? Its producers? Its participants? Its consumers? How do we reliably judge for such a purpose, in any of those cases? What if they claim to use it for things additional to sexual gratification, such as research or critical reflection – why should a sexual purpose be considered incompatible with those? What of our sexual diversity – how many of us actually, seriously find gratification in the sexual and social norms, gender relations and body image politics implicit in mainstream purposeful sexual depictions these days? (Let alone the likes of “rape porn” and “torture porn”, where the operative word and problem for most of us is not “porn”, but “rape” or “torture”.) What of the non-sexual concerns we can draw from such content – with all such statements on gender and social norms, for example, being political by their very nature? In a world of diverse perspectives and the slightest modicum of critical thinking, sexual gratification as a rigorously demonstrable sole purpose, let alone an outcome, becomes a rarity.
So what is left? Is it sane, let alone socially sensible, that such an amorphous concept as pornography should take on such preposterous normative weight, with the power to stigmatize, morally diminish, and provoke collective anxiety and political repression alike? Pornography is undefined, in the end, not because we have not been bothered to define it; nor even because we are scared of it. It is undefined because it cannot be defined – not outside our arrogant and all-too-fallible sexual values. The very concept of pornography may be, to borrow a phrase, an undescribed, indescribable, incomprehensible nothing.
And then it becomes a problem. Because, as we have learned the hard way, though sex is not inherently harmful, sexual portrayals can become a vehicle of harm. Specifically, they can involve or promote the kinds of sex-related problems already discussed: but again, let's be more specific.
The most overt problem is sexual material whose creation process harms its participants: such as if they are forced to take part, or experience sexual abuse or coercion as part of the content matter, or otherwise are not fairly treated. Naturally this includes any form of child abuse. These, no society should tolerate – but once more, the problem is abuse, coercion, or in some situations violation of privacy, and not the sexual nature of the exercise itself. Without those elements – that is, if all participants in such production are knowing, informed and consenting, or if the content itself has no participants (e.g. drawn or computer-generated images, or written text) – then society can have no grievance against it as such.
More ambiguous is how and whether sexual material can harm those consuming it, or harm society – and on this there is plenty of noise and heat but not much light. Whatever connections there may be, we see once more a hesitation to clearly define them, and a withdrawal instead to vague sentiments more reflective of moralizing outrage than actual outcomes. The UK has as its legal benchmark the Obscene Publications Act of 1959, defining 'obscene' on the basis of an article's tendency to 'deprave and corrupt' persons reading or watching it. In the United States, the 'Miller standard' of 1973 includes in its criteria that an 'average person' applying 'contemporary community standards' finds a work to appeal to the 'prurient interest'; that it depicts sexual conduct in a 'patently offensive' way; and that it lacks 'serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value'.
These are all horrendously subjective terms, especially amidst widespread sexual ignorance and sex-negativity. Emotionally provocative examples like 'deprave' and 'corrupt' are further lingering spectres of sex-negative excuses for morality, which can too easily imply deprivation or corruption from a particular party or authority's perspectives on sex, to an alternative perspective – that is, bear no relationship to actual outcomes. References to an 'average person' and 'contemporary community standards' further reflect a readiness for hijack by majoritarian ignorance: the problems of gender and heteronormative prejudice, we should remember, were generated precisely by average people, and by community standards, including political and legal standards, made mainstream in their times and places. And 'literary, artistic, political, or scientific value'? Who may dare to set the standard on any of these for entire populations – least of all with the implication that sexual content, by its nature, inherently detracts from any of these? The point is not that the case can be made that it sexual material is, conversely, inherently artistic and inherently political, at the very least; the point is that without an informed and level-headed sexual discourse in society, the tides of sex-negativity that precede all engagement with the subject just sweeps such protestations away. Humanity's record with systems of morality has accumulated too many gallons of blood and tears for the likes of 'obscenity' to be a safe legal concept.
