Sunday, 28 July 2013

The Innocent Schoolgirl Test, Revisited

I thought the title might get your attention. And there is an innocent schoolgirl test involved in this post, but that's because it's a post about obscenity, moral standards and censorship.

If you live in the UK you will no doubt be aware the government is doing things about preventing pedophiles from searching for images of children online. Among other things it's getting search engines to block certain searches.

David Cameron has stated search engines should stop results from 'depraved and disgusting' search terms, and entered into discussions with Google and others. Bing has already introduced warning pop-ups to tell you if you use search terms or phrases that are on a blacklist prepared by CEOP, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection agency. Other search engines seem likely to introduce these in the near future - possibly they will already have been introduced by the time you read this post.

But this is all rather sad and familiar territory. CEOP of course is unlikely to publish a list of those search terms any time soon. We can concede that a few pedophiles do start their exploration of the internet by using the major search engines, especially if they don't have other resources at their disposal - though it appears the majority of file-sharing of objectionable material is via private peer-to-peer networks. We also know that some pedophiles groom potential victims online in a range of ways, and that major social networks have become much more savvy about how that happens and how to help prevent it.

But we also know that many if not most parents don't use content filters on their own computers to prevent children from seeing pornographic images online.

And we know the wider culture, including advertising and fashion, has sought to sexualise young people in problematic ways. My own small example of this comes from being in a queue at an airport behind a couple whose young daughter, maybe 5 or 6 years old, was wearing a T-shirt that stated she was a 'Porn Star in Training'. What??

And we know that young people are affected my this in all kinds of ways, including pressure on girls to sext and send explicit 'selfies' to boys they know, some of which end up being shared around or wind up on the internet.

But there's also a wider reaction to the prevalence of sexual material that isn't problematic. Amazon, as you may know, has been messing with its own search engine and effectively now hides a lot of erotica from searches on its own site. Those of us who write erotica found out about this in April when we found our sales had dropped overnight by over 50%.

While this has spawned a new genre - books about how to find erotica on Amazon and elsewhere - my point is that there's a reaction to the extent of sexual/erotic/pornographic material available on the internet, and it goes beyond specific concerns about the kinds of sex almost all of us are shocked by. It is, I think, a new prudery.

[Updated to add - another example of this, though not internet based, came today in the form of a demand by a major retailer that 'lads' mags' such as Loaded, Nuts and Zoo should now be sealed into modesty bags so as not to offend customers. Loaded has been on sale without modesty bags since 1994.]

And this is where the innocent schoolgirl test comes in.

A legal case in 1868, R v Hicklin (LR 3 QB 360 if you're interested) began with the prosecution of one Henry Scott for selling copies of an anti-Catholic pamphlet titled 'The Confessional Unmasked: Shewing the depravity of the Romish Priesthood, the iniquity of the Confessional, and the questions put to females in confession'. The pamphlets were determined to be obscene and ordered to be destroyed. Scott appealed to to the Court of Quarter Sessions, where the Recorder (i.e. judge), Benjamin Hickling, revoked the decision. Hickling's decision in turn was appealed by the authorities to the Court of Queen's Bench were it was heard by Chief Justice Cockburn.

Cockburn's view was that an appropriate test of whether material had a 'tendency to deprave and corrupt' should consider those whose minds were open to immoral influences - such as an innocent schoolgirl.

Remember this was 1868. Education was not compulsory, many girls never even became 'schoolgirls' and there were quite different standards then in relation to sexual morals anyway. So the interpretation of this test proved repeatedly problematic right the way up to 1959 and the Obscene Publications Act which tried to clarify the situation.

The idea that anything that could offend 'innocent schoolgirls' was obscene remained in popular culture, though, as exemplified by the 'Oz' trial of 1971, an obscenity prosecution related to Issue 28 (May 1970) described as the 'Schoolkids issue' and guest-edited by readers aged 15-18. At one point the defendants arrived at court dressed as 'innocent schoolgirls'.

As a side note - those who appeared for the defence, and thus as advocates of freedom of expression, included DJ John Peel, comedian Marty Feldman and jazz musician George Melly - all well-known figures of the time.

It seems to me that despite, or maybe because of, various laws on the publication of sexual material since then, and a widespread desire to protect children from material that could 'deprave and corrupt' them, we're moving back to applying a newly constructed 'innocent schoolgirl' test for the internet [and ebooks, and probably in print as well].

And that creates three problems.

Firstly, it may create a stereotyped 'innocent schoolgirl' that doesn't actually exist and can't exist in today's society for reasons including our awareness of pedophilia and the need for education about it; and because of the sexualisation of so many aspects of society in ways that aren't explicit.

Secondly, it creates problems for anyone who wants to use the internet for purposes that are appropriate to their own adult sexuality - which at various points is probably why most us do use the internet.

And thirdly, it creates the possibility of a 'slippery slope' in which government agencies can decide what we should be able to see on the internet and not tell us what they've tried to stop us seeing. It's a case of 'OK, they have a reason for doing this now - but what might they want to ban by secret means tomorrow?'

I'm not sure what the answer is. More public debate? More explicit recognition that adults need a space to be themselves? More openness about what the policies are and how they're being implemented? Probably all of these.

But in the meantime I'd guess that those who find their interests are being blocked by internet searches will start to develop new vocabularies and search terms pretty quickly, so that there will be a cat-and-mouse game of blocking new search terms and a quickly-evolving vocabulary of sexual terms.

I don't know if all of this makes much sense. Or if any of it makes sense. But I'd be interested to hear your views.

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