PRINT Summer 1990


Pseudologia Fantastica

THE SPRING OF 1990 has seen the most serious prison riots in Britain this century. Throughout the early stages of the rioting, at Strangeways jail in Manchester, British press coverage was distinguished by lurid accounts of murders and acts of torture, including castrations, alleged to have been committed by rioting prisoners on an estimated 20 men housed in isolation under U.K. prison Rule 43, which segregates “sex offenders” from the rest of the prison population for their own protection. These “sex offenders” include HIV-positive men, who are considered vulnerable to physical violence, and other men imprisoned for crimes against the archaic British Age of Consent laws—“crimes” that do not exist for British heterosexuals. Thus gay men in the U.K. cannot legally have sex until the age of 21, while the age of consent for everyone else is 16. Nor are these laws merely symbolic. In 1988, in England and Wales alone, 23 men over 21 went to prison for the “offense” of having consensual sex with other men over the age of 16.

Commenting on the sensationalism of much press reporting of the violence in Strangeways, one journalist attributed the stories to hysteria on the part of prisoners and warders alike.1 A few days later a research psychologist popped up in The Independent to explain that the hapless inmates may have been suffering from “a clinical syndrome known as pseudologia fantastica, in which elaborate, and often superficially persuasive stories are woven from a web of fantasy.”2 But whose fantasies, and fantasies of what? Any hysteria involved in the almost loving detail lavished on these imaginary events would appear to come from the journalists themselves, who have long advocated what amounts to a cultural lynching policy against “sex offenders,” understood as a distinct subgroup of persons. Providing ever-available “evidence” of the dangers that surround “normality,” these monsters, who reject and threaten “family values,”3 are presented to a chimera of a “general public” constantly boiling over with self-righteous moral outrage. Nor is the danger of such “perverts” necessarily confined with them in prison, for their magical powers to corrupt the young and innocent are readily available in the dreaded form of—pornography.

The representation of all aspects of sex and sexuality is more heavily policed in Britain than in any other European country, with the solitary, lamentable exception of Eire. To understand this, it is important to recognize the wider cultural significance of the fact that the peoples of Britain are not citizens of a constitution that invests them with rights, but are subjects of the Crown, whose authority is retained and expressed in Parliament. Meanwhile, British party politics almost entirely lacks a concept of civil rights that might exist independently of the whims of elected governments. This is in line with the traditional English concept of freedom, which regards liberty in terms of freedoms from constraints and obligations, rather than, in Jeffersonian terms, as civil responsibilities and duties. I do not suffer from any illusions concerning the current, parlous state of American democracy, yet it is perhaps not unimportant for American citizens to recall that they enjoy theoretical freedoms that remain literally unattainable in Britain.

For example, the defense of the National Endowment for the Arts against the concerted efforts of the radical right has itself derived from a right-wing commitment to constitutional principles. Moreover, the question of censorship in the U.S. is inscribed within a very particular ideological history. Hence the significance of writer Garrison Keillor’s defense of the NEA before a congressional committee, on the grounds that his ancestors had fled to the U.S. in 1648 precisely to escape tyrannical British censorship. He concluded: “Man’s interest in the forbidden is sharp and constant.” To appreciate the difference between censorship in Britain and in the United States one need only compare the long-term response of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to the Meese Commission on Pornography and to the AIDS crisis, with that of the British National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL), recently nicknamed Liberty, as if to divest itself publicly of the last embarrassing traces of the concept of civil rights. In 1986 the ACLU published a public policy report entitled Polluting the Censorship Debate, which analyzed the then U.S. Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography. Upholding the principles of the First Amendment, the ACLU concluded with admirable sensitivity that the commission’s final recommendations “endorse virtually nothing which could make a real difference to the genuine victims of a still sexist culture.”4 The ACLU has also published a wide range of well-researched papers concerned with all aspects of discrimination founded on HIV-antibody status, from immigration to social-security provision. In Britain, by contrast, the NCCL has gone so far as to cite the Meese Commission as scientific evidence to justify and legitimate its extraordinary 1989 policy in favor of “specific legislation (both civil and criminal) which could be enacted to curb the production and distribution of pornographic materials,” in view of their belief in “the links between pornography, sexual violence, and the subordinate, unequal status of women.”5 Furthermore, the NCCL has yet to publish a single position paper on any aspect of HIV-related discrimination in the U.K., in spite of recent cuts of up to 30 percent in the social-security benefits paid to people living with AIDS, and overwhelming evidence of widespread, institutionalized discrimination in housing for people with AIDS, inequalities in access to experimental drugs, and so on.

