Monday, 22 July 2013

Fifty Shades Follow Up

So, my previous post managed to make it to the front page of Hacker News! Woo! I essentially achieved my end goal which was to provoke some reasonably thoughtful debate on the topic of censorship of pornography.

Firstly, I'd like to thank those that took the time to read the post, and more so, I'd like to thank those who took part so vigorously in the debate, even if you didn't read the whole post ;-)

I would, however, like to address some of the recurring comments that came up on the Hacker News thread and the comments of this blog.

I would definitely like to see more intelligent discussion on the subject, even though the subject of censorship has been done to death. I personally find the idea that censorship can ever be a good thing an extremely hard pill to swallow, but bring me peer-reviewed evidence and I shall re-assess my position.

Onto the points made by the commentors.

You Didn't Read The Book

Yes! That's absolutely right, I do explain my assertion that the book contains depictions of rape, and they're not based on personally reading the book.

The assertions I have passed on were from a section towards the end of the novel where the protagonist declares that she never wanted anything from Mr. Grey, and that she felt forced to sign some form of "sex contract".

Rape issues aside, it's a blatant violation of standard BDSM practices. If a practitioner is not enjoying it and providing enthusiastic consent then someone is doing something horribly wrong.

The assertion was that this passage alone puts the whole book in a much darker context. I did not relay that assertion very well, as I wanted to focus on the outcomes of the logic and I had assumed that many of the people who'd read the book felt the same way about the acts portrayed in the novel.

It's Absurd to Claim Books will be Banned

"This is the first I've heard about books being banned. I'm extremely skeptical of this claim." --alayne

Well, clearly, you didn't read to the end of the post:

"... thus bringing this absurdist tirade to a close ..."
It is an absurdist piece -- of course it will be absurd! The piece is designed to stimulate discussion on the how far you can actually stretch the definition of "online pornography" and "depicting rape".

In a legal context, I presume this will be settled by precedence, but that's a worrying state of affairs. The discretion of a judge will be the arbiter of what's "pornographic", what's "online" and so on. Chose your battles and judges right (or alternatively, bring it to court often enough so statistically you get a friendly judge), and you'll be able to enforce your personal morality on the law.

BBC News is not a Legal Source

Definitely, and thankfully so! However, nor is the Oxford English Dictionary, which was referenced, so I don't know why people chose to run with BBC News being the problem.

That aside, I was working with what information I had to hand to demonstrate a point, not to make an actual legal assessment of the situation. I assume that something that looks vaguely like Mr. Cameron's vague comments will make it to a bill some time in the future, but it will not be as simple as BBC News has made it out to be. And I hope an actual lawyer will put out a good analysis of it at that time.

Any subject this complex, with so many tensions running high on both sides will undoubtedly have compromises and loop-holes that ensure that the legislation is primarily stifling to the general populace and is not fit for purpose.

A Clockwork Orange is not Porn

To be absolutely clear, I was referring to the book, wherein the protagonist takes two 10 year old girls from a shop, drugs and rapes them. The protagonist also rapes another woman, but my memories grow fuzzy at this point. I have not seen the film, but I gather a world of difference exists between the book and film version when it comes to the rapes. From the comments, I gather that the film may also come under this new legislation, but it's not quite as bad as the book.

I would say that is definitely true that A Clockwork Orange is not porn to me, however, depending on the wording of the law, this could go either way. There could be one set of rules for "online pornography" and one for the "depiction of rape or sexual abuse". This would lead to some difficulties with works like A Clockwork Orange.

Part of the problem is that the line between what is "Art" and what is "Pornography" is so blurred that sometimes, art is porn, and porn is art.

This is not to mention the uncomfortable issue that one man's rubbish is another's gold. Just because you don't find it "pornographic" or "titillating", it doesn't mean to say that another will not.

Fifty Shades Does Not Contain Rape

This has it's own special section, separate from above as I want to tackle something very different and actually very damaging:

"Been a while since I read it and, honestly, I wasn't really taking that much notice but I don't remember any forcible or coercive rape in FSOG." --zimpenfish

As covered above, I think that the protagonist was coerced, but that is besides my point. The comment subtly claims that rape must be forcible or coercive. Rape is sex without consent of one or more of the parties involved by my personal definition. This differs from the legal version and is much broader, but I feel it fits the "spirit" of the word better.

I feel that the kind of comment above implicitly narrows the definition of rape in a very bad way.

Work X is Also in Danger!

By my logic, almost any work that deals with rape or sexual abuse and has been distributed in any form "online" could be in danger. However, my list of works in potential danger is woefully short! I only included the ones off the top of my head early in the morning, so it's bound to be short.

