Introduction to "Dear Clare...this is what women think about page 3"
The story of how I came to introduce my Page 3 Bill is, I think, worth telling, not least because it all really came about by accident. This does not mean that it was trivial or unimportant. But all I did was to voice in the House of Commons the revulsion most women feel at the mass distribution of pornography in the tabloid press. Partly as a result of the misbehaviour of many male MPs, the issue was drawn to public attention. It was the reaction of thousands of women throughout the country that made the debate significant. I was simply a woman in Parliament who felt as other women do. Together we caused quite a storm.
It all began, I suppose, when I was elected to the House of Commons in 1983, as Labour MP for Birmingham, Ladywood. There are many rooms around the building where there are racks containing all the national newspapers. For most of us it is the first time we have been so much in the public eye, and therefore we are ruthlessly scrutinised. Naturally when the press are attacking you for something – and it usually is an attack – you look to see what they are saying. It also means that you see papers that you’ve never really concentrated on before. It was this experience that made me flinch at the surprisingly large number that contained full page photographs of women in poses which really say take me, use me, throw me away. I was also struck by how often the front page story covered a nasty rape or a vile attack on a child: the headlines screamed denunciation, but then I turned over to Page 3 and felt that they were hypocrites. There was almost a sense that the reporting of such attacks was intended to be sexually titillating. I felt a deep sense of revulsion, but like most women I simply turned away and left it behind me, thinking there was nothing I could do.
Then one Friday at the beginning of 1986 I had to cancel all my weekend engagements in order to stay in the House of Commons to help block Enoch Powell’s Bill, which would have made treatment illegal for couples with infertility problems. Friday is normally allocated to Private Members’ business – either Bills or Debates. If you have no particular interest in the subject, those MPs with out-of London seats rush off to their constituencies, because Friday is the only weekday available to visit schools and other organizations that are shut over the weekend. I felt very strongly that Enoch Powell’s bill should be opposed. The effect of the Bill would have been to prevent any experimental work on embryos. If it had passed it would have meant that many couples that desperately wanted a child would not be helped. Current practice allowed such work up to 14 days of age of an embryo (at this stage the embryo is no bigger than a full stop on this page). I felt strongly that experimental work should be allowed to continue. So rather than being on a train to Birmingham, that Friday afternoon found me still in the Commons.
Nothing, of course, is straightforward in the House of Commons. We had already had a debate on the Powell Bill, but in order to prevent it from being further considered we had to ensure a long debate on the preceding Bill, since there is not normally time to consider more than one Bill fully in an afternoon. The Bill under discussion had been introduced by Winston Churchill, Tory MP for Davyhulme, and was intended to change the law on Obscene Publications. It was a terrible Bill. It listed a series of images that would be treated as obscene whenever and wherever they were printed, a list which included scenes of horrific violence as well as various descriptions of sexual activity. Its effect would have been to outlaw most war reporting, many illustrations in medical textbooks and much sex education material. As a result of publicity about the Bill, I remember that I received letters from a group involved in sex education for mentally disabled young people, which pleaded with us to prevent the Bill from passing because they found it essential to use pictures and the Bill would have made their work illegal. The Bill later fell apart in Committee and never had a real chance of becoming law. But the very nature of the debate on the Bill made me very irritated indeed.
I sat in the Chamber of the House of Commons for several hours listening to speech after speech. There were speeches on the grave danger of the Bill with which I entirely agreed. There were also many comments – largely from the Conservative benches – saying that women throughout the country were increasingly angry about the threat of sexual attack and would never forgive the House of Commons if it did not pass the Bill.
I had not prepared a speech but was stirred by all this misleading argument to get up and speak. I said that it was true that women were angry about the threat of sexual violence but that did not mean that they would support such a ridiculous set of proposals. And having voiced my agreement with those who had spoken about the grave dangers of the Bill, I added that if the House of Commons really wished to respond to women’s anger, we should introduce a Bill to remove Page 3 pornography from the press. This would be tightly drawn, would not endanger any other freedom, but would be an important step in removing the widespread circulation of degrading images of women in our society. And that would be a real step towards addressing women’s fears. As I spoke, I got carried along and I ended up by saying that I would consider introducing my own Bill to this effect.
It was quite late in the day by this time and the press gallery was virtually empty and my speech was not widely reported. But it must have been covered in some local newspapers, because the following Monday morning I started to receive letters from women saying they thought my proposal was brilliant and asking me please to go ahead with it. So, because of a chance, unplanned House of Commons speech, I found that I had struck a chord with women everywhere. It was decided that I would introduce my Bill.
There are two procedures for Private Members’ Bills. Most legislation is introduced by the Government. The Opposition has no opportunity to introduce legislation. Individual backbench MPs of all parties get a chance once in every Parliamentary session to enter a ballot and the top ten or so are given time on Fridays to introduce their Bills. The only alternative is a 10 Minute Rule Bill, where you get the chance to speak for 10 minutes on your Bill on a Tuesday or Wednesday. Another Member can oppose if he or she wishes and call a vote. If you win the vote, you have permission to bring in the Bill. It then goes to the back of the queue for Private Members’ Bills – that is, after the top ten in the original ballot – which means you rarely have time to take it further. But it can be a good way of raising new issues and putting proposals before the House of Commons and the country.
There is a peculiar procedure for obtaining permission to bring in a 10 Minute Rule Bill. There is a room, high above the Chamber of the Commons, where you go to queue. If you are the first there on certain appointed days, you win permission to bring in your Bill. Once I went to the room at 6 am and then again at 4 am, but each time found an MP sitting in the armchair before me. I therefore decided in February 1986 to camp out with a sleeping bag to ensure I was first in the queue. I arrived at about 1 am, and slept comfortably on the floor until I was awakened by a cleaner making worried noises. I asked her sleepily whether she wasn’t used to MPs queuing up for Bills. She said she was, but they were usually men in suits sitting in the armchair not women in green dresses lying on the floor! But I had at last succeeded in obtaining the time for my Bill.
The appointed day came round three weeks later, 12 March 1986. But rather than excitement, I felt sadness. The day before I had been called out of Committee on the Wages Bill where I was leading for the Labour Party in opposition to Government proposals to reduce legal minimum protection for low-paid workers. The message said my father had died. My father lived with me and I went home immediately. He was 83 and had been very ill, but he was a very fine man and it was a terrible loss. My mother, brothers and sisters and I sat up late that night comforting each other. I contemplated dropping my Bill, but decided not. I had promised it to many people and it had taken much time and effort to get the chance. It seemed a better tribute to my father to carry on, rather than to give in.
