Guest Post 1: Tabak and the legal admissibility of pornography – Nichi Hodgson

// 1 November 2011

5401566633_f000102bbb.jpg

Update: After we published this post, we had a discussion in the comments about disablist use of language to describe perpetrators. Check it out in the comments!

Recently, evidence was found that Vincent Tabak (whom was recently found guilty of murdering Joanna Yeats) was in possession of pornography. The death of Joanna Yeats was remarkably similar to the pornography. There are many different opinions about pornography and its legal admissibility in court. We will feature two guest bloggers and their perspectives on the situation. The F-word understands this is a contentious issue and we would like to respect the opinions of all our readers. What are your opinions? We encourage you to comment below.

Why banning ‘gender hatred’ porn is not the way to protect women – Nichi Hodson

Writing for the Guardian on Friday, Julie Bindel put forward her case for “a crime of incitement to sexual hatred in order to sanction those who produce and consume images of females being tortured and violated because of their gender.” This was in reaction to the news that Vincent Tabak, found guilty of murdering Joanna Yeates, had viewed strangulation porn on the day he murdered the 25-year-old Bristol architect. Tabak is clearly an unstable individual who violated Yeates in a heinous fashion. But Bindel’s argument is hugely problematic for a number of reasons.

Let’s get this straight – people who watch violent porn do not murder; people who are unstable murder. Just as men are not ‘incited’ to sexual abuse by women who wear revealing clothing, what Bindel’s proposed law lacks is a sense of agency. Jack the Ripper needed no porn to incite his behaviour. And neither did Tabak. Bindel says: “Common sense tells us that men who masturbate to porn involving the severe degradation and abuse of women are actually attracted to the idea of doing it directly to a woman.” But that isn’t necessarily true. Kink porn satisfies a desire driven by a sense of taboo, of what is socially transgressive. For most, the thrill of fantasising about something illicit, or enacting their desires with a consensual or paid play partner is as far as their libido takes them. Those that cross that line are clearly not mentally stable in the first place, and no amount of preventative censorship would stop them from acting on their narcissistic, non-consensual urges.

Some of Bindel’s claims are downright specious, such as her idea that the more porn you watch, the more attracted to violence you’ll become. How can a quantitative measure allow her to reach a qualitative conclusion? Surely it entirely depends on the kind of porn you watch, and how you define violence.

By Bindel’s definition, porn is inherently misogynistic. She makes no distinction between actual violence and play violence because for her, any representation of sexual violence against a woman is violence. If feminism means shaping our own sexual identities, there should be no reason why women cannot engage in consensual sexual practices that intimate fear to generate thrill. For an example of an ethical BDSM model, look up Kink.com – it is possible. The real problem with most porn is that it predicates men’s pleasure over women’s, but prohibition is not the answer. Surely we feminists need to push for a cultural shift in which women have an equal stake in depicting sexual pleasure – as attempted by directors such as Anna Span and Erika Lust. That may mean accepting that some women like to be sexually dominated, which doesn’t make them inherently anti-feminist or victims of gender hatred. Proposing a law that would only protect women against gender hatred porn would also be in breach of the Equality Act. To be implemented fairly, it would also need to apply to the vast amount of porn depicting male submission, and presumably same-sex “violent” porn.

“Extreme pornography” is already illegal under the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. Supposing there was a law that criminalised all those who made or viewed the Bindel-defined gender hatred porn, how on earth could the police and CPS find the time and resources to trawl through the nation’s computers, replete as they are (according to Bindel) with it? We have to be realistic about what is the most cost-effective and practical way of tackling violence against women, especially when there is so much contradictory evidence on the link between porn and violence. At the moment, it can take up to a year to arrest an individual for downloading child porn after computer equipment has been seized – and that’s someone who has viewed hundreds of images over a number of years and is considered ‘high risk’ (ie works with children). If this same timeframe was applied to cases such as Tabak’s, how could a prosecution be brought when it seems he viewed the strangulation porn after rather than before Yeates’ murder?

Meanwhile, thousands of rapists are routinely released on bail each year, partly due to civil liberties and partly due to prison incapacity. Jane Clough was murdered by her partner Jonathan Vass while he was on bail, after she had reported him for repeated rape during pregnancy. Surely preventing such attacks on already vulnerable women should be where we concentrate our money and efforts, not criminalising male porn habits in a bid to second-guess the likelihood of sexual violence.

