Obscenity on Trial

Some of you may have noticed that a trial took place this week in London. The case involved the selling of DVDs showing a particular sexual practice which is perfectly legal to perform between two consenting adults, but some might find, to put it mildly, not to their taste. The producer of the DVD was prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act by the Crown Prosecution Service, but the jury found the defendant not guilty. Here’s the BBC’s report.

Michael Peacock, 53, was charged with six counts under the Obscene Publications Act after an undercover police officer bought DVDs from him. The films, which he had advertised for sale online, featured hardcore gay sex acts. Mr Peacock’s lawyer claimed the unanimous verdict might make police reluctant to prosecute in future. Mr Peacock, of Finsbury Park, north London, whom his lawyer described as a well-known member of the gay community, was charged after police sent an undercover officer to his house in January 2009 to buy the DVDs. Nigel Richardson, a lawyer with defence solicitors Hodge Jones and Allen, told the BBC: “Police were looking very closely at this case.” The jury had to decide if the DVDs would deprave and corrupt any person likely to read, see or hear it. Mr Richardson said that the jury decided the people likely to see the films were “gay men specifically asking for this type of material.” He added: “The whole idea of something being depraved or corrupt is out-dated.” The jury of men and women watched “large amounts [of the films over] several hours” during the trial, which began on Tuesday. “Although they were quite shocked initially, they started to look quite bored very quickly,” Mr Richardson said.

Now, the response on the web during the trial (and afterwards) was mainly libertarian and took the form of, “If an act is legal to perform in private, why should it be illegal to film it and to sell it to adults?” The lawyer Myles Jackman, who is part of the firm that defended Mr Peacock, wrote the following for the Guardian.

While some of the sexual acts depicted in the DVDs are legal to perform, the representation of them is potentially criminalised under the OPA. The Act features the contentious and ambiguous deprave and corrupt test, whereby an article (for example a DVD) is obscene if it tends to deprave and corrupt the reader, viewer or listener. As the recorder, James Dingemans QC, emphasised in his summing up, it was a matter for the jury to decide whether the acts depicted were obscene if they “deprave and corrupt” the viewer. He also emphasised that: “in a civilised society, lines must be drawn”. However, the OPA has become an anachronism in the internet age. While previous cases speaks in terms of pornography being covertly accessed by men in “rugby clubs” and at stag parties; now it is readily available to people of all genders, orientations and social classes. Hence this jury’s verdict – in the first contested obscenity trial in the digital age – which seems to suggest “normal” members of the public accept that consensual adult pornography is an unremarkable facet of daily life. The Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 shifts the burden from the producers and distributors of “extreme pornography” to the viewers who merely have such images in their possession. Furthermore, the House of Lords’ judgment in R v Brown [1992] that individuals cannot consent to sexual assault which is greater than transient and trifling (essentially the drawing of blood) remains effective law. … While the OPA still stands as law, the state is still capable of acting as a voyeur in the bedroom by maintaining the notion that the depiction of consensual adult sexual acts can be criminalised. Following the verdict, the branch within the Met responsible for investigating obscene publications pledged to meet with the CPS and the British Board of Film Classification to review current guidelines on obscenity. I urge legislators and the Law Commission to reconsider the law surrounding consent to sexual assault.

Now, the two questions for us to consider are the fundamental one which the trial was about – not only does pornography deprave and corrupt, but also should the State interfere in people’s private lives and make moral judgements about what they should and shouldn’t be able to do? The notion that since someone can perform a particular sexual act in private that they should be allowed to view such an act presupposes that just because something is legal it is therefore not immoral. This is a presumption that has no basis in law, for the law permits people to do any number of sexual things but in doing so it does not make a specific judgement as to whether those things are moral or not. Rather, the law in this regard is framed in a libertarian manner, that permits people to perform more or immoral acts and does not necessarily proscribe immoral actions. Indeed, the question of morality is one that is independent of the question of legality. That of course is not to say that the law does not at times coincide with morality, for example in the case of the law with regards to taking another person’s life, but rather it is to say that “legal” and “moral” are not the same thing.

So if this is true then the notion that just because one may legally perform an act  that therefore makes it acceptable to view a DVD of said act is flawed. The State may take the opinion that an individual is perfectly entitled to undertake a particular activity, but that it will do nothing that allows that particular activity to be promoted. For example, the law since 1961 no longer makes suicide illegal, but promoting suicide is, so that’s why clinics like Switzerland’s Dignitas are not be permitted in this country. Back to the case and our questions. The jury had to decide whether these acts would deprave or corrupt if shown on a DVD, and they decided that the defence’s argument was the most convincing, that those who bought these DVDs were most likely people who knew what the content was and therefore could not reasonably be in danger of being depraved or corrupted by this material.