So rather than moralizing, let's look at harmful outcomes. Sexual material can be deployed to reinforce the problem of gender, especially the subjection and objectification of women. A significant volume of sexual material represents, or may even promote, a world where gendered problems are further normalized and assumed as inherent to human. In the nastiest cases, this can involve rape or sexual abuse exhibited for sexual gratification, or the active incitement to such violence, or torture, or murder, or so on. It can reinforce preferred standards of body image – when in a diverse world, no-one has any business aesthetically elevating any types of bodies over any others. And so on.
We may quite aptly consider such things disgusting, and in some applications, criminal. But what is criminal is criminal before the sexual aspect enters into it. Murder, torture, rape, and incitement thereto, is despicable. Gendered hierarchy, subjection, and conflict, is despicable. Child abuse is despicable. Aesthetic tyranny, with all its consequences in physical and mental health, emotional distress and social comparison, is despicable. But they are equally and infinitely despicable, and count as problems of the utmost magnitude, before and whether or not a sexual dimension gets involved.
Conversely it is a mistake, and a reckless one, to attribute any of these to sexual material as an entire category – all the worse under the stigmatizing label of pornography. Because at the converse end, sexual material is far more important to us, as a society, than as a source of sexual gratification. Rather, its exploration – in all levels of art, science and culture, among other spheres – is essential for a humanity still struggling to come to terms with what it means to be a sexual species; and to invite Mr. Cameron and his friends to wield authoritarian sledgehammers towards it risks irreparable repression, both of upright human beings and of vital cultural content.
The warning signs are everywhere ubiquitous, even before political involvement. Facebook has been rightfully condemned for an anti-nudity policy that has seen it ban images of breastfeeding; while in a similar vein, I have witnessed pages about indigenous communities decline to post photos from their venerable heritages, which often lack nudity taboos of European origin, for fear of falling foul of the same regulations. The UK Coroners and Justice Act of 2009, criminalizing possession non-photographic images (such as cartoons) of under-18s construable as being in sexual situations, met a similar outcry for its characteristically flimsy definition of the key criteria, and thus its potential to censor legitimate artistic expression and lead to the prosecution of people who had harmed no-one. And though not strictly a matter of sexual material, the same atmosphere of knee-jerk sexual alarm was quite evident in the Michigan house of representatives last year when two female politicians were banned from speaking when Republicans took rabid offence to their use of the word 'vagina' – in debate against an anti-abortion law, no less.
We should be scared at what lies beneath all this, and what may only be waiting for a chance to break loose: for a catalyst, like policy-level talk of crackdowns or 'sick people'. The UK saw a taste of what could be to come less than a decade ago, with the vigilantism and rabid hysteria stirred up by the Murdoch tabloids' name-and-shame campaign on a surge of national panic about pedophiles. All societies have seen where that kind of path leads; European societies, above all, should remember the lesson that once they lose control of their hatred, it can be drawn on to feed political programmes of whatever depth of malevolence its leaders so choose.
What happens if we put all these ingredients – ignorance, hysteria, and authoritarianism – together? When we “get tough” on something we have not properly defined, in this case online pornography, which could ultimately mean whatever those judging want it to mean? When we are so hateful of those we are fighting, that we lose sight of the innocents we mow down in the process, or decide that anyone who utters a word against the rightness of our cause must surely mark them out as 'sick people' or pedophile-sympathizers, much as those who opposed the invasion of Iraq were labelled apologists for Saddam Hussein? The power in these charges is not in their substance, whose non-existence is obvious, but in the lynch-mob mentality they rouse, and its proven power to eviscerate dissent.