The House was quite full because 10 Minute Rule Bills come up before the main business of the day. As I spoke, putting the case for the removal of pornographic pictures from the press, a large clump of Tory MPs began to giggle and chortle and make crude remarks about me, my Bill and my body. I had not prepared for the Bill by asking Labour MPs to be there, but there were a considerable number and as I was attacked they supported me. Robert Adley, Tory MP for Christchurch, spoke in opposition to my Bill. He made what many will think was a silly, juvenile attack that he obviously thought very funny and then it came to the vote. Two Labour MPs voted against and one of them, Austin Mitchell, told me afterwards that he faced more attacks for this than most other things he had done in his political life. I am not attempting to suggest by this account that all Labour men are perfect and the Tories terrible, not least because I am sure that some of their support can be explained simply by loyalty to a Member of their own party. I had sought support from women on all sides of the House for the Bill. Only one Tory woman, Anna McCurley, who was then MP for Greenock and Port Glasgow, gave her support. Edwina Curry, Tory MP for Derbyshire South, took a different view. She attacked the Bill and acted as a teller for the opposition. She even commented to the press that her husband wished she looked like the pictures – her husband later denied this. The vote was 97 in favour, 56 against. I had won permission to bring in my Bill.
The press the next day continued to try to belittle me and my Bill, with the usual sexual innuendo and ugly photos. The parliamentary sketches in the so-called ‘quality’ papers were as dismissive as the tabloids. Having skimmed the press, I went to the post office to pick up my post in my usual way. I always receive a big bundle of mail but this day was exceptional. The bundle was massive. I hurried to my desk wondering what the letters would say. What I found were hundreds of loving, caring, supportive letters from women. They sent me pictures of their daughters and cards with beautiful pictures of flowers. They wrote to say how much they agreed with me. But the most urgent message was that they were shaking with rage at how I was treated. I was deeply touched by this enormous affection from women I had never met. The strength and loveliness of it far outweighed the humiliation and nastiness I had experienced before.
As the days went by, the letter continued to flow in. They came in their thousands. They were enormously welcome but created real problems for me just in opening and reading them and sorting them from the letters from constituents that urgently needed my help with immediate problems. I involved my mother and sisters in helping me open and sort the mail. I also had to decide how I could possibly reply. It was impossible to write individually to each. I prepared a standard letter and organised my family and friends sitting round on the floor at weekends stuffing replies into envelopes and helping to address them.
Not only was I deeply moved by the letters, but I was educated too. They said so much, so eloquently. Women of all ages, backgrounds, politics and experiences wrote about their feelings. Some brought me to tears. I remember especially an early letter from a young woman who said she had been raped some time ago. She had blamed herself ever since. But she said that when she heard me say that many women believed that there was a link between the mass circulation of such images and the rape and sexual abuse of women, she had realized for the first time that the attack was not her fault. This meant a lot to her because throughout the rape the man had kept saying that she ought to be on Page 3. She thanked me and said she felt much better. There were letters from who had had breasts removed in cancer operations, who said how much it hurt them that their husbands brought such papers into their house. I remember one who asked me not to write back because her husband would be angry if he knew she had written to me.
There were lots of letters which said ‘I am not a feminist or I didn’t think I was’ but went on to argue vehemently against the damage and insult caused by pornography. Hundreds of women told me how they had hated the pictures for years but never dared to object because they would be accused of being jealous. They said how happy they were to find out that other women felt as they did.
After a few weeks, The Guardian diary ran a small piece, after picking up gossip around the Commons that I was receiving vast numbers of letters. They rang, and during the course of the conversation I mentioned how very few of the letters had been from men. I then received hundreds of letters from men apologising. Many of them said how completely they had changed their views about Page 3 when they had sons and daughters of their own and began to think about the world that they were growing up in.
Amongst all this warmth there was, of course, an ugly side. There were maybe 50 or 60 envelopes containing pornographic pictures with my head glued on to replace the original, with obscene threats scrawled across them saying that I should be quiet and go away because I was only jealous because I was too ugly to rape. I found these distressing, but also interesting: in their own nasty minds, these men were making a direct connection between pornography and rape.
The Sun newspaper took a particularly virulent line in their attacks on me. They branded me ‘Crazy Clare’, ‘Killjoy Clare’, and assembled a number of unflattering photographs and printed them daily inviting their readers to write in Freepost to ‘Stop Crazy Clare’. They also produced a car sticker and invited readers to send for one. I’ve only ever met one person who has seen the sticker, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP for Islington North. When a number of journalists later enquired how many readers had written in, The Sun refused to answer. They also refused to say how many car stickers had been distributed.
Shortly after my Bill was introduced, The Sun approached a number of MPs who had voted against me asking them to appear on Page 3 with their favourite ‘lovely’. Four or five did this, including Peter Bruinvels, then Tory MP for Leicester East, and a member of the Church of England Synod. I received another letter from the chair of one of their Conservative Associations saying that she had demanded an apology from her MP, Geoffrey Dickens, who hadn’t been present to vote but had agreed to appear on Page 3. The apology was duly given. Another interesting example of women’s power.
The Sun did cause me one panic attack. I didn’t, of course, read the paper and didn’t bother to look at it properly when their hate campaign was on. But one evening I received a phone call from one of my sisters who lives in Brighton. She had met a friend in her local pub who told her he’d seen a copy of The Sun at work. There was a piece entitled ‘Twenty Things You Never Knew About Crazy Clare’. It was impossible for me to see a copy of the paper until I went to the House of Commons library the next day; I thought and worried about all the things I had ever done in my life in which The Sun might be interested. When I finally saw the piece, I laughed with relief. They listed such ‘horrifying’ accusations as that I had once appeared at the dispatch box in tight black trousers and a long pink jacket; that I was supposed to be left wing but right wingers in the Labour Party said they liked me; and that I had been a Civil Servant . . . The Sun continued its campaign for years. During the 1987 election, they printed a completely blank Page 3 with a little box saying this is how their paper could be if ‘Killjoy Clare’s’ party won the election.
