In defence of face-sitting protest

(Bumping this call to the top – if you care about the porn laws, then care about International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers too: 17th December)

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It seems every time there is a new leftie cause to be fought, or a new impetus given to an old one, there are disagreement over how best to fight the fight. The various ways of protesting are proposed and shot down by those proposing other methods and too often, it ends up that nobody does anything because nobody can agree on a “strategy” that they will all get behind.

For that reason, when someone bypasses the “debate” stage and goes directly to “I’m doing this; wanna come with?” I’ll hop on board – if it’s within my means to do so.

The ATVOD regulations are not a “leftie” cause as such, because the permissive left (that opposes sexual censorship) is distinct from the communal-law left, which tends to promote conformity and generally takes the anti-porn feminist argument. All the same, with the protest today in London, I am seeing many of the same disagreements surfacing, with some people I respect, and would have expected to be supportive of actions to protest the laws, choosing to criticise and, in effect, say, “No, you’re doing protest wrong!”

The criticisms, I think, do highlight some of the problems with the type of “stunt-based” protest that the London demonstration (referred to as “face-sitting protest” from now on) quickly seems to have become. I don’t know for sure if it was originally intended as a stunt, or if someone set the date and time, and then someone else said, “we should do this on our demonstration!” What I do know is that it seems to have become very quickly, if it didn’t start out that way, a “showy” event of a “mass face-sitting”, coupled with, “Let’s all dress up as Dominatrices” (as if all BDSM Dominant women have a uniform, and as if they would want to be stereotyped any further). (Mister Gryphon reports that it did change over time, and makes points about (a) losing attendees as a result, and (b) it still being an important part of the overall campaign.)

Criticisms I’ve seen include:

“What good will protesting outside an empty Parliament building do? You should be writing to your MP instead!”

“Reporters will just write about the freaks in funny clothes and ignore the real issues”

“You’re protesting about the wrong things, what you just said is inaccurate/your placard is wrong”

All of these are familiar from just about every protest I’ve ever seen, about any issue. All of them are valid criticisms and concerns, and express the very real weaknesses of the “stunt” protest tactic. But other tactics also have their weaknesses.

I am not a fan, personally, of the “stunt” protest, and feel ambivalent about the face-sitting protest overall. I am particularly concerned about dressing up in stereotypical clothing as a tactic, and several people who are otherwise “pro” the protest expressed their concerns over this as well on Twitter. I am also worried that by starting with a “stunt”, the public campaign may quickly lose momentum because of the “ooh, look at the freaks” aspect, and because while it’s good to have fun protesting, if you start on that note people may quickly drop out when it comes to the harder parts. Nevertheless, if I had been able to get to London today, I would have made the trip to join in.

I find it an uncomfortable position, therefore, to be defending the face-sitting protest choice of tactics against the people criticising it, because to some extent I agree with the criticisms. Nevertheless, I also feel that there are problems or worrying aspects about the criticisms, and that in general, it is better to do something instead of getting bogged down in a “Right, this calls for