How Porn Brought Out My Libertarian Side

jerry-barnett-porn-panic

My book, Porn Panic!, is a tale of pornography, recent moral panics, and attacks on free expression. But more, it is the story of my awakening (as a lifelong leftist) to the changing nature of the left; a broad grouping I have always seen as my tribal home, but which I now find increasingly intolerant, authoritarian, and divisive. What was intended as merely a book exploring porn and censorship, became a personal exploration into a new, left-wing variety of fascism.

My own awakening began perhaps a decade ago, when I became involved in the politics of sexual freedom. I was an Internet technologist who had launched a streaming porn service, and was becoming aware of a rising anti-pornography backlash. I accepted an invitation to debate pornography at Trinity College, Dublin: myself and a male pornstar discussed the harms and benefits of pornography against an evangelical preacher and a rabbi. So far, so unsurprising.

The first shock came from a female friend – a pornstar and stripper – who was experiencing some nasty harassment at the hands of a hate group. But this group was a feminist one, not a religious one, and its funding and support came from traditional left-wing sources. Having always regarded feminism as a broadly progressive movement for equal rights, I began to dig deeper. I read about the split in 1980s feminism over the issues of sex and pornography; the rise of anti-sex feminism; and the bizarre alliances formed in the United States between anti-sex feminists and the religious right, a new political force which had backed Ronald Reagan’s rise to power.

I compartmentalised. I saw anti-sex feminism as a right-wing movement that had adopted the language of the left in order to fight back against the sexual revolution of the 1960s. But my mental attempts to contain the contagion were futile: as the porn panic grew, new ideas sprang into being, all designed to censor sexual expression, and all becoming accepted into the mainstream. From anti-sex feminism came ‘sexual objectification’, the vague idea that sexual imagery of women turned men into misogynists and rapists, feeding into ‘rape culture’ and fuelling the ‘sexualisation’ of society. While the conservative right was, of course, happy to propagate these ideas, the driving force was now the left. The British morality movement, once led by Christian zealots like Mary Whitehouse, was now based firmly on the political left.

While there was little actual evidence that society was in fact being sexualised, the word became popularised by a 2010 government-sponsored study, and entered the mainstream lexicon. The study itself (known as the Bailey Report) offered no evidence at all, but merely carried out attitude studies of parents. It was, in any case, carried out by Reg Bailey, the head of a Christian campaigning organisation, not a research one. Sexualisation sprang into existence, as if by magic, and is today the excuse for various censorship efforts.

The Guardian, a once-liberal paper I had loyally supported for many years, became a protagonist in propagating the porn panic. It provided generous coverage to anti-sex feminists (even naming one, Kat Banyard, as the most influential feminist of the year in 2010).

And around that time, people on the left began to spew ideas that I had always associated with the far-right.

In the context of the porn panic, racism appeared from the most unlikely of sources. The attacks on porn were becoming gradually broader, and now took aim at ‘sexualised’ music videos; and yet the artists that were targeted were almost entirely black women. Beyonce, Rihanna, and Nicki Minaj came under fire from ‘nice’, liberal, feminist commentators for not wearing enough clothes in their videos. This was hardly the first time in history that white, middle-class people had attacked black culture and the choices of black women, but it was the first time it had come from the left, veiled in the language of women’s rights. A British campaign for the censorship of music videos was building, aimed almost entirely at black music, and mainly led by The Guardian and feminist groups. The campaign succeeded; the Prime Minister David Cameron and the BBFC (the UK’s film and video censor) announced a voluntary scheme for censoring music videos, and persuaded YouTube and other platforms to join. The creeping censorship of even the softest sexual content was now underway, and forewarned a rising intolerance of free expression in British society.

The deeply racist concept of cultural appropriation made its appearance in the context of black music, suggesting that black and white cultures should somehow be segregated from each other. Again, this idea was hardly a new one. In my youth, I had marched against Apartheid, and left-wingers of my parents’ generation had marched against segregation in the United States. But here, again, ideas which the left had always fiercely opposed were now becoming part of mainstream left-wing discourse.

Identity politics – a laughable left-wing fringe when I was a young activist – now reared up and swamped progressive politics. Now many on the left were suggesting – as the fascist right had always done – that race and gender were the most important attributes of a person. That (to borrow from Martin Luther King) the content of a man’s mind was now of less importance than the colour of his skin.

If one defines fascism as hostility to core liberal values – equality, liberty, reason – then fascism was now at just as at home on the left, as the right. In fact, left-wing fascism was more dangerous because it was becoming the ideology of the white, middle-class, academic, cosmopolitan left. Right-wing fascism was the movement of poor whites, who were universally scorned and voiceless. But left-wing fascism was now mainstream, acceptable. Now, from The Guardian to the New Statesman, it became acceptable on the left to attack people based on no more than their sex or skin colour, and even to suggest that equality (once the core goal of the civil rights movement) was a tool of oppression, invented by white men.

Today, not a day goes by without more evidence of the rise of this dangerous movement. In the latest example, a reggae festival in California is cancelled for being too white (in fact, the reggae scene, while born in Jamaica, has been predominantly white for many years). While on the surface this is an attack on white people, in fact many black reggae artists will lose their livelihoods if white-majority reggae events are to be cancelled. One of Jamaica’s biggest exports is no longer acceptable on western college campuses, if too many white people are involved.

Much of this is shockingly new, and arose while I was writing Porn Panic! The narrative thus reveals my mounting rage as new examples of the fascist left continued to appear. And so I haven’t so much moved away from the left as leapt from it like a scalded cat.

My political priorities shifted: the first and only priority when countering fascism is to defend its first target: liberty. And so, now I identify (with a small-L, I must stress) as a libertarian. My social democratic views are largely unchanged. I still believe in the benefits of redistribution. My libertarianism is not of the tax-is-theft variety; but now individual liberty is of the utmost importance. Matters related to consensual sex, private drug use, privacy and – most of all – free speech must be kept beyond the reach of the state. Fascism now spans the political spectrum from left to right. Equally, libertarians need to shelve their left-right differences and unite across the political spectrum to defeat fascism.

Porn Panic! by Jerry Barnett was published in August 2016 by Zero Books

* Jerry Barnett is the founder and primary writer at Sex & Censorship. In addition to his campaigning and writing work, he is an author, photographer, technologist, and entrepreneur. He lives in London. His book, Porn Panic!, was published by Zero Books in August 2016.

This article was edited for grammar, style, and spelling, but not for content. The views expressed are that of the author, , exclusively, and do not reflect that of BeingLibertarian.com or Being Libertarian LLC

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