Why I support criminalising pornographic depictions of rape.

I’m writing this in response  to the confusion and misinformation  circulating about the campaign from Rape Crisis South London, supported by the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Law Professors from Durham University including Professor Clare McGlynn and Professor Erika Rackley, Rape Crisis (England and Wales) Women’s Aid and many other individuals and organisations to amend existing Extreme Pornography legislation in England and Wales to include images of rape.

To begin I want to say thank you to everyone who has expressed their support and to the women and men who were unsure about the campaign and contacted either myself or other campaign supporters for more information, one of whom suggested I write this public response. I’m doing so not in the hope of getting everyone on board, I understand and oddly support dissent within feminisms (I think as long as its respectful, it makes us interesting), but rather to make clear what the campaign is and is not about. I also want to locate myself within what I am about to say. These are my thoughts and my words and may not be representative of Rape Crisis South London or our campaign supporters.

I come as a practitioner working with women and girls aged 14 years and over who have experienced sexual violence at any time in their life. I have worked at Rape Crisis South London, London’s oldest Rape Crisis Centre, for over 7 years and it is both the hardest and the best job in the world (we’re recruiting for helpline volunteers at the moment too – small plug but if interested email helpline.coordinator@rasasc.org.uk for info). My skills are in understanding the impacts of sexual violence, understanding and practicing therapeutic intervention/support, sexual violence prevention with young people and training for the national Rape Crisis helpline. It is from this work that the campaign came into being.

This campaign is about closing a loophole in the extreme pornography legislation in England and Wales which misses simulated images of rape. Wider existing legislation already covers the possession and distribution of images of someone’s rape, alongside the possession and distribution of the rape of under 18 year olds.  It is crucial to understand that the law as we are asking for it already exists in Scotland. Theoretical possibilities about what may or may not be captured by the amendment need not be theoretical, we have a reference point for how it operates in practice.

We are defining ‘rape porn’ itself as pornography that explicitly and or contextually depicts rape i.e. ‘Pizza girl raped’ ‘Anal rape’ ‘Blonde slut rape’. The amendment we are seeking would, like Scotland, focus on context in ascertaining whether an image is defined as rape, context including how the image is described, accompanying sounds, narrative and so on. The amendment does not criminalise consensual BDSM pornography. The failed Simon Walsh prosecution has been raised as evidence that the amendment is flawed. It is important to remember this prosecution a.) failed and b.) was made in respect to the law as it stands. The amendment we are asking for in fact widens the participation in consensual acts defence. The law as it stands is over-inclusive because it allows for the criminalisation of many average depictions of consensual sadomasochistic (BDSM) material but also under-inclusive in its exclusion of the vast majority of pornographic images of rape.

We have been clear throughout the campaign that we are not targeting BDSM pornography and are not conflating the two. We see a clear difference here and I personally have been quite surprised that others do not, which has led me to think, perhaps mistakenly, that people have not truly engaged in the content we are campaigning to legislate against and have reacted rather than responded to the campaign. Our own early unpublished research into the differences between BDSM and rape pornography showed that, based on very early stages of a comparative view of rape pornography and BDSM porn videos, there appears to be discernible stylistic differences between the two, which if administered well the legislation will pick up on.  Many of those who have challenged the campaign draw a distinction themselves between what they are supporting/practicing and rape, using terms such as ‘consensual non-consent’ or ‘ravishment’. The amendment would not make more prosecutions of consensual BDSM activity more likely, but in fact would signal a shift in focus from images of consensual BDSM activity to images explicitly eroticising, and legitimising, rape. (for a much more detailed discussion on this please see here).

The campaign is not about scenarios where actresses who are eighteen are digitally altered to look far younger. This is a mistaken claim which I think may have been drawn from comments I made about how the IWF (Internet Watch Foundation) work out the age of people in videos who look much younger than 18. The IWF can use digital imaging for age verification. The reason the IWF needs to do this is because to the average person the people in the videos appear underage, indeed that’s the very loophole we’re talking about. These young women look underage, the viewer is told they are underage, and all contextual factors in the videos encourage the viewer orgasm to the fact that they are underage. It takes sophisticated software to ascertain they are not.

The campaign is clear about who will be held legally responsible for rape porn. The Extreme Pornography legislation of 2008 brought about a possession offence, targeting the users of pornographic material by enabling prosecutions to be brought, for the first time, against anyone downloading, and therefore generating the demand for, such material. This was a response to the ways in which the growth of online pornography was outside the reach of the Obscene Publications Act 1959. We are seeking an amendment to this legislation thus still a possession offence.

The campaign is not presenting a causal argument about why some men rape. Working within Rape Crisis I would never work on a campaign that sought to take away any responsibility for choosing to rape from the rapist themselves. It is fundamental to everything I do and for this reason I know it is nowhere in any of our campaign literature.  We speak of cultural harm in the same ways that we know as feminists there’s cultural harm in Facebook’s refusal to remove ‘rape joke’ pages. We speak of the legality of rape pornography in England and Wales as a legitimisation of rape. Debates on causal links are a red herring.

The charge of attempting to police people’s sexual fantasies through this campaign is a very difficult one to negotiate. Here I do not pretend to have all the answers. I am also personally and politically committed to an ethical sexual freedom, but I would ask whose sexual freedom are we defending and what does that freedom look like?  It is simplistic to believe sexual fantasies are natural when we know the impacts of socialisation across all other aspects of our sexual and social being. I wonder if, wider than this campaign, we could have a conversation about interrogating where and how we get pleasure, bringing ethics back into the discussion rather than the individualist conception of freedom that seems to have dominated so far. Again, I have questions not answers here, (what is an ethical orgasm?) but that’s what makes me think we’re not even close to living the ethical sexual freedom this campaign has been charged with removing.

This leads into the second point needing clarification that has been made about fantasy in relation to this campaign. The rape pornography we have seen is not pornography depicting the fantasy of being raped. It is depicting the fantasy of raping. We looked at the top 50 rape pornography sites, and all explicitly located the viewer as the perpetrator, fulfilling a rapist fantasy. Directions to the viewer include ‘nothing is better than seeing these good looking sluts getting raped’, ‘these girls say no but we say yes’, it is ‘time to become Tough Guys. Right now.’ It is a male voice talking to a male consumer. There may be rape pornography directed to an assumed ‘victim’ fantasy, both male or female, or with a female/male voice talking to a female viewer, but across the top 50 sites, we didn’t find any.  That’s not to say that self and/or socially defined women may not be masturbating with the material but research tells us that men are lead producers and consumers of pornography. They are producing and consuming material focused on orgasming to a woman being raped. This isn’t what ethical sexual freedom looks like to me.

It has also been implied that we jumped on some bandwagon post the convictions for Stuart Hazel and Mark Bridger to push forward this campaign. That anyone would try to suggest this of women who have devoted their personal and professional lives to campaigning to end violence against women and girls is disheartening and incorrect  The  suggested ‘handy’ alliance between anti-porn feminists, social; conservatives and the censors is more a product of timing and media flow rather than design and mutuality. Conflating the campaign with conservative agendas is lazy journalism and may go further in helping maintain rather than changing unequal gender relations.

Finally, for the feminists who have expressed their opposition to the campaign. We’re coming from different places but that’s what makes us powerful. We need to not lose the differences but we also need to actively refuse to compete.

If you support the campaign, thank you.

If you don’t support it I hope you can now base that on the facts.

Campaign petition is available here. Campaign briefings and material here.