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Extreme images

Pornography and thoughtcrime in Britain

The British government, net exporter of liberty, is going to make it a criminal offence, punishable by a prison term of five years, to have in one’s possession an image or video of adults consensually engaging in a non-criminal act.

This ludicrous situation has arisen in the new Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, which outlaws the possession of “extreme pornographic images”. What is an “extreme pornographic image”? It is, of course, the Bill tells us:

an image which is both—
(a) pornographic, and
(b) an extreme image.

Don’t laugh yet. It does explain itself further. First, what is pornographic?

(3) An image is “pornographic” if it appears to have been produced solely or principally for the purpose of sexual arousal.
(4) Where an image forms part of a series of images, the question whether the image appears to have been so produced is to be determined by reference to—
(a) the image itself, and
(b) (if the series of images is such as to be capable of providing a context for the image) the context in which it occurs in the series of images.
5 So, for example, where—
(a) an image forms an integral part of a narrative constituted by a series of images, and
(b) it appears that the series of images as a whole was not produced solely or principally for the purpose of sexual arousal, the image may, by virtue of being part of that narrative, be found not to be pornographic, even though it might have been found to be pornographic if taken by itself.

Yes: we all know that if it’s got a good story, it can’t be pornography. And if it hasn’t got a story, it must be filth. Producing something “for the purpose of sexual arousal”, without even a story, is the business of evil merchants of libido-terrorism. Photographs of American torture and sexual humiliation at Abu Ghraib, on the other hand, can’t be “pornography”, because everyone knows they were produced not “for the purpose of sexual arousal”, but for shits and giggles.

Well, these things are easy to decide. But now you are chafing at the bit to know what an “extreme image” is. Is it an image with extremely high resolution, like twenty TERAPIXELS? Or is it a painting like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, shocking to all notions of art and good taste? Or is it a racist Danish cartoon? The Bill rolls imperturbably on:

(6) An “extreme image” is an image of any of the following—
(a) an act which threatens or appears to threaten a person’s life,
(b) an act which results in or appears to result (or be likely to result) in serious injury to a person’s anus, breasts or genitals,
(c) an act which involves or appears to involve sexual interference with a human corpse,
(d) a person performing or appearing to perform an act of intercourse or oral sex with an animal,
where (in each case) any such act, person or animal depicted in the image is or appears to be real.

Is or appears to be real? Here is the crux. Not satisfied with outlawing the possession of images of actual sexual violence, necrophilia or bestiality, the Bill seeks to criminalize the possession of images that only simulate them. As you can imagine, I am glancing nervously at my DVD of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò right now, and wondering whether some buffoon will consider that it was produced for the purposes of sexual arousal. Bizarrely, while the Bill’s definition of “pornography” seems designed to include the “Hey, it’s art!” defence, the subsequent definition of an “extreme image” seems to shut it out. Mimesis or not, it — or rather the consumer of it — is to be stamped upon.

So we have before us another case (as in the case of simulated child pornography) of thoughtcrime. The government, it appears, seeks to criminalize the possession of images that record people merely pretending to do something it thinks shouldn’t even enter virtuous heads. It is at times like this that one remembers to be grateful that the House of Lords hasn’t yet been completely “reformed”. In its debate on the Bill last week, Baroness Miller pointed out that the Bill’s new criterion of something having been “produced for the purposes of sexual arousal” is in conflict with the established criterion of the Obscene Publications Act of whether material is “likely to deprave and corrupt”, which already causes juries “difficulty” enough. ((It’s interesting to note that the established criterion for obscenity is at least predicated on some notional concern for the consumer’s moral welfare, whereas the new one talks about the intention of the producer, but is really worried about the consumer’s sexual arousal.))

All this talk of sex, meanwhile, seemed to cause a rush of blood to some noble members. Lord McIntosh confessed:

I spent nearly 20 years on one Front Bench or another, and during that time I never quite had the guts to say what I really thought about these issues. I never quite had the guts to quote Kenneth Tynan, who in a review of eastern erotic art said, “All my life I have enjoyed having erections, and I have been grateful to the people and the works of art that made them possible”. Now I have said it, and no one can accuse any political party of having any involvement in that.

But he then went on to make an impeccable liberal case against the Bill:

Before I went on to any Front Bench, I was involved in the proceedings on the Video Recordings Bill 1983, which became the Video Recordings Act 1984. Three of us — Douglas Houghton, Hugh Jenkins and I — fought against that Bill all by ourselves and to no real effect. The starting point was that what we do in our homes — the possession of books or images — is no business of the Government or the courts. What we have on our bookshelves is still not their business, but something has encouraged Governments of both persuasions to think that what we may have in terms of video recordings or pornographic images on the internet, or whatever they may be, is the concern of government.

