Monday, 17 June 2013

This picture is illegal in Scotland


This picture is illegal in Scotland.

What! Why?

Images of rape are illegal in Scotland.

But, you say, this is not an image of rape. It's a beautiful image of two people in love.

How do you know?

Rape is sexual behaviour which is not consented to. Yes, the woman in this image looks serene, happy. Anyone can put on a happy face. Scare her enough, and she'll look happy, if only to avoid whatever you've frightened her with. Coercion can take a wide variety of forms.

Consent isn't visible. Coercion isn't visible. There's nothing in a still image which can tell you whether consent was given, whether coercion was applied. If the woman in this image were holding a placard which read 'I consent', you could not tell by looking at it whether she had been forced to hold that placard. You could not tell whether the lettering on the placard had been photoshopped on afterwards.

So what does 'images of rape are illegal in Scotland' actually mean?

If it means anything at all, it must mean that some images of human sexual behaviour are proscribed. But which ones?

Some people like their sexuality full-on, physical, energetic, forceful, even ruthless. Some use rope, chain, bondage as part of their sexual repertoire. Some choose whips, canes, riding crops, floggers; some clamps, piercings, cutting, electro-stimulation. Pain. Some people prefer to have sex out of doors. Some, with others watching. It's not just the case that some people consent to these things: some - many - wouldn't consent to the sort of sex which is illustrated in high-school textbooks. There is no degree of apparent force, no accessory, no background to an image of human sexuality which cannot have been consented to.

I have a strong feeling that the images of sexuality that those who promoted this legislation meant to ban are these images of more forceful sexuality. The hand twisted in hair. The fingers digging into skin. The hand (as tonight's news tells us) on the throat. Perhaps. Probably. But possibly, also, some saw it as what it must inevitably become: a way of banning all portrayals of human sexuality altogether.

But actually, which is worse, which more undesirable? Is it worse that we tell some people that their chosen style of sexuality is unacceptable, or that we say that all images of sexuality should be banned? Are we really going to say, if you don't have sex like me, you're a pervert? Are we really going to say that, if you don't have sex only in the missionary position in bed at night with the lights off, your behaviour is so deviant that it cannot be portrayed?

When I was a young man, here in Scotland, homosexuality was a crime, punishable by imprisonment. It was also considered by some a disease, and psychiatrists seriously attempted to cure people of it. Now, in Scotland, it is recognised simply as a legitimate variety of human sexuality, and homosexuals may marry, if they so please, in church.

But sadism is still a crime. A masochist is not deemed able to consent to painful sexuality. Is this really what we, as a society, are comfortable with? Do we really want to condemn all sadists and masochists to living celibate lives, denying their sexuality? Do we, critically, wish to tell them that their chosen sexuality may not be portrayed?

Ah, you may say, but they're a tiny minority.

Well, maybe we (yes, I did say 'we') are. Maybe we aren't. I don't know. Probably, nobody knows. When homosexuality was illegal, most people believed it was very rare. Now that it's normal, we know that it isn't. How many bedside cabinets in Scotland contain a riding crop, a pair of handcuffs, a coil of silken rope?

If, as I assert, there is nothing you can see in a static image which cannot have been consented to, then the ban on images of rape either bans nothing (in which case there is no point to it), or it bans images which are visually indistinguishable from other images which are legal (in which case it's very close to arbitrary), or it bans all images of human sexuality altogether (in which case I would argue it's dangerously repressive).

There's a deeper point here. As a society we increasingly tell our narratives through visual media - through film, which is a sequence of still images. Narratives are how communities and cultures transmit values between generations. They are how we teach rising generations to understand what we as a culture see as right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable. If rape cannot be portrayed, how are we to pass those values on? How can we have discourse about it? How is a young woman to know when to protest, no, this is wrong, I don't want this?

I do not impugn the motivations of those people who argued for and promoted this law. I don't say they were bad people. And I would not defend anyone keeping, for their pleasure or aesthetic interest an image which they knew or believed to be evidence of a real-world criminal assault. But I do argue this is bad law, bad law with bad consequences, and that it should be resisted and repealed.

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