To some extent, I've been blithely assuming that the "extreme porn" sections of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 wouldn't have any real effect in law. Yes, the wording is dangerously vague and creates a 'thought crime' in UK legislation, but wasn't that case with the comical tiger sex clip dropped in January after the prosecution actually listened to the soundtrack? Apart from that, I haven't been aware of much activity since the Act was passed. Perhaps our concerns that it would be used to police sexual fantasy and give police ammunition against people they didn't like but nothing to charge them with were unfounded.
Yesterday a dramatic local news article announced that this law was being tested in a "landmark trial":
In one of the first cases of its kind in the country, Kevin Webster is accused of having "grossly offensive or disgusting" pictures, even though they are "fakes".
Webster, aged 47, denies three charges of possessing extreme pornography depicting images likely to result in injury to a person's breast and one similar charge depicting an act which threatens a person's life.
In this case, the staged nature of the images is not in question - the subject matter is what is relevant. Darron Whitehead, prosecuting, stated:
"Why is there a need for this new legislation? There is a need to regulate images portraying sexual violence, to safeguard the decency of society and for the protection of women."
This suggests that our fears about the consequences of the extreme porn legislation are being borne out. It's no longer about protecting the people involved in making the images, but about policing our fantasies. Never mind that no causal connection can be demonstrated between viewing pornography and sexual violent crime (in fact it's arguable that access to pornography helps prevent violent crime by giving people with socially 'unacceptable' desires an outlet for their fantasies), nor that it is perfectly possible to create ethical images of violent acts using consenting actors. Under this way of thinking, even illustrations and cartoons are too dangerous. This isn't about regulating the porn industry, it's about personal taste masquerading as morality. The prosecution in this case explicitly uses the Victorian concept of the "decency of society" as an excuse for censorship.
This position is demonstrably hollow. If drawings of tentacle rape are so dangerous, what about the constant barrage of violence and sexual violence we see in mainstream film? If porn affects the "decency of society", why not these? If you're really interested in protecting women, Mr Whitehead, why not turn your attention to prosecuting rape and sexual assault cases?
Porn is no more inherently dangerous than any other cultural text. Claiming that violence in porn is somehow worse for us than the violence and carefully-policed sexual content permeating our media is to create a ludicrous double standard. Sex is everywhere we look, and yet explicit sexual discourse, real human sexuality, is still the enemy. Our culture is fucked up about sex, and the only way to fix that is from the bottom up.
Censorship has never, in the long run, been successful, and often serves to increase the taboo appeal and cultural interest of the banned content. Top down legislation of this nature is not the way to fix the exploitation within the porn trade or violence against women. If you're worried about unethical porn, support independent and fairtrade producers. This legislation is clearly not intended to make anyone safer, but merely to make people who think their culturally-approved sexuality is the only 'decent' option more comfortable, and to punish those who don't conform, regardless of whether anyone is harmed by their desires.
All these arguments were made countless times, and by better spokespeople than I, during the campaign against the legislation
. Once the Act was passed, our only remaining hope was that in practice, few people would actually be charged under it. And until yesterday, I thought that was more or less the case.
How wrong I was. A bit of googling revealed that Kevin Webster's case is far from the first to be brought under the extreme porn legislation. Very few of them have made national news, but the local papers carry many more examples from the last couple of years. Here's what google threw up on a first pass (names included merely to demonstrate that these each represent a different case):16 June 2009
: Colin Blanchard, Manchester, accused of sexual assault, making and distributing indecent images of children, and possession of extreme porn.18 June 2009
: Man prosecuted for possession of extreme photographs depicting women and animals; given an 18-month supervision order and 24 hours at an attendance centre as the judge deemed "support and assistance" were needed.4 September 2009
: Nathan Porter of Pendleton charged with seven counts of possession of extreme pornographic images featuring "content of a bestial nature".17 December 2009
: Matthew Jones, Chertsey, charged with possessing child pornography, making an indecent image of a child, and possessing extreme pornography portraying sex with animals and an act likely to result in serious injury to a persons private parts.13 May 2010
: Peter McArthur of Kingskerswell pleaded guilty to possession of extreme pornographic images featuring 'mutilation' and bestiality, and and six indecent images of children.5 July 2010
: John Wood,of Thurlby, near Bourne, pleaded guilty to two charges of possession of 17 'extreme images', and one charge of possession of child porn.25 July, 2009
Alan More of Carrickfergus charged with sex offences against a 15-year-old and possession of extreme pornography (BBC erroneously claims this is the first case to be brought under the 2008 Act.)3 August 2010
: Darren Toone of Worsley jailed for 16 months for two counts of possession of child porn, possession of amphetamines and possession of extreme pornography featuring violent rape scenes and bestiality.17 August 2010
: Paul Reynolds of Walpole St Peter charged with making indecent photographs of a child, and possessing child pornography and sexual images involving animals.24 August 2010
: Glen Smith, Chingford, sentenced to 2.5 years in jail for selling pirated CDs and DVDs and possessing extreme pornography. Officers claim they're the first in the UK to bring charges under the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008.18 September 2010
: David Harvey of West Cross charged with making child pornography and possession of images featuring sex acts between people and animals.1 November 2010
: Brian Porritt, Manchester, sentenced for possession of child porn, cocaine and extreme pornography.30 December 2010
: Mark Russell of Neath, Wales charged with possessing extreme porn featuring animals, making indecent photographs of a child and possessing child pornography. Case continues - his next court appearance is February 23 2011.
That's a steady stream of cases, and it's no doubt an incomplete list. Since it was passed, the extreme porn legislation has certainly been earning its keep. So what do the cases so far tell us about how it's being used?
- All of the defendants so far have been male.
- Bestiality porn seems to be the most frequent target of the legislation to date, although the "serious injury" clause has had a couple of outings.
- These cases mostly represent "extreme porn plus" - that is, possession of extreme pornography charged alongside cases involving child pornography, counterfeit trading or drugs possession. Two of the 2009 cases listed here are the only exceptions I've found so far; I haven't seen any cases in 2010 which were brought involving extreme pornography alone. (Edit: but that doesn't mean there weren't any: see this list for more.)
- Images seem to mostly come to light when the defendant's home is investigated relating to other sex offences, a crime committed in their own home for which their computer is evidence, or else the images are reported by engineers fixing the computer. I haven't seen any examples of random police raids, or computer searches arising from warrants unrelated to sex offences.
- Where the charge is possession, no details are reported of any investigations into the creators of the images.
If Kevin Webster
is found guilty, he may be the first person in a year to have been prosecuted under only
extreme pornography charges alone, which would herald a worrying shift. And unlike cases which involve images of children or animals, in this instance the images only portray adults - and, since even the prosecution describes the images as "fake", most likely consenting adults, at that.
This has been a wake-up call for me. I had no idea the Act had been so, well, active
; and the Webster case has some notable, and worrying differences from most of the cases last year. Of course I'm not about to start self-policing and clear any images which may be covered by the legislation out of my cache; if people start doing that, the censors have won.
Please do send me any relevant news items I've missed - I intend to keep a careful eye on the way this legislation continues to be used.
: Snap! I'm not the only one to blog about this today, but Heresy Corner has more up-to-date news sources
; he's just posted the news of Kevin Webster's acquittal. Good news. Heresy Corner writes:
Had he been convicted, it could well have opened the floodgates to many more such prosecutions. Will his acquittal have the opposite effect, and make the CPS think twice about their own definitions of extreme pornography?
We can only hope so, but right now I for one am not inclined to be complacent.
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