The Star behaved rather differently. Joe Ashton, Labour MP for Bassetlaw, first ran a piece disagreeing with me the day after I presented my Bill, but then voted in favour two years later. The women’s editor, Alix Palmer, who had been initially hostile to my Bill, had a similar change of mind. She looked back through the Page 3 pictures and noticed how, over the years, they had become more suggestive and the captions more crude. In July 1987 she wrote a piece saying that she had changed her mind, she thought that the pictures did degrade women and should be removed from the paper. I was then telephoned at home and told that The Star had decided to consult its readers on their attitudes to porn in their paper by organising a computer phone-in. I was asked if I welcomed this and said of course I did. To myself, I had a little worry. The readers did, after all, buy the paper. Would they support me? But the result of the poll was that an overwhelming majority of women said that they wanted the pictures taken out. A small majority of men wanted to keep them. So, the overall finding was that a majority of The Star readers who bothered to phone the Freephone, wanted the pictures removed. The editor, wrote a piece saying that he found this very interesting and would have to think about it, but nothing changed. Some months later, however, it linked up with The Sunday Sport and seemed to move further downmarket and carry more porn. They also ran a story about how a 15-year-old girl was assaulted by a man on her way home from school and suggested this was because her breasts were so large. In the story, it claimed she said she had liked it when her attacker stuck his tongue in her mouth. On a TV programme about the link up between the two papers she said this was a complete lie, she had never said such a thing and had hated the attack. The Star later disentangled itself from The Sunday Sport. Interestingly Tesco and the Co-op had withdrawn their advertising. Advertising for shopping is aimed at women and both retailers probably judged that the new The Star would offend women and therefore was not the place for them to advertise. This is another interesting example of women’s power once they start to make their views known.
Many women have written to me objecting strongly to the revolting The Sport and The Sunday Sport. These so-called newspapers were launched by one of the most well known pornographers in Britain, David Sullivan. It is said that he concluded that there was more money in newspapers that carry porn than in specialist pornography magazines. The paper is ridiculous as well as revolting. It carries headlines such as ‘I was pregnant for 64 years and gave birth to a pensioner’, or ‘Revealed, Hitler was a woman’. It also carries lots of pornography, advertisements for sex lines and stories that glamorise gang rape and other abuse. On 9 October 1986 I spoke at a CPBF meeting in Manchester with the original editor of The Sunday Sport, Michael Gabbon. He quickly alienated the audience. When asked by a man whether he would cease to publish if it could be shown that pornography caused rape, he answered that it would depend on how many rapes. The man said ‘say it was 6?. His answer was ‘that isn’t very many’.
The anger of the women that write is that this publication lies amongst the newspapers to be looked at by children when it should at the very least be on the top shelf. In 1988 when the paper first appeared the National Union of Journalists ran a campaign called ‘Shelve It’ calling for it to be confined to the top shelf. I understand that the Press Council recommends that it should be placed on the top shelf. But in practice nothing happens. My answer to those who write is that if I could only get my Bill passed, the paper would have to close. In the meantime, I suspect it would be worthwhile starting to make complaints to the police. There is a law forbidding indecent displays, and in my opinion the front cover of The Sport is frequently indecent. I imagine the prosecution of a number of newsagents would soon result in the removal of The Sport to the top shelf, which is at least a start.
Anyway, as the months rolled on and the letters continued to pour in, there started to be a turn-around in media coverage. A number of women’s magazines, such as Woman and Cosmopolitan, covered the issue and consulted their readers about their views. Overwhelmingly women expressed agreement with the proposal.
On 25 March 1986 I raised the issue with Mrs Thatcher at Prime Minister’s Question Time. I had all along genuinely believed that the issue was one for women and not for party politics. The reaction had from the start been different between the two parties, although there had always been a minority on the Tory benches that supported me. Mrs Thatcher was dismissive in her reply. I found all of this very odd. In the past, it had been Tory MPs that had tended to support Mrs Whitehouse and her campaigns. I was critical of her approach because she tended to favour a widespread censorship that would endanger basic freedoms. But I had assumed that when I introduced my tightly-drawn Bill, there would be cross-party agreement. This was not forthcoming – with some honourable exceptions. I found out later that Robert Adley sent out a letter to his critics defending himself, saying that the Bill had all been a ploy on my part to attack The Sun because of the dispute at Wapping. This was misleading. In fact I had extended my criticism and the effects of my Bill to all the papers that carried porn. This included The Daily Mirror – a paper that tends to support the Labour Party, though at the time in a rather half-hearted way. The truth is that The Sun had celebrated its Page 3 more brazenly than other papers. It was also true that it had attacked me more viciously that other papers. But I had hoped to appeal to all women, of all political persuasions and none. I had even hoped this might include Mrs Thatcher. But I was forced to conclude that Tories felt they had to oppose me because The Sun supported their politics.
While all this was happening outside the House of Commons, I still had to organise things inside Parliament. Once the principle of the Bill had been passed, I was required to draw up the detail in order to have it printed. I was anxious to draw the Bill very tightly, since I did not want it to have ridiculous, unintended effects such as, for example, outlawing pictures of Olympic swimmers or pictures explaining to women how they should examine their breasts to prevent cancer. I therefore made it an offence to print pictures of ‘naked or partially naked women in sexually provocative poses in newspapers’. I did not wish anyone to be imprisoned for the offence and therefore made the penalty a fine of 1p per copy circulated. I was conscious that Page 3 was only produced to make money, and therefore thought the penalty should be financial. The effect would also be that if some small, local paper was stupid enough to print pornographic pictures, the penalty would be in proportion to their means.
Following the passage of the principle and the printing of the Bill, it was necessary to obtain a date for its consideration. It is very difficult to get 10 Minute Rule Bills passed because any one Member of the House can simply shout ‘object’ and constantly have it put back to a later date until the current session of Parliament comes to an end and the Bill dies. So I knew that it would be very difficult but hoped that after all the furore over the Bill, no one would dare to object. The dates for consideration are always on a Friday, so it meant giving up more of my precious Fridays in Ladywood. On each occasion a Tory backbencher shouted ‘object’. They did so very quickly and were careful not to identify themselves. It is interesting that on many Bills, the whips representing the official position of the Government shout out ‘object’ from the front bench. I got the distinct impression that Government whips made sure that there was opposition to my Bill but preferred it to come from the backbenches so that the Government would not be embarrassed, in being seen to object to a Bill which clearly had widespread public support. This pantomime continued over a number of Fridays until the parliamentary session ended in June and the Bill quietly died. Its death was celebrated by The Sun placing five partially-naked women on Page 3 with remarks about what I should do with myself.
Letters continued to arrive throughout 1987 in a steady stream. Groups of women in various places organised petitions and sent them to me. I have never known an issue like it. I received five thousand letters before I stopped counting. On many issues, powerful organisations encourage individuals to write to their MPs. We all receive many letters when such campaigns are on, but they rarely number more than hundreds. On this issue, where no powerful lobby had asked anyone to write, thousands of women put pen to paper to express their views and fears. It is precisely because I wish to share the importance of these letters that this book is being published. Of course the letters are printed anonymously but the women concerned have all been consulted. I am only sorry that some of the most powerful and moving are not included. Some of them were so intimate and self revelatory that I thought it right to destroy them immediately after I replied. I regret this now. I suspect that many of the women concerned would have liked to share their views and experiences. But at the time, this book had not been thought of and I judged it more responsible not to keep these letters. Nevertheless, I believe the selection contained here does give voice to the eloquence and depth of feeling of women on this issue. That is the importance of this book – it gives voice to the strongly-held views of women who are rarely given a platform from which to speak.