Perhaps the way forward for porn is an ethical stamp guaranteeing more stringent standards of consent and safety. An outright ban on so-called gender hatred porn would merely allow the fermentation of an even more bilious black market where non-consensual victims of misogynistic sexual abuse become harder to protect, and those who enjoy edge play within the bounds of safety and respect find themselves castigated for their legitimate desires and considered actions. Most importantly, such a law would not have saved Joanna Yeates.

Photo courtesy of Cumbrian Snapper used under the Creative Commons License.

Comments From You

Troika21 // Posted 1 November 2011 at 11:55 pm

Hear, hear. I think I pretty much agree with everything written here. (And its not often that I get to say that.)

What a person does (or wants done to them) in the bedroom has no bearing on who they are as a person. I wish the tabloids and (some) feminists would accept that.

Laura // Posted 2 November 2011 at 8:03 am

Hi Nichi,

I broadly agree with your argument about porn, but I find your use of the term “unstable” and “mentally unstable” to describe those who like violent porn and go on to murder highly problematic.

Firstly, the common view that having a mental illness and behaving in a violent, murderous or extremely anti-social way is hugely stigmatising of those who have mental illnesses (the vast, vast majority of whom do not attack and kill others) and as feminists we should be challenging that stigma and this kind of disablist language, not using it in our own arguments and discussions.

Secondly, the idea that men who commit violence against women must have some kind of problem that makes them different from “normal” men is very misleading. Violence against women is common – 1 in 4 women experience violence at the hands of men and 2 women are killed every week as a result – and is committed by all kinds of men. Saying they are “unstable” implies that these men are not in control of – and potentially not responsible for – the violence they commit. This is the kind of argument we often hear from the defence in domestic violence cases. Again, as feminists I think we should be questioning this line of thinking in order to highlight just how normal violence against women is, not reinforcing it by using words such as “unstable” to describe men who kill.

Nichi Hodgson // Posted 2 November 2011 at 10:29 am

Hi Laura

Thanks for your comments. It wasn’t my intention to stigmatise those with mental health issues so I’m sorry if that’s what I did. I’ve had depression and being anorexic so it’s not that I am being purposefully dismissive. I’m wondering how else I could have described someone like Tabak though. Sure, all criminals have agency but a combination of mental health issues, socio and psychopathic tendencies and behavioural disorders can greatly diminish that. That is not at all to say that all people who are mentally ill commit crimes.

I agree too that the domestic violence stats point to what is on some level social acceptance of violence against women, and that is most definitely to do with agency and learned behaviour, but what I really specifically wanted to address was the assumption that porn automatically affects behaviour. There are plenty of men who would find Tabak’s viewing habits vile but would still hit or hurt their partners.

Remittance Girl // Posted 2 November 2011 at 11:45 am

Without wanting to offend any Christian readers, I must say that if we are to consider banning material based on the fact that it has been used as an incitement or excuse to commit acts of murder and cruelty, I think the Old and New Testaments needs to be the first works under consideration.

Between the Crusades, the various Inquisitions and sporadic bouts of witchburning, not to mention its use as an excuse to subjugate millions of ‘savages’ during the colonial era, the Bible has every other text beat hands down.

There are several other texts we might also consider. The Communist Manifesto, Mein Kampf, Mao’s Little Red Book: the Russian revolution, the Stalinist Purges, the Holocaust, the Great March, the Cultural Revolution…

When it comes to considering texts that have inspired, driven and justified barbarity, pornography of even the most offensive type doesn’t even begin to compete as ‘dangerous texts’.

Ultimately, if we truly believe that words or pictures can MAKE a person violent, then we must relinquish the concept of fee will and personal responsibility.

Jennifer Drew // Posted 2 November 2011 at 2:23 pm

Julie Bindell was correct to demand laws be passed in respect of promotion of women-hating. But because we live in a male supremacist system such laws will not be passed because male supremacy and its apologists do not believe women are human and entitled not to be reduced to men’s dehumanised sexualised commodities and/or held in contempt and hatred by men because we are female not male.