Bringing the total number of works which falls into this category up helps in a few ways:

  1. I chose Fifty Shades because it's widely recognised. The more works we can get, the more recognition we get, and the more uncomfortable we can make people when they realise the amount sexual abuse, rape and child abuse is actually explored in literature.
  2. More people will have these works in their houses, their local libraries, their places of study. This strengthens the point that if everyone is a criminal, then no one is by simply increasing the number of criminals to near-total coverage.

To be honest, this is some of my favourite feedback. I love hearing people's passion surrounding various artistic works; even those which deal with difficult subjects; come rushing to the surface when given even the gentlest of prods. Makes me feel that I'm not so alone in my ravenous appetite for books!

Fifty Shades has no Merit

I am not a great fan of Fifty Shades in terms of literary merit, I'll grant that. However, Fifty Shades has done something that the British public and media have struggled with for many years. Our culture is incredibly sexualised, and yet no one seems to discuss it in a sane way.

We have a sizable kink subculture that never gets discussed, and is often left out of discussions. Fifty Shades has changed that forever. Kink is finally becoming more accepted as the norm, and discussing sex and what is good during sex is no longer the sole domain of Cosmopolitan (and similar) magazines which carry with them unbearably bad advice.

That aside, you may benefit from some old poetry.

They Will Treat Male Rape Differently

Our culture at the moment does treat male rape differently. This unfortunate state of affairs could be extended to the proposed laws, and have some odd consequences.

The film "The Shawshank Redemption" does strongly imply and discuss the consequences of male rape in a prison environment. The treatment of the matter is neither funny nor in any way less "serious" than similar treatment of women in similar situations. However, I am aware that one film does not define our culture.

However, that all aside, why does gender matter in this discussion? Why bring up this particular issue in our culture that is only tangentially related?

The issue is clearly serious, but I don't feel that it's entirely relevant to this discussion. If the law does make distinctions, fair enough, let's play ball. Until then, I don't think it's relevant in this particular discussion.

Fifty Shades of Grey Made Illegal in the UK

BBC News has today reported:

"In addition, Mr Cameron will say possessing online pornography depicting rape will be illegal, bringing England and Wales in line with Scotland."
This move; applauded by book lovers, English Literature graduates and English teachers all over the country; was made by Mr. Cameron ostensibly to protect children, but he has luckily snuck in the bill the ability to ban Fifty Shades of Grey! Thank the Tory-gods!

The Logic

Put simply, the comment from BBC News above shows that possessing any "online pornography" which "depicts rape" is now a crime. 

Fifty Shades of Grey is unquestionably pornographic. It contains multiple graphic descriptions of sexual acts, and therefore the novel as a whole can be considered pornographic.

The next question is "What does it mean to depict something". I don't have a legal dictionary on hand, but the Oxford English Dictionary has this to say about it:


[with object]
  • represent by a drawing, painting, or other art form
And given that prose can definitely be used as a form of art -- especially when portraying the fictional -- we can conclude that 50 Shades of Grey does "depict rape".

Fifty Shades of Grey may have a get-out-of-censorship-free-card in that it is not online. It is a physical book. Well, mostly. It's available for Kindle, via Amazon's Whispernet. This is definitely on-line. So it is definitely on-line pornography that depicts rape.

The more difficult question is quite a simple one: does what is depicted in the novel constitute rape? I've never read the book; however; I have had some particularly revealing passages read to me. They show that the woman in the novel did not consent to the majority of the sexual acts carried out in the book.

This puts E. L. James, Amazon and a large portion of middle class women squarely in the "illegal" category of the law.

Everyone's a Criminal

Given that many contemporary novels (and less-contemporary) novels do deal with sexual abuse and rape, some of which explore the idea of "rape fantasy" (Herein referred to by the more accepted name, "ravishment") between consenting partners means that a large portion of those with an interest in BDSM and kink will fall into this category.

That is not to mention those who simply study the novels, or get no particular pleasure out of them, and those who read the novels because they'll read almost anything will all be suddenly criminals.

Let me be absolutely clear. Joe Haldeman's "Forever War" depicts a lot of sex (Some of it could be considered to be coerced), Joe Scalzi's "Old Man's War" depicts a lot of sex (although none that I remember was coerced or forced), A Scanner Darkly has a fair bit of sex. These are SF&F books, with no focus on sexuality or pornography, yet under some stretched definitions could fall foul of this law. 

These are books that I regularly recommend to family members, usually over the age of 16 because of their violent (not sexual) content.

Also falling into firmly into this category is Burgess' "A Clockwork Orange". Once again, it's available for Kindle, it definitely depicts rape, and it's read world-wide by millions.

And it's well known that if we're all criminals, none of us are, thus bringing this absurdist tirade to a close and showing the law for what it really is: Propaganda codified as law.