After a year or so, I began to receive letters asking what had happened to my Bill and pleading with me not to give up. By coincidence I found that I came tenth in the ballot for Private Members’ Bills in November 1987. I knew it was unlikely that the Bill would pass on the second occasion when it had been so strongly opposed on the first, but I felt I could not let all those women down by introducing a different Bill. I felt that they would think that I had given in. This time I added to the Bill a clause making it illegal to display pornography in workplaces, an issue on which I had also received many letters. On 13 April 1988 when my Bill was introduced for the second time, the atmosphere in the House of Commons was very different. It was deeply charged, the press gallery was full to overflowing and Tory whips scuttled around ensuring that there was less crude behaviour on this occasion. They obviously judged that the previous behaviour had damaged their image. To me, this seemed to indicate the way in which we were beginning to win the argument. Eric Forth MP opposed the Bill on this occasion. He was shortly afterwards made a Minister in the Department of Trade. The vote was 163 in favour, 48 against, an increased majority. The coverage in the press was not sympathetic but was toned down compared to the previous occasion. Another indication that we were beginning to win.
After introducing my Bill however, I became concerned that there was no constructive outlet for the strength of women’s feelings, apart from writing to MPs. I had therefore joined up with others to try to launch a campaign against pornography. It is not easy to get a new organisation off the ground, to obtain funding, an office and staff, but we managed to do this in a small way. CAP obtained some financial support from the Cadbury Trust to help subsidise the monthly feminist magazine Everywoman’s publication of ‘Pornography and Sexual Violence – Evidence of the Links’. This was simply a record of the evidence presented in Minneapolis in December 1983, when the state legislature was considering bringing in a Bill to tighten the law on pornography. It was significant because it summarised a large body of evidence – some academic, some from individuals who had worked in the porn industry and some from those who had been damaged by its effects. Despite this being American not British research, the level and availability of pornography is similar in both countries, and in the absence of adequate research here, we felt strongly that such information should be made available. I do not believe that we should be required to prove academically that pornography is degrading and objectionable in order to voice opposition. But I do believe that it is significant that so few women are aware of the research referred to in the Minneapolis hearing that demonstrates that male college students exposed to pornography for a period of time are more likely to say that they would rape a woman if they could get away with it.
We considered launching a campaign to encourage newsagents not to stock porn and, when successful, inviting local women to patronise the porn-free shop, which would be awarded a sticker. But like all good ideas, this had occurred to someone else. The Christian organisation CARE had started just such a campaign and had great success in some parts of the country. Interestingly, after the second introduction of my Bill, a number of newsagents contacted me, said they had decided to cease stocking porn and said that they had experienced an increase in their sales.
I think that there is room for much greater progress with this idea. When you think about it, we have newsagents in every small shopping area throughout the country. This is where we all go to buy our papers and children go to buy their comics and sweets. Almost every one of them has a top shelf full of porn. This reflects the massive quantity of pornography which is distributed and sold in Britain and the fact that it is considered mainstream and acceptable. In the United States of America, the figures have been added up. Their pornography industry is larger than the film and record industries combined. I am sure that it is equally large in Britain. We live in a society saturated with pornographic images of women.
This was the thinking behind the Off the Shelf Campaign, launched by the Campaign Against Pornography and supported by the National Union of Students and the Townswomen’s Guild. The campaign was co-ordinated by our hard-working volunteer Sam Chugg. We decided that we should seek to challenge the top shelves full of porn in local newsagents and invite women to use their voices and buying power to object. We picked out W. H. Smiths as our first target, not because we had any animus against W. H. Smiths in particular, but because they were a large, supposedly respectable high street retailer that claimed to have a social conscience and tends to set standards for the industry as a whole. Smiths is also a major wholesaler stocking even more porn than it sells in its shops, and so carries a large part of the responsibility for the mass distribution of pornographic material in Britain.
Having made preparations for the Off the Shelf Campaign launch in January 1990 we called a press conference and, followed by TV cameras, swept into the Kingsway branch of W. H. Smiths in London. We took all the porn down from the shelves, dumped it by the cash till and explained our objections. We invited groups of women throughout the country to do likewise and they did. Others wrote to their local W. H. Smiths manager saying they would not shop with them in future. One granny – as she called herself – from Wales wrote to me in great glee to tell me how she had filled up her basket with goods, waited in a long queue, then after the items had been rung up asked if her branch of W. H. Smiths stocked porn. When she was told they did, she refused to pay for the goods and caused mayhem.
The campaign went well and there were actions all over the country. W. H. Smiths became quite worried, and invited us to meet their Chairman of Directors, to discuss the campaign. Our representatives were told that if we could produce evidence to show that pornography was linked with sexual violence, Smiths would reconsider their position. Of course we didn’t have the resources to undertake the sort of research that would have been acceptable to them, so until some larger group receives funding for this crucial work, we will have to hope that public opinion becomes so overwhelming that they will be forced to change their policy. But I do not think that we should be despondent. A lot has already been achieved. Retailers and distributors are feeling increasingly defensive and women increasingly confident about objecting to porn. I hope that local campaigns will continue to encourage at least one local newsagent to get rid of their top shelf of pornography and that women will ensure with their purchasing power that porn-free newsagents prosper. I also hope that women everywhere will keep up the pressure on W. H. Smiths and that it will eventually be forced to change its policy.
Dawn Primarolo, Labour MP for Bristol South, and the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom have been involved in another important campaign to challenge the mass distribution of pornography in newsagents. Dawn introduced a Bill, of which I was a sponsor, to require that pornography be sold only from licensed sex shops. I do have some reservations about the proposal because there is a problem with sex shops. We have one in Ladywood which is near a major church and a number of banks. The church and the banks have joined together to get the place closed down because, in the case of the banks, their staff – who are largely women – are constantly accosted by men visiting the sex shop. A neat proposal was put to me in June 1990 by Robin Corbett, who is a fellow Birmingham MP. He suggested that we should legislate to require porn to be sold only by mail order. This would mean no one who didn’t want to see it would have to, and those who did want it would have to make special efforts to find it. The fact that it was not openly displayed would reduce its legitimacy and respectability. I also suspect that many women would be astonished to find it turning up in their letter box and that this would take the argument further as men who think it quite acceptable to consume porn found out what the women in their lives thought about it.