There is innumerable evidence of increasing misogyny and women-hating being promoted as ‘ironic’ but as always when it concerns women’s right not to be reduced to dehumanised objects suddenly spurious claims are made claiming how and why such legislation is inoperative. Women are not all the same but we all share one important fact and that is we are all biological females and it is our sex which is hated and despised by men because we are not the supposed ‘default human who can only be male.’ Male hatred and male contempt for women is rife and it happens because men believe they have the right to maintain domination and control over all women and dehumanising women is a very, very effective piece of male propaganda. After all men cannot ‘harm something or someone who isn’t human!’

Another aspect conveniently ignored is the fact in the Graham Coutts case (wherein he was subsequently convicted of femicide), the prosecution was allowed to disclose to the court and jury evidence of Coutts’ predilection for viewing pornography which contained images of men (yes these were real men not ‘fantasy figures’) subjecting women to strangulation prior to these self-same men raping the women. In other words Coutts was viewing filmed male sexual violence against women under the auspices of supposedly viewing pornography which is supposedly “fantasy” not real men committing real sadistic sexual acts against women. Furthermore bothy Tabak’s and Coutts’ crimes were almost identical in nature to the filmed male sexual violence against women they had been watching. Not a case of ‘real life copying art’ rather another case of real men imitating the acts of other real men who happened to film themselves committing these crimes against women. Choice’ is not a ‘choice’ when it concerns pornography because most women do not wake up and suddenly decide ‘I’m going to enter the porn industry and allow (sic) men to film themselves raping men and subjecting me to sadistic sexual violence because it is ‘fun’ to be treated as a dehumanised object. ‘Choice’ is a word bandied around by pseudo feminists who are determined to keep the focus away from men’s real choices and agency as well as invisibilising how male power and male domination over women and girls operates. We do not live in a society wherein everyone is able to make ‘choices’ because women continue to be constrained and denied our fundamental human rights. Men are the ones enacting ‘agency and choice’ as they have always been and that continues not to change.

Then too, male supremacy always twists facts to ensure men are rarely held accountable for their crimes against women or else men’s crimes are excused/minimalised because these men who are charged and subsequently convicted are supposedly ‘deviants’ rather than just ordinary normal men who had the misfortune (sic) to be deemed to have committed a crime. However their crimes against women because the victims happen to be female not male are always ignored because it is claimed the sex of the victim is irrelevant! The very fact some women do engage in ‘fantasising about being raped’ is used to justify men’s pseudo right of 24/7 sexual access to women. But when it is men charged with committing sexual violence against women and these men have viewed filmed male sexual violence against women, then such viewing is said to be of no relation whatsoever to the crime(s) these men are charged with. Note too when women engage in ‘fanticising about a male raping them – they do not engage in filming themselves being subjected to real rape and real sexual violence. Therein lies the difference, because men like Coutts and Tabak to name just two have a history of viewing filmed real male sexual violence against women and girls.

jon // Posted 2 November 2011 at 2:27 pm

I believe there’s a case for comparing these kinds of (sexist) depictions of women by pornographers, to the anti-semitic depictions of Jews in Germany in the decade leading up to the Holocaust. Jews, like women until fairly recently, were denied full civil rights. The Jews were caricatured as slimy, ugly, money-grabbing race, who did not deserve to be recognized as fully human. The depictions were the product of an extremely racist ideology, which by then had infiltrated most of Europe.

Bearing in mind that sexism is racism applied to gender, I would point out that most pornography is as sexist as the Nazis were racist. Women are mostly caricatured as depraved whores, desparate for sex, they are the subjects (objects) of sexual humiliation and are often depicted on their knees in front of a man. The depictions are the product of an extremely sexist ideology that feminists have only recently started to analyse.

Buried deep beneath the collective psyche of this sexist ideology (which some call patriarchy, though I would hesitate to call it that as it includes many more factors), fantasies of sex and power have been bubbling for centuries. For the most part, the power was in the hands of men. The images are were are seeing surface now are the prodcut of this collective unconsious, which does not so easily let go of millenia-old ideas.

