Following on from my review of Porn Panic!: Sex & Censorship in the UK, Jerry Barnett agreed to answer a few interview questions for me.
Having thoroughly enjoyed Porn Panic! you can imagine how excited I was to pick Jerry’s brain. If you want the full-impact of this interview I certainly recommend you give the book a glimpse too (or, at the very least, check out my review of it).
In addition to being a terrific writer, Jerry Barnett is the founder of the campaign group, Sex & Censorship, which aims to defend sexual freedom and fight against censorship in the UK. Jerry has also been a passionate political activist since his early teens, attending rally’s from the 70’s onward.
In the 90’s he found his way in to the adult industry via working for the online adult entertainment industry. When the industry that he cared about started getting attacked and undermined by a troubling movement towards censorship in the UK Jerry decided it was time to return to his activist roots once again.
Of course, that’s just a brief overview of Jerry, who has a much more extensive bio and list of publications over at his site. For now I’ll stop with all my chatter and allow Jerry to speak for himself. Enjoy!
Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview, especially given your busy schedule. It seems that every week there’s a new anti-sex or pornography scandal occurring! Tell me, what is the current priority for Sex & Censorship?
I set up the campaign in order to respond to anti-sex moral panics in the media… it’s like trying to extinguish a house fire with a thimble! Undoubtedly, the priority now is the UK’s Digital Economy Bill, which will introduce unprecedented online censorship of adult (and probably other) content. This looks set to become law in Spring 2017, with little discussion or opposition in Parliament.
Now, on to your book (which is a fantastic read, I have to say): I was really inspired by your writing style. Was the writing process a challenge for you or did it come naturally?
Thanks for the compliments – getting feedback like this really matters. I’ve been blogging for some years, and I love writing, but this was my first book. My style of writing comes naturally when I’m in “the zone” but as an inexperienced author, getting into the zone is tricky. Much of the book was written during short writing breaks. I wrote the beginning during a two-week trip to Gambia in 2013.
Sex, pornography, and censorship are huge topics and yet to manage to navigate the field with an impressive narrative flow. How did you determine what subjects to address in Porn Panic! and were there any that you wanted to talk about but didn’t get a chance to?
I actually wrote a lot more, and the publisher (Zero Books) asked me to cut the book in half. So hopefully, there is another book to follow. This first one looks at the grassroots anti-sex politics, and the new rise of fascist attitudes in society; the second will examine in more detail how the British state uses moral panic to limit free speech, and empower itself.
You’ve worked in the adult industry for quite some time now (in addition to passionately protesting for the rights of the industry). May I ask what the most common falsehood is that you encounter during your protests and how those in the industry work to counter misinformation?
I worked in the industry for almost 20 years, but I’m out of it now. I’d rather campaign without having vested interests. I became more worried about free speech than about defending the adult industry – and a lot of porn today is made for fun by amateurs, anyway. I guess the biggest misconception is that women in the industry are somehow coerced into doing this, or are abused to make porn. There are so many intelligent women (and men) in the industry today, who articulately defend their choice of work, and debunk the anti-porn myths.
Activism is sometimes viewed with a great deal of animosity and yet is arguably essential for social change. What do you see as the most effective forms of activism, especially regarding the adult industry?
I guess different people are stronger at different forms of activism. My approach is to disrupt anti-sex panics and myths using my writing, and by public speaking. I often do university debates and speeches. The publication of my book raised my profile, which is useful. Now, when an anti-sex panic surfaces in the media, journalists will contact me (and other activists) for comment, which is good because it means that news articles are more nuanced, and less accepting of the “porn is bad” narrative.
Your book makes a great point about the discrepancy between what anti-porn protesters assume porn is like and the reality of porn. Why do you think there’s such a disconnect between these individuals and the material they’re trying to counter?
Some are naive, but generally, these people are quite malicious. Although the anti-porn arguments are often presented as “feminism”, much of the funding comes from the religious right. They don’t have evidence of harm, so they tend to put forward very dishonest arguments or resort to “But think of the children!”-type fear tactics.
It seems in your publication that you reject the usefulness of terms such as ‘objectify’, ‘sexualisation’, and ‘rape culture’ (something I address in my review). Can you envision any situation where these terms might be valid and useful to your cause or do you feel that they have too many pre-suppositions?
Often, the anti-sex movement takes existing terms with specific and valid meanings, and twists them. So for example, “objectification” has a valid meaning in psychology, but it was repurposed by anti-sex feminists in order to attack sexual expression. Now, it gives the vague impression that photos of naked women somehow cause men to devalue women, and so mistreat them. Yet, evidence doesn’t back this meaning. When I challenge people who use the word in this way, they’re at a loss to explain what they mean.
Equally it seems like Feminism (at least in a modern capacity) is something you view in a cynical light. In your view could Feminism ever be used to assist the Sex & Censorship cause? If so then how?
There are many feminists who are anti-censorship, and hold progressive values. However – and this is a core argument of the book – the political left as a whole (including the feminist movement) has become deeply infused with conservative attitudes. As a person of the left myself, I find it dispiriting that old left-wing values such as liberty and equality are increasingly being abandoned by the political left. I loath the new identity politics of the left, which suggests that race and gender are far more important than a person’s attitudes or beliefs. Such attitudes used to be more closely associated with the conservative right.
We’re both in agreement that communication and facilitating a dialogue are essential when it comes to discussing pornography. But how do you react when encountering someone who is completely closed off to this notion? What advice would you give others who encounter such individuals?
I guess one of the reasons I write is to let off steam about people who hold strong views but refuse to let them be challenged. Increasingly, people are inclined to ignore people who disagree with them. They often unfriend and block people, and live in happy little bubbles where everyone holds the same views. I write about this “echo chamber” phenomenon in Porn Panic!
In Porn Panic! you imply that you’ll soon be publishing another book (which I’m very excited about by the way), so I have to ask: What’s next for Sex & Censorship? What big up-and-coming projects should we all be looking out for?
I mentioned the second book above… it currently has the working title Censored UK, but I’m quite keen on Internexit at the moment, given Britain’s worrying direction towards blocking “unsuitable” foreign content. At the moment, I’m trying to get journalists more interested in the censorship aspects of the Digital Economy Bill; at the moment, they tend to say “Oh, it’s just about protecting kids from seeing porn, isn’t it?” – but it really isn’t.
And, lastly, in the spirit of creating a constructive exchange is there anything you would like to ask me? I’ll try to respond as best I can.
Well – as someone who’s so clearly worried about similar issues to me… would you like to write occasional guest posts for the Sex & Censorship blog?
Wow! What brilliant responses! Of course I was flattered when Jerry asked me to write posts for his blog. What was my answer? I suppose you’ll have to wait and find out…