Ian B on the Censorship of Pornography in the United Kingdom

Ian B

This whole tragic mess is another example of the State addressing a problem which does not exist, though blaming the State is not quite fair as it is doing so basically under pressure from “civil society” groups- pressure groups, the media, etc- and is thus following rather than leading. Libertarians often blame “the State” as if it is an entity with an essence, whereas more often than not, it is following more identifiable groups within the rest of society.

I don’t think Dave Cameron really would have been much interested in this had he not come under colossal pressure from feminist and femiservative groups and media, screaming about mythical rape epidemics, imaginary feminist constructs like “objectification”, and the endlessly vociferous child protection lobby.

This particular ejaculation of State power arose about a year ago as a result of child protectionists ranging from the NSPCC to Netmums to the every self-promoting Claire Perry and professional state-funded hysteric Sue Berelowitz, demanding that Something Must Be Done about Sex Or Something Or Other.

It is the latest in a long tradition of miserable  censorships imposed on the British population. The actual list of banned things has not been generated novel-ly for this legislation. It is simply the list of things that the BBFC don’t allow in R18 videos, applied to the internet as well. To be fair, this is at least consistent. It does not make much sense to have material legal on the internet which is illegal if purchased on DVD. The answer of course would be to liberalise the DVDs rather than censor the internet, but that is not how things are done in puritan Britain. The prudes and bowdlers have been determined to censor the internet, and they are now getting their way. This step of course only applies to British producers, but it will now be a small step to start State blocking of foreign websites that do not comply to the standard and/or submit their material to the authorities for approval.

The situation here is literally a fuss about nothing. The only response one should have to the question, “what should we do about porn?” is “nothing at all. There is no issue”. Unfortunately, many people- on both the notional left and right- do believe there is an issue, but the fact that people believe in one doesn’t mean that there is one.

To use an example, a hundred years or less ago, many people thought there was an issue with Jews. People would say, “what should we do about the Jews?” and talk about “The Jewish Question”. Of course, in Germany this ended up in a terrible situation. But the point is, that when somebody says, “what should we do about the Jews?” the only correct response is, “Nothing at all, there is no issue.” If you get drawn into the debate about whether the Jews are this or that or good or bad for society, you are damned. You will find yourself trying to defend Jews on some utilitarian basis, and so on, when in fact there is simply nothing to be discussed. The problem we have with porn – and the sex industry and sex in general – is that not enough people are prepared to say that there is no issue, because there is still this general idea that there must be some kind of issue, and some kind of policy must be decided upon, and all due to an historical legacy of hysteria about sex. Which takes us back to the origins of censorship policies.

It is worth noting that societies only generally censor that which is considered dangerous in some way. For most of history, the primary concern of censors was religion. There was very little attention paid to sexual censorship, but then it has to be said that in the age of woodcuts there wasn’t much of a porn industry. England had laws against obscenity but, until the early 19th century they were effectively dead letters, ignored by everyone including the courts. Probably the single most important figure in changing that was the vastly over-rated and far too much admired William Wilberforce.

Wilberforce is remembered in hagiography as the man who ended slavery. Which was a Good Thing. But it is worth remembering that he was not the leader of the anti-slavery movement- he was just its face in Parliament- and it was not his primary campaigning issue. His Big Thing was moral reform, and the articulation of that was his Proclamation Society, the first of the “clean up morals” societies that have been cursing our polity ever since. Its purpose was to resurrect various dead letter laws – much to the consternation of courts who were not at all interested in wasting time prosecuting people for a few smutty etchings or brothel keeping. In other words, Wilberforce and his mates were the vanguard of the sexual hysteria that would, by the later 19th century, engulf Britain and the Anglosphere. His model of Societies For The Prosecution Of Vice spread far and wide, inspiring similar efforts in the USA from the infamous Anthony Comstock, and so on.

And then, as now, it was all unnecessary.

