Europe’s Puritans on the March

So reports the Guardian and Gawker:

Iceland could (but probably won't) become the first Western democracy
to censor Internet porn. Halla Gunnarsdóttir, an adviser to the
interior minister, explains the country's anti-smut rationale to The Guardian:

"We
are a progressive, liberal society when it comes to nudity, to sexual
relations, so our approach is not anti-sex but anti-violence. This is
about children and gender equality, not about limiting free speech…"

This
is Iceland, after all. Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir is the
first openly lesbian government head in the world. It's already illegal
to print and distribute porn within the country, and since 2010, strip
clubs have been prohibited as well.

The bill would try to target what opponents describe as 'hateful' or 'violent' pornography, but there's no information as to who would get to define these terms. Apparently the chances of this bill actually passing are almost nil, which is reassuring.

As I've so often had the occasion to remark, trends hit Europe with about a 10-15 year lag time after they hit the United States. Anti-smoking laws, shaving customs, freedom-of-information statutes, you name it. What we appear to be seeing now is the late 1980s-early 1990s alliance of a certain strain of feminism with cultural conservatism — epitomized by Andrea Dworkin' book Pornography: Men Possessing Women. Here's a representative sample from one of her speeches, held in 1993:

Men use sex to hurt us. An argument can be made that men have to hurt
us, diminish us, in order to be able to have sex with us–break down
barriers to our bodies, aggress, be invasive, push a little, shove a
little, express verbal or physical hostility or condescension. An
argument can be made that in order for men to have sexual pleasure with
women, we have to be inferior and dehumanized, which means controlled,
which means less autonomous, less free, less real.

I am struck by how hate speech, racist hate speech, becomes more
sexually explicit as it becomes more virulent–how its meaning becomes
more sexualized, as if the sex is required to carry the hostility. In
the history of anti-Semitism, by the time one gets to Hitler's
ascendance to power in the Weimar Republic, one is looking at
anti-Semitic hate speech that is indistinguishable from pornography –and it is not only actively published and distributed, it is openly
displayed. What does that orgasm do? That orgasm says, I am real and the
lower creature, that thing, is not, and if the annihilation of that
thing brings me pleasure, that is the way life should be; the racist
hierarchy becomes a sexually charged idea. There is a sense of
biological inevitability that comes from the intensity of a sexual
response derived from contempt; there is biological urgency, excitement,
anger, irritation, a tension that is satisfied in humiliating and
belittling the inferior one, in words, in acts.

We wonder, with a tendentious ignorance, how it is that people
believe bizarre and transparently false philosophies of biological
superiority. One answer is that when racist ideologies are sexualized,
turned into concrete scenarios of dominance and submission such that
they give people sexual pleasure, the sexual feelings in themselves make
the ideologies seem biologically true and inevitable. The feelings seem
to be natural; no argument changes the feelings; and the ideologies,
then, also seem to be based in nature. People defend the sexual feelings
by defending the ideologies. They say: my feelings are natural so if I
have an orgasm from hurting you, or feel excited just by thinking about
it, you are my natural partner in these feelings and events–your
natural role is whatever intensifies my sexual arousal, which I
experience as self-importance, or potency; you are nothing but you are my
nothing, which makes me someone; using you is my right because being
someone means that I have the power–the social power, the economic
power, the imperial sovereignty–to do to you or with you what I want.

I confess that I don't really understand this argument, in fact I'm not even sure it is an argument. I simply present it to give you a flavor of what was fashionable on American university campuses in the early 1990s. You could be forgiven for thinking that Dworkin is actually arguing that all heterosexual intercourse is a form of violence (like many female anti-pornography crusaders, she appears completely unconcerned about gay pornography). These sorts of arguments are now out of fashion in the U.S. — during the late 1990s and early 2000s, this sort of scolding, Puritan style of argument lost favor, especially at the hands of sex-positive feminists. One of them critiques Dworkin this way:

[T]he problem with Dworkin's attitude to porn sums up everything that
can now be held against her. Her definition of porn and what is
considered harmful is hugely misleading. In Pornography: Men Possessing
Women, Dworkin used the word pornography knowing that it was different
from society's understanding of the term. It was not just sex between
adults recorded to inspire erotic and sexually arousing feelings; it was
any sex act that involved degradation of women in a sexual context.
"Pornography is a celebration of rape and injury to women … " and by
her definition, it was.

The deliberate blurring of these
definitions is Dworkin's fundamental error and led ultimately to her
malignment and the ease with which (male-led) society was able to
demonise her. But it got her good headlines at first and if you court
such controversy you play a very dangerous game. Dangerous not only for
yourself, but for the women you claim to represent.

Dworkin
redefined sex workers as helpless, passive victims – whereas before they
were viewed as fallen, evil women….

