Puritanism In A Permissive Age?
Quiet Riot Girl cautions against a five-digit victory salute over the outcome of the recent obscenity trial
In the UK, the year 2012 has begun with a trial that could have come straight out of the 1960s – and even has some resonance with 19th century sexual morals and laws. R v Peacock, which already has its own wikipedia page, has been described as the obscenity trial of the decade.
The defendant in the case, a male escort called Michael Peacock, was cleared of all charges of 'depraving and corrupting' the people who watched the DVDs he sold, featuring men involved in sadomasochistic acts. Writing in the Guardian after Peacock's acquittal, Nichi Hodgson asked: 'Why is [the verdict] so important? For one, Peacock… challenged the notion of obscenity in law, a law that was last updated in 1964, and has stood since. A law that is expressly designed to tell us what is “deprave and corrupt” – defined by Justice Byrne in 1960 as “to render morally unsound or rotten, to destroy the moral purity or chastity; to pervert or ruin a good quality.”'
Chris Ashford, an academic with specific knowledge in the field of law and sexuality, also commented on the outcome of the trial, saying: 'The case brings some much needed clarity to this area of complex criminal law. I understand that the Metropolitan Police will be sitting down with the CPS and the BBFC and this is a welcome step'.
The overwhelming verdict from those outside the courtroom seemed to agree with both the jury and the 'liberal' press. As Hodgson put it in the Guardian, with a cheeky reference to the four-finger rule employed by many pornographers featuring 'fisting' in their work: 'For gay rights campaigners and for everyone of us that believes in social and sexual liberty, it's a day to make a five-digit victory sign.'
I too welcome the verdict but I am not quite so jubilant as many seem to be about it. Nor do I like the tone and possible 'agendas' appearing in some of the media discourse around the case.
My first problem is with the fact this case was brought to the courts at all, in the digital 21st century. Shouldn't we be up in arms about this puritanical and oppressive legislation, before celebrating that someone has avoided being criminalised by it?
As Michel Foucault put it more eloquently than I could: “But the guilty person is only one of the targets of punishment. For punishment is directed above all at others, at all the potentially guilty.”
It is not just the archaic and anachronistic Obscenity Laws that are directed at 'potentially guilty' actors in the sexual sphere. Contemporary legislation exists that continues to execute the 'Law of Sex' both in the courts and out. In 2009 for example, extreme pornography legislation was included in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act. This makes it illegal to possess and even view pornography that shows injury to the breasts, anus or genitals, or that suggests a potential threat to life. This has potentially criminalised whole sections of society, including myself, who express sadomasochistic desire.
As Jane Fae has indicated, maybe we should keep the champagne on ice. On her blog she wrote: 'what comes next is likely to be a thoroughgoing review of obscenity and, in the current climate, my expectation is that that will see a widening and toughening of existing restrictive laws such as the Criminal Justice Act (2008) – more colloquially known as the 'extreme porn law'.
On the politics.co.uk website Fae also pointed out the difference in numbers between prosecutions under the OPA and the 'Extreme Porn' law.
'This once proud piece of legislation [OPA], intended to be the last word in moral high ground, was down to 71 prosecutions last year – as against just shy of 1,000 for “extreme porn” and several thousand each for various forms of malicious communication and indecent images of children.
The prosecution attempted to use the 'extreme porn' law in R v Peacock, as the prosecution also did in the Vincent Tabak (murder) trial. Both attempts failed but it shows how this law is very much at the forefront of lawyers' minds, and their legal artillery, when it comes to cases of sexuality and (sexual) violence.
One of these attitudes is the idea that some people are 'normal' sexually, and others are abnormal, or perverts.
Again as Michel Foucault has said (and as he was partially quoted in the Peacock case): “...if you are not like everybody else, then you are abnormal, if you are abnormal, then you are sick. These three categories, not being like everybody else, not being normal and being sick are in fact very different but have been reduced to the same thing”.
Who are the 'perverts' and the 'sick' and 'abnormal' people in this 'permissive' age? Well, apart from the obvious 'paedophiles', judging by this and previous obscenity cases, people who commit 'violent' acts in a consensual sexual context are still considered perverse to some degree. Especially men who do so. It is a rarely quoted fact, that the 'dominatrix' trade continues to boom without too much regulation (apart from isolated incidents e.g. the Max Mosley case) or criticism, because there it is women doling out the 'violence', usually to men. In our culture, women dommes 'punishing' willing men victims, seems to many to represent some kind of 'justice' or 'payback' for all the apparent crimes of 'patriarchal' men against women.
And when it comes to heterosexual men, feminism demonises them so successfully that often they do not have to be brought to trial in courtrooms at all. Men are 'the potentially guilty' in the Foucauldian sense. Think of the discourse of rape culture that presents all men (all heterosexual men) as potential rapists (of women) and we can begin to see how this 'law of sex' works. In other words, as Mark Simpson has observed, 'The feminist is Ms Whiplash'.
I also think that the emphasis in the media surrounding this trial on the 'gay' identity of the defendant and the people who watch his porn, is positioning other men who have sex with men who do not identify as gay, as 'abnormal'.
Hodgson in the Guardian emphasised the significance of the defendant here being 'gay' and called this a victory for 'gay rights campaigners'. I disagree. Though Peacock himself identifies as 'gay', there is no evidence that the actors in the DVDs he sold or the people who bought and watched them are 'gay'. As Mark Simpson has written, straight men enjoy watching men's cocks in pornography. Also, many women watch 'gay' pornography. Again as Simpson has told us, Manlove for the Ladies is a big market and getting bigger. And many men who act in 'gay' porn are only 'gay for pay'. So this divide between 'gay' and 'straight' porn is false and limiting. During the trial I didn't see any 'gay rights campaigners' speaking up for Peacock (with the exception of Chris Ashford). Maybe this was because 'gay rights' activists are often puritanical themselves, as they separate the 'gay' identity from 'homosexual' sex, making it respectable and almost 'heterosexual'. If the men had have been heterosexual, and fisting and urinating on women, how would the feminist Guardian have presented the case?
Currently people involved in S&M activities, if they commit 'serious' assault on each other as part of their consensual sexual acts, for example by drawing blood, are breaking the law.
Myles Jackson, Obscenity Lawyer, wrote: 'I urge legislators and the Law Commission to reconsider the law surrounding consent to sexual assault.' But as yet he has not had a commitment from the Commission that they will do so.'
Whilst very few people have been convicted for 'assaulting' their partners during known consensual sexual activity, the fact the law exists matters. It has ramifications for domestic violence and sexual assault cases. If someone is accused of either of these crimes, and violence has definitely occurred, it is impossible for the defence to argue that 'consent' is a significant factor in the case.
Again this situation is highly gendered. Men were only counted amongst potential rape victims in the UK in 1994, and in United States in 2012! And, in UK law, women are not able to 'rape' men technically, as a penis is required for that specific crime. This enables feminists to continue their assault on 'rape culture' and to portray men as predators of women.
I welcome this 'not guilty' verdict. I hope it leads to the end of the obscenity law in the UK. But I do not think it necessarily signifies the end of 'puritanical' or 'oppressive' law in the realm of sexuality in the UK. I believe the 'discourse' of sexuality is where most of the power occurs. And, the discourse around this case has not been 'liberating' so much as business as usual for those such as feminists who invest in continuing sexual repression, and in particular the demonisation of men's sexualities.
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