Porn Panic!: Sex and Censorship in the UK by Jerry Barnett (Zero Books, 2016)

Review by C. Derick Varn

Jerry Barnett’s “Porn Panic!: Sex and Censorship in the UK” does a good job of developing an argument for how both left-liberals and liberals have been oddly aligned with social conservatism on dealing with sexual expression. Shaming women and men, providing an expansion of the bourgeois state’s conservative elements, and an expansion of the capitalist state repression mechanism are all counter-productive to aiding elements of liberation. Furthermore, anti-pornography arguments tend to both posit theoretical constructions like the patriarchy and then turn them into outright conspiracy thinking. Pornography operates by market logic, and its sexism generally reflects private misogyny and may reinforce it, but it is unlikely to drive it in and of itself. It definitely doesn’t seem to be designed to drive it since its primary motive is profit. Barnett seems to understand this. Lastly, Barnett is right about the self-righteousness that invades a lot of the left and that deleterious.

Barnett, however, still is in the Blairite mode. He does not believe in a world outside of regulated capitalism, and while he believes in regulation and believes himself to be on the social-cultural left, he doesn’t really see anyway out of capitalist relations and the exploitation inherent in parts of it. Furthermore, his “marketplace of ideas” logic assumes that there is an equality of power between all players, and there simply is not.

Barnett’s use of evolutionary psychology is laughable as it is a just-so story for a lot current gender relations that are VERY historically situated. Evolutionary psychology has an immediate appeal because as primates that involved some of its core claims must be true, but as anyone who studies anthropology or comparative biology will tell you, most practical conclusions for mating habits of contemporary people based on speculations about the African savannah before agriculture are generally crap. There is no evidence for a lot of them and contrary evidence among both primates and hunter-gather drives for some of them. In short, Barnett is normalizing a lot of gender relations in a strange way.

Now, as a bit of disclosure, I am one of the people on the editorial staff at Zero that accepted this book and my honest opinion is that it’s primary argument is hugely flawed because of the three caveats I mentioned above, the polemic is overreaching, and some of the book is far more conservative than the author realizes himself. Re-reading it, however, I have come to the conclusion that I made the right decision in voting for this book’s publication: the effects of a lot of sexual expression laws in both US and particularly the UK need to be discussed openly and honestly as even many people who are more consistently anti-pornography and sex work MUST grabble with in their advocacy. There have been perverse incentives and unintended consequences from a lot of these laws that disproportionately effect the poor but have strong support from the middle class. So I view this as a deeply flaw argument but one that is absolutely worth considering, particularly when Barnett is talking about the results of legislation.

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