The Effects of Pornography (in 1988)

In Defence of Pornography

By Gwydion M. Williams[1]

There is a new campaign [in 1988] against pornography, with the imaginative name of the Campaign Against Pornography. It was launched in February by Labour MPs Clare Short and Jo Richardson, and still seems to be running strong. One of its targets is another attempt to ban topless pictures from the tabloids.[2]

The tabloids are a load of rubbish, certainly. But the whole of the daily press has been going downhill over the past few decades, regardless of what they have on Page 3. With or without topless models, the Sun would remain a load of rubbish.

The Sun sells because people like to buy it – and because some highly skilled and highly educated people work in extremely subtle ways to keep them buying it. A change in the way newspapers are owned and financed might improve their contents; legislation never will.

Sexually explicit material often includes bad or corrupt attitudes towards women, and towards sex in general. But this has nothing to do with how explicit the material is. The News of the World and similar papers flourished long before the permissive society came along.

Censorship tends to be irrational. With the benefit of hindsight, the rules can be seen to be senseless and useless.

Look at the attitudes towards women in many of the strictly-censored American films of the 1930s to 1950s. For instance, there is a scene that is repeated in many of these films which goes like this. Heroine rejects hero. Hero grabs hold of her, ignoring her protests. Heroine -promptly changes her mind and accepts hero. (After which, presumably, they screw happily ever after – but the morals of the time required that no more be shown.)

Now if anything in a film can be an inducement to rape, that sort of scene must qualify. And yet those films were produced under an extremely strict censorship regime.


An unreasoning power

Censorship can be no better than the people who administer it. The things that the old-time censors chose to suppress make little sense. For a long time, they were determined to hide the fact that women had pubic hair. It has now been conceded that women do in fact have pubic hair, and nothing very serious has come of allowing it to be shown.

Present-day rules are no more rational. British censorship still forbids the erect penis to be shown. If it doesn’t droop, it isn’t legal – a rule that seems unfair to those women who’d like a look. There are also some curbs on sado-masochism and sexual fetishism. But torture or flagellation may be shown in films that arc set in some past age, or in some imaginary Science Fiction world. (In the recent filmed version of Flash Gordon, for instance, which has been shown on television). And of course, sexual murders of the most horrific kind arc judged to be quite OK so long as they are shown late at night.

Any new law will hit at serious artists (including many feminists) who want to deal explicitly with sex and the erotic. Meanwhile the sleaze-merchants will continue to flourish, producing material that conforms to the new law. There was plenty of porn around in the days before the “permissive society”. Today it may seem bland and uninteresting; standards have changed a great deal. But in those days, such things as Renaissance pictures of nudes and photographs of women in bikinis were just as powerful.


A cause of rape?

In recent years, the feminist movement has been conducting a campaign against pornography. It is built around the assertion that pornography is a cause of rape. The assertion lends weight to the campaign. After all, everyone is against rape. And general public awareness of rape as a problem has been increasing over recent years.

The campaign is built around the assertion. What is lacking is any definite evidence that the assertion is true.

Many rapists have never been readers of pornography, and most porn-readers arc not rapists. A survey of prisoners found that those in prison for non-sexual crimes were more likely to be porn-readers than those whose crimes were sexual. It would be as logical to argue that porn turns people into burglars, as that it makes them rapists!

There arc of course rapists who blame pornography for their crimes. There are people who will use any excuse to avoid accepting responsibility for their own actions. It’s a neat line for any convicted rapist to put – or for any smart lawyer to try to sell to the judge or jury. A rapist who also reads pornography can raise the matter in mitigation. But the large number of rapists who have no interest in porn suggests that the excuse is a false one.

It is no less a false excuse when the feminists use it. If their concern were really about rape, one would expect them to concentrate on trying to ban material that shows men being violent towards women. In fact they are out to ban pornographic magazines in general. They concentrate attention on material that includes violence, because this is the most likely thing to upset the greatest number of people. But the demand is for a generalised ban that would hit everything, no matter how innocent of violent overtones.

In almost all the other West European countries, there is far less restriction on the sale of sexually explicit material. And yet these countries do not seem to have a higher incidence of rape.


Out of the whirlwind – Clause 28

Freedom is one and indivisible. When different groups with different interests start defending merely their own sort of freedom, freedom only for the things that they approve of, then the outlook is bleak.

For years now, there has been a campaign against heterosexual pornography led by radical feminists – who include a strong lesbian element. They have had some success. They have no hope of imposing their views on society at large, but they have helped to silence many of the voices on the Left that used to protest against censorship in general. People nowadays arc afraid to call for freedom, because it would unavoidably include freedom for pornographers to produce their trivial rubbish.

