QotD: “Vulgar and Unsightly”
I’ll spare you specific examples: we all know the kind of material under discussion in The Aesthetics of Degradation, a searching meditation on the brand of hardcore pornography whose erotic currency consists primarily in implausibly lurid spectacles of control and domination. “The array of humiliations evinced in pornography over the past two decades,” writes Adrian Nathan West, “seem less the result of individual perversions than the kind of systematic refinement commonly associated with competitive marketing and research and envelopment in hierarchically organized positivist societies.” At what point, then, does pornography cease to be eroticism and change into something else, something qualitatively different? We are in a discursive terrain of semantic ambiguity; a starting premise of West’s analysis is that extremely degrading pornography tends to marginalize sexual desire as such, “substituting predominately sensual fantasies of doing-with for predominately visual fantasies of doing-to [… with] a heightened emphasis on humiliation, violence, and visual impingements on female bodily integrity.” Taxonomically speaking, it might be more appropriate to place it in the category of sadistic entertainments occupied by snuff movies and the like, rather than the realm of erotica. This formulation invites a number of possible objections with regard to freedom and consent, each of which West examines in turn.
“Pornography,” writes West, “is a play of illusions constantly struggling to transcend its irreality.” It is perhaps for this reason that the depiction of abuse is so popular among its users. To put it simply and crudely: A woman having an orgasm on-screen may or may not be faking it, but a woman being urinated on on-screen is, genuinely and verifiably, being urinated on. So the oft-repeated moral defense that such abuse isn’t “real” because it is staged is manifestly disingenuous; the things being depicted have, self-evidently, actually happened. West gives similarly short shrift to another common argument, that the actors involved give their consent: “It is fallacious to suppose we possess a single subjectivity and are incapable of forcing ourselves into situations contrary to our will.” If this feels a bit like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut — casually panning out to an attack on freedom of contract, the entire basis of economic existence for the past three hundred years — it tells us something about why the debate around pornography is so compelling even to people who have no particular interest in the material: it contains, in concentrated form, many of the ethical dilemmas that underscore all our lives as workers and consumers.
West raises a more subtle and immediately pertinent point when he questions whether it is even possible to give informed, meaningful consent on behalf of one’s future self, when undertaking something one has never previously done, and which is likely to — indeed, appears designed to — cause psychological harm. If, as a society, we are sufficiently sophisticated about consent to understand that in certain circumstances it is vitiated — say, when a person is underage, or mentally infirm, or extremely intoxicated — then why can we not take proper account of the likelihood of psychological damage arising from certain forms of extreme ill-treatment? West also discusses the psychological phenomenon known as repetition compulsion, in which victims of abuse feel compelled to reenact a trauma. He speculates that a significant proportion of porn actresses may well suffer from this condition, in which case the profession would amount, in effect, to an industrial-scale abusive exploitation of a self-selecting group of vulnerable people.
West’s primary target is indeed an industry that is both exploitative and, in its fraudulent pretensions to moral propriety — its “cession of ethics to legalistic sophism” — borderline psychopathic. But a concern with the end user is never far from the surface; moving away, as it were, from the production side to the consumption side, the implications of such sadistic pastimes for gender relations at large are hugely significant. It is hard to quibble with West’s assertion that there is a direct link between the systematic subjection of an individual to humiliation or distress and that person’s “symbolic annihilation.” In this regard, it is worth noting that making computer-generated images of child abuse is, quite rightly, forbidden by law: because, even though there is no “victim” involved in their production, it is understood that the dissemination of such material is likely to fuel certain proclivities that will lead, in turn, to actual real-life abuse. That the same sophistication of insight is not extended to material that portrays the abuse of women — in a world rife with domestic violence — is an anomaly that warrants scrutiny.
The Aesthetics of Degradation is an idiosyncratic work, but its eccentricities do not significantly detract from its readability. One inevitably finds oneself wondering if West is holding something back in terms of his reasons for writing the book: a number of personal reminiscences, such as a recollection of feeling physically ill after seeing a gaping on-screen anus, have a certain melancholy candor, but the matter of the author’s own relationships with pornography and sexuality are kept, for the most part, tantalizingly off-stage. This is probably for the best, though: it would have meant a very different sort of book, and likely a less interesting one. What we have instead is a brief, punchy provocation, informed by a strong sense of human compassion — an incitement to readers to think deeply and honestly about a question of profound social importance.