At my most optimistic I would say that the pornographic material that we find on the net, most of which is sexist racist and abusive in the extreme, are the dying throws of patriarchy (a desparate and impotent attempt to maintain power and privlige of being male). At my most pessimistic – well I’d rather not go in to it…

jon // Posted 2 November 2011 at 2:35 pm

@Remittance Girl – “Mein Kampf”, or Nazi childrens book depicting Jews as sub-human, are not sold as entertainment or wank material (in news agent, or entertainment web-sites). Pornography is being (has been) legitimized. If anti-semitism were legitimised we would likely see an increase in racial attacks on Jews. Don’t pretend that we live in a completely free and open society, social mores and law still regulate our lives and are neccessary for maintainly peaceful societies. Certain materials are recognized as beeing incitement to racial hatered, just as we can now see that certain kinds of pornography seem like an incitement to sexist abuse.

jon // Posted 2 November 2011 at 2:54 pm

“Surely we feminists need to push for a cultural shift in which women have an equal stake in depicting sexual pleasure”

The problem is that most porn does not only depict sexual pleasure, but a whole swatch of the human psyche, from lust to sexism to hatred. Moreover, the pleasure is usually comes at someones expense. Are you suggesting that feminists should also have an equal stake the (popular) sexist and humiliating depctions?

Nichi Hodgson // Posted 2 November 2011 at 2:55 pm

@Jennifer Drew:

In response to

“Tabak’s and Coutts’ crimes were almost identical in nature to the filmed male sexual violence against women they had been watching. Not a case of ‘real life copying art’ rather another case of real men imitating the acts of other real men who happened to film themselves committing these crimes against women”

I am not AT ALL defending that – that is not consensual kink porn. That is undoubtedly violence against women and can be prosecuted under the law already. But if, re Julie’s recommendation, a new law only prosecuted men for such images of women, what would you do about vice versa or the Abu Ghraib-style abuse of men by men – sodomy as a war weapon – which is undoubtedly the same kind of gender violence…

Nichi Hodgson // Posted 2 November 2011 at 3:22 pm

@Jon:

“The problem is that most porn does not only depict sexual pleasure, but a whole swatch of the human psyche, from lust to sexism to hatred. Moreover, the pleasure is usually comes at someones expense. Are you suggesting that feminists should also have an equal stake the (popular) sexist and humiliating depctions?”

I think that if women have more of a stake in making porn, the overtly misogynistic balance will begin to tip. Now, someone could argue that just because there are greater numbers of women in any arena does not mean necessarily mean less sexism – but the sexism of all industries has only shifted when firstly more women were established within them – be it law, the forces, the media, medicine etc AND challenged their norms.

Of course we shouldn’t just accept misogyny in porn. But we need to distinguish between what constitutes sexual abuse and what constitutes playing with power dynamics because it is thrilling. It will also separate out which men are genuine about female pleasure and consent and alternative sexual dynamics and which are not. Some women enjoy being humiliated because they feel socially equal not the opposite.

Porn and sex are crucibles for social attitudes and experiences of power. Censoring it won’t solve the underlying issues.

jon // Posted 2 November 2011 at 3:46 pm

@Nichi Hodgson – I take your (valid) point about how sexism gradually faded from other industries once more women got involved. And I suggest that these more “egalitarian” forms of porn that feminists will supposedly make in the future should be reffered to as sex-films, rather than pornography, which by dint of it’s own etymology suggests a sexist practice aimed at sexually dominating women (i.e. the depiction of prostitutes). In this sexism-free utopia (if such a thing is possible) we would use the term pornography to refer to the abusive sexist stuff, and the rest would simply be “sex-films”.

jon // Posted 2 November 2011 at 3:54 pm

“I think that if women have more of a stake in making porn, the overtly misogynistic balance will begin to tip.”

Ostensibely, we *are* already seeing that balance tip (ever so slightly) with porn that depicts women who are sexually degrading men. The problem however remains: the sociol history into which this porn is produced is one of women being owned by men (up until fairly recently). This state of affairs is embedded in our ideology and enshrined in our very language. The word “husband” carries connotations of animal ownership, and the Hebrew (I’m Israeli) word for husband “Ba’al” litarally means owner.

