Consequences of Outlawing Porn

Reblog: Reprobate

As the British government continues to push through its Online Harms legislation, complete with a block on legally-produced adult material unless users and producers alike are prepared to jump through assorted ID hoops that risk both the privacy and the personal safety of the viewer, we might ask why no one – not the politicians, not the journalists cheering this on or the assorted age verification ambulance-chasers who have popped up to profit from the restrictions – is pausing to think about this. So far, there has been little mainstream coverage of the dangers of pushing porn back into a ghetto. Perhaps this is simply because no one cares what happens to a bunch of perverted wankers – though the idea that porn is restricted to a niche group of raincoated dirty old men is rather at odds with the popularity of porn in the UK and everything we know about those who watch it. But perhaps there should be some sort of licencing system for age verification companies to ensure that they maintain actual privacy for users.

Does that make you feel secure? Are you happy having details of what porn you watch shared with whoever they decide to sell their assets to?

It’s likely that many of you are unaware of what the porn scene in Britain was like before hardcore was effectively legalised in 2000. Let me take you back in time to when British porn legislation was a licence to print money for conmen, fraudsters, gangsters and petty thugs.

During the 1970s, the British porn scene was essentially a protection racket run by corrupt coppers who would demand back-handers to allow shops in Soho to operate; fail to co-operate and you would have your business destroyed by raids where the police were not averse to planting material of a particularly unsavoury nature in order to make you look as evil as possible. Mary Millington and John Lindsay were victims of this sort of behaviour and even the shops that did pay up were not safe from harassment at the whim of criminal police officers. All this ended, officially, at the end of the 1970s – though I know of at least one shop that had to buy its own stock back from the police, albeit through a third party – they found out the truth when one newly-purchased consignment of books and tapes still had the police seizure tapes intact. This was in the 1990s.

By the 1980s porn was very much an illegal, underground thing in the UK – which of course didn’t mean that it wasn’t in demand or available. But as more and more legislation came into force, so it became easier and easier for criminals to exploit the gullible and desperate.

The Indecent Displays Act restricted nudity on front covers and window displays, thus allowing sex shops to have blacked-out windows that suggested far more illicit naughtiness inside than was actually there – and also cut off the activities taking place within from public view. Tales abound of people who walked into sex shops – not just the unlicensed places either – with certain expectations, only to find a few scrappy old mags and 18-rated VHS tapes with the vague promise of ‘something stronger’ under the counter – and who then found themselves threatened with violence for “wasting our time” if they didn’t buy something at a bloated price. It was the sex shop version of the clip joint, where the unsuspecting were essentially robbed by criminal gangs, who knew that few if any would complain to the police – and if they did, the police wouldn’t do anything anyway. There was, after all, no set price for an 18-rated VHS sex film and it was hard to prove that you’d been strong-armed into buying it. Many cops probably thought that the poor punter got what he deserved anyway.

Similarly, if you sent off to a UK mail-order company advertising uncut hardcore after around 1983, you were unlikely to actually get what you asked for. At best, you might get an 18-rated Italian sex comedy that didn’t even come with a sleeve; at worst, you would get nothing at all. Video magazines were full of these ads for conmen and you have to think that the publishers must’ve known that their readers were being ripped off – indeed, had the advertisers actually been supplying what they offered, the magazine might have been on legally questionable ground. Naturally, complaining to a magazine that their advertisers had robbed you would not get you anywhere. Some of these advertisers would come and go within a couple of issues, taking their ill-gotten gains and running; others somehow stuck around for months, even years. I’m guessing most people were too embarrassed to complain.

Some of the porn cons were so audacious that you almost admire them – the famous story of one notorious porn magnate advertising ‘women and animals mags’ and then sending customers a copy of Horse and Hound certainly suggests a cheeky imagination at work. But we should never forget that vulnerable people were ripped off, humiliated, threatened and assaulted by conmen and fraudsters for the simple crime of wanting some rather vanilla sexual pleasure that life might have otherwise denied them – and there’s nothing admirable about that.

The conmen flourished because although the police would’ve come down hard on them if they actually were selling porn, no one cared about the fraudulent activity – there was, after all, no legal definition of either ‘hardcore’ or ‘XXX’ and so they could easily claim that they weren’t even engaged in false advertising. The only victims were the pervs and no one cared about them even if they dared to complain.

That, you see, is the problem with prohibition – you don’t remove the desire for something, you just remove all legal checks and balances and throw the doors open to criminals. We know that prohibiting legal porn opens the door for people who take little interest in things like consent, copyright and checks on how old performers are. But it’s more than that. Making porn illegal – or simply making it so difficult to legally produce that it might as well be illegal – allows the worst sort of cynical fraudsters and criminal gangs to flourish unhindered.

The same, I fear, will be the case once the Online Harms Bill opens up a new avenue for fraudsters, data thieves, blackmailers and opportunists who will hook people into subscriptions to empty sites based on a front page that complies with British law – i.e. no explicit imagery – and makes it almost impossible to cancel. Worse, it will allow fake ID log-ins to flourish and make it harder for any legitimate producer to operate because who will ever trust that this site is legit – especially when the first case of stolen IDs or leaked information breaks? Given that closing down illegal or fraudulent sites will be like playing whack-a-mole and something that no one will be making a priority – especially if those sites are not actually hosting anything pornographic. Meanwhile, the people that the bill is supposed to protect will use VPNs, torrents and other workarounds.

None of this should be news to our legislators. If it is, we might question how qualified they are to be drafting these laws to begin with. And if it isn’t, we might ask why this legislation is being forced through and expanded without any efforts to at least ensure that it doesn’t become a blackmailer and fraudsters charter. A cynic could think that it has less to do with protecting children and more to do with punishing adults whose desires our leaders don’t approve of.

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