Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Banning "Rape Porn": Dangerous Pictures Bill Redux

A few years ago I co-authored an article about the Dangerous Pictures Bill: a piece of legislation that is worryingly vague (as most other laws regarding taste boundaries and taboo are). Lack of specificity has its uses if one is seeking to apply the law in a wide variety of contexts; because taboo is a plastic notion, the law can be molded to fit differing visions of "community standards". One power of keeping such legislation fluid is that consumers cannot find loopholes regarding the kinds of images that are il/legal to possess, and so forth.
One such loophole that has received attention in recent months concerns "rape porn". A petition calling for the banning of "rape porn" is indicative of the anxiety I refer to. That petition appears to have inspired David Cameron's announcement that the Dangerous Pictures Bill could be extended to include 'simulated depictions of rape'.
Although I personally have absolutely no desire to watch rape porn, the proposal troubles me because it is already veering towards greater ambiguity rather than increased specificity. So far I have presented the term "rape porn" in quotation marks because it is not entirely clear what constitutes "rape porn" in the punitive discourse that has inspired this proposed change. Will this legislation only apply to genitally explicit material, for example? If so, a genitally explicit depiction of rape such as that found in the fictional crime-thriller Baise Moi would count as rape porn. If only material that presents itself as "rape porn" is deemed illegal, then another potential loophole becomes apparent: changing terminology or dressing-up rape porn with the trappings of another genre could offer some avenue for producers to reach consumers who are scared to engage with what might be perceived as "rape porn". Other problems abound. Since the proposal seeks to encompass fictional simulations, how do we judge a consensual BDSM scenario in which one character is gagged, for instance? In such a scene, even if the performers consent, gagging might imply one character's inability to consent - would such a depiction therefore count as "rape porn"?
My concern is not rooted in a reactionary disavowal of censorship per se. Rather, I wish to question the methods and reasons for censorship. There might be good reason to welcome a revamp of the Bill. For example, this could be an opportunity to offer greater clarity regarding exactly what material is il/legal to possess, rather than leaving consumers in fear that they may or may not be breaking the law (and therefore avoiding any material that might be subjectively construed as problematic). The new proposal sounds like it will dilute the Bill further, creating an even vaguer version of the legislation that encompasses a host of sexual activities under the heading of "simulated consent violation". 
There are very good reasons to address how rape is represented more broadly. The commentary offered by those who publicly commented on their support for the Change.org petition to ban rape porn were characterised by anger and distress. This response is unsurprising and understandable: not only is the idea of rape upsetting, it is also a politically loaded issue. The problem is that nowhere in the comments did I read any significant discussion of the conceptual issue at hand: why exactly are fictional, consensual simulations of rape morally problematic? It is obvious why rape itself is immoral, but simulations are a different case. Conflating fiction and reality is useful if one seeks to support a "media effects" position (as many of the comments did). However, the "effects" model provides shaky ground for such a position, having not been proven with any reasonable certainty. The "effects" model is powerful because it offers an over-simplified answer to a complex issue. The "effects" argument is contingent on an assumption that it is "obvious" why fictional rape porn is problematic - "common-sense" dictates that it should be outlawed. As such, the causal paradigm underlines why avoiding the more complex question of why fictional rape porn is morally wrong is so problematic. Avoidance bypasses the difficult questions that give outrage meaning. Bypassing those questions means remaining ignorant of what inspires such outrage.
Here are two starting points on which one might mount moral critique of fictional rape porn. One reason that sexually explicit rape fantasy might be immoral is that its presence is disrespectful to those who have survived rape. Another is that rape porn expresses the kinds of values that we collectively wish to admonish. I am perfectly sympathetic to both positions, and I would relish the opportunity to participate in discussion about these issues. In fact, such discussion strikes me as incredibly valuable, culturally, socially, and politically. If we collectively decide (a) what rape porn is and (b) that it should be officially outlawed, so be it. 
My concern is that rather than having or even encouraging such debate, the impetus to ban seeks to deny the problem by eradicating the perceived source. Doing so means not really thinking about the problem or whether the elected course of action (outlawing) really is the most effective means of remedying the problem. Banning may be damaging then insofar as it means implementing a short-term goal that encourages us to not have to think about difficult moral questions. Lack of detailed reflection is likely to foster exactly the kind of ethically impoverished environment that is evoked in the case against "rape porn".   


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