Rachel // Posted 2 November 2011 at 5:04 pm

There are certainly problematic areas to porn, and these are debates worth having, but I just want to add a few comments regarding my response to the way this issue was covered in the media…

What worries me most is that in equating the type of porn a person consumes to the acts they intend to commit in real life, we do disservice to a whole section of society who are able to tell the difference between what is acceptable in fantasy and what is acceptable in reality. What about the huge numbers of people who are turned on by power play, humiliation and violence (both giving and receiving) but find ways to enjoy that in a safe, consensual environment? (I’m thinking particularly of BDSM, but there’s a whole spectrum to this). I enjoy watching a huge variety of porn – some are things that I incorporate into my sexual relationships, but the vast majority are things I have no interest whatsoever in simulating myself. The media love to get themselves in a froth over this sort of thing, and it’s not something that is easy to talk about publicly anyway, but I just worry that people forget that the vast majority of us have the ability to manage our behaviour in socially acceptable ways.

sianandcrookedrib // Posted 2 November 2011 at 5:25 pm

I’m with Julie on this one.

I think that the portrayal of sexual violence is a form of violence against women.

This is not to say that i don’t think people can enjoy and consent to BDSM, and i think it is strange how people muddy the waters on this. The key is active consent.

But portraying women as objects to harm, abuse, degrade and hurt, and then associating that violence with male sexual pleasure is a different kettle of fish.

Research presented in San Francisco in 2008 found that nearly 90% of the scenes in the most popularly rented or bought p0rn dvds in the USA depicted violence against women. there just isn’t really that much out there that portrays women’s pleasure or enjoyment.

the APA has found associative links between sexist imagery and an increased tolerance of sexism and vawg.

Plus, we don’t know what online or offline p0rn is *actually* consensual. How do we know that the videos Tabak watched were of women consenting? We don’t. Trafficking, coercion and violence runs through the industry even before you get to what is on film.

So i have to disagree with Nichi on this one, I think we need to look at the impact growing up with images of women as objects to be hurt and degraded have on people’s view and percpetion of women and women’s sexuality.

jon // Posted 2 November 2011 at 7:14 pm

@rachel – “What about the huge numbers of people who are turned on by power play, humiliation and violence?”

What if there were a huge section of society that were turned on by watching videos of black people being raped (acted of course, with the full consent of the black actors, who are paid) – Do they have a right to watch (purchase) these sorts of videos? Of course they do, why not, it’s only fantasy. But it does say something about these people doesn’t it? Not the kind of people most of us would like to associate with, if we knew how they got their kicks…

By the way, even the most popular internet porn contains themes of either humiliation, violence, incest, abuse and most of this abuse is directed towards women. It’s not difficult to verify this by looking at the popular videos on sites such as pornhub.

Troika21 // Posted 3 November 2011 at 8:54 am

@ jon

“But it does say something about these people doesn’t it?”

No it does not.

Thats the same logic that exclaims that women who wear sexy clothes, well, it says something about them, doesn’t it?

We have had this trouble with ‘violent video game’ scares – playing a first person shooter is akin to wanting to go on a violent rampage in the minds of some people, after all, it says something about them, doesn’t it?

Also, I really should have thanked Nichi in my frist comment, it is nice to read a defence of sexual freedom, even if it did have to be ‘balanced’.

jon // Posted 3 November 2011 at 12:08 pm

@Troika21 – those two comparisons are not really valid. In the first instance what you claim is not even true; what a person wears *does* say something about them. If a woman wears sexy clothing it generally means she wants to look attractive and sexy, i.e. she wants to attact mens attention and broadcast her sexuality (or her interest in sexuality).

In the second, even the most violent video games are not used to facilitate masturbation, e.g. people don’t play them in order to have orgasms whilst raping or shooting oponents. The links formed in the brain between influcting humiliation and sexual pleasure are not being made in this case.

There *are* some racist video games in which the targets of attacks are, for example, Jews or Black (e.g. extremest Islamist, or white-power games). But they are usually illegal.

And last, Nichi’s piece is not in defence of sexual freedom, but rather in defece of the right to sexual pleasure regardless of the cost to others in the community.

