Conservative Feminism and the Right to Offend

This week, the fight to censor British media and art – even more than is done already – took a bizarre new turn, as pro-censorship “feminist” groups Object and UK Feminista launched an attack against Lads’ Mags. This attack can trace its roots to American morality campaigners in the 1980s, and it’s worth exploring a little history.

From the 1960s all the way through to the 90s, the British media scene was haunted by a pro-censorship figure; a devout Christian who believed her faith entailed the right to stop any British person from seeing anything that she personally found offensive. Mary Whitehouse was widely mocked throughout her campaigning life, which coincided with the greatest upswing of liberal attitudes in modern British history. She railed against the “permissive society”, in which her Christian morals came under assault from every side: the second-wave feminists were declaring the rights of women to enjoy sex without censure; abortion and homosexuality were legalised; TV and the theatre risked showing nudity, and society failed to collapse. There was plenty of work for a morality campaigner to do, but Whitehouse undertook it with a ferocious energy that gained her admirers, even among her enemies.

Although she was a figure of fun for most people, Whitehouse left her mark on British society: we became, and remain, the most censored country in Europe, other than Catholic Ireland and Poland. Her lobbying organisation, Mediawatch-UK, outlived her, and actively campaigns against “permissiveness” to this day.

But in the 1980s, the pro-censorship cause gained surprising new supporters. The feminist movement, once as far removed from Whitehouse as could be possible, split, and a new conservative wing of feminism emerged. The new, pro-censorship feminism was as moralistic as the 1960s feminists had been libertarian, as determined to cover up all female flesh as the previous generation had been to flaunt it – whether as a political statement, or just because…

Now, post-Whitehouse, media morality campaigns are spearheaded, not by conservative Christians, but by conservative feminists (though it must be suspected that many Christian morality campaigners have sought camouflage in the puritanical feminist movement).

This week’s salvo from the morality crusaders works as follows: they declare that any public display of sexuality – nudity, semi-nudity, or anything they deem to be sexual – “demeans” women. All female flesh must be covered up, in order to “protect” women.

The tactic they employ is to declare that any shop that sells potentially “offensive” material – lads’ mags in this case – constitutes sexual harassment, and thus an attack on civil rights, against any female employee in the shop. Women are, according to this doctrine, weaker and more delicate than men, and thus must be protected. This message is, of course, an anti-feminist one. But amidst the hysteria, many middle-class “feminists” seem not to have noticed, and are embracing this deeply patriarchal concept.

The tactic means that any woman who feels “harassed” or “offended” by having to even share a building with “sexualised” material can sue her employer. This isn’t an original idea; it was invented by a US lawyer, Catharine Mackinnon, who was one of America’s leading conservative feminist morality campaigners in the 1980s. This “civil rights” approach to attacking sexual expression turns censorship from something the state does, into something anybody can do. Any woman who feels she is offended, or “demeaned”, by a smiling photo of a semi-naked woman can claim that her rights have been violated, and sue for damages.

The Mackinnon attempt failed; to allow such challenges would fundamentally undermine free speech, and this is clearly protected under the first amendment of the US Constitution. What Object and UK Feminista are not making clear is what should be obvious to anyone: if a person can sue for finding something “demeaning”, then anything can, and will, be censored. Offence is taken, not given, and almost everything offends somebody. Religious groups will find lads’ mags offensive. And Page 3 of the Sun. And gay publications. Some atheists will find religious material offensive, and surely a Christian bookshop worker could sue for having to sell The God Delusion? Fundamentalist Christians could find Muslim or Jewish publications offensive, and vice-versa. White and black supremacists may object to imagery showing mixed-race couples.

Art galleries will be sued for showing any kind of sexual or other controversial object – for example, erotic Roman sculptures currently on display at the British Museum. All expression will come under attack. The possibilities are endless.

Am I just guessing? No; the Mackinnon law, which failed to gain traction in the US, was adopted in Canada in 1992. The result: “controversial” material – and in particular feminist and gay publications – was seized. Gay bookshops were raided. The Canadian state revelled in its new powers of censorship. All the censors had to do, if they wanted to ban something, was to find one person who found that thing offensive.

Are Object and UK Feminista just well-meaning but naive? Unlikely. These groups know better than anyone the history of what they are trying to do, and the chilling effects this tactic would have on free expression. What is really disheartening is the rush of “feminist” supporters to back these morality groups in the mistaken belief that feminism is about begging “The Patriarchy” to protect weak, sensitive, helpless women from anything they might find demeaning (which has, it seems, come to mean “icky”). What is tragic is the widespread belief that the very sexual freedoms won by the 1960s feminists are themselves a threat to women’s rights.

I have a fundamental problem with people who are prepared to be easily offended. About anything. In fact, I find them offensive. Object and UK Feminista will find themselves as easily censored as anybody else if their “civil rights” approach to censorship succeeds; I suspect they don’t care. They are the modern-day successors to Mary Whitehouse, and if they succeed in banning all “offensive” material, they will have finished the job she began in 1963, when she set out to attack – more than anything else – the sexual liberation of women.

[PS – As I’m so often informed that I, being a mere man, have no right to comment on feminist issues, here are a couple of other good articles on the Lads Mag campaign, written by women.]

Georgia Lewis: Losing lads’ mags and the slippery slope of censorship

Gemma Ahearne: Dangerous Dolls: ‘Object’ and Lose The Lads’ Mags