In other words, the procensorship coalition Campaign Against Pornography has been spearheaded from within the country’s only national organization committed to civil-liberties issues. Pressure within the NCCL, and elsewhere, has been led by Kathy Itzin, an American disciple of Andrea Dworkin, who has quoted the Meese Commission as Holy Writ, and explicitly supports all of its 87 recommendations as grounds for new British laws. The Campaign Against Pornography, in fact, consists of a truly unholy alliance between radical feminists such as ltzin and her many followers, and leading right-wing figures such as Baroness Cox, author of the notorious Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act, which makes it an offense for local governments to fund anything that might be construed to “promote” homosexuality, or to represent gays and lesbians as members of “pretended family relationships.” (As my generally conservative mother noted dryly at the time, “I suppose I’m only your ‘pretended’ mother now.”) Sandwiched between these two wings is a large number of liberal and socialist women, including several influential feminist Labour Party members of Parliament.

Although a special meeting of Liberty, on April 21, 1990, rejected a procensorship policy by a small majority, the reality of officially sanctioned support for censorship remains strong and not only on the right. The latest and most sinister maneuver in the complex field of procensorship politics is a bill soon to be introduced at Westminster by feminist Labour M.P. Dawn Primarillo, which calls for new legislation that would make it an offense “to display, sell or otherwise distribute any pornographic materials.” Pornography is here defined as any materials that “for the purpose of sexual arousal or titillation, depicts women or parts of women’s bodies, as objects, things or commodities, or in sexually humiliating poses or being subjected to violence.” And, in a new twist to Dworkinite orthodoxy, the bill further proposes that all references to women’s bodies and their representation should apply equally to men’s. On a trivial level, it could be objected that the Primarillo proposals, if passed into law, would immediately lead to the closing of large sections of the National and Tate Galleries, and the licensing of their postcards—though it is difficult to imagine from which branch of the British state such “permission” might be forthcoming. On a more serious level, such proposals fly in the face of everything of significance learned from feminist scholarship in the past 20 years about the complex workings of sexual fantasy and desire. Hence Lisa Duggan’s eloquent complaint against the Meese Commission: “This latest attempt to restrict freedom is being disguised as an effort to ‘protect’ women. . . . Obscenity laws and other methods of increasing state control over private life and sexual expression have never benefitted women. Historically, obscenity laws like the Comstock Act have been used to restrict information about birth control and abortion, to limit public sex education and to seize literature and art. It is not hard to guess the targets of new, more severe obscenity laws—feminist and gay bookstores, art galleries, video shops, sex education including AIDS health education materials, and the new erotica that women themselves are now producing.”6 When questioned, feminist Labour Party M.P. Clare Short, a vocal spokesperson for the “Off the Shelves” campaign aimed against the sale of erotic magazines in shops, has stated that pornography not only degrades women but is directly responsible for society’s attitudes toward them. Furthermore, she asserts that feminist objections to heterosexual porn extend to gay porn.

