Product Review: Porn Panic!: Sex and Censorship in the UK

I am a sex blogger. I’m also a feminist, a social & cultural historian, and an avid consumer of pornography. Never once have I felt that these things conflicted and never have I felt that porn has had a negative impact on the way I view myself.

Then again I have been incredibly fortunate. Through my work in the adult community I have gained access to a vast array of queer, feminist, and sex positive pornography which has seemed, in every instance, wholly respectful of its performers and the respective pleasure of its viewers, regardless of their gender identity or sexual preference. I am, however, very conscious of the fact that not every individual has this experience. This is why we have initiatives like Make Love, Not Porn and why shows such as Channel 4’s Sex in Class had multiple teenagers admit that they had felt pressure to act or look like porn stars.

I mention all of this because I want to make my personal background perfectly clear when entering in to this review. It’s the least I can do—as the author of Porn Panic!, Jerry Barnett, starts his publication by giving a much more considered overview of his own background.

The personal account laid out by Jerry is something that drew me in to Porn Panic! instantly. It was, in many ways, the perfect introduction to a book that serves to document the sorry state of the UK’s current attitudes towards sex, the manner in which pornography was used as a gateway for state-wide censorship, and one man’s navigation through all of the turmoil. Porn Panic! is many things but first and foremost it is an opinion piece and by starting with his own background Jerry makes this wonderfully clear.

That’s not, however, to say that Porn Panic! is devoid of hard evidence. Far from it! As this book progresses Jerry presents, in every section, a very clear idea of what he is covering, the facts of the situation, and the arguments and counterarguments presented within the topic at hand. But it is fair to say that Jerry knows exactly where he stands within these debates and he isn’t afraid to share it.

The result is an incredibly compelling read which draws you in with every page. Porn Panic! is more than just an account of ‘Sex and Censorship in the UK’. It’s conversation and is all the richer for it.

Porn Panic!: Sex and Censorship in the UK

To give a brief synopsis Porn Panic!: Sex and Censorship in the UK looks at recent developments in the UK regarding pornography and censorship. In this it mainly focuses on the rise (and impact) of social media, discourses of social justice, and the (wholly abhorrent) opt out internet censorship regulations that came in to force in the UK back in 2013-14.

51nlk99xeel

Jerry’s background is that of a political activist and his approach in Porn Panic! reflects this. Not only does Porn Panic! start with an incredibly interesting look at Jerry’s family ties but he then goes on to clearly lay out this stance on the panic surrounding porn: That the current situation has been aided by an alarming rise of conservatism , with new morality movements managing to effectively compel typically left-wing, free-speech movements (particularly feminism) through adopting a leftist rhetoric while maintaining a hard-line, pro-censorship ideology.

If that sounds in any way boring or abrasive to you I urge you to move beyond any knee-jerk first reactions and to pick up a copy of this book immediately, especially if you (like myself) identify as a feminist. If my plea alone is not enough to twist your arm then it’s worth noting that this book is published through Zero Books—a publishing agency that proudly champions works that are thoughtful while not being dry, ‘intellectual without being academic’, and critically minded while remaining compelling.

Jerry’s book is all of these things and whether or not you agree with his main argument or overall conclusions there is still an amazing experience to be had in the pages of this book. Each chapter is divided in to short sub-headings which explore a particular person, event, or social phenomenon and Jerry’s experience and stance with them. As someone who has been tirelessly campaigning for porn for years (and is generally well-immersed in the industry) Jerry has more than enough insights to bring to each section and he does so in a manner so eloquent that it is hard not to nod along as you read.

Jerry’s use of the English language is something I’ve quickly come to admire throughout the course of reading this book. Every section in makes its point with utter precision and there’s not a single page in Porn Panic! which isn’t perfect quote material in some way or another. The sections themselves are the ideal length to be brilliantly contained while also managing to tie in to the greater narrative of the book. Every time I finished a section I felt like I could easily place Porn Panic! down and resume it at another point, not that I wanted to put it down! This was a book I became fully immersed in—reading for long stints and whenever I got the chance throughout my day. I curled up with it on the sofa, I got it out in between train journeys, I stole fleeting moments with it when waiting to meet people. I didn’t lose my passion for it once and when it was over I got that bitter sweet feeling that so often comes with finishing a really good read. Jerry’s next book can’t come soon enough for me!

Now, of course, as I mentioned before I do have my biases and it’s fair to say that I am generally the type of person to support porn, support personal autonomy, and oppose censorship in any way (especially when it comes to an industry I love). I can still remember sitting there baffled by the absurdity of being blocked from seeing my own site by the very filters that were supposed to be for ‘my own good’ as a British citizen (because heaven forbid we self-regulate our consumption of adult material).

That being said I don’t wholly agree with Jerry in every regard.

Some of my personal cons with Jerry’s publication (and, yes, they’re all subjective points) are more pet peeves whereas I consider others to be more fundamental.

