(Also cross-posted at Freedom In a Puritan Age, which allows comments.)
Now that the obscenity trial against Michael Peacock is over [background], what have we learned? Apart from the fact that there are still people who get their porn from DVDs rather than the internet?
(Rather wonderfully, the jury came back with a verdict of Not Guilty, unanimously, on all counts after about a tea-break's worth of deliberation.)
It's that perhaps we are finally beginning to become comfortable with the idea of consent, the notion that one does not have to practice a particular sexual kink or orientation to not condemn it, and that people who approach an escort who goes by the handle "Sleazy Michael" and rent or buy DVDs from him are possibly, just possibly, not being blindsided by the nature of their content.
Which is probably a great relief to my publisher, given that I've written about more than a few of these so-called "obscene" acts (in chick-lit bestsellers no less). The law used to bring the charges against Michael, the Obscene Publications Act 1959, was the very same invoked in the Lady Chatterley's Lover trial.
The official guidance on OPA 1959 includes depiction of acts that are necessarily non-consensual (sex with animals). But the list also contains a fair number of acts which can be consensual, and crucially, it is those consensual acts that were on the DVDs Michael Peacock distributed. This failure to distinguish consensual and nonconsensual sex acts is something that must be addressed. Not only because is an important point as regards sex and kink, but also because making this point crystal clear in guidance on law would help to shape discussion of issues around sex in a way that is more reasonable and less anachronistic. The ethics of sex are entirely about consent. I can't say this often enough. The ethics of sex are entirely about consent. Anything else is hollow moralising.
It was only a couple of days ago that I realised the defendant, Michael Peacock, was someone I know. In my opinion he is a nice person who is genuinely enthusiastic about his work and his clients. In short, the best kind of escort. A really top bloke. And brave too. The thought that he corrupts or defiles anyone who doesn't want said treatment is frankly ridiculous. [Peacock interviewed by Drake Blaize]
But the notions that led to this trial even happening are part of a line of thinking that is all too pervasive when it comes to sex. The sexualisation debate for example is entirely built on the erroneous assumption that if suggestive material wasn't available, young people would never become curious about sex. The idea that sex (and especially sex where commerce is involved) is unique, and uniquely corrupting, is an unfortunate leitmotif in public discourse. Religious doctrine is certainly an influence. The feminist and post-feminist notions that paid sex and pornography constitute de facto abuse feed into this as well. In such an atmosphere, someone who distributes images of consenting adults engaging in perfectly legal acts is targeted arbitrarily, simply because it is Big Bad Sex.
It's this culturally pervasive context that made the verdict of not guilty on all counts all the sweeter. There's a strong element of 'what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander' about this outcome. After all, no one was disputing the legality of consenting to being fisted or punched in the balls. It was more the question of who might see it happening. The history of pornography is littered with such divides between who is corruptible and who is not. Private galleries of Pompeiian icons of Priapus and his giant penis were once fine for men of a certain class, but not suitable to be seen by the general adult public.
The case against Michael Peacock was in many ways trying to affirm the same: this is suitable for some but not for others. In this case, the medium is what enforces the class divide. It's perfectly okay for those who, in the privacy of their own homes, can afford it. It's not okay for the plebs to be looking at cheap DVDs or (presumably) downloads. Happily we can now say that that answer to the question "Is it a DVD you would wish your wife or servants to view?" is definitively, that's up to them and no one else's business.
So here's to Michael. Long may he continue on his personal and professional journey, hopefully buoyed by the knowledge that on this day at least, sanity reigned.
And now, an aside about a lot of well-meaning commentary I've been reading about the trial.
Is there an unwritten rule that when the topic is sex, even supportive and liberal commentators who identify as sex-positive must make it clear exactly where in this case their personal kinky line has been crossed? I lost count of the number of times either on blogs or on Twitter I read some variation of "Of course, I don't go in for these disgusting practices at all, but I fully support..." etc.
What's the problem here, you might ask? That of solidarity. You wouldn't begin a discussion on same-sex marriage with the sentence, "Of course, I am disgusted at the thought of being attracted to the same sex, but I fully support...", would you? You wouldn't start an article about trans people with "I am appalled at the idea of changing your born sex, but I fully support..." and so on.
In short, it's the "I have black friends" of kinky. It's patronising. Without doubt, there is something you do enjoy which other kinky (or not) people will find appalling. Trust me, it's true. I think scented candles and tickle teasing are dreadful but you probably don't; I find watersports more appealing than oral sex. Sexuality is not a hierarchy of extremity, with fisting, urine, and blood at its apex. Sexuality is not a linear progression from missionary-position, procreative, within-marriage, monogamous mating at one end and goatse at the other. Talk in public about what you think goes too far and you have undermined your support. You are, unwittingly, using the same 'line in the sand' argument that the prosecution pursued.
Setting yourself apart from other people whom you claim to support is very, very indicative of a way of thinking that I abhor. It reads of horror, it seethes with shame. It's the call girl who imagines laws that target sex work should apply to streetwalkers but not to her. It's the feminist who excludes trans women from women's spaces. "I may be socially unacceptable but at least I'm not that socially unacceptable" is the kind of talk that - to borrow the Diane Abbot tweet - divides and rules.
Bottom line, the question is about adult consent. Either we support it or we do not. Whatever our kinks are.