Of course, that line of thought has two sub-arguments, the first being that such material does not deprave and corrupt in the first place and the second being that it does, but by the very nature of the desire to purchase the DVD the purchasers were already corrupt and depraved and the viewing of the DVD could not in any meaningful sense add to that depravity or corruption. There is a third possibility of course which is that the jury thought that the Obscenity law was an ass and that’s why they rejected the prosecution’s case, but then they weren’t do their job properly if that’s why they passed a not guilty verdict.

Here’s the question for us then – does pornography deprave or corrupt? It is my experience as not only a pastor but also as a sexual man that it undoubtably does, and that any Christian who stops to think about the matter would have to agree. Pornography depraves and corrupts because it makes me think about sexual things which I really shouldn’t. It makes me conceive of sexual relationships that I shouldn’t be involved in and it leaves me recalling images that I’d rather not have to remember. A good friend of mine has a pithy but massively insightful throw-away line when he discusses issues of sex. He says, “In the Bible, sex is marriage”, and broadly I think he is correct. There is no place in Scripture where a sexual act is committed where the couple involved are not either considered to be married by the very nature of the sexual act OR to have committed adultery. Of course, Jesus tells us that adultery is not just a question of what I do but more than that it is what I think and contemplate. To even look at another person and consider engaging in any sexual act with him or her is adultery at heart. That might seem harsh, but if we search our hearts we know that to lust sexually after someone is not good for us spiritually and personally, whether we are married or single.

It is in this light that we see very clearly that pornography depraves and corrupts. For starters, to look at another man or woman and to have sexual desire for him / her is not something that we can then just eliminate from our memory. Like countless others, I can recall pornographic images I have seen in the past even if I haven’t viewed them for years. Visual pornography is like the cork in the champagne bottle – once it is released it is impossible to get back where it came from. In the same way, once we have seen a picture it is a near impossibility to just simply forget that image and move on. Pornography, which is increasingly easier to find on the internet, stays with us and once we have viewed it we can never be the same. One single image depraves and corrupts.

Secondly, pornography gives us an altered view of sex that corrupts a true experience of it. Godly sex is about the union of a man and woman within marriage who give their bodies to each other and learn to delight in each other in an activity that indicates not just the procreation of children but points to the higher union of Christ and his bride. Pornography (and the sexual activity around it) is a sexual environment where that union intended by God does not occur. It is not a true union and the more we engage in it the more we accustom ourselves to a sexual environment that is not healthy or godly. We know through good scientific research that repeated activity of many kinds, including sex, adapts the brain towards it. Pornography corrupts our innocence and repeatedly compounds our depravity. It make us think sex is something which it is not and for many people means that their actual sex lives are affected by it.

Of course, what I’m writing about here isn’t just the kind of material that the trial covered, it’s all porn, even down to the material that you can see in “lads mags”. And that I guess is the reason why the jury came to its conclusions. We see soft porn almost every day in our society – just leave the TV on after 9pm or open a magazine to look at certain adverts if you don’t believe me. The reality is that most of us are already corrupted in our understanding of ourselves and others as sexual beings, and therefore a little more corruption is neither here nor there. It’s no surprise that the jury passed a verdict of not guilty – the “yes / no” designation of corruption is one that most of us have already fallen into the wrong band of, and once we’re there it’s not reasonable in a relativistic society to say that something is less or more immoral than something else.

My sons will grow up in an environment where pornography and sexual imagery is freely available – it will be difficult for them to avoid it by the time they are teenagers given the way that such material is easy to find on the internet. In some sense the horse has bolted from the stable a long time back, and getting upset about the verdict in this particular case is like the Mary Whitehouse brigade frothing at the mouth over the gay sex scenes in Queer as Folk but not batting an eyelid about similar heterosexual scenes in Tiger Bay (a BBC series on at the same time). The problem is much deeper than a few controversial DVDs – it is really our whole society’s orientation to concepts of freedom and liberty of sexual thought and action. But what do you expect from a nation that has turned its back on God and no longer upholds the sanctity of marriage?

What do you think? Is pornography a real problem? Does it corrupt and deprave?

Please note, I have deliberately not referred to the specific sexual acts in the DVD as they are not necessary to document for the purposes of my argument. I’d like to keep the comment thread clean of references to specific sexual activities in order to allow the widest number of people to join in the conversation. Thank you.

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