Of course, if any of those images involves the commission of a crime in their production, an existing law deals with that, which none of us can contest. This is not an argument for child pornography, for bestiality, for snuff movies or anything like that. No one is defending that and there is a perfectly good law to deal with it. Having said that, what does it matter to the Government whether what we have in our homes for our own purposes is for sexual arousal or not? What is wrong with sexual arousal anyway? That is not a matter for Parliament or government to be concerned about. I am opposed in principle to interference in the private lives of adults as long as what they do does not cause harm to anyone else, or arises from or causes any offence under criminal law.

One small victory for the critics was that Lord Hunt of the “Ministry of Justice”, defending the Bill on behalf of the government, promised to introduce a defence for images recording acts of consensual S&M, which are also criminalized by the Bill as currently drafted (clause 6(b))— but that defence, it appears, will only be available if the possessor of the image was also an actor in the image. Own a video of strangers engaged in bondage and you’re shit out of luck.

On the matter of thoughtcrime, meanwhile, Hunt would not budge an inch. The bill must criminalize simulations, rather than being limited to images that show real crimes, Hunt said, “because the material itself, which depicts extreme violence and often appears to be non-consensual, is to be deplored”. And only Big Brother the government can save us from this tsunami of depravity:

As a society we have a duty to protect people. It is appalling that this material is available and we have to do something about it.

We have to do something — anything, even if it’s passing yet another crappy piece of ill-thought-out legislation. At least, you know, it will send a message. Baroness Miller responded:

[T]he Minister is in danger of leading his Government into becoming the thought police. There is no direct connection with committing a crime.

Of course, that did not stop them with ASBOs. And, as Miller was not successful in proposing her amendments to this Bill, it seems it won’t stop them here either.

Have you got any “extreme images”, readers?

  1. 1  richard  May 1, 2008, 6:03 am 

    My hat’s off to you for managing to write anything analytical or even coherent in response to this festering drivel. I’ve tried a couple of times here in the comments box and I just can’t manage it: it’s so flatteningly stupid that I can’t get any traction. Note that violence without the intention of sexual arousal is just fine. That must be why they dropped the “deprave and corrupt” stipulation. And then in the middle of it all someone was paying enough attention to avoid “sexual intercourse with a human corpse,” presumably realising that no intercourse would be possible, but could only substitute the weird and vague “sexual interference.”

    Jesus fuck. Assholes. Injured ones, even.

    Did you catch the thing in the guardian about chlldren posing as predator paedophiles, or something? Apparently the police are taking it “very seriously;” perhaps the children will be charged with impersonating criminals. Perhaps that will become a crime, if harm no longer needs to be proved.

  2. 2  Aenea  May 1, 2008, 8:52 am 


    Surely following the same logic, they should ban films depicting drug use, organised crime etc, lest they warp our fragile little minds. Oh, and GTA IV.

    Actually, they should probably ban anything exceeding the 12A cert, just to be on the safe side.

  3. 3  Jeff Hussein Strabone  May 1, 2008, 9:20 am 

    What strikes me, besides the obvious, is the belief in the redemptive power of narrative:

    5(b) ‘the image may, by virtue of being part of that narrative, be found not to be pornographic, even though it might have been found to be pornographic if taken by itself.’

    I don’t know what to say to that. Like language, narrative is one of the essential abilities of humanity that separate us from, as they say, the animals. (Also, as Talking Heads pointed out in 1979, animals shit on the ground and see in the dark.) Does narrative elevate animal arousal to the level of humane letters? Is that the underlying reasoning for the narrative exemption?

  4. 4  dsquared  May 1, 2008, 9:26 am 

    All this talk of sex, meanwhile, seemed to cause a rush of blood to some noble members.

    I am glad to see that the spirit of Humphrey Lyttelton lives on.

    Why is it that the anus, genitals and breasts get special protection compared to other body parts? The buttocks must have been outraged to have missed the final cut.

  5. 5  Steven  May 1, 2008, 11:07 am 

    Humph fans must drop everything now and listen to Ken Clarke’s Radio 4 programme on him that was broadcast yesterday.

    dsquared, I agree it’s weird that, if an image has already been determined to be “pornographic”, then violence or the likelihood of violence towards only some specific body parts is supposed to make it also “extreme”. A video of two people punching each other repeatedly in the face while fucking would seem to be, regrettably, outwith the scope of this law.

    Richard, I also agree that the notion of “sexual interference” with a corpse raises all sorts of curious questions.