Who might be most vulnerable, at first, to what a Cameron crackdown could set in train? Immediately one thinks of legitimate artists whose work contains sexual depictions, even (or especially) in a critical capacity; or sexuality researchers; or people who click the wrong links by accident; or people of unconventional, less-heard-of sexual orientations or preferences which harm no-one but may fall under the 'sick people' radar of the mainstream moralizing frenzy. We need these people, by the way; sexual art, sexual science, sexual diversity, all offer alternative perspectives, and critiques, of our mainstream sexual mistakes. But would we bat an eye, as innocent people like these are convicted and imprisoned, and their work destroyed, beneath our self-righteous and final crusade against the evils of online pornography? That is not a sacrifice any ethical person should be willing to make; not the behaviour of any society fit to manage its own affairs; and we should not trust that the UK has the ethical and legal finesse, as a society, to refrain from it – least of all under its current administration.
Beyond that, we should not forget the active misuse of laws based on fear of sexuality for active political persecution. This is a problem in many societies, and none should presume to be immune from it. Among plenty of others, contemporary examples include the incarceration of Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia and Canaan Banana in Zimbabwe: in both cases these were political repressions, machinated by presidents Mahathir and Mugabe respectively, but in both cases sodomy charges were the weapon of choice precisely because of the social fanaticism that sex-negative laws have the power to inflame. Britain has its own sorry record in this regard: its homophobic persecutions began in law with Henry VIII's Buggery Act in 1533 – ironically the great-to-the-nth grandfather of the laws wielded against Ibrahim and Banana in those former British colonies – but this may have been designed as much for Henry's political goals of crushing the Catholic clerics and seizing their monasteries, as out of any substantial homophobic agenda. Indeed, when a society's fear of sex is stirred up, it seems the actual facts of a given case matter quite a lot less than sating a thirst for punishment.
We should bear this in mind when we entertain the notion that overcoming sex-related crimes, even the most diabolical such as rape and child abuse, are worth a few miscarriages of justice on the side, or a dose of censorship, or a few extraordinary measures – just to be safe, just to make sure we nail every last pedophile, or whatever. Aside from how it simply will not work – how force cannot substitute for the necessary socio-cultural transformations – we should look properly at that price before we move to pay it, because we've been there before. We've been there, and we do not want to go back there. Let us delude ourselves no longer that our illusions of “democracy” and “development” make us safe from the civilizational descents into tyranny, bigotry, bloodshed and mass madness that have characterized Europe on and off for the last millennium. The people who gave rise to those must have believed they were “modern” too.
With regards to Mr. Cameron, the verdict should be simple. Given that people, whether politicians or society more widely, too often engage in sexuality issues not through informed understanding but ignorance, fear, and moralizing outrage, it becomes perilous to the extreme that a government with an already spectacular record of bewildering myopia and contempt for the public good should even touch a concern like pornography. Least of all, need it be added, in a country whose integrity of reason and emotion alike has been savaged – and thus made more vulnerable to that ignorance, that hysteria – by the socio-economic misery, gutting of education, and culture of casual cruelty incrementally inculcated in it by that very regime, which least among all humanity has the ethical standing to call anyone 'sick'.
But this is larger than Mr. Cameron – larger than any of us. This is about repairing a society which has a mortally unconscionable record on sexuality, such that not even its great artists like Oscar Wilde, or national heroes like Alan Turing, were immune from being persecuted to death by a pernicious mainstream sexual consciousness. In those cases, homosexuality – something harmless – was addressed with uncontrolled hatred. What could be more destructive than directing uncontrolled hatred at something harmless? The answer is what we are doing now: directing it at genuine problems – sexual violence, sexual abuse, sexual subjection, child abuse, and so forth – which require sane and clear-thinking engagement rather than foaming at the mouth, and which lashing out with impulsive and ill-conceived laws and policies will never overcome. Unless we fix our sexual paradigm, it is we, as a society, that will be guilty of the most unpardonable meta-sexual abuse of generations to come.
And by all means, let us target those calamitous problems with the full capacity of the law, and every other tool we can find and wield honourably. But for goodness' sake, let's be bothered to identify those problems properly, and distinguish them from what they are not. The problem, in every case, is not sexuality itself. It is not pornography. It is not 'sick' people typing 'abhorrent' terms into search engines. It is harm to human beings: their bodies being violated; their freedom curtailed; their lives reduced to conforming to the arbitrary standards of others or limited by judgements made because of their sex or sexual consciousness; and the difference is absolutely colossal.
