The Guardian And The “Sexualisation” Panic

According to Wikipedia, a moral panic is defined as: “…an intense feeling expressed in a population about an issue that appears to threaten the social order.”

Most societies experience panics on a regular basis, but Britain, thanks to the trashy level of our press, perhaps experiences more than most countries. Moral panics have a simple purpose: to convince a citizenry that something must be done. And that something is almost invariably bad, when viewed in hindsight.

A good moral panic needs a simple message so that commentators can easily push it into the public mind: a good panic needs good branding. Thirty years ago, a moral panic was in full swing under the label “Video Nasties”. For those who don’t remember, a Video Nasty was a term coined by the media for what we now call a horror video. Led by morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse, the media and politicians set out to convince the public that, unless something is done, British society would be engulfed by a tsunami of torture, rape and murder. Something was done: the Video Recordings Act (1984) imposed on Britain the most draconian system of video censorship in the democratic world. The Video Nasties panic may have been subsequently exposed as a fuss over nothing, but the censorship system, run by the BBFC, still operates today.

The “Sexualisation” panic has been in full swing for five years or so, and is reaching a point of saturation; it is regularly repeated throughout the media, and has been adopted by politicians not just from the religious right, but also from the left. As I blogged a couple of years ago, Sexualisation is an almost meaningless and certainly unmeasurable concept. It was largely brought into the public consciousness in 2010 by an evidence-free government report which was (bizarrely) carried out by a Christian organisation. It has become an umbrella idea that encapsulates various morality causes including (but not limited to) censoring music videos, censoring pornography, removing bare breasts from the Sun newspaper, banning “lad’s mags”, shaming parents into dressing their children more “modestly”; in fact, it is used to attack any kind of sexual expression, or even innocent nudity. Those leading the panic – including the pro-censorship “feminist” group, Object, politicians, and Christian morality campaigners – have learned from Mary Whitehouse’s “Video Nasty” success, and are turning up the level of hysteria until the government is pressured into taking action.

The scary thing about Sexualisation (as opposed to Video Nasties) is that it is undefined and undefinable. Thus, when we reach the something must be done moment, that something will be sweeping and draconian. Given that Sexualisation is a “disease” that allegedly affects men, women, breasts, children, shops, TV, video, the Internet and even (shock horror!) high streets, the only valid response to it must be a cross-society attack on all sexual expression. Perhaps we need a Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice? That might work.

I’ve expressed my sadness before that the normally liberal-ish Guardian becomes conservative and censorious when sex is on the agenda. This week, The Guardian entered full moral panic mode by inviting “the public” to submit “sexualised imagery from the high street”. The question is, how does the Guardian decide what “sexualised imagery” is? I’ve walked down my high street today, and have seen the following:

  • Women in mini-skirts. Yes! Women are revealing not just their ankles, but their knees and their thighs!
  • Women revealing cleavage!! Low-cut tops are surely the devil’s work, designed to “objectify” breasts and thus cause men (who as we know, have literally no impulse control) to rape people.
  • A teenage girl in shorts and fishnets: because the perverts who see Sexualisation everywhere are particularly (and disturbingly) obsessed with the way children and teens dress.
  • Builders with no tops on: False alarm – topless men are actually OK, because the neo-Whitehouse crowd (in common with all morality campaigners) only want to cover female flesh. Men, of course, can dress however they like.

But I could find no recent explosion of “sexualised imagery”. Of course, there are porn mags, but there have always been porn mags; in fact, porn magazine sales have collapsed under the pressure of competition from DVD and the Internet. The term Sexualisation implies that things are changing for the worse. But unless I’m missing something big, they aren’t. Indeed, the debate has moved away from “harm” to the far broader measure of “causing offence” – and the reason for this is simple: the pro-censorship movement can provide no evidence of harm.

So why not submit your own images? Since the Guardian has joined the “anything that offends anybody must be bad” brigade, photograph things that might offend somebody and send them in. Seen gay men holding hands? Muslim women showing hair from under their hijab? Mixed-races couples kissing? All those things represent Sexualisation, and are offensive, right? To somebody?

As we are led headlong into a new wave of censorship, it’s saddening to see Mary Whitehouse’s Mediawatch-UK organisation joined in its endless morality campaigning by “feminists”; and the Daily Mail joined in its “cover up women” fetish by the Guardian. These are conservative times indeed.

