My book Porn Panic!, which was published in August by Zero Books, is an unusual book, and has had strong reviews – from those on both sides of the porn debate. The book charts attacks on pornography – in part from a personal perspective – and then takes a big step back to take a broad look at the state of our society today; and concludes that we’re not in a good place, nor moving in a good direction. This is more than a book about pornography: it’s a book about fascism.
It’s no secret that authoritarians will always target sexual libertines, nor that authoritarian states consistently attempt to suppress the sexual urge. This is a lesson that has been learned repeatedly through history; every spike in sexual freedom has eventually been met with a conservative backlash. The pattern is so marked, and so consistent, that it almost seems burned into our DNA. And of course, it is: sex is such a fundamental part of the human psyche that it plays a hidden role in most of our behaviours. Sex is about far more than either reproduction or pleasure. It forms a vital role in our economic and social life; it is probably the most valuable commodity we as humans trade, and it was certainly the first. Sexual freedom offends, because it threatens so many vested interests.
So when, as a tech entrepreneur in the mid-90s, I built some of the earliest Internet porn sites, I was uniquely positioned to watch the backlash unfold. Indeed, I fully expected the backlash, and watched with interest. After all, I live in the UK, a country that has gone through more contortions than almost any other to stop its citizens watching smut. Would our prudish authorities simply roll over as the digital network swept away their carefully assembled powers of censorship? Not a chance.
And similarly, the grassroots backlash was to be expected. What took me by surprise was the nature of the backlash. In a country where religion has withered to a point of virtual irrelevance, a Christian campaign for decency would be simply laughed off. Instead, the anti-sex fury came from my tribe, the political left. A conservative strand of feminism, born in the USA in the 1980s, was at the core of the anti-sex reaction. Its first victims were strippers in east London, who fought back as feminists and trade unionists attempted to put them out of well-paid work and kill a niche culture. One of the strippers, who features in Porn Panic!, referred to herself as the “canary in the coalmine”. She understood like few others that a tsunami was building.
From strip clubs, the movement surged forward, attacking sexual expression in all forms, and then expanding to attack free speech in general. It was a movement of the left that embodied all the worst attributes of the old conservative right: it began to attack concepts of racial and sexual equality that had been the outcome of the liberal revolutions of the 1960s. It was inherently anti-science, preferring to create new facts that suited its ideology. This was a new fascism, and its ideas were entering the mainstream.