Perhaps my biggest bugbear comes from Jerry’s casual comments here-and-there about how modern censors are trying to return to a Victorian attitude or approach to sex. This irks me because, as a Victorianist I can confidently vouch for the fact that the Victorians were far more candid and open about sex than the Bloomsbury rhetoric would suggest. One need only looks at the paintings of the period to gleam the extent to which Victorian culture was saturated in sex. This is personally frustrating because not only does it reinforce an overly simplified understanding of Victorian sexuality but it also closes up the option of drawing on the Victorians as an example of how prudish in some ways we currently are when compared to them. Generally when I read a sex-based work that references the Victorian period as if they covered their table legs with cloth I lose a bit of faith in the writing and so I was sad to see it turn up in this book.

John William Waterhouse's Hylas and the Nymphs gives us just a single example of what regularly hung on the walls of public Victorian galleries without condemnation.
John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs gives us just a single example of what regularly hung on the walls of public Victorian galleries without condemnation.

Although Jerry’s writing generally impressed and compelled me I also found that he clung to a few quotes or references here or there that felt a bit overdone. For the most part this isn’t the case and when Jerry usually responds to a point it is done so almost poetically but this just made the instances where this wasn’t the case stand out even more. When reincorporated once a point can be compelling, more than that and it becomes clumsy.

But these two points really are just irks more than anything else. They may not even annoy the casual reader. Of much more concern to me was the ideological clash that I found myself grappling with when reading Jerry’s book.
It seems from Porn Panic! that Jerry finds cultural terminology such as objectification, sexualisation, and rape culture to be unproductive. No, not just unproductive but completely fabricated and the tools through which censorship have been facilitated.

While I cannot say that these terms and some people’s understanding of them has had no contribution to the changing attitudes towards sex and porn I can speak of their long-standing usefulness and validity as an academic.
Jerry’s arguments against the use of these terms and how they’re implemented often comes down to the fact that there is little quantifiable proof of these cultural phenomenon but I would argue that to take terms that often act in qualitative domains and fault them for not fitting in a qualitative framework is fundamentally flawed.

These terms have existed and been accepted for a long time by academic circles and their impact can be tracked through the humanities. The humanities, however, often looks more at culture than statistics because statistics alone will never tell the whole story of how a cultural phenomenon (such as rape culture) operated. Indeed, when future historians look back at the ‘porn panic’ of our period I predict that they will often be considering it in terms of personal accounts, cultural outlets, and a ‘anti-porn culture’. Rather than discrediting the terms that Jerry dislikes it is likely that his own publication will operate within them and I wonder how his commentary regarding them will be remembered.

Throughout his book Jerry is also very outspoken in his animosity towards the modern feminist. At first I was willing to give this the benefit of the doubt, thinking ‘Oh, he’s talking about the vocal minority of toxic individuals in every movement, understandable’, but as time went on it became apparent that Jerry didn’t consider this type of feminism to represent the minority (as I do) but, instead, considered it to be the prevalent state of feminism to date. While I read Jerry speak of objectification, rape culture, and sexualisation I found some of it to be familiar and some of it to be completely alien. I couldn’t help but feel a little uncomfortable at Jerry’s picture of prevalent feminism and felt that it didn’t reflect my own experiences at all.

But this is the beauty of a book such as this—Jerry has been immersed in adult and internet culture. So have I. And yet our experiences and encounters have differed (in some places drastically, in others not so much). As a result I am not always willing to wholly endorse Jerry’s own stance.

But I don’t have to.

What Porn Panic! promotes, above all else, is an anti-censorship stance and a huge part of that stance is activism and engagement. Despite our somewhat differing beliefs and perspectives as our core both Jerry and myself agree that if we (as a nation and as individuals) turn to censorship as opposed to the freedom of expression then we are ultimately heading towards a grim future. Agree or disagree with porn but don’t shut yourself off from it or aim to impose your own views regarding the topic upon others. Have a conversation. Read what the other side has to say. Create a dialogue. Only by engaging with porn can change come along (one way or another) and Porn Panic! invites its readers to engage with such passion and enthusiasm that you cannot help but rethink and problematize the entire situation yourself.

Final Thoughts

Unlike pornography itself, Porn Panic! is an indisputably addictive read and I loved every minute of it. Porn Panic! isn’t just a book—it’s a call to arms (or activism) for anyone who is truly passionate about the adult industry or our freedom as a nation.

As soon as I was done reading Porn Panic! I couldn’t help but recommend it to others, I want everyone I know to read this book and I want to discuss it with them and hear their own thoughts and opinions. For a book that rails against our culture’s current attempts to keep sex and pornography hush-hush I cannot think of more appropriate nor higher praise than that.

Recommend to:
Absolutely anyone with an interest in the topic.
People looking for a conversation starter.
David Cameron and Theresa May.

Do Not Recommend to:
People who prefer a less overtly personal analysis.
People who have already read it twice (three reads might be excessive).
People who prefer audio format or live debate (see Jerry in person, it’s possible I believe).

Porn Panic! was provided to me by Jerry in exchange for an honest review. I cannot stress how enjoyable I found this book so please do buy it so that we can start our own book club of sorts in the comments section,