I should make it clear that I am not advocating solutions that simply sweep all pornography under the carpet, but allow it to continue to prosper. There is no quick legislative fix available that will suddenly cause pornography to disappear. I look forward to the day when those who produce it and use it are treated as furtive outcasts rather than just as ‘one of the lads’. But in a society where pornography is mainstream and respectable, we have to find ways of unleashing women’s power to object and thus push it further and further back until it disappears altogether. No one should forget that the law is applied by policemen, and sometimes policewomen, magistrates and juries that are part of the mainstream of society. Parliament will not pass nor society uphold legislation which seeks to impose standards that have not won the consent and support of the mainstream. Thus it is important for us to challenge the acceptability of pornography in the mainstream, so that we can shift the public awareness of the degradation of women that it breeds.
Another issue that hits my mail bag is the widespread advertisement of sex lines. Since the telephone system was privatised in 1988 these lines have proliferated. I am told that the lines are basically teasers, trying to keep men talking as their phone bills mount up, and always promising much more later. But as the advertisements proliferate, women are offended and objections are raised. I find it very depressing that so many men would be attracted by all of this and that women – often poor women with few other options – should be employed to do it. My colleague Terry Lewis, Labour MP for Worsley, has campaigned long and hard to tighten up the regulations of this sordid business.
There are few in Britain who dare to deny the unacceptability of child pornography, though I was recently approached at a meeting by a man who tried to persuade me it was harmless. But when we look into the links between child pornography and child sex abuse I believe that there are lessons to be learned about all forms of pornography. Some of my letters came from women who had been sexually abused as children. They talked about the use of pornographic pictures by their abusers to suggest that what was being done to them was quite normal. They also talked of how such images hurt, upset and reminded them of their childhood experiences when they were confronted with them in their daily lives.
The law in Britain is very firm on child pornography. But paedophiles continue to collect and produce it. Early in 1990, I visited the unit that deals with illegal pornography at New Scotland Yard, a visit that had been arranged by Ray Wyre of the Gracewell Clinic in Birmingham, who felt that MPs should be more aware of police activities in this area and the difficulties they faced. The police showed me a video compilation of the kind of illegal pornography with which they have to deal, warning that I might find it upsetting. I was haunted by some of the images for a time – a little girl of about 4 being urinated over, a boy of 9 being sexually abused, his face showing his confusion and hurt. There were also shots of women being mutilated in an enormously gross way, fingers being chopped off – even intestines ripped out and severed in the course of sexual encounters. There were fairly obvious fakes, but the question is why should such ugly and vile acts give sexual pleasure? The main concern of the police officers concerned was child pornography. They argued that whenever it was found, child sexual abuse was also to be found. They were concerned that through lack of resources they were unable to follow all the leads that became available to them and thus were failing to prevent abuse to children. It says something significant about the values of our society that such a unit is under-resourced.
Tim Tate recently produced a book on child pornography. I think it is a valuable book which should be widely read and acted upon. But I also think he is wrong to suggest – as some others do – that child pornography is the only problem and that we should not be concerned about other forms of pornography. Some seem to feel that the issue is simply about protecting those who cannot protect themselves, namely children. But the truth is that one kind of pornography too easily slips into another. The Page 3 girl in a gymslip may be over 16, but the imagery is clearly intended to present schoolgirls as sexual objects. There are pornographers who specialise in choosing over-age women who look very young and then showing them and projecting them as childlike. Of course child pornography must be dealt with with the utmost priority. But I believe there is a continuum. The presentation of children or women as powerless sexual objects to be taken and used against their will, often with violence, is the real issue. The presence of such images, like it or not, does help to legitimise abuse.
Over the last 3 or 4 years, I have taken a serious interest in the question of child abuse. It began with a therapist in Birmingham raising it with me when I spoke at the AGM of the Rape Crisis Centre on pornography in 1986. I told her that I would like to help, but needed educating. I followed the question in the press and had knowledge of my own childhood experiences – as it seems all women do, when we come to talk – but did not consider myself sufficiently expert to make public pronouncements. She organised a briefing for me and sent me reading lists. I came across a number of cases in my constituency Advice Bureau. I went through the emotions of revulsion and anger as I read and understood more. Now people are perhaps more aware of the horrifying extent of the problem, but then it was still a taboo subject. I ended up feeling most angry with those who wish to deny that there is a problem and those in authority who ignore it and chose to do nothing about it. I came to know Ray Wyre after we first met on a Call Nick Ross programme on rape on Radio 4 in late 1986. I was deeply impressed with his understanding and expertise, and his belief that there was a clear link in our culture between the widespread distribution of pornography and the abuse of women and children. This view was not the result of academic research, but of his work with rapists and child abusers as a probation officer and now a therapist at the Gracewell Clinic. The clinic attempts, with considerable success, to treat such men, understand what causes them to act as they do and to prevent them acting in this way again.
At the Gracewell Clinic I met men who have been convicted of horrific abuse of children. They come in all shapes and sizes and are not the mad strangers beloved of the tabloid press. Child abusers come from all classes and backgrounds. Some are highly educated and successful in their careers. Many of them have been abused as children. But even this does not explain it, since some who are abused go on to abuse, but others do not. Ray Wyre is convinced that the widespread distribution of pornography helps them to believe that their behaviour is normal and acceptable, that if we wish to prevent such abuse, we must denounce all such imagery of sex. He tells me that the minority of rapists and child abusers who are convicted are allowed to fester in prison, often sharing pornography, and thus reinforce in each other the belief that they are normal and have been mistreated.
I feel that the refusal of our system to seek to examine, treat and learn from those who engage in such offences is a form of collusion. If we really wish to prevent rape and the sexual abuse of children, surely we would study all the evidence available and make the necessary changes to try to prevent the offence as well as punishing the offenders? I am pleased that the Home Office is beginning to take this argument seriously, with the announcement in December 1990 that sex offenders are to be provided with treatment in a new experimental programme, but there is a long way to go.
There is another example of this problem. A probation officer, Monika Sabar, wrote to me in 1989 to say that she had come across cases where detailed statements about rape cases were being circulated in prisons as a form of pornography. The Guardian also ran a piece on 27 June 1990 about this disturbing trend. I discussed it at the Gracewell Clinic with a man just released from prison for a child sex abuse conviction. He said that paedophiles also swapped their prosecution statements in return for tobacco as a form of pornography. The response from John Patten, Minister of State at the Home Office, explained carefully why he would not take action. I then requested a meeting in August 1989 and he promised to do more. Attempts are now being made to remove the names and addresses from such statements and more action is promised. John Patten has said that he wishes to try to deal with the problem through administrative action before considering legislation.