Puritans: The Guardian vs Iran’s Morality Police

Bratz
Bratz: Call The Morality Police!

The sheer quantity of information available today has its pros and cons. One of the joys of so much information is making unexpected connections. Here’s one such link: Iran’s ultra-conservative morality police, and the Guardian, world-renowned newspaper and voice of British liberalism. Puzzled? Skeptical? Read on…

Exhibit A: Iranian morality police take Barbie dolls off shelves in Iranian shops. The Barbie doll is clearly a symbol of Western decadence that will corrupt the innocence of Iranian children. Iranian rulers are on record as condemning Barbie for her “destructive cultural and social consequences.”

Let’s all laugh at the Iranian morality police and their stupid fear of a plastic doll. Certainly, we liberal Western types would never do anything so ludicrous.

Exhibit B: Western “liberals” decry the corrupting effects of Bratz dolls. This recent Guardian article is primarily a reasonable attempt to cover the recent Rush Limbaugh slut-shaming incident. And yet, true to form, the Guardian seems unable to take a sex-positive stance on any issue. It appears that the editor has weakened the thrust of the original story; at least, I assume so. How else can the article’s self-contradictory nature be explained? While starting and ending with solid coverage of current US attacks on sexuality, the middle part of the article  gives credence again to one of the Guardian’s pet subjects: the “sexualisation of children”. As I’ve blogged previously, the sexualisation concept has little basis in reality – it’s an attempt to introduce censorship under the standard pretext of “defending children”.

The article attacks Bratz dolls as follows: “The sexualisation of young girls – such as Bratz dolls with their bee-stung lips and short skirts – has outraged liberals and feminists”. The article provides no evidential backing for these two claims: 1) That “young girls” are being “sexualised”, and 2) That “liberals and feminists” are “outraged”. For sure, some anti-sexuality campaigners label themselves feminists – that’s somewhat different from the Guardian’s take on the subject.

And so to summarise: Those silly Iranians are worried about kids being corrupted by Barbie; those sensible “liberals” are worried about kids being corrupted by Bratz dolls. The Guardian’s reputation for accuracy again takes a knock on the subject it finds it so hard to cover honestly: sex.

The Guardian’s Sexual Hang-Ups

Stripper Edie Lamort
Photo courtesy Millie Robson Photography www.millierobson.com

The British press is among the best in the world. And among the worst. We have some of the most intelligent journalism that can be found anywhere, but also some of the most moronic. There are five daily newspapers (Guardian, Times, Telegraph, Independent and FT), from across the political spectrum, that are worth reading; of these, the Guardian often stands head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to providing high-quality journalism. The Guardian, for example, carries much of the credit for exposing the corruption at Murdoch’s News International. When it comes to challenging dangerous abuse of power within the British state and corporations, The Guardian is often alone in publishing stories ignored by the rest of the British media.

At a time when social conservatism is on the rise in many pernicious ways, it was good to see a Guardian article yesterday by Zoe Margolis (aka The Girl With The One Track Mind) challenging the anti-sex crusade spear-headed in parliament by rightwing Tory MP Nadine Dorries. And yet, on the broad subject area of sex and sexuality, The Guardian, more often than not, comes down on the side of repression. The paper comes very much from the liberal, middle-class, English tradition, and the one subject the English middle-classes have always had trouble dealing with is sex. The Guardian also tends to take anti-sex campaigners more seriously if they adopt the “feminist” label than if they crusade under a more old-fashioned “morality” banner. On this subject, the Guardian’s coverage can swing from liberal to deeply conservative in the blink of an eye.

I blogged recently about the UK Government’s steps towards Internet censorship, using the excuse of “protecting children from pornography”. The Guardian, normally a warrior against censorship, lost its mind in an editorial on the subject, using Daily Mail-type phrasing such as “…bombarding of people’s homes and children by pornography…” and “…the destructive effects of pornography on relationships and values…“. The editorial also mentioned a recent government-commissioned report on “sexualisation”, neglecting to mention that it came from a Christian lobbying organisation. The idea that anyone who doesn’t want to see porn is “bombarded” with it is of course laughable, and serious research on porn has yet to reveal the harmful side effects claimed by conservatives of various shades.