But as Ana
Lopes, founder of the British Sex Workers Union and a committed
feminist, explains: "That has not changed the conditions under which
women perform sex work. It has done nothing to improve their lives. On
the contrary, they [radical feminists] have been a huge barrier to sex
workers' empowerment and self-organisation. Sex workers need the support
of advocates and allies in order to gather enough resources to stand up
for their rights successfully. The women's movement is one of the most
obvious allies – but if feminists are busy protesting against
prostitution and pornography as a concept, it is clear that sex workers
cannot count on their help."

The American crusade against pornography went nowhere, and has now pretty much been abandoned. At the time, it was lustily mocked in Europe — the land of Page 3 and even Page 1 girls — as laughable puritanism, just as the fact that prostitution is illegal in 49 American states has been mocked in Europe as a sign of America's puritanical double-standards and refusal to acknowledge human nature.

But what do we see now in Europe? Iceland contemplating a ban on pornography, and a massive lobbying campaign by womens' groups to try to get the European Union to ban prostitution:

More than 200 women's rights groups are calling for laws to make paying for sex a crime across the European Union.

Campaigners presented key policy recommendations for legislation to MEPs in Brussels on Wednesday.

"Prostitution is a form of violence, an obstacle to gender
equality and an open door for organised crime to develop," a campaign
spokeswoman told the BBC.

But opponents say the move is likely to drive the prostitution industry further underground.

The European Women's Lobby (EWL), which leads the campaign,
wants EU member states to implement six key policies, including the
criminalisation of all forms of procuring, and the creation of effective
exit programmes for sex workers.

"The most important thing to understand about prostitution is
that imposing sexual intercourse with money is a form of violence that
shouldn't be accepted," EWL spokeswoman Pierrette Pape told the BBC.

Yet more confirmation of Hammel's Maxim #14 of transatlantic cultural influence: The more vigorously an American trend is mocked by the European commentariat, the more likely it will be adopted by mainstream European society within 10-15 years.

8 thoughts on “Europe’s Puritans on the March

  1. Excuse me, I am not convinced.
    The whole 10-15 year lag idea is mainly used by people who want to ridicule some German or European mainstream notion (once I heard: „Yeah, climate change. Everybody believed that in the US ten years ago. Now, nobody does. Europe’s lagging behind again.“).
    But more important: In your example, Germany was ten years ahead of the US: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/PorNO-Kampagne (g)

    Like

  2. Excuse me, I am not convinced.
    The whole 10-15 year lag idea is mainly used by people who want to ridicule some German or European mainstream notion (once I heard: „Yeah, climate change. Everybody believed that in the US ten years ago. Now, nobody does. Europe’s lagging behind again.“).
    But more important: In your example, Germany was ten years ahead of the US: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/PorNO-Kampagne (g)

    Like

  3. It may be trivial, but Andrew was of course living in the US in the 90ties, so supposedly he did hardly follow German/European trends back then. So I do think that several of his impressions about the time lag are artefacts of that fact and some cognitive bias…

    I think that even in the permissive 70ties there were already some hardcore 😀 feminists against porn and prostitution has long been a very contested field. And in any case the backswing from the permissive 70/80ties was in full force in the 90ties in Europe. E.g. Sweden has been prosecuting prostitute’s customers since ’99.

    What about Lesbian porn, BTW? Will this still be o.k. in the icelandic gynecracy? Supposedly, many heterosexual males like ist

    Like

  4. It may be trivial, but Andrew was of course living in the US in the 90ties, so supposedly he did hardly follow German/European trends back then. So I do think that several of his impressions about the time lag are artefacts of that fact and some cognitive bias…

    I think that even in the permissive 70ties there were already some hardcore 😀 feminists against porn and prostitution has long been a very contested field. And in any case the backswing from the permissive 70/80ties was in full force in the 90ties in Europe. E.g. Sweden has been prosecuting prostitute’s customers since ’99.

    What about Lesbian porn, BTW? Will this still be o.k. in the icelandic gynecracy? Supposedly, many heterosexual males like ist

    Like

  5. > [Lag Time] What we appear to be seeing now is the late 1980s-early 1990s alliance of a certain strain of feminism with cultural conservatism

    Not really. Have you ever heard about the feminist “PorNo”-Campaign, that was raging in Germany in the same time, starting 1987?
    http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/PorNO-Kampagne

    > freedom-of-information statutes
    Also not really. The Discussion about the “Recht auf informationelle Selbstbestimmung” (Informational self-determination) was virulent in 1983 in the protests against population census and is coming up since that time quite regularly.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Informational_self-determination

    Chaos Computer Club is also active since 1981

    Like

  6. > [Lag Time] What we appear to be seeing now is the late 1980s-early 1990s alliance of a certain strain of feminism with cultural conservatism

    Not really. Have you ever heard about the feminist “PorNo”-Campaign, that was raging in Germany in the same time, starting 1987?
    http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/PorNO-Kampagne

    > freedom-of-information statutes
    Also not really. The Discussion about the “Recht auf informationelle Selbstbestimmung” (Informational self-determination) was virulent in 1983 in the protests against population census and is coming up since that time quite regularly.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Informational_self-determination

    Chaos Computer Club is also active since 1981

    Like

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