Vulgar and Unsightly: Adrian Nathan West’s J’accuse Against Extremely Degrading Pornography
Houman Barekat, LA Review of Books, 2016
Desert Island Discs: Nazir Afzal
Nazir Afzal is a solicitor and the former chief crown prosecutor for north-west England. Among his notable cases, he brought the Rochdale sex grooming gangs to trial in 2012.
Nazir’s parents arrived in the UK from Pakistan in 1961 and he was born in Birmingham the following year. After completing his legal training he started his career as a defence lawyer but soon realised that he preferred prosecution to defence, joining the Crown Prosecution Service in 1991.
As director of prosecutions for London he turned his attention to so-called honour-based violence and brought successful prosecutions against the perpetrators of these crimes. In 2011 as chief crown prosecutor for north-west England he began investigating sex grooming gangs in Rochdale, overturning a previous CPS decision not to bring charges against the gangs. He brought prosecutions against nine men who were convicted and jailed in 2012 for the sexual exploitation of 47 young girls.
Nazir retired from the Crown Prosecution Service in 2015. He currently chairs the Catholic Church’s new safeguarding body and advises the Welsh government on issues of gender-based violence.
The Prosecutor: One Man’s Pursuit of Justice for the Voiceless, by Nazir Afzal
Nazir Afzal is best known for helping victims of the Rochdale sex abuse ring get justice. When he became a chief crown prosecutor in 2011 he overturned a previous decision by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) not to take the case forward, suggesting that as the perpetrators were Asian, “white professionals’ oversensitivity to political correctness . . . may have contributed to justice being stalled”. Nine men were later convicted of a catalogue of offences including rape, sexual activity with a girl under 16 and trafficking for sexual exploitation.
This fast-paced memoir, cantering through some of the most complex, violent and fascinating cases he oversaw, explores what led him to become a champion of the ignored. Afzal grew up in 1960s Birmingham in a Pakistani Muslim family who often felt that “without any warning, we might be told to leave”. The book opens with a powerful account of a young Afzal being assaulted in a racially motivated attack. Afterwards his father tells him: “The police are not interested in you. Justice doesn’t mean anything to us.” Afzal says he felt determined to ensure that justice really was for everyone.
He was an industrious student. Law school beckoned and by the end of the 1980s he was a defence solicitor. A second epiphany came when he was defending a rapist who he knew was lying. “The sex was consensual,” said the man. Afzal resigned that same day. Eventually he realised his calling lay with the CPS, even though the work was “relentless”. What Afzal, who left the CPS in 2015, confronted repeatedly is an anachronistic legal system, with archaic laws and courts that force victims to stand outside with the suspects’ families.
The main thrust of his career focused on what he terms “gender terrorism”: violence against women and girls, including so-called honour killings and forced marriages. He scrutinised in particular the way victims of honour killings were often treated as partly responsible for their own murders. One such case was that of Heshu Yones, a 16-year-old girl from west London whose father slit her throat after she started dating a boy. In court she was portrayed as “wayward” and when the judge sentenced the father, he said that he understood what it must be like to have a daughter who was out of control. The killer received a reduced tariff as a result. Afzal realised there were systemic problems with the way honour killings were handled by the police, by social workers, by the legal system — and started trying to educate them.
A similar victim-blaming attitude was present in Rochdale, where the girls were initially dismissed as not being credible. What had occurred was an epidemic of grooming and abuse; teenagers plied with alcohol and coerced into unprotected intercourse with multiple, much older men. In one case a man poured petrol over a 14-year-old with learning difficulties and threatened to set her alight unless she carried out a sex act on him. It was a world before #MeToo and these girls were brave silence-breakers.