HarpyMarx // Posted 3 November 2011 at 12:10 pm

I agree with Josephine’s initial post, though I agree with Laura about the language of “unstable” and “mentally unstable”… there is so much demonisation of people with mental distress = mad, bad and dangerous to know. Did Tabak have mental distress? I think it was more about having power and control over women. I am sure there will be mutterings of psychopath, another doubtful label as was does it actually mean. Tabak liked having power and control over women, a violent murderous misogynist.

Back to the issue of porn, this age old debate on banning porn which will, apparently, protect women. Porn is a modern phenomenon. Violence against women has been prevalent throughout history. What about countries where porn is banned, are women’s lives any better? No. Porn can be used as a prop for men like Tabak, it’s a continuum of sexist imagery of women. Blaming porn also distracts from the dynamics of society, power relationships between men and women. You can’t just look at porn in terms of patriarchy. Patriarchy and capitalism is intertwined. Sex is commodified under capitalism and porn is a billion dollar industry. But the issue is more complex, many people look at adult porn for different reasons, this includes S&M, fantasy and so on. Banning it will not make violence against women disappear, you have to dismantle power structures and the oppressive and unequal society we live in.

Btw I think the judge was right to keep the possession of porn out of the court case.

jon // Posted 3 November 2011 at 12:40 pm

@HarpyMarx

1. You’re lumping all porn into the same category

2. No one is claiming that banning extremely violent porn will make violence against women disappear.

HarpyMarx // Posted 3 November 2011 at 1:24 pm

Jon,

I believe there should be more of an analysis into porn and why people use it. It’s not about lumping all porn into the same category, what category is that? There are issues around fantasy and porn, role playing in the bedroom and so on.

“No one is claiming that banning extremely violent porn will make violence against women disappear”.

Some do. Problem with censorship where does it end. I can imagine lesbian and gay porn being banned because the problem is is when progressives makes alliances it usually includes rabid right-wing homophobes i.e. Dworkin/McKinnon’s anti-porn ordinances in the States and who they made alliances with.

Troika21 // Posted 3 November 2011 at 1:39 pm

@ jon,

My arguement was that wearing sexy clothing is not an invatation to rape, does not mean that a woman ‘deserves’ it, and does not imply willingness to mindlessly have sex. But is often presented in this way by many people, in a well-they-would-do-that-wouldn’t-they type thought.

I’m sure you know that, but that is exactly what you are doing here – that people who view this sort of thing must be twisted, depraved or have *something* wrong with them to make them act this way. What people like doing when they’re not being normal, says nothing about who they are as a person.

Its a pity that you try to dismiss gaming, most gamers will play far more violent games than will watch porn and yet they do not wish to act out a murderous rampage. I don’t believe the implication that if gamers masturbated whilst playing there would be more massacres.

The idea that the public cannot tell the difference between fantasy and reality is very strong in some sections of our country. Anything that might be extreme or in some way corrupting, especially to children, as if we’re twelve-year-olds, must be banned, censored or otherwise made taboo.

What two, or more, consenting, informed adults want to do with each other, two one-another and what equipment they might use, is no-ones damn business.

Whatever Ms Hodgsons considers her post to be about, it presents a far better, more interesting and more empowering view of the world than your Approved Version™.

jon // Posted 3 November 2011 at 2:25 pm

@HarpyMarx – what I meant was that you didn’t seem to make a distinction between between different types of porn, in what you wrote, you only say “porn”; there’s child-porn, bland-porn, abusive sexist porn, extreme porn. Some porn is seen as benign, some porn is illegal and some can be seen as incitement to gender hatered (quite a lot of it these days). What approach we take depends on what we’re talking about.

Both pro-porn and anti-porn camps are guilty of obfuscating the issue. The former make claims such as “porn is sexually liberating”, and the latter say “porn is abusive and sexist”, but each group wilfully ignores pornography that doesn’t fit their argument.

Have Your say

To comment, you must be registered with The F-Word. Not a member? Register. Already a member? Use the sign in button below

Sign in to the F-Word

Further Reading

Has The F-Word whet your appetite? Check out our Resources section, for listings of feminist blogs, campaigns, feminist networks in the UK, mailing lists, international and national websites and charities of interest.

Write for us!

Got something to say? Something to review? News to discuss? Well we want to hear from you! Click here for more info

  • The F-Word on Twitter
  • The F-Word on Facebook
  • Our XML Feeds