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Posted by on Feb 18, 2013 in Culture, In the news, Law, Politics | 5 comments

Iceland’s illiberal agenda

This (rather tendentious) article in The Guardian discusses the current initiatives in Iceland to ban certain kinds of online pornography. Before I go any further, let me remind readers that my position on pornography is that I am not against banning or severely regulating specific kinds of pornography if they can 1. be defined (reasonably) clearly and so be (reasonably) fenced off from the wider area of erotic literature and art, 2. be shown to cause ordinary harms in a way sufficiently inevitable, substantial, etc., to justify upstream laws – i.e. laws against activities that are relatively remote in the chain of causation from whatever ordinary harm eventuates.

That is the position on pornography that I sketch in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, and I discuss it in an earlier post here at the Hellfire Club. Although I see great value in erotic literature and art, I am not such a free speech absolutist that I’m going to defend the legality of all forms of pornography even if a strong case can be made against specific forms (a case based on the ways Millian liberals will assess upstream laws in general).

The problem for anti-porn campaigners is that nothing like a strong case based on 1. and 2. in the first paragraph above has ever been made out. Yes… anecdotally, pornography may indirectly do harm to some people on some occasions by conveying misleading information to others. But that is far from being something that we’d normally see as enough to justify an upstream ban on any conduct. Many forms of communication would be in trouble if we thought that were enough (including religious teachings; much op.ed. material, and even supposedly “straight journalism”; and perhaps the majority of “nice” erotic material aimed largely at a female audience). In the end, I might be critical of a lot of individual pornographic items on aesthetic and even moral grounds, but the case for legal prohibition is weak because the evidence for ordinary harms so serious and likely, etc., as to require an upstream ban is just not there.

Notice the weakness of the research relied on in the Guardian article – for a start, it includes the execrable Gail Dines (who is not only a highly biased researcher, but also a nasty piece of work judging by the way she managed to piss off prominent Australian feminists like Leslie Cannold when she visited here a couple of years ago). It also includes mere speculation by Tim Jones, quoted as if it amounts to evidence.

Once again, I will support severe regulation of certain more extreme forms of pornography if the case is ever made out (including the case that we can draft workable laws… and I don’t demand that these laws provide an unreasonably bright line). It’s troubling, however, that Iceland has apparently introduced severe regulation of hardcopy pornography, has banned strip shows (where is the evidence that that was necessary on grounds that any Millian liberal would find acceptable?), and has banned prostitution (admittedly in the supposedly woman-friendly way that makes only the client, and not the prostitute, guilty of a crime). When you add this up, it looks like an illiberal and anti-sex agenda is being pursued in Iceland.

Given the very problematic case for any of these initiatives, we appear to be faced with a position where emotional reactions to stripping, prostitution, and pornography are being rationalised on new, supposedly liberal, secular, and feminist grounds. That is always a danger – if reasons based on religion and traditional morality cannot be relied on to ban widely disliked activities, new reasons will be contrived, even if the actual case is weak. Unfortunately, this entails that even highly secular countries such as Iceland cannot be trusted to be particularly more liberal, on balance, than religious countries like the United States.

Admittedly, Iceland may be more liberal about, say, social nudity (the American attitude to nudity, as with the notorious Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction incident, seems bizarre). But here we see Iceland steadily pursuing an illiberal agenda relating to sex work and freedom of expression. You can’t assume that secularism in a country’s population will solve all problems of moralism, anti-sex attitudes, and a general wish by governments and electorates to interfere with people’s lives.

  • Ian Reide

    Iceland seems to be going overboard. Banning hookers, strict restrictions on porn? Come on.

  • Bizarrely, this move is being labeled as ‘progressive’ by some.

  • No disagreement with the above. And yet, I’m intensely curious as to what the result will be.

    The move is probably labeled as “progressive” because there is an expectation that, by banning porn and strip clubs, the general treatment of women in Iceland will improve. This is in line with Russel’s description of upstream laws to prevent indirect causes of harm.

    So, there are three possible outcomes as a result of this move: a) Incidents of sexual assault will drop, b) incidents of sexual assault will rise, c) nothing will change.

    We have anecdotal evidence to suggest that when sexuality is repressed, consumption of porn goes up (e.g., Utah). This might suggest that a state ban or porn would be ineffective. However, most forms of sexual repression are religiously-driven and associated with guilt and shame, while Iceland’s ban is driven by a more traditionally liberal desire to reduce harm.

    There is also the issue that porn will likely remain widely available on the Internet in Iceland, which may render the local ban pointless.

    Nevertheless, if Iceland’s ban somehow results in a reduction in the number of sexual crimes against women, what then?

  • A missive from the always-combative radical feminist Meghan Murphy, on why this law, and “progressive” censorship and authoritarian legislation more generally, is supposedly a good thing:

    Of course, there’s so very much wrong with this argument, starting with who decides what kinds of sexual speech are so beyond the pale that a democratic society can readily censor them without endangering its other values (of course, in Murphy’s case, there’s always a simple answer – her opinion and that of her fellow radfems are really the only ones that matter), not to mention what kind of larger damage to free speech rights comes with handing the government the right to create a national-level firewall in which they decide what comes through and what doesn’t. Murphy’s article also makes standard use of the “we live in a society with laws that control bad behavior, ergo, the government should be able to censor” non sequitur that I see come up a lot in arguments for censorship.

  • hudson godfrey

    I’ll go with that great stand up philosopher the late George Carlin… (expurgated version in polite company of course)….

    If selling is legal, and sex is legal? Why isn’t selling sex legal?


    I think the way I’d argue it is that some things are rightly about personal morality not public policy and this is one of them. If you abdicate authority over moral choices to anyone, be it Church or State, then we’re left with the kind of spineless society that waits for others to make all its moral choices for it.

    In a way it may even devalue my committed relationship by ensuring that what fidelity meant in a world with options is limited to me in one where those temptations are forcibly removed.

    Either way controlling sex has never worked and never will, so why pretend that it is somebody else’s responsibility to help you control your urges, or more pointedly your partner’s, when clearly that’s not what’s happening in these situations ever? It just seems so disingenuous to me that anti porn campaigners are always conflating their sexual conservatism with feminism while simultaneously slut-shaming sex workers who if anyone is ever harmed in this should be the main focus of their sympathies. There probably are bright lines around sex slavery and clerical abuse of children, so why is it that neither of these ever rate a mention?