An aspect of police reaction to pornography was brought to my attention by letters I received. One young woman told me that she went to a police station in London to report a sexual attack and was confronted by a pornographic calendar. She went home feeling sick. She did not report the attack and felt that she could not trust the police who proudly displayed it on their wall. Another woman went with her small daughter to report a road accident and was confronted by a similar calendar. Both asked me to take action. Receiving no satisfaction from the Home Office, who said it was a matter for each force, I wrote to each Chief Constable in Britain to ask their attitude to the display of pornography in police stations. Some said they took a strong view, others said they had no idea and some said they would make enquiries. Shortly after this my car broke down on the way to Bridlington. The police were helpful and took me to a part-time station to ring the AA. Above the phone I found what had clearly been a pornographic calendar with the pictures torn off. I hoped this was the result of my survey. Many women solicitors have told me stories of what they find when they are let in behind the counter. It seems to me that it is totally unacceptable and painful to think of women going to police stations to report a sexual attack and being confronted with a display of pornography
It is time now for me to bring my introductory remarks to the letters to a conclusion. Before doing so, I think it is important to try to answer some of our critics. There are some standard arguments that are trotted out to try to silence women who dare to object to pornography. In this introduction I have simply attempted to tell the story of my engagement with the issue. Dear Clare . . . is not supposed to be a book on every aspect of pornography, nor a history of the various debates that have taken place on the question. For me this has just been one small part of the work I do as an MP. But I have learned so much from the letters and the places to which the subject has led me, that I simply wish to share my experiences with others. Those who read this book may well not have had any involvement with anti- pornography campaigns or equally may be experts. So I’m going to address – briefly – some of the standard objections that are most frequently thrown in to any debate about pornography.
The first is the definition of pornography; who is to decide what is pornographic and what erotic? Conceptually, it is easy to distinguish between what we mean by pornography and pictures of nakedness and acceptable sexual imagery. Pornography degrades and belittles women and depicts them as permanently available to anyone. Erotica depicts attractive pictures of nakedness and sexuality which suggests mutuality and respect and sensuousness. We all know the difference when we see it. Those who feel the need to defend pornography may argue about the distinction but all of us recognise the difference in the concept and the difference in reality.
It is suggested that those of us who object to pornography are embarrassed about sexuality and nakedness. That we are against sexual pleasure and screwed up about our own sexuality. Norman Tebbit put this argument very crudely in answer to mine, suggesting in The Spectator in May 1986 that Page 3 in the tabloid press was the working class version of pictures of naked women in art galleries throughout the world. Eric Forth, opposing my Bill in 1988, also tried to follow this line but was unable to substantiate the argument. My simple answer is that the difference between pornography and nakedness is the same as the difference between child pornography and the pictures that exist of most of us, as naked babies, in family albums throughout the land. There is obviously nothing wrong and ugly about nakedness, just as there is nothing more wonderful than mutual, sexual relationships. But nakedness and genuine sexual relationships are very different from the constant proliferation of pictures of women in poses with captions which say, take me, use me, dispose of me. As soon as the pictures move from the newspapers to the top shelf, the legs are splayed and shortly thereafter come the whips and boots and – frequently and significantly – Nazi regalia. And it is now a well-documented fact that Nazis did actually use pornographic pictures of their perceived enemies with the aim of reducing respect for them in the outside world – if you like, dehumanising them. It was, as we know, a successful tactic. All such pictures are about using women for sexual pleasure without mutuality, frequently with associations of violence and power. Each and every one of us knows the difference whenever we see such pictures.
Some letters made the point in a different way. They wrote to say that they agreed with me, but that women had no chance of being afforded dignity by the owners and
editors of the tabloid press. They suggested instead that we demand equal treatment. This would entail equal numbers of pictures of men who should be equally revealed.
They rejected adamantly the idea of the male pin-up that parts of the press have tried to push. A man in boxer shorts or a towel is in no way equivalent to a picture of a woman with breasts revealed in a provocative pose. They suggested that pictures of men with their genitals fully revealed and crude headlines about the size of their genitalia would produce instant demands from all men for the removal of the pictures. I would not dream of making the argument on the grounds of taste, not to mention not wanting to be involved in extending the level of degrading images printed in the press. But the question they pose is why there are so many such pictures of women and not of men. Clearly the issue is not nakedness.
Some letters talked of the unnaturalness of the pictures themselves. Ex-models wrote to me about how much they regretted having done it. (Current fashion models wrote about their resentment about the pressure they were under to remove their clothes.) The models told me about the ridiculous antics that went into the pictures – buckets of ice beforehand to swell their breasts and nipples, Sellotape to make them look more erect than they were. They described hilariously the convolutions that went into the poses. They were very clear that these were simply not ‘natural’ poses.
One very honest man said to me at a CPBF meeting on pornography at the 1990 Labour Party Conference that he was happy to have learned about good sex from a number of good women in his life. He said however that when he was a young man he was both scared of and fascinated by sex and that he had considered pornography to be his sex education. I think this very interesting and suspect it is true of many men. Men have written to say that pornography does not just degrade women but also degrades men. They talk of the pressure they feel under to join in and pretend they like it. The group at work huddling round the newspaper suggesting what they would like to do to the woman depicted. I think that all of this is connected with sexual insecurity. Men want to prove to each other that they know about and are good at sex. But many of them are deeply worried about it.
I read a very interesting article some months ago in The Sunday Times magazine written by a woman who taught sex education in schools. She argued that much had changed for girls. Women had become more secure about their sexuality and had reached out to their daughters and pupils to try to talk honestly about sex and menstruation and growing bodies in a way that our grandmothers had often failed to do. But she felt that boys were being left out of the process. Mothers naturally felt a growing physical distance and sexual restraint as their sons became adolescent. Most men found it difficult to talk about sexual relationships, be they fathers or teachers. She argued that boys were left very much on their own with their changing bodies and sexual feelings and worries about appropriate behaviour. I suspect that there is a lot of truth in this and thus boys look to the tabloid press and the pornographers to try to learn about women’s bodies and sexual behaviour. We must begin to attend to a better education of our young men about their sexuality. It would, I am sure, make them happier and the women in their lives happier. It would also, I suspect, reduce the consumption of pornography. My conclusion on this is that it is hopelessly sad to think of many men using pornography for sex education. I do not know how widespread it is, but I suspect the honest man at the CPBF meeting said something very important. If it is true that this use of pornography is widespread among men. I think it perhaps helps to explain why so many relationships between men and women are badly screwed up.