In a sense there is a refreshing honesty about this approach, which at least has the virtue of consistency. At the same time, however, it pinpoints an area of censorship that British gay men have not handled well. There is a strange irony in the way that many British lesbian and gay opponents of existing censorship laws (which, for example, make all sexually explicit videos illegal) often defend the supposed “power-free” nature of gay pornography in terms that closely resemble the arguments of Andrea Dworkin. Dworkin and her followers hold to a theory that gender differences make heterosexual relationships inherently unequal. Since men are innately cruel and oppressive, it therefore follows (apparently) that gay relationships are the most oppressive of all, and that only lesbians committed to the equal love of sisters can offer any hope for an acceptable sexuality. This view has been most recently ventilated by the doyenne of British Dworkinites, Sheila Jeffreys, whose latest book frames her profound hatred of gay men in relation to the familiar radical feminist fantasy of some universal, transcendent women’s experience, a notion that is not unattractive these days to many intellectuals brought up and educated on a solid diet of French psychoanalytic feminism, which is often explicitly antigay.7

The new antiporn movement in Britain can thus draw into itself a heady current of antigay prejudice, sanctioned by the ostensibly “feminist” nature of the analysis, and campaigns against censorship need to take this into account. The idea of an ideologically and morally acceptable gay porn runs the grave risk of colluding with the wider concept that heterosexual porn is ideologically and morally unacceptable. This would be a great piece of hypocrisy, for all porn speaks a level of truth that is generally censored—the psychic truth of sexual desire and fantasy. Hence my argument elsewhere that the “offense” of which antiporn campaigners complain is that of dimly recognizing their own potential identification with frank sexual pleasure in the space of pornography, where the body is understood as a site of limitless erotic and sexual sensation, including pain.8 As the British Feminists Against Censorship group notes: “Suddenly the feminist movement that once fought for freedom and sexual self-determination is advocating giving power over our lives to judges and the police; suddenly what it says about our freedom and our sexual desires sounds like the ravings of the right. Suddenly feminism is about censorship rather than about opening possibilities. There is a place for sexually explicit material in our lives. We need a feminism and a society which respects sexual variety and sexual choice.”9 Section 28 remains on the law books, and continues to exert a malignant antigay effect, as in the recent banning of a lesbian component from an International Women’s Week exhibition at the York Library, in Yorkshire. Safer-sex campaigns and AIDS education materials are still rigidly censored by central government, while large sections of the British press continue to deny the mere possibility of the transmission of HIV via heterosexual intercourse. It is the intricate web of relationships between such different instances of censorship that needs to be understood, including the central question of the relations between the state and sexual behavior. That is why we should not be tempted into making special cases. In Britain this involves a commitment to the establishment of a written constitution and/or bill of rights as an absolute priority, in order to circumvent the sordid strategies of the would-be censors from whichever political perspective they emerge.

Simon Watney is deputy editor of the National AIDS Manual (U.K.). His next book, The Art of Duncan Grant, will be published by John Murray, London, in October 1990.



1. Barry Wood, “The Body Count Fails to Add Up,” The Guardian, London, 9 April 1990, p. 23.
2. David Lewis, “Reality and Fiction Blurred by Stress,” The Independent, London, 20 April 1990, p. 2.
3. See Simon Watney, “Introduction,” )Taking Liberties: AIDS and Cultural Politics), London: Serpent’s Tail Press, 1989.
4. Barry W. Lynn, Polluting the Censorship Debate: A Summary and Critique of the Fool Report of the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography, New York: ACLU, July 1986, p. 3.
5. Liberty’s official policy for increased censorship legislation against pornography, 1989–90.
6. Lisa Duggan, “Report,” The Meese Commission Exposed, ed. Arlene Carmene, New York: Notional Coalition Against Censorship, 1986, pp. 27–28.
7. See Margaret Hunt, “The De-eroticizotion of Women’s Liberation: Social Purity Movements and the Revolutionary Feminism of Sheila Jeffreys,” Feminist Review no. 34, London, Spring 1990, pp. 23–46.
8. See Simon Watney, Policing Desire: Pornography, AIDS & the Media, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987 and 1989.
9. Feminists Against Censorship, leaflet, London, 1989.