Iceland could (but probably won't) become the first Western democracy to censor Internet porn. Halla Gunnarsdóttir, an adviser to the interior minister, explains the country's anti-smut rationale to The Guardian:
"We are a progressive, liberal society when it comes to nudity, to sexual relations, so our approach is not anti-sex but anti-violence. This is about children and gender equality, not about limiting free speech..."
This is Iceland, after all. Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir is the first openly lesbian government head in the world. It's already illegal to print and distribute porn within the country, and since 2010, strip clubs have been prohibited as well.
The bill would try to target what opponents describe as 'hateful' or 'violent' pornography, but there's no information as to who would get to define these terms. Apparently the chances of this bill actually passing are almost nil, which is reassuring.
As I've so often had the occasion to remark, trends hit Europe with about a 10-15 year lag time after they hit the United States. Anti-smoking laws, shaving customs, freedom-of-information statutes, you name it. What we appear to be seeing now is the late 1980s-early 1990s alliance of a certain strain of feminism with cultural conservatism -- epitomized by Andrea Dworkin' book Pornography: Men Possessing Women. Here's a representative sample from one of her speeches, held in 1993:
Men use sex to hurt us. An argument can be made that men have to hurt us, diminish us, in order to be able to have sex with us--break down barriers to our bodies, aggress, be invasive, push a little, shove a little, express verbal or physical hostility or condescension. An argument can be made that in order for men to have sexual pleasure with women, we have to be inferior and dehumanized, which means controlled, which means less autonomous, less free, less real.
I am struck by how hate speech, racist hate speech, becomes more sexually explicit as it becomes more virulent--how its meaning becomes more sexualized, as if the sex is required to carry the hostility. In the history of anti-Semitism, by the time one gets to Hitler's ascendance to power in the Weimar Republic, one is looking at anti-Semitic hate speech that is indistinguishable from pornography --and it is not only actively published and distributed, it is openly displayed. What does that orgasm do? That orgasm says, I am real and the lower creature, that thing, is not, and if the annihilation of that thing brings me pleasure, that is the way life should be; the racist hierarchy becomes a sexually charged idea. There is a sense of biological inevitability that comes from the intensity of a sexual response derived from contempt; there is biological urgency, excitement, anger, irritation, a tension that is satisfied in humiliating and belittling the inferior one, in words, in acts.
We wonder, with a tendentious ignorance, how it is that people believe bizarre and transparently false philosophies of biological superiority. One answer is that when racist ideologies are sexualized, turned into concrete scenarios of dominance and submission such that they give people sexual pleasure, the sexual feelings in themselves make the ideologies seem biologically true and inevitable. The feelings seem to be natural; no argument changes the feelings; and the ideologies, then, also seem to be based in nature. People defend the sexual feelings by defending the ideologies. They say: my feelings are natural so if I have an orgasm from hurting you, or feel excited just by thinking about it, you are my natural partner in these feelings and events--your natural role is whatever intensifies my sexual arousal, which I experience as self-importance, or potency; you are nothing but you are my nothing, which makes me someone; using you is my right because being someone means that I have the power--the social power, the economic power, the imperial sovereignty--to do to you or with you what I want.
I confess that I don't really understand this argument, in fact I'm not even sure it is an argument. I simply present it to give you a flavor of what was fashionable on American university campuses in the early 1990s. You could be forgiven for thinking that Dworkin is actually arguing that all heterosexual intercourse is a form of violence (like many female anti-pornography crusaders, she appears completely unconcerned about gay pornography). These sorts of arguments are now out of fashion in the U.S. -- during the late 1990s and early 2000s, this sort of scolding, Puritan style of argument lost favor, especially at the hands of sex-positive feminists. One of them critiques Dworkin this way:
[T]he problem with Dworkin's attitude to porn sums up everything that can now be held against her. Her definition of porn and what is considered harmful is hugely misleading. In Pornography: Men Possessing Women, Dworkin used the word pornography knowing that it was different from society's understanding of the term. It was not just sex between adults recorded to inspire erotic and sexually arousing feelings; it was any sex act that involved degradation of women in a sexual context. "Pornography is a celebration of rape and injury to women ... " and by her definition, it was.
The deliberate blurring of these definitions is Dworkin's fundamental error and led ultimately to her malignment and the ease with which (male-led) society was able to demonise her. But it got her good headlines at first and if you court such controversy you play a very dangerous game. Dangerous not only for yourself, but for the women you claim to represent.
Dworkin redefined sex workers as helpless, passive victims - whereas before they were viewed as fallen, evil women....
But as Ana Lopes, founder of the British Sex Workers Union and a committed feminist, explains: "That has not changed the conditions under which women perform sex work. It has done nothing to improve their lives. On the contrary, they [radical feminists] have been a huge barrier to sex workers' empowerment and self-organisation. Sex workers need the support of advocates and allies in order to gather enough resources to stand up for their rights successfully. The women's movement is one of the most obvious allies - but if feminists are busy protesting against prostitution and pornography as a concept, it is clear that sex workers cannot count on their help."
The American crusade against pornography went nowhere, and has now pretty much been abandoned. At the time, it was lustily mocked in Europe -- the land of Page 3 and even Page 1 girls -- as laughable puritanism, just as the fact that prostitution is illegal in 49 American states has been mocked in Europe as a sign of America's puritanical double-standards and refusal to acknowledge human nature.
But what do we see now in Europe? Iceland contemplating a ban on pornography, and a massive lobbying campaign by womens' groups to try to get the European Union to ban prostitution:
More than 200 women's rights groups are calling for laws to make paying for sex a crime across the European Union.
Campaigners presented key policy recommendations for legislation to MEPs in Brussels on Wednesday.
"Prostitution is a form of violence, an obstacle to gender equality and an open door for organised crime to develop," a campaign spokeswoman told the BBC.
But opponents say the move is likely to drive the prostitution industry further underground.
The European Women's Lobby (EWL), which leads the campaign, wants EU member states to implement six key policies, including the criminalisation of all forms of procuring, and the creation of effective exit programmes for sex workers.
"The most important thing to understand about prostitution is that imposing sexual intercourse with money is a form of violence that shouldn't be accepted," EWL spokeswoman Pierrette Pape told the BBC.
Yet more confirmation of Hammel's Maxim #14 of transatlantic cultural influence: The more vigorously an American trend is mocked by the European commentariat, the more likely it will be adopted by mainstream European society within 10-15 years.