There is a lobby that is deeply hostile to my arguments on the grounds that in opposing pornography we are being hostile to gay people. They suggest that any law against pornography will inevitably be used against gay literature. I must confess that I can see absolutely no way in which my Page 3 Bill would ever be used in any way to penalise gay literature, but I do not think this is the point of the argument. The suggestion is that any criticism of expressions of sexuality will be used against gay sexuality, but surely this argument is as illogical as the case made that opposition to pornography is actually opposition to sex itself?
I have received a number of letters from gay men and lesbians who support my case and argue that pornography is about degrading sexuality. I also received a copy of a very interesting draft article from a gay man that argued that gay expressions of sexuality had been so repressed that it was an act of defiance and liberation to produce gay pornography. He went on to argue that when this phase was over, gay men could afford to question this depiction of their sexuality and would begin to object to degrading imagery, but that this stage had not been reached.
For myself, I must admit that I know little about gay pornography but should considerations of sexual morality apply only to heterosexual relationships? Clearly the same standards that expect human beings to treat each other with respect and not to impose cruel and vicious sexual exploitation on each other apply to gay and lesbian people as much as to heterosexual people.
So I would say that pornographic – rather than erotic – depictions of gay sexuality must be as unacceptable as heterosexual pornography. A young man who gave evidence to the Minneapolis hearings on pornography said that he was gay and had for some time lived with a man who bought large quantities of violent gay pornography and expected him to act out the depictions. He said that this was oppressive and ugly and that he objected to it. This seems to me to be an exact equivalent of my understanding of the degradation of violent heterosexual pornography.
I answer these arguments simply because they are so frequently put. My concern with pornography is the degradation of women. I will do all I can to oppose the repression of gay people because I believe in human dignity and civilised behaviour, whilst completely rejecting the suggestion that women objecting to pornography are in any way involved in attacking gay people. Sexual dignity and self confidence and lack of degradation must lead to more civilised attitudes towards everyone.
Another criticism often levelled is that women not only choose to buy papers such as The Sun, The Star and The Daily Mirror, but that women appear in pornography and therefore criticism of pornography is an attack on women. I appeared once on Kilroy Silk’s programme when he was discussing pornography. The programme had assembled a group of young women who were either working in the porn industry or wished to do so. Some of them had brought parents or boyfriends with them, the idea clearly being to set up a conflict between me and these young women. I found this very sad. I had refused all previous requests from programme makers to appear against women who pose for pornography. Some – a very small minority – of my letters had argued that the problem arose because these ‘bad’ women agreed to pose and thus let down their own sex. This is not my view. Those who control and distribute pornography are men, usually rich men. They use young women for their pictures and then dispose of them when they begin to age. A few well-known figures make money, but the majority of young women who are drawn into this industry find themselves in an ugly, sordid world that lives side by side with prostitution.
On the Kilroy Silk programme, there were a number of good looking young women, or women with large breasts, from backgrounds that offered little chance in life, who had dreams of becoming Samantha Fox. I felt no criticism of them, just sadness. This was the one opportunity they felt that our culture offered to them. It was a lesson in their powerlessness and the distortions of our culture. In 1986 one of the tabloids – the Agony Aunt being another Claire – actually published a letter where ‘Dear Claire’ said that she couldn’t advise a young hopeful to become a Page 3 girl, and that she ‘wouldn’t have it on my conscience’. And this from a paper with a daily pin-up …
At last I come to the argument about censorship. The word censorship is clearly such a bad word, symbolising lack of freedom and the prevention of honest discussion, that many people simply throw it into the argument and think that it is enough. They feel that in the face of such a powerful word, we should all simply fall silent and go away. There is a sense, paradoxically, in which the word is used in order to censor debate. Women start to talk about their objection to pornography, the word censorship is produced and that is supposed to end debate.
It seems to me that we should disentangle two arguments. The first is about the nature of pornography. Is it beneficial or harmful? Does it degrade women? Does it generate a widespread attitude that women are available to be taken and used and disposed of? Does it encourage men to think little of women? Does it define women as sex objects and disentangle their sexuality from their brains and personality so that they have to struggle to be both a woman and a person? Do many women dislike it? Do many women feel belittled by it? I think that the answer to all these questions is yes, and that most women agree. If this is all true, we have to ask why is there so much of it? Who produces it? Who consumes it? Who makes money out of it? Why is it such a big business?
When we have discussed all these things, we have to ask what we should do about it. As I have said, it seems to me that those who instantly cry censorship want to stop us even from talking about this first set of questions, let alone begin to ask what we should do.
Once we have demanded the freedom to discuss pornography and why we dislike it and why it circulates so widely, we can ask what we should do. But at this stage in the argument we have to examine what freedom is. Is freedom what Maxwell and Murdoch choose to put in the press? Must we allow, in the name of freedom, all three big conglomerates headed by three very rich men to determine what our press is like? Don’t the rest of us have a right to impose some restrictions on these rich men? There are few people now who believe that it is wrong to have a law making it an offence to incite racial hatred. Most people would agree that this is an enlargement rather than a restriction of freedom.
There are few people who argue publicly that there should be no restrictions on child pornography. But if the present law is right, is it censorship or a protection of children’s freedom? There are those who have been critical of my arguments who do not call for a repeal of the present laws on obscenity. Why is this right? How can anyone possibly suggest that any tampering with the present law is censorship?
It seems to me that if these powerful and important words – freedom and censorship – are used so lazily and hazily, then those who are using them are not protecting freedom but actually doing the opposite and defending pornography. I do believe, however, that the powerful emotions women feel about pornography must not be allowed to be used to legitimise dangerous measures that would endanger real political and artistic freedom. It is my view that many of the campaigns mounted by people like Mary Whitehouse in the past have done just that. I have spoken with Mary Whitehouse once only. I was at the time working in the Home Office as Private Secretary to Mark Carlisle, the Minister of State with among other things responsibility for Obscene Publications. I was about 25 at the time. Mary Whitehouse telephoned my office one day and demanded to speak to my Minister. I explained that he was not available and offered to take a message. She said that she had been to see a film and wanted Mr Carlisle to prevent it being shown. She then went on to describe in meticulous detail what she found objectionable about the film. I squirmed with embarrassment as I made notes of what she said. She said repeatedly that I must tell Mr Carlisle in full detail everything she had said. I did not do this of course. I passed on the message, said that she objected to sexual scenes in the film and wanted him to ban it. He dealt with it from then on, but as he said, she knew as well as he did that he did not have the power to ban the film. Later on I went to see it. It was called Blow Out and was about a group of French people eating themselves to death. It was weird and wonderful and the sex was incidental.
