The murder of Brighton schoolteacher, Jane Longhurst in March 2003 was without doubt a particularly shocking and brutal event, and unquestionably sad for her family who have campaigned on her behalf ever since. Graham Coutts, a man who regularly used violently pornographic websites, strangled Jane to death with a pair of tights and it is without doubt that her death was a result of Coutts fulfilling his own dark sexual desire.
I do not think it serves to go much more into the details of this particular case, for the very reason that it is particular, but it is necessary to mention that the victim’s mother subsequently launched a campaign to ban violent internet porn.
On Tuesday this week it was announced that the Home Office was looking into whether new laws were needed to make it an offence to possess violent and abusive pornography. What this law would effectively mean would be that it would become illegal for people in the UK to view such material on the Internet. It is already an offence under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act to produce images of an abusive sexual nature, and this law is I feel without reproach in its service to protect the victims of such crimes.
The OPA does not however, make distinction between images of say, consensual violent sex and non-consensual. It is of course not illegal to engage in such activities if both (or all) parties are in agreement with what is taking place. However to depict such an act, is. The OPA defines obscene articles, thusly:
an article shall be deemed to be obscene if its effect […] tend[s] to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it.
Now, this is an interesting point. The article must be deemed to be capable of corrupting the individual who views it. I am still unclear quite how ‘corruption’ is defined in such cases, or how it would be proven that such an article was capable of bringing said change in it’s viewer. It’s a wording, which obviously supports Liz Longhurst’s campaign; viewing violent sexual images on the Internet leads to the viewer’s corruption, and thereby action upon these impulses. But where is this assumption made? I am not convinced that there is scientific proof to show that exposure to obscene materials leads to ‘corruption’.
Which brings me to James Hanley’s novel Boy.
I was reminded of this book, which I read a good few years ago, by a letter responding to a recent issue of The Reader. ‘Why had we not,’ the correspondent asked, ‘mentioned Hanley in our edition on the sea?’ The simple answer was that none of us had thought of him, because I suppose, few people do think about Hanley these days. When he died in 1985, The Times declared him the ‘Neglected Genius of the Novel’, which is maybe a little strong, but shouldn’t be laughed at. Unfortunately when Hanley is remembered, if he is at all, it is for his publisher’s prosecution for obscenity in 1934.
Boy was first published in 1931. It relates the story of Arthur Fearson who leaves school at the age of thirteen to work in Liverpool’s docks. He is initiated into this life by other boys urinating on him, and so continues a life of abuse: from his father beating him at home, to the unwelcome sexual advances at sea from fellow sailors. The novel ends with the Captain smothering Fearson to death to free him from the syphilis he has contracted during the course of the story.
The book was met favourably by reviewers, but only received real attention three years later when a paperback edition was produced featuring a racy, near naked woman on the cover. The prosecution claimed that Boy’s purpose was to ‘pollute young people’s minds’ and that ‘the matter came to the notice of the police when they heard that the book was being discussed in clubs in the town.’ Shocking.
Is the book obscene? Well, it describes acts that would, if presented in photographic form in this country, be considered illegal. The OPA does not make any distinction between written and photographic articles, it is the subject itself that is banned. Violent sex cannot be represented if it is liable to corrupt. However, the 1959 act does suggest a special dispensation for works judged to have literary merit. By a curious twist of logic, a book (so long as it’s a good one) can represent violent sexual matter and not be deemed corrupting, and thereby you are able to buy James Hanley’s Boy in all good bookshops today, although I cannot guarantee that you will not be corrupted by it.
We are left with a bundle of vague, subjective terms to contend with; and dealing with these terms is of course the point of the law. But so many of these terms are also based on rather illogical assumptions; that good writing is a filter for degradation, that the exposure to ideas can automatically corrupt, that the fictional image or text is of the same effect as the documentary.
Boy was dedicated to Nancy Cunard, daughter of the shipping magnate, and one can only suppose that she read it. Was she corrupted? One imagines not, but I suspect that's not because of its 'literary merit'.