  6. 6  Roger Migently  May 1, 2008, 11:39 am 

    No sanction against the intercrural “Princeton First-Year”/”Oxford style”, then? No bruised anuses there.

    The British courts may have to deal with local representatives of Disney, whose logo, Slate reports, adorns a poster, approved by its Chinese division, featuring a clearly very young girl in sexy underwear. Who knows what harm those Minnie Mouse hand puppets might portend. Or perhaps the legislature may want to protect the clearly immature and morally defenceless British people from Annie Liebovitz who has clearly shown how dangerous she is with her recent Vanity Fair photograph of Billy Ray’s 15-year-old Disney-star daughter, Miley. Does the law assume extra-territorial powers?
    And then I wonder if the next step might be that I might be under suspicion if I visit the UK and walk down the street, to find myself involuntarily sexually aroused by gorgeous British women. Will this be grounds for deportation?

    Fuck me, bloody Calvin has a lot to answer for.

  7. 7  Mark  May 1, 2008, 1:08 pm 

    This is one bad law.

    “As you can imagine, I am glancing nervously at my DVD of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò right now, and wondering whether some buffoon will consider that it was produced for the purposes of sexual arousal.”

    If it was certified by the BBFC, it will be exempt. However, the bill explicitly states that a screenshot from that film, if it’s believed it’s made for the purpose of sexual arousal, can be illegal! (Also I presume that if you imported a film that wasn’t BBFC approved, it could be illegal).

    “Own a video of strangers engaged in bondage and you’re shit out of luck.”

    Indeed – even if it’s of a person you know, possibly your partner, you’re out of luck. And what about the person taking the photograph?

    Also note that the defence is not available if “the harm is of such a nature that the person cannot, in law, consent to it being inflicted on himself or herself;”. This is an obvious reference to the infamous Spanner case, where consenting sadomasochists were convicted of assault on their own bodies, because the court ruled that they could not legally consent to the acts.

    In other words, despite supposedly being a defence for those into S&M, the amendment is next to useless, as the courts will simply declare that you couldn’t consent to the acts.

    Far more sensible amendments were proposed by Lord Wallace and Baroness Miller (to restrict to actual sex offences, and to allow a defence of reasonable belief that the participants were willing), but it appears they were not voted on.

  8. 8  Alan  May 1, 2008, 1:24 pm 

    Following in to Mark – yes, that’s right, the “classified” defence affords no protection to videos brought from other countries, unless they corresspond exactly (I presume) with the BBFC version. People may import videos for various reasons – including simple non-availability in the UK – and they don’t have this protection.

    But the lunatics really have taken charge of the asylum when it’s a defence to say, “Look, I’m in it! There I am!” while anyone else possessing the image commits an offence.

  9. 9  Graham Marsden  May 1, 2008, 3:10 pm 

    There is, to quote the Earl of Onslow, one “chinkette” of light in all this, in that Lord Hunt implied that, after the law is passed in the Commons, there is the possibility of a Select Committee being appointed to look at this complete Dog’s Dinner of a Bill which has huge risks of Human Rights violations built into it because of the way it has been rushed through.

    People need to write to their MPs now via and *demand* that this Bill not be implemented until it has been properly considered and the dangers it contains removed. (And if that involves removing the whole “Dangerous Pictures” bit, that’s not a problem!)

  10. 10  Mat Hall  May 1, 2008, 3:28 pm 

    Thought police aside, why doesn’t this bill also include pictures of other “naughtiness”? Why is it that it only becomes shocking and outrageous when it involves the more disreputable parts of the body? Faking pictures of people being eviscerated whilst being doused in excrement and torched with a flame thrower is fine so long as their private parts remain unmolested? I’m baffled.

  11. 11  Alex Higgins  May 1, 2008, 6:57 pm 

    If only the Iraq War had been calculated principally to cause sexual arousal, it would be illegal under this proposed bill.

  12. 12  Steven  May 2, 2008, 12:21 am 

    Yes, arguably its scope is drawn much too narrowly. They should just erase the bits about “pornographic” and “images” and ban all violence and killing full stop. Rather shocking that it’s not illegal already, really.

  13. 13  Deirdre Helfferich  May 2, 2008, 2:44 am 

    Interesting that sexual arousal is considered so dangerous that images provoking it must be banned. I thought this sort of prudery was the political province of the US Republican party, and that Britain was more sensible. So to speak.

  14. 14  Roger Migently  May 2, 2008, 3:42 am 

    Alex, I don’t know why you imply that the Iraq war was not calculated to, and/or did not, cause sexual arousal in its principal proponents.

  15. 15  Steven  May 2, 2008, 12:39 pm 

    I for one grew quite tumescent during Shock and Awe.