I noticed that she was later reported as saying that the Vietnam war should not have been reported in the way it was in the USA because ‘it undermined the will of American youth to fight’ and making similar criticisms of the reporting of the South African war in Namibia. For me the suggestion that a war should not be reported thus preventing the people of a country deciding whether it was a just war is a terrifying diminution of freedom. This is censorship.
Winston Churchill’s laundry list Bill – which started me on the road to my Page 3 Bill would have had the same censoring effect. The Bill was strongly backed by Mary Whitehouse. There was a later Obscene Publications Bill introduced by Gerald Howarth which I opposed because it was similarly widely drawn. I argued in the Committee on the Bill that because it sought to outlaw factual scenes of horrific violence that would shock reasonable people it was deeply dangerous. I took the example of the little girl in Vietnam who had been napalm bombed and ran naked down a road – a photograph that moved the world. This was clearly a scene of horrific violence that would shock and outrage reasonable people. One of the Tory MPs argued that there would be no harm in such a picture being lost. Again, this is censorship.
My own view is that it is the failure of the Left, of libertarians and those who wish to protect human dignity to deal with the issue of pornography that has allowed those who favour dangerous censorship to misuse the emotion women feel about pornography. The answer is not to ignore the question of pornography and be intimidated by the accusations of censorship, but to define what is bad in it. To be clear that we do not agree with those who believe that all sex is bad and should be confined to the minimum necessary to procreate within marriage. That we do not accept censorship of war reporting or medical textbooks but that we do object to the belittling of women and thus to the degradation of sexuality.
Alongside this debate about the nature of pornography and the liberation that challenging it brings, comes the power to use women’s voices and purchasing power to object to it and push it backwards. And thus we get advertisers reviewing their material and the motor-show ceasing to use naked women sprawled across the bonnets of cars. This was the purpose of the Off the Shelf campaign. It was not a legislative proposal, but a campaign involving all women and inviting them to take on the largest retailer in the country to warn them that we would take our custom elsewhere if they continued to stock porn.
And finally, I also favour tightly drawn legislative proposals that would remove pornography from the press without endangering any other freedom. And thus we would use the power of democracy to impose some standards of civilisation on the mighty barons who own our press and believe that they can damage women’s dignity and freedom with impunity. We are also entitled to review the existing Obscene Publications Act to see if we could create a better legislative framework. But we must always remember that we are acting in the name of freedom and human dignity and we must not support any proposal that would endanger precious freedoms in the name of our dignity. We must not allow our real agenda to be distorted.
Closely aligned to the censorship lobby are those who seem to believe themselves entitled to lay down what everyone else should think. They do not want a broad-based campaign, however it might benefit other women, and will not allow anyone to agree with them unless they agree with everything they think. Thus I have received a few letters from women who were upset because they were not allowed to sign the CAP petition supporting Off the Shelf. One of the local activists knew they were opposed to abortion so would not allow them to be opposed to pornography. We had similar problems at a conference CAP arranged in Nottingham in connection with the Off the Shelf campaign. When it began, all women MPs had been circulated and asked for their support. One of those who agreed to give it was Jill Knight, the Tory MP for Birmingham Edgbaston. Some of those at the conference criticised us viciously for publicising the fact that she supported the campaign, the reason being that she had been a supporter of Clause 28 and had unprogressive views on race and immigration. I’m in favour of abortion, opposed to Clause 28 and do not feel that I have anything in common with those on the so-called Hard Right who would like pornography banned. But then neither do I think I have anything in common with pornographers, the press barons who oppose the banning of Page 3 on the grounds of their reduced profits. You can’t choose your causes on the basis of people’s views on other subjects. I condemn apartheid, another MP in favour of the Poll Tax also condemns apartheid – that doesn’t make me rethink my position on apartheid just because I disagree with them on this other issue.
I am deeply opposed to this purist mentality. I favour a broad-based movement of all women to challenge porn wherever we find it. We can continue to argue over the other questions. But if our cause is good, I see no problem in seeking support everywhere. If this helps us to enhance the dignity of women, it can only be good. There is also something deeply suspect about those who think they know what is absolutely right on everything and feel entitled to judge everyone else accordingly.
My conclusion is that we are beginning to make progress in voicing our objections to pornography, whether it be changes in advertising or the different sort of behaviour at the motor-show. Even The Sun removed its pornographic picture from Page 3 to a later page in the paper for a few months. Journalists tell me that this was significant because Page 3 is a very important page – the first that confronts anyone who opens the paper. It is now, however, back in its old spot …
I also believe that the public debate on women’s objection to pornography has liberated many women who now feel able to voice their feelings because they know that so many others agree with them. There has certainly been a change in the coverage of the issue in the quality press who no longer simply mock those who raise such objections. The Times, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Financial Times have all run serious articles – some support my view, others do not, but at least the issue is now being discussed.
But none of this means that all is well. I received a letter a few months ago from a woman who was dragged into a house and raped by a man who was watching ugly pornographic videos as he did it. I recently met a young woman graduate engineer who had left her profession because she felt that the men constantly used pornography to tell her that she was not welcome. Young men are still growing up learning about women from the porn they consume. Young women are constantly meeting the suggestion that this is the way that they should look and act if they wish to be considered a proper woman. Children are being sexually abused. Women are being raped.
If we think about it for too long, it can be deeply distressing. But this is not the only thing in life and for me it is only a part of my work. In so many ways women are growing and strengthening and demanding change. This is one part of it. We must be angry about the bad things but relish the good. We will build a better, kinder, more civilised world. The challenge to pornography is part of the journey.
While I was checking the proofs for Dear Clare …, the Home Office published the results of a review of existing research evidence on the effects of pornography. Interestingly, the report was widely misrepresented in the media as claiming that there was no link between pornography and sexual violence. In fact the report says that it is not possible from the available research to decide whether or not pornography causes sexual violence. It also adds that claims that pornography is beneficial in creating outlets for men who might otherwise engage in sexual violence are also unproven. The report concedes that many women do find pornography distressing, and that women staying in hostels as a result of domestic violence frequently had partners who used pornography heavily. The report also admits that some sexual offenders used pornography heavily, – including in their preparation for their offence – but argues that this does not demonstrate that pornography was the cause of the offence. On pornography in the Press, the report states on page 90 that ‘it might be that sexually violent pornography is the most dangerous but that newspaper nudity is still to a small degree harmful and because newspapers are more everyday than extreme pornography their aggregate effects might be greater. The research evidence is silent on this.’
Despite these conclusions The Sun rang my researcher to ask whether as a result of the findings of the report I intended to call off my campaign against Page 3 pornography. I didn’t bother to return the call: those who are determined to misrepresent even a Home Office report are unlikely to quote what I say fairly.
Clare Short MP, 1991