If a given article of sexual material, or the manner in which it is produced, disseminated or consumed, cannot rigorously be identified, beyond the highest standards of doubt, to contribute to such harm – then the law's place is to bow its head in respect, and withdraw. Society has no case against possessing or creating depictions of sexual subject matter in art, in its own right, no matter how explicit, nor against the private consumption of it. Society has no case against browsing for sexual material online where no-one has been harmed in its making. Society has no case against people who participate wilfully, and with no element of coercion, in sexual activity to be published for public consumption. Some of us, for some reason, may find such things disgusting or morally depraved – and we are free to do so, as a matter of opinion. We are not free to impose that disgust upon others through criminalization, censorship, and other abuses of law because we do not understand those things, conflate them instead with an inherently filthy image of sexuality in its entirety, conflate that too with the truly disgusting violence and subjection to which sexuality is corrupted, and tar the whole thing with the judgemental brush of pornography. The moment a single person is prosecuted, threatened or otherwise mistreated by the law when they have done nothing that tangibly and demonstrably involves people getting hurt: then the law itself has failed, becomes a tool of persecution, and the policymakers who directed it so have forsaken their responsibility of care to their citizens.
And in the end, every society, every religion, every legal system, and much of what has passed for science, has had problems – catastrophic problems – with how to manage and come to terms with human sexuality. None has yet reached an arrangement by which sexuality is something positive for everyone it touches, while plenty have made of it an opportunity to rend millions of hearts asunder. Our world has become a mosaic of a thousand spectacular ways to fail at coming to terms with, and to peace with, the sexuality of our species.
Until we find a way to do so, the foremost nightmares of humankind will continue to ruin us. Politicians will continue to stir their populations into sex-fearing panic and frenzy, to generate relentless momentum for sinister political agendas. The problems of gender – the subjections, misunderstandings and conflicts between the sexes – and of heteronormative prejudice will continue to pit us against each other in senseless strife. And our children? They will never have the chance to grow up without fear of sexual assault, sexual subjection, sexual prejudice, or insecurity about whether they are conforming to arbitrary sexual expectations or images. Nor will the average child develop an informed and sober sexual consciousness which respects the sexual autonomy of others; understand the diversity of human physical forms and other people's sexual consciousnesses; and least of all, attain self-mastery over his or her own body. Humanity's sexual mistakes will devour generation after generation of its children for eternity.
Now if we want to live in better societies than that, then it is time that we got things together. First, to recognize the basics: that we are a sexual species, and sexuality is not inherently bad. Our heritages of sex-negativity must be brought to a full stop, established as a mark of shame on our histories, and not permitted to follow us thereafter. Then we need to inform ourselves: to hold the discussion, and to hold it in a way that is open, informed, inclusive, sober, critical, and uncensored. Politicians must have the guts to lead and participate in this discussion, and the ethical precision and integrity that Mr. Cameron's latest intervention is a museum-piece for the absence of. We must hammer out a vision for a better sexual paradigm, and a strategy for transferring to it from our current sexual shambles. We must work out, at last, a decent social framework for engaging our youth on this, in schools and other relevant spaces.
This alone will not defeat rape, sexual violence, the sexual abuse of children, gendered norms and subjections, and so on. But we sure will not get beyond our miserable progress against them thus far without seeing our sexual revolution through to its conclusion – and seeing it through well. Self-mastery over one's own body; respect for every human being's sexual sovereignty over theirs; an ethical inability to derive sexual satisfaction from harm to others; and peace with the sexual diversity of humankind: such is every person's right, and such is every person's responsibility. Perhaps we might call it a sexual citizenship; but really it is no different from any other aspect of being a citizen of this world.
So how about that, rather than wanton repression?