  16. 16  swi  May 2, 2008, 4:33 pm 

    I was going to say that I’ve had a boner throughout the war on terrorism – and if my boner isn’t an extreme image, well . . . think “Christopher Hitchens emerging from a thatch of Pubic Hair.”

  17. 17  Steven  May 2, 2008, 4:56 pm 

    If that’s not the kind of image that should have you thrown in the slammer for five years, I don’t know what is.

  18. 18  richard  May 2, 2008, 5:02 pm 

    but does Hitchens seem likely to cause injury to boobs, dicks, pussies or assholes?
    …the full implications of this legislation are just now becoming apparent to me.

  19. 19  judith weingarten  May 4, 2008, 2:27 pm 

    No one has mentioned beastiality.

    Many years ago, at the Wet Dreams Festival in Amsterdam (I’m not making this up), there was one film showing a young lady with her dog, another girl with a pig (male: decidedly corkscrew, so to speak), and a third, reportedly a Danish superporn-star, having it away with a horse. Amazing stuff.

    I do hope the new law is not retroactive.

  20. 20  Free Citizen  May 5, 2008, 4:52 am 

    I came here via the Backlash website, and wondered if you’d considered Madonna’s 1992 (I think) coffee table book of erotica entitled ‘Sex’. According to the Wikipedia article on it, it contains a realistic portrayal of an act of oral sex between Madonna and a dog. (I don’t actually have a copy of the book myself.) There’s also a portrayal of rape. Quite possibly, the book will fall foul of the law in other ways, too.

    How many people in the UK are still in possession of copies of that book? How many people are about to be turned into criminals, heading for the sex offenders’ register, as a result?

    Please spread the word!

  21. 21  richard  May 5, 2008, 3:26 pm 

    re Judith’s post – and yet this: is news:
    and perfectly respectable. Perhaps because there were no pictures.

    …although, on a note of curious language usage, it does remark on the seal’s “brazenness” and the fact that chinstrap penguins sometimes “indulge in homosexual behaviour.”

  22. 22  judith weingarten  May 5, 2008, 5:17 pm 

    Well, Richard, there is a picture now on that link … and it’s shocking. Quite extreme, really.

    I know the penguin wasn’t the aggressor in this case, but we should keep a beady eye out for ‘indulging’ penguins. We all remember (don’t we?) the two gay penguins at the Bronx Zoo; sadly, I heard that they broke up after 6 years together. Apparently, one of the pair tried to go straight, but it didn’t work out. They now both live alone, which means, I hope, that we may legally photograph them again.

  23. 23  Tony  May 5, 2008, 7:22 pm 

    alas, this hit home….

    “Own a video of strangers engaged in bondage and you’re shit out of luck.”

    this hit home for me, although my limited kink would be deemded more vanilla-than-vanilla by some fetishists.

    So I’m led away in hadcuffs for possessing an image that turns me on and (appears to) threaten some adult’s life. (not sure how dangerous merely being tied up and having your nipple sucked by another adult lass is, but hey ho…)

    being in handcuffs is bondage. And it was non-consensual.

    That’s one complain of a sexual offence coming up against the government coming up…

  24. 24  Cunzy1 1  May 8, 2008, 5:13 pm 

    Oh well there goes deviant art :(.

  25. 25  Ethel  May 12, 2008, 4:50 pm 

    This is beyond stupidity. I’ve been fast realising, in the wake of a tide of stupid laws passed by the government in the last 5 years, that there are some real nutcases writing our legislation. You can’t make thoughts crimes. Otherwise what’ll happen to tall the detective novels? This is absolutely ridiculous. I’m shocked do these people not read history? are they so incurably blind as not to dwell on the consequences? Power mad and disturbingly naiveto say the least. They should read some Gore Vidal. Governments playing parents are baaaaad. this typope of law is tantamount to saying that if you’ve been exposed to it, you will commit a crime, as if consenting adults had no volition whatsoever, and as if crime that hadn;t been commited can be treated as if it had. Absolute moralist biggotry and twaddle.

  26. 26  Alex  May 25, 2008, 2:57 pm 

    You know that scene in Blazing Saddles where Lilli von Schtupp knees that cowboy square in the clackerbag? Well I bought that film the other day and, since there seems to be neither rhyme nor reason to the sequence of events, her act is entirely intended to incite sexual titillation, and the guy suffers serious injury to his genitals, I’m worried it might be illegal. There must be more bits in films and TV shows where attractive and provocatively-dressed women kick men in the nuts, what is the legal precedent for this?

  27. […] Steven Poole is eloquent and pretty funny on ‘extreme images’ and ‘thoughtcrime’. […]

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