The problem with the Victorians was that they were- at least in the ruling class- very scared people. The industrial revolution had kicked off, society was in massive and rapid flux, the parish system was in turmoil as millions moved from rural parishes to urban slums, and out from under the watchful eye of the local parson, while new and frightening philosophies- including even atheism- were becoming influential. So the Victorian worthies felt a sense of panic, a belief that society was collapsing around them (an idea we find still commonplace today) and thus the birth of so many radical “reform” movements of all kinds intended to fix things up. In particular, the sense of dislocation and turmoil was accompanied by another sense of power. New ideas in science and statistics (particularly) gave the reformers the illusion that they now had the tools to properly run society from the centre, simply by pulling imaginary levers.

Libertarians are well aware of this disastrous philosophy’s effect on economics- the awfulness of the Command Economy- but it was applied generally to society, and thus along with the ideology of the Command Economy we got the “Command Society”.

Just as the belief that the bureaucrat reckoned that he could discern, objectively, the price of bread, came the belief that he could also discern and apply the correct social (and sexual) rules to the entire population. And by the end of the C19, you’ve got these enormously powerful surges of moral reform. They were going to stop us drinking beer, smoking tobacco, and whatever sexual practices they disapproved of, which was virtually everything other than brief joyless rutting for solely procreative purposes. You could still have sex if you must, just so long as you didn’t enjoy it, which the resurgent puritans mobbing the reform movements believed upsets God. I don’t myself believe a God would create sexual pleasure if He was offended by it, but that’s just me.

I was going to type up a history of 20th century censorship- particularly the BBFC, it is a sad tale- but I’ve waffled on enough. The key point comes back to that not only is there not an issue, there never was one. If you have media technology, some of it will be sexual. Just as, whatever you do, some people will have sex for money and some will pay money for sex. Just as the economy, left to a free market, finds its own level, so the social “market” does the same. There is never any issue to address, and the myth that there is one is simply an historical legacy from crazy people like Wilberforce and the crazy women in crazy hats who comprised the first wave feminist, temperance and anti-sex movements. It is worth noting that nowadays, people who believe that Something Must Be Done about sex do not even know why they think that, if you ask them. At least the Victorians had theories of why – foolish as they were – about how sex supposedly degenerates the body and kills you, and masturbation makes you go blind, that kind of thing. Nobody believes that any more. But the grandfathered-in assumption that there is something wrong with it staggers on, two centuries after the start of the panic. None of the people implementing this nonsense would have a coherent explanation for why if they were ever forced to account for themselves. But they never are, as they inhabit the unaccountable hinterland of the third sector, pressure groups and the cranky parts of academia and do not expose themselves to challenge.

But still, let us remember, that in the world of reason and sanity, there is no issue here. And that is all there is.


  1. Ian – Here is a proposal. Join us as an author, which means you will have your own section on the Blog. But you will be under no obligation to post anything. Leave it to us to decide which of your comments is worth posting to the front page. This will surely reconcile your modesty with our tidy minds.

  2. There is a distinction to be drawn here between the Ruling Class and Everybody Else. In my experience, most people generally baffled and disconcerted by the further intrusions into private life that are justified on the grounds that Something Must Be Done. This is a phenomenon that involves different parts of the Ruling Class – the legacy media, the politicians, the activitists – speaking to one another. Everybody Else is inclined to laugh at or ignore this maiden aunt nonsense.

    • Indeed. In the main, the ordinary folks are far more sanguine and liberal on most matters than the ruling caste. That’s why there is this constant diet of panic fed to us via the media, official reports, etc, to try to get us into sufficient panic to support whatever they want to do.

  3. Ian actually most (although not all) of the upper classes, the gentry and aristocracy were not pro censorship and stuff. As for party politics even in the late 19th century such things as the Personal Rights Association contained at least as many Conservatives as Liberals. As the old saying goes “do not ban it – unless it frightens the horses”.

    The backbone of the most “Reform” movements (such as temperance) came from lower down the social scale, and it had its positive side. People who had cleaned up their own lives (so they could not look after, rather than neglect, their own families – and other people), but SOMETIMES made the mistake of thinking that force should be used to make other people clean up their lives.

