Pornography and Feminism

Bernard Williams

John Sutherland has produced ‘a calendar following a series of events (mostly trials) from 1960 to the present day’, which deals briefly and brightly with obscenity cases from Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Fanny Hill to The Romans in Britain.[*] The aim is to investigate changes in public attitudes to ‘offensive literature’. It is a lively survey, but is not the useful history of that process which might be written.

First of all, as a calendar, it is inaccurate. I would not rely on it for the date of Christmas. It does not state correctly the grounds on which the conviction in the Oz trial was overturned (misdirection of the jury on the meaning of ‘obscenity’). It says on page 3, wrongly, that in the same case John Mortimer defended Richard Neville, and on page 122 that he did not. In one of the brief excursions into cinema, there is a very muddled account of the French treatment of pornographic films. Pasolini’s Salo was not assigned to the ‘P’ category and sent to the blue movie-houses like Deep Throat. It was dealt with by a special administrative decree, which confined its showing in Paris to two art houses – a restriction which was firmly enforced.

This slip actually shows a serious misunderstanding of French attitudes to pornography and its relations to culture. They came out well in a conversation that some of us on the Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship had with a French official about the criteria for a film’s being pornographic. He found the question not serious: ‘Everyone knows what a pornographic film is. There are no characters or plot, there is nothing but sexual activity, and it is not made by anyone that one has heard of.’ But, we boringly insisted, what if these criteria diverged? What if a film of nothing but sex were made by, say, Fellini? Pause. ‘Personellement, je le trouverais incroyable qu’un film de Fellini soit présenté dans les salles pornographiques.’

Carelessness is not confined to the facts. The book is written in a weirdly slapdash style, and is full of phrases such as ‘bowdlerised limbo’ and ‘buttressing Albion’s floodgates’. Some sentences are very peculiar. A ‘custodial fear of cheap literature’ is said to have been ‘very active in the 19th century and can be traced back aboriginally, to obstructions on vulgate Bibles’ (a vulgate Bible is, in fact, a Bible in Latin). The reasoning, too, sometimes seems to have slipped past the turnstile of thought while Sutherland was out. ‘Pornography, of course, grows old very fast, which is why skin mags customarily carry no date of issue’ presumably should read ‘Pornography hardly grows old at all, which is why ... ’

The ‘of course’ in that last sentence is revealing. The book displays an attitude which can, quite often, be seen as a sprightly independence, but which sometimes sinks into a manner which has become a standard and odious feature of the radio interview, a knowing condescension to whatever view is being interrogated, from the standpoint of some other, vaguely implied, view which would itself be patronised and ridiculed if it were being questioned. The journalistic sneer slides lightly over every opinion, leaving a desolating sense that they are all equally prejudiced, naive or self-serving. Judges, barristers, liberal critics, pornographers and poets are all put in what Sutherland presumably regards as their place, though it is not at all clear where those places are. It would be ungracious of me not to mention that one exception is the Report of the Committee on Obscenity, which is treated in a very friendly manner.

Here and there in the book Sutherland gives an idea of the story he might have told about the changes in spirit that have occurred between the Chatterley trial and the present day. That story would have to consider three notable transformations. Then, the issues seemed to be importantly about literature, and now they do not. Then, pornography was a good cause for liberals, and now it is at best a nuisance. Then, those who were much concerned about pornography were all conservatives, and now they include some radicals. Associated with all these changes is the decline in esteem of the Obscene Publications Act, which started the period as the saviour of Lady Chatterley, but now seems confused, unhelpful, and too dependent on a useless definition of ‘obscenity’.

The main reason why literature is no longer the issue is that the liberals’ cause is, for now, largely won. After the acquittal in 1976 of Inside Linda Lovelace, not itself a work of literature, the DPP seems to have given up on works consisting only of the printed word, and our recommendation that such works should not be restricted at all on grounds of obscenity was, as Sutherland says, virtually a recognition of the existing state of affairs. But the Obscene Publications Act and the other confused provisions remain, and who knows whether the literary issues that Sutherland is able to chronicle as past may not come back again? If they do, it is very hard to believe that the ‘public good defence’ offered by Section 4 of the Act could any longer be seriously thought to provide a respectable way of resolving them.