And this wasn’t a one-off: on the icky subject of sex, The Guardian is often deeply conservative. I recently interviewed strippers who are defending themselves against campaigners who threaten their right to work in the London boroughs of Hackney and Tower Hamlets (podcast coming soon). These women are articulate, well-paid and belong to trade unions. Yet, the Guardian is apparently convinced that stripping is bad, and refuses to take seriously the voices of the women themselves who earn a living that way; instead, they give a platform to “feminist” (aka sexual morality) groups who use fascist-style propaganda methods (such as claiming a non-existent link between strip venues and rape) to attack the venues and the people who work in them. While women who strip have offered to write for the Guardian about their experiences, only one ex-dancer, Homa Khaleeli is published, because she tells “the truth about lap dancing” – in other words, she makes the “exploitation” and “objectification” noises that Guardianistas want to hear.

The Guardian has a confused idea of defending sexual freedom. While Gay, Lesbian, Transgender issues are treated with the appropriate straight-faced correctness, other forms of sexuality and sexual freedom have Guardian journos giggling like school children. Fetishes, swinging, polyamory, BDSM, open lifestyles, bisexuality and sex work… these aren’t causes for free speech but excuses for The Guardian to pander to middle-England prejudices (and have a good, Carry On giggle in the process).

It’s not that I’m asking for the Guardian to become a campaigner for sexual freedom; but it should be delivering the quality of journalism it does so well elsewhere. Repeating misinformation about porn leading to marriage break-up, lap dancing leading to rape or most prostitutes being “victims” isn’t good journalism. Accepting the word of a woman simply because she calls herself a feminist but ignoring the many voices of women who earn their money this way isn’t fair or balanced. Ignoring researchers in these fields but listening to morality campaigners lets down the readership.

It’s not that The Guardian is the worst offender – not by a long way! – but it’s the one (or am I being naive?) that should “know better”. In fact, the most level-headed coverage of sex and the sex industries comes from the Financial Times and its stable mate The Economist, but these are targeted primarily at business people. Among mainstream press, the Guardian, often alone, has the courage to expose police brutality and corporate corruption. Why not maintain the same high standards on the difficult subjects of sex and sexuality? Up your game Guardian, and stop being so damn English about sex!

How The Religious Right Censored The UK Media

Beyonce Dancing
Does This Image Damage Your Children?

Although the Internet’s roots lie in defence and academic research projects in the 50s and 60s, it only exploded into the public consciousness in the mid-90s, after Tim Berners-Lee created the technologies behind the Worldwide Web.This was, not only in hindsight but widely recognised at the time, a hugely significant moment in human development; a point at which anyone, with a little technical skill and a little cash, could share their thoughts, beliefs, ideas, or products with a global audience. The control of publishing and broadcasting had always been concentrated in the hands of an elite. These few had a stranglehold on deciding what constituted acceptable culture, and what ideas should be kept away from the masses. They defined the consensus.

Now, ideas deemed “dangerous”, “immoral”, “obscene” or otherwise previously unacceptable could be publicly aired. Publishers could choose, if they wished, to remain anonymous. The implications were enormous – and given the benefit of hindsight, the predictions of the day weren’t overblown; the effect of the new communication medium has been social dynamite.

Given that the peoples of the developed world could, for the first time, choose exactly what content to consume, the Internet could be seen as a measure of repression; people would naturally use it to fill vacuums previously unoccupied by other, censored, media. How would people use the Net?

We quickly found the answer; although there was of course a true explosion of creativity, bringing us services from Amazon to Hotmail, the overwhelming majority of network bandwidth was used by people downloading pornographic imagery. There was a simultaneous exponential rise in the use of anonymous “dating” services to find sexual partners, either to engage in cybersex or to meet “in real life”. The Internet had provided the first unbiased survey of what the world was thinking; and what the world had on its mind was Sex. Few had realised how ruthlessly sex had been censored from human discourse in the preceding decades and centuries; only when all censorship was removed did we find out just how controlled our lives had been prior to the Web.

From day one, it was inevitable that the authorities would catch up with this turn of events and try to crush it; surely, our rulers hadn’t spent centuries pushing sexuality underground, only to have the whole project die in a few short years. The American religious right was quickly on the case; it had been funding academic research since the 1980s trying to prove that porn in some way caused harm to people and society. The religious right was joined in its efforts to stigmatise porn (and other open expression of sexuality) by a new strand of feminism; this time, instead of fighting for the rights of women to enjoy their sexuality without stigma, these new feminists were insistent that free sexuality was harmful to women. Collectively, I refer to the religious right and neo-feminists as the New Puritans.

