If you weren’t following the big Obscenity Trial at the start of the year, it’s worth catching up on, either through the defense lawyer‘s own account or that of David Allen Green for the New Statesman.
It concerns the sale of some particular styles of hardcore pornography (described more explicitly at the above links than I’ll go into here), which the Crown Prosecution Service apparently deemed obscene under a 1959 law.
The acts depicted in the DVDs being sold were not illegal. More to the point, they weren’t anything the law has any place passing such judgment on. What concerned the CPS was the potential of the content “to deprave and corrupt” the people who viewed it – referring, presumably, to those unsullied innocents who approached a former sex-worker and specifically requested “extreme BDSM and fisting material”.
The defendant was acquitted on all charges, but it’s dismaying that this law under which he was prosecuted is still in place, and that prosecutors still consider smut-peddlars useful and important targets of their time and resources.
I want to do more, though, than just the usual lip service to the standard liberal argument – that what consenting adults get up to in their own lives is no concern of mine. So much of the discourse around this case, discussing these strange people and their bizarre sexual fetishes, who it’s agreed (perhaps reluctantly) should be tolerated because it’s really none of our business, seems reminiscent of how gay people were talked about until quite recently (and probably still are, in some parts of the world): Whatever unconventional things they want to get up to, it’s their own private business, and it’s not for us to pry into what goes on behind closed doors.
There’s often something about the way this argument is made which continues to pathologise any sexual interests that go beyond the hetero and vanilla. We’re past the point where any decent, right-minded human being has any business thinking homosexuality is an inherent evil, but a common expression of the competing idea – that it’s something different but still basically fine – isn’t exactly the culmination of successful humanist thinking.
Perhaps I should be surprised that, despite my increasing recent interest in cases such as this one, I’ve still never encountered the word “heteronormativity” as regularly as I did when living with several humanities students at University. It doesn’t seem to get so much play in the discussions about sexuality I follow online, and yet the implicit dichotomy between “standard” and “deviant” sexual behaviour is one of the more persistent out-dated ideas around.
I wonder whether the distinction that makes more of a difference isn’t between “my healthy sex life” and “other people’s weird kinky shit”, but between sexual and non-sexual parts of our lives.
A lot of what was on the DVDs that got Michael Peacock in trouble would probably be actively unappealing to me. As a (to within a margin of error) straight male, gay male sex also doesn’t generally match my own interests, and isn’t something I want to spend much time thinking about over breakfast.
But – with apologies to any parents or in-laws of mine who might be reading this – there are sexual things I am into which would still put me off my Corn Flakes if a graphic image poked my brain at the wrong time, and which would provide an undesirable mental image even to other people who don’t find them particularly unusual or surprising.
The important point is less about people being turned on by things that I’m not, and more about people’s capacity to keep their sexuality separate from the non-sexual aspects of their lives.
The old-fashioned fear of homosexuals depended on the perception that their sexuality was something central to their identity, which affected everything else they did, and infused them with an untrustworthy gayness which meant they might start unexpectedly gaying at you, at any moment. Similarly, it might take a special effort of will to divorce the knowledge that someone sells hardcore DVDs from the rest of their personality.
People with uncommonly expressed sexual kinks or fetishes aren’t often credited with being in command of a sexuality that doesn’t intrude on everything else that defines who they are. But given how rarely I hear about what they get up to, compared with the more mundane sex scandals that are rarely out of the news, I’d say straight people are in no place to criticise.