Now Afzal sees the grooming trial as “one of the most important cases in the history of modern British justice”. The repercussions were huge; police officers were investigated and social workers struck off. I wish Afzal had gone into more detail on the case, though — it feels worthy of its own book.
The Prosecutor: One Man’s Pursuit of Justice for the Voiceless by Nazir Afzal
QotD: “We have to talk to our sons about sex”
When Adam Lazarus complained about a seven-year-old boy putting his hands on his daughter at school, he was told not to cry sexual assault. “They don’t think like that,” the teachers said, “not at that age.” “But it’s power,” Lazarus seethes, recounting the incident. “It’s gendered power, and if you excuse it this kid thinks it’s OK.”
The Canadian performer made waves at the Edinburgh festival in 2018 with his controversial, gut-punch solo Daughter, which he is now bringing to Battersea Arts Centre in London. The show is told from the perspective of a young girl’s father and what starts as a charming and funny quasi-standup set quickly turns into something acidic. Over the course of an increasingly intense hour, Lazarus – dressed in fairy wings, dancing adorably to his daughter’s favourite song – unspools a brutal thread of toxic masculinity. First it’s shrugged off as a joke, then a distasteful comment, until suddenly there’s a metal rod in his hand and we’re wondering how we got here. “Are you OK that I did that?” he asks in the show, as remnants of laughter start to taste like bile.
Having trained at Philippe Gaulier’s prestigious clown school in France, Lazarus makes work that stems from bouffon, the French style of theatre with its roots in mockery. In contrast to his past performances, which involved elaborate costume and character, the father in Daughter is almost indistinguishable from Lazarus himself, and it leaves you wondering how much is true. “We had to ride the line [between reality and fiction] to be sure you couldn’t dismiss him as a character,” he says. “We were trying to get to a point where the room would say, I get it, I understand how a person could think like that.”
With his co-creators Ann-Marie Kerr, Jivesh Parasram and Melissa D’Agostino, Lazarus began developing Daughter after allegations of sexual misconduct were made against former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi. “It blew the minds of Canadians, because we listened to him every morning,” explains Lazarus. Ghomeshi was acquitted in 2016 of four counts of sexual assault and one count of choking involving three complainants.
Daughter is built from real stories, though only some are from Lazarus’s own life. Regardless, audiences frequently believe it’s all him and that it’s all true. In the Edinburgh performances, some people walked out, while lots of others refused to applaud. But silence is not the worst response Lazarus has had; people frequently ask his wife if she’s OK, some close friends believe the stories are his own, and one man threatened to kill him for suggesting men had such a violent streak.
The hardest responses to reconcile are from the people – primarily women – who have been hurt by the performance. “I don’t think everyone needs to see the show,” Lazarus says frankly, when I ask about those who reported crying in the toilets afterwards, wishing they hadn’t seen it. “The show picks at a scab and if you have a trauma or a trigger that’s in there, it’s gonna peel really bad. I don’t know how to prepare people for that.” After every performance the company hold a space to talk, led by producer Aislinn Rose. Lazarus doesn’t attend those sessions; audiences feel more comfortable without him.
Lazarus argues that Daughter is a feminist play. “Pre-Trump I think it was a warning. Now I think it’s a rallying cry.” The show, Lazarus freely admits, is an attack on men, and the behaviour we often excuse. “It seethes underneath everything. These are microaggressions everyone is part of. The ‘good guys’ have a lot of work to do.” He does the quotation marks in the air.
With thunderous impact, Daughter toys with these complex ideas of responsibility and consent, asking how we protect our daughters by talking to our sons. Lazarus’s daughter is now eight, his son five. Scared and hopeful for them both in equal measure, he paraphrases a recent article by Peggy Orenstein. “We have to talk to our sons about sex in the same way we talk about manners: often. Even if you feel like you wanna poke your eye out talking to your son [about sex], if you don’t teach them, porn will.”
Nobel Peace Prize for anti-rape activists Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege
The 2018 Nobel Peace Prize has gone to campaigners against rape in warfare, Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege.
Ms Murad is an Iraqi Yazidi who was tortured and raped by Islamic State militants and later became the face of a campaign to free the Yazidi people.