With no academic research to back up their claims, the New Puritans took to establishing myths in the public consciousness. The Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels is famous for his observation that a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth. There are many “facts” about porn and sexual imagery that many liberal-minded people have accepted as true with little thought: sexual imagery “objectifies” women; the free expression of sexuality somehow benefits men and subjugates women; porn is “linked to” misogynistic thinking; porn is “linked to” sexual violence; sexual freedom is “damaging to” relationships.

It may come as a surprise to many people who have heard these ideas that none of these “facts” is backed by any research whatsoever. Indeed, attempts by the New Puritans to find “smoking guns” have failed dismally, after more than two decades of trying. The research that does exist suggests the opposite to what is claimed by the New Puritans. Most remarkably, in those societies that have embraced sexual freedom in its many forms, rates of sexual violence have fallen massively. Porn video first became widely available in the United States with the widespread adoption of VHS in the late-1970s. In 2006, the Washington Post reported that the incidence of rape in America had fallen by 85% from 1979 to 2004. Of course, availability of porn was one of many social changes taking place in the US during this period, but the conclusion seems to be that greater sexual freedom in society makes women (and almost certainly children) safer from sexual violence.

Scientific research has firmly dismissed the “porn causes harm” myths, with the publication Scientific American recently reporting on a number of studies that seemed to show the opposite – that porn use is correlated with positive outcomes. In the UK, researcher Clarissa Smith has studied the effects of porn over 20 years and has come to similar conclusions (her research is soon to be published).

So, game over for the puritans? Of course not; freeing sexuality means less money for religions that reap the benefits of sexual guilt; there’s also money in selling “cures” to the (probably imaginary) ailment of porn addiction and writing books about the evils of pornography.

With the election of a Conservative government in the UK in May 2010, the New Puritans saw new opportunities. Claire Perry, a right-wing MP, began a parliamentary enquiry into “protecting children online”. Simultaneously, a Christian lobby group known as the Mothers’ Union began a media campaign to convince people that children were being “sexualised”. This was a good, old-fashioned attack on “permissive media”, packaged into a fancy new term. Pretty soon, even level-headed people were believing that children were being “sexualised”, without any clear idea of what that meant. So far, so predictable.

Then it gets weird; David Cameron appoints an “expert” to carry out a review into sexualisation; this expert is none other than Reg Bailey, Chief Executive of the Mothers’ Union. So without public consultation, representatives of the religious right are writing policy proposals at the request of the British Government. In response to this absurd coup, the media outcry was… non-existent. An incident which should be treated as a political scandal has been ignored or even applauded. The very notion that children are being “sexualised” or that something should be done about it has been passed on without question in the mainstream press.

Reg Bailey published a report which was swallowed without comment by the government (I wrote about this in June). It stated, without being backed by research, that children were being sexualised, and that widespread media censorship should take place, from billboards to music videos to the sale of children’s clothing. Having now established religious prejudice as fact in the mind of the British government and media, a raft of censorship measures is beginning to be implemented.

The latest measure was announced this week when the government came to an agreement with large ISPs that consumers would be asked whether they want the ability to see porn when they sign up for a home Internet connection. This is done in the name of “protecting children”, although filtering solutions for children already exist (and have done for many years), and the effect of blocking an entire household can only be to prevent adults from watching porn. Although the measure is voluntary, there have already been attempts to stigmatise parents who are too “permissive” with their children; Clarissa Smith (mentioned above) says that parliamentary committees are already talking about “bad parents” who choose not to block porn to their household. Undoubtedly the next step will come when religious lobbyists report to MPs that parents are (shock, horror) choosing to remove the ISP block and watch porn in their own homes. Homes that have children in them!!!

The UK government has taken its first, definitive step into Internet censorship – something it has castigated other governments for in the past. It has been unclear about exactly what content is considered “unsuitable for children”; undoubtedly this definition will become ever broader with time. Undoubtedly too, the voluntary block will be under review, and the New Puritans will be demanding more sites to be blocked, and measures to make it harder (or impossible) for adults to access certain types of content via their home connections.