They have sown the wind; now they reap the whirlwind! “Clause 28“, which seems likely to restrict homosexuals’ freedom of expression, is possible only because of the general decline in tolerance.[3] Lesbian feminists led attacks on other people’s freedoms; now they are short of friends when their own freedoms come under attack.

This assumes that support from the heterosexual majority was wanted in the campaign against Clause 28. The way that the campaign was run rather suggests that it was not wanted. Essentially, it was a campaign by gays for gays, with no attempt to link the matter to wider issues of human choice. It was precisely the sort of campaign the government must have anticipated when they decided to promote Clause 28, and thus doomed from the beginning.


Moorcock and Dworkin

This article grew out of a report about the Campaign Against Pornography that appeared in Time Out of February 10-17 1988. It sparked of a lot of letters on the subject, both for and against freedom from censorship.

In the February 17-24 issue, there was a letter from Science Fiction writer Michael Moorcock. One might have expected the author of works like The Brothel in Rosenstrasse to be warning of the dangers of censorship. But in fact he was explaining how he was involved in a group that was campaigning against pornography, but which was nevertheless against censorship.

Moorcock and a few other individuals had been involved with people like Clare Short in the Campaign Against Pornography, but

“had problems around Clare’s Page 3 Bill (sic) and in the end decided that the ‘parliamentary’ group might as well go ahead with its campaign, using the name with our blessing, while we continued our attack on pornography from a somewhat more radical liberationist standpoint.”

Just what is Moorcock on about? He is campaigning against pornography, and yet he is against censorship. He and some like-minded friends start a campaign in alliance with people who are trying to extend censorship, and then quietly drop out when the latter group try to strengthen existing censorship laws. They content themselves with doing something else which sounds esoteric in the extreme, while the real battle over censorship is fought out. They maintain that they are against censorship, while in practice helping to bring it about.

Laws against pornography are the logical outcome of campaigns against pornography. Indeed, if they are not the objective, then the campaign has no object at all. Expressing an aesthetic objection to certain types of sexually explicit material does not need a campaign. Some of Moorcock’s own work has been caught by the existing obscenity laws.

Mr Moorcock may see a great difference between his own writings and commercial porn. Other people will not see it that way. Literary critics may see the distinction, but not the judges and juries who actually decide such matters.

People like Moorcock and radical feminist Andrea Dworkin campaign against pornography – or rather, against other people’s pornography. They help create a climate of intolerance which is certain to push public opinion in the direction of greater censorship. They then cover themselves by saying that they are against censorship. They make it more likely that new censorship laws will be introduced – and laws that will have no exemptions for libertarian writers or radical feminists.

They are like turkeys voting for an early Christmas. Even if they say that it is a vegetarian Christmas that they are campaigning for, the net result will be exactly the same!


The new foolishness

The current “radical” line is to create a climate for censorship, without actually wanting censorship. In the 1960s, radicals broke down the rules about what would and could not be said and shown. They were then surprised to find that people they did not approve of made use of this new freedom. Now most people on the Left are confused in the face of attempts to reimpose some of the old rules.

It should be added that a lot of the anti-porn campaign was sparked off by foolishness in the 1960s. People who liked pornography supposed that everyone would like pornography if only they got the chance to see it. Thus they did things like showing full frontal nudes on television. Since a lot of people keep the telly switched on permanently, without bothering to check what is likely to be shown, a great many people were shocked and offended. This laid the basis for a tightening up of censorship.

It would have been wiser to recognise that different people have different tastes, and that they have a perfect right to have different tastes. The right to be explicit about sex need not and should not include any attempt to impose illustrations of explicit sex on those who don’t want to see it.


The dangers ahead

There is now a campaign against “sex and violence on television”. It will probably be used as a way to curb programs that try to show how horrific violence and war actually are. Cartoons that show continuous violence, as a game and as a nice thing to do, will not be touched. We will continue to have the strictest censorship in Western Europe. It may well become even stricter. Meanwhile, Labour MPs will campaign against Page 3 girls — probably the least malignant part of the contents of the Sun.

Does anyone remember that the Sun used to be a Labour newspaper? Why has the Labour party never sought to make newspapers into nonprofitmaking trusts, immune from takeover? Would a paper that was run by its own journalists eve sink as low as most of the national papers have now sunk? The answer is, not state censorship but control by the working journalists.

Freedom is one and indivisible – and at the moment it is very much under attack. Campaigns against any one sort of freedom are likely to have a wider effect. For this reason, even though I despise the Sun, I would defend its right to print Page 3. If that goes despite the opposition of all the millions of ignorant and semi-literate Sun readers, a lot of other things are likely to follow, sooner or later.


This article appeared in July 1988, in Issue 7 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.

[1] Using the pen-name Dan Ackroid

[2] It lasted till the late 1990s, but had replacements.  See

[3] This ran from 1988 to 2003, or 2000 in Scotland.  See