Dr Mukwege is a Congolese gynaecologist who, along with his colleagues, has treated tens of thousands of victims.
Some 331 individuals and organisations were nominated for the prestigious peace award this year.
The winners announced in the Norwegian capital Oslo on Friday won the award for their “efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war”, Berit Reiss-Andersen, the Nobel committee chair, said.
The pair both made a “crucial contribution to focusing attention on, and combating, such war crimes”, Ms Reiss-Andersen added.
QotD: “Before reading it … I thought of pornography as essentially a free speech issue; afterwards, I saw that it was a crime”
The book that changed my mind
Pornography: Men Possessing Women by Andrea Dworkin. Before reading it – and, admittedly, discussing it with its author – I thought of pornography as essentially a free speech issue; afterwards, I saw that it was a crime – and by no means a victimless one.
Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity
QotD: “In Britain in 2018, women trying to hold public meetings to talk about politics and the law are being subjected to intimidation and threats. The police are investigating a bomb threat against one of those meetings”
[On the 20th June] some women got together in a room to talk about law and politics and sex and gender. The meeting, in Hastings, was organised by a group called A Woman’s Place UK, which is concerned about the way politics and public debate is developing with regard to the legal rights of transgender people and women.
This stuff is complicated and, to many people, obscure. I’ve written about these issues quite a bit here, and while quite a lot of people seem keen to read about the transgender debate, I’m under no illusions that this has broken through into wider public consciousness. Most people, I suspect, haven’t really engaged with the detail of this debate, though that might start to change a bit next month when the Government launches a consultation on overhauling the law that allows someone to legally change their gender.
Given that a lot of people haven’t engaged with the detail of the gender debate, let me offer a catchier description of what happened in Hastings this week. Some women organised a meeting to talk about their legal rights. Someone threatened to blow up that meeting with a bomb. The threat in question was made on Twitter a few days ago. I became aware of it shortly afterwards, and I am sorry to say that my initial reaction, was to think: “Just some idiot on Twitter. Doesn’t mean anything.” Sussex Police took a different view. They are taking the threat seriously and have begun an investigation. A Sussex Police spokesman said:
We are not disclosing details of the investigation or of our discussions with the organisers, however the threat is being taken seriously and is not currently being linked to any other event or offence.
What does it say about how strongly the women at that meeting last night feel about this issue that they went along despite such a threat? It’s not as if this was a one-off either: as Judith Green of WPUK wrote here earlier this year, Woman’s Place meetings are frequently the subject of aggressive protests from people who say they are representing transgender people. Yet women turn up anyway, in large numbers. And what does it say about public and political debate about gender issues that this stuff has become normal and almost unremarkable?
In Britain in 2018, women trying to hold public meetings to talk about politics and the law are being subjected to intimidation and threats. The police are investigating a bomb threat against one of those meetings. Yet politicians and large sections of the media are silent. Would that be the case if any other group or community were subject to such threats and intimidation? Why aren’t politicians, of all parties, shouting from the rooftops about this?
It’s not as if they don’t know or don’t care. Since I started writing about the gender debate in February, I’ve lost count of the number of MPs and other political people (of all parties and ranks, from policy advisers to Cabinet ministers) who have privately told me they are worried about the nature of this debate and worried about the implications of policy. Yet almost all of those people have also said they are not willing to talk about this publicly, for fear of the criticism and vitriol they believe they would face from people who believe the interests of transgender people are best served by shouting down questions with allegations of transphobia and bigotry. I understand that silence, but it has costs. When the people who are supposed to speak for ordinary people – and the rules that allow those people to exercise their basic democratic freedoms – stay silent, they leave a vacuum of leadership and moral courage that can be filled with hostility and fear.
I’ll end by repeating the basic facts of this story once more, in the hope that some of the politicians who talk so much about free speech and equality and fairness finally pluck up the courage to talk about this. Some women had a meeting to talk about their legal rights. Someone threatened to blow up the meeting with a bomb. The police are investigating that threat and say it is being “taken seriously”. And this happened in Britain in 2018.