On the question of nuisance, the obtrusive effect of publicly displayed pornography, the Indecent Displays (Control) Act has had some effect – much the same effect, so far as the outside of the premises is concerned, as we recommended. The effect in some places is certainly awful, and the blank fronts of closely ranged sex shops an urban blight. As Sutherland says, ‘row upon row of shuttered shops all containing wares of matching uniform ugliness, is not the urban renewal one would wish on central London.’ Without the shutters, however, they would also, as he puts it, fill him with a ‘Kurtzian exterminatory rage’. Here the only cure, short of a regeneration of society and the disappearance of the problem, seems to be measures to reduce the density of the shops, and I think that there is a good case for introducing planning powers, as we did not positively recommend, of the general kind that the GLC is taking, to lighten this environmental oppression.

In some other hearts, however, the Kurtzian exterminatory rage has turned against the whole business. The most striking recent phenomenon, one that Sutherland takes up in his last chapter, is the vocal (and sometimes physical) opposition to pornography expressed by the radical feminist movement: already established in the USA, it was not to be heard very distinctly in this country five years ago. Some of its materials are the same as those of more traditional protesters, and some are reworkings of old misconceptions: for instance, that all pornography is basically the same, making the same appeal to the same fantasies, and that those fantasies are very simply related to reality and to action.[†]

Other ideas are more distinctive, such as the assumption that if ‘soft-core’ pornography is very sexist (as it is), ‘hard-core’ pornography must be even more sexist. This is not true. While a lot of extreme pornography certainly expresses sadistic fantasies against women, the standard blue movie, too hard-core to collect a BBFC ‘18’ certificate, is usually less sexist, whatever else it may be, than the contents of Playboy or Mayfair or the unspeakable and endlessly popular Emmanuelle.

This is because the conventions that divide the soft from the hard precisely involve differences in the ways in which the sexes are represented, in who may be shown in a state of excitement, and so on. Blue movies may exploit everyone, but they do not markedly more exploit the women involved in them than the men. There is some truth, if only some, in the idea that mass-circulation soft-core pornography is sexist primarily because anything mass-circulated is sexist.

Have the ugly and assaulting fantasies presented by pornography any right to exist? Does anything need to be shown, beyond their content, in order to deny that right? The feminist Left standardly thinks not (‘pornography is violence against women’), and in this it resembles the militant Right. Neither party, interestingly, is first concerned with the question that preoccupies those who sit on government committees – and those who subsequently sit on the committees’ reports – namely, what should the law be? Conservative pressure-groups (but not Lord Longford) have often been reluctant to be tied down to any details for a replacement of the Obscene Publications Act, and radical feminism is at best uneasy, sometimes openly contemptuous, about the machinery of regulatory laws.

In this, the feminists are more consistent than the conservatives. The latter have the same interest as the rest of the bourgeois community in the processes of law, and in the application of administrative discriminations to an imperfect society. But radical feminism is professedly utopian, and not concerned with such temporising measures as the regulation of pornography. The aim is to eliminate these fantasies, and what they express, altogether. But whatever the cause of pornography and its aggressive fantasies is taken to be – capitalism, or the male principle itself (‘women do not have violent fantasies, only men do,’ a woman said to me in a public meeting, trembling with rage) – its elimination will need at least time and transformation, some regulation will be needed in the meantime, and we are left with the doubtless boring question of what it should be. In face of the radical feminists, I am left also with a less wearily gradualist thought. Pornography may well be internationally a substantial criminal industry, and that fact in itself demands attention. But from the point of view of cultural criticism, when one is confronted with what is still the pervasive, lying and destructive sexism of almost all our popular culture, to go on about the particular nuisance of pornography is largely a diversion to a more traditional and much less significant target.

[*] Offensive Literature: Decensorship in Britain 1960-1982. Junction Books, 216 pp., £5.95, 18 November 1982 0 86245 065 9.

[†] This, among other simplifications, is excellently discussed by Susan Barrowclough-Ignatieff in her review of the Canadian film Not a Love Story: Screen. Vol. 23, No 5 (Nov-Dec 1982).