The response of the mainstream media has been almost non-existent. Most disappointingly, The Guardian writes in Daily Mail-esque terms about “the destructive effects of pornography on relationships and values, harming not just children but also adults” while blissfully ignoring that the claims of harm exist nowhere but in right-wing propaganda, and are not backed anywhere by research. In any other field of interest, The Guardian would undoubtedly investigate such claims, something that in the areas of laws related to sex and drugs, it repeatedly fails to do.

It was clear even 15 years ago that governments and corporations would never allow the Internet to continue as an uncensored medium; too many powerful vested interested are harmed by an open network. The US at least has the first amendment, making it harder to introduce censorship. But there’s little doubt that the Mothers’ Union, fresh from its success at turning the UK into a flagship for its “sexualisation” idea, will use us as a case study to campaign for similar measure elsewhere.

The Sexualisation That Wasn’t

The British are known for being prudish about sex, but that’s not really a fair view; Britain’s a very secular country and religion has little sway over the views of the average person. Many Brits are far more relaxed and open about sex than our reputation would suggest. But for some reason, our political leaders and media are years behind the rest of us when it comes to sexual attitudes.

For the past year or so, there’s been a coordinated media campaign to persuade us that British society, and British children in particular, are being “sexualised”. A variety of news outlets, ranging from the obvious (the Daily Mail) to the more surprising (Channel 4) have been increasingly vocal in spreading the sexualisation message. Politicians have taken up the cry. The campaign, though apparently a grass-roots one, has been driven by Christian cash and PR expertise, much of it being driven from the United States.

The Conservative party, now in government, has helped pump up the fear. David Cameron commissioned a report on sexualisation from Reg Bailey (picture above), Chief Executive of the Mothers’ Union. Which happens to be a Christian organisation. Bailey has no expertise in the area of sexuality, but is paid to push right-wing Christian views into the mainstream. The secular British people have been pushed into a Christian-led moral panic without realising it.

The Bailey/Christian/conservative argument is completely circular:

  1. The media has been running scare stories based on Christian PR claiming that “our children are being sexualised”, without any facts or research to back up this claim.
  2. Bailey then surveys parental attitudes in a highly biased way and comes to the conclusion that “parents are concerned about sexualisation” (note, not a shred of evidence to show that these “parental concerns” are actually justified).
  3. The Conservatives in government then take Bailey’s worthless, biased conclusion and use it to propose some of the most draconian censorship seen in any democratic country.

The result of this masterful piece of conservative PR is that Britain faces new laws and regulations that will take our already high levels of censorship to new levels. Many British people, including many who consider themselves liberal, have been tricked into agreeing with the conclusions – because after all, what right-minded person wants children to be “sexualised”?

Think please, dear reader: what does “sexualisation” actually mean? Are children watching Rhianna’s music videos and rushing out to have underage sex as a result? Does the (completely-non-sexual) Playboy logo on a writing book send children into a frenzy of sexual experimentation? The answer of course is No. There is NO academic research to suggest that children are becoming “sexualised” – whatever that might really mean.

Sexualisation, if it exists at all, is what happens (and has always happened) to children when they reach puberty. Before this, they have little interest in sex, after this moment they become fascinated by it. Britain has made great strides in the past 15 years to improve sex education for children and teenagers, and the result is more confident, more educated teenagers.

If children have been so “sexualised” by the Internet, by music videos, or by “inappropriate” clothing, why have teen pregnancy rates more than halved since 1997? (See graph on BBC news item).

British small-C conservatives, as with many in Europe, are feeling stronger and more confident than they have for many years. The “sexualisation” story is just one front of a wider attack on freedoms that progressives have won in recent years and decades. Don’t believe the scare stories – your children are safer than they’ve ever been – and that’s because society has become more relaxed about sex, not in spite of that fact.

In the next few months, we will see the start of unprecedented levels of censorship in the UK. It will be sold as “protecting our children” or “protecting us from terror”, but the aim is to censor our home Internet connections (work is already in progress) and our TV channels (we already have the tightest TV rules in Europe). If we don’t resist these changes now, we may look back with nostalgia at a golden era of British free speech: beginning in 1994 with the widespread appearance of the web, and ending in 2011, as our fear of “sexualisation” overcame our belief that freedom of expression is at the core of a free, stable society.