    There are two mistakes (not one mistake) to be avoided here. Firstly the mistake that vice is not vice – the idea that it does not matter if someone, for example, spends their wages down the pub and lets their children go hungry. But the other mistake (pointed out even by party leaders – such as Gladstone and Lord S.) is thinking that trying to force virtue by state action is the way to go – a mistake as old as Plato, and (sadly) not rejected by his pupil Aristotle.

    As for religion – some statists were Dissenters (radical Protestants) certainly – but some other Dissenters were voluntarists (such as the Leeds Mercury people) and opposed them.

    Also many “reformers” were actually atheists (open or disguised – such as J. Bentham) who believed that the state could see long term “pleasure” better than ordinary people could. As for any idea that there were limits of PRINCPLE to state power (natural justice) this was rejected as “nonsense” or “nonsense on stilts”.

    Even Epicurus (indeed especially Epicurus – who was a sensible man, and a great defender of human agency, i.e. the ability of human beings to make real choices “free will” although “will” may be the wrong word as Ralph Cudworth warned) had warned that some pleasures had bad long term consequences, and (therefore) should be avoided. What some people, such as Bentham (in his later years – in his youth he was more free market in his approach) did was to push state intervention for the “happiness” of people, judging that the state, if under the guidance of wise experts (such as himself and his followers) was better able to judge long term pleasure and pain than ordinary people were – the people should be guided for their own good, the good that “only the wise could see” (to quote Saruman from the Lord of the Rings).

    Actually various German thinkers had got there long before Bentham, as had some French thinkers (such as Rousseau) – the happiness of the people should be the goal of state policy and the state (if under the correct guidance) was better able to judge long term happiness than ordinary people are, in this the state (at least according to Rousseau) does what the people really want – even if they do not know it (Hegel and others would agree with that position – as would the German “Cameralists” of the 17th century onwards whom Oakeshott, rather unkindly, compares to the British Fabian Sydney Webb).

    For the American experience see “Liberal Fascism” by J. Goldberg, or unintentionally “Nudge” by “libertarian paternalist” Cass Sunstein.

    I say “unintentionally” as the later work reads like a satire – but the author is utterly unaware of this.

    Other utilitarians rejected this sort of thinking – for example Ludwig Von Mises.

    Mises even defended the position that state action to combat personal vices would be harmful – which allowed statists such as Galbraith to attack him (rather hypocritically attack him).

    As for theatre and other censorship – there is indeed a religious element (Catholic as well as Protestant), but Cato the Elder needed none and neither do modern feminists and other such.

    In Britain Sir Robert Walpole introduced it for cynical political reasons – as a way of preventing attacks upon him in the theatre.

    He got the most horrible gut churning vile play he could find (indeed he actually had it written himself – no profit seeking theatre owner would have put on such a thing) and showed it to Members of Parliament (in the early 18th century mostly part time country members who knew little of London) as if it was the normal product of the London stage.

    The Victorians could be fooled – but so could people more than a century before the Victorians.

    • Just as a general point, by the mid 19th century the old ruling class, the aristocracy, were losing their grip and being elbowed out by the new ruling class which called itself (and still does) “middle class”. So the conservatives (in those days, those aligned with the landowning class) were not the class associated with this nonsense, it was the new bugs who were aligned more with the liberals, then particularly with the “New Liberals” (19th century “New Labour” one might say) who were the drivers. Indeed, conservatives opposed for instance the gross indecency law by the Liberal twerp Henry Labouchere (sadly, a Northampton MP I am ashamed to say). Our other one was the rabid atheist Charles Bradlaugh of course.

      As to “vice”, the issue is not in the action but the circumstance. If you go to the pub and leave your children to starve, that is a bad thing, but it is not specifically going away to drink that is the problem. If you are not harming others (such as children) drinking itself is not the vice. A person could neglect their family or other responsibilities playing golf or video games, or even going to church. It’s the neglect that is the harm, not the “vice” itself. If you see what I mean. The reformers on the other hand chose to focus on the action of drinking, or equivalent, instead of simply saying, “attend your responsibilities before you attend your pleasures”.

  4. Ah the “ruling class” Ian – in the mouth of someone else I would be wary of that term, but I know you mean officialdom and the “educated” – and you have a point.

    • It’s a term that sounds naff and spartist and I would be happy if we could find a better one. “The Establishment”? The Enemy. The Bastards. It is simply the term for those who rule, but it does sound ridiculous.

  5. How about this? http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-kent-30536036 Man jailed for negligence in allowing another man to die during an “autoerotic asphyxiation” ‘game’. While I’m not a great admirer of people who enjoy such ‘games’, I don’t see this as anything other than an accident – and not “manslaughter through gross negligence”. I’m afraid if you wish to wrapped in cling film to the point you can’t breath, you are taking on a degree of risk – and I can’t agree any crime has been committed here….

    • We live in a political and legal culture where no one can shrug and say that something was an accident. Someone must always be held to blame.

  6. Some things are indeed an accident – or just fate. For example who is to “blame” for my baldness? I would say “nobody” (I just happen to be a slap head), but that shows I am not thinking in the modern way – I must, somehow, be a “victim” and others must pay what they “owe” me.

    Ian – yes I like those terms better, but the term “ruling class” is not automatically bad, as long as one remembers it is NOT a matter of the “ownership of the means of production”.;

    I recently went around a display of old writings (and so on) of the Temperance people in Kettering. As you know Kettering was the strongest Temperance town in Northamptonshire and one of the strongest in the country, With politics being divided between Anglican Tory folk and Liberal Dissenters (who were mostly Temperance people) – indeed some memory of that still lingers (which came as a shock to me) when I was accused of “favouring my own kind” in the dispute over whether the village of Pipewell should be allowed to change parish (since the Domesday book it has been in a one parish – but most people there would rather like to be in another Parish, Rushton, which the local Church and so on has always felt closer to). I did not have a clue who “my own kind” were supposed to be – till I worked out that it was nothing to do with my Irish or Jewish “blood”, I was being attacked on sectarian grounds (as an Anglican and a Tory) something that had not occurred to me when I made the decision to back the change.

    Anyway the Temperance people were mostly GOOD people – people who had cleaned up their lives, made a positive contribution to life around them (either running a business or as skilled workers – or just good unskilled workers) and looked after their families.

    But SOME of them (only some) then jumped to the conclusion that they should use the power of government to “free” other people.

    They had been “enslaved” by booze – robbing them of their free will (or so they believed – forgetting the old saying “every drink is a choice”) surely they had a right, indeed a duty, to free other people? Not just by moral argument – but, if need be, by the sword of state?

    As Rousseau might have put it – get other people and “force them to be free” – for their own good, their own long term happiness.

    “Are they not horrified, in their lucid moments, by the state of their lives – by the condition of their homes and families? They would, in their heart of hearts, like things to be very different. This is why we must help them (even against what they claim to want) – we must strike down this horror on our very streets……”

    Of course I am using much stronger language than they did – but the message is the same.

    And this is where I think they (those people who took, basically, this position) got it radically WRONG.

  7. I read The Williams Report when it was first published. – seemed rather sensible at the time but the govt. ignored it naturally – Williams was the husband of the evil Papist Shirley Williams who destroyed grammar schools. God knows how he put with her – nowt so queer as folks, I guess.
    “Williams served on a number of royal commissions and government committees. He chaired the Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship in 1979; its report was influenced by the liberal thinking of John Stuart Mill, whom Williams admired. Williams’s report concluded that, so long as children were protected from pornography, adults should be free to read and watch it as they see fit. He was not asked to chair another public committee for almost 15 years….” Wiki

  8. “blaming the State is not quite fair as it is doing so basically under pressure from “civil society” groups- pressure groups, the media, etc- and is thus following rather than leading.”

    Interesting perspective you don’t hear very often…

    Another way of looking at the issue is that social animals try to prevent the ‘bottom half’ of males having access to sex (in pre-civilised times they were killed), and viewing porn activates the ‘cheater detector’ in all those aforementioned self-unaware groups of professional meddlers and self-righteous numpties. First and foremost, we are gene-replicating robots, and culture, law and ethics etc., are merely expressions of our basic biological drives, which if go unchecked, can run away with themselves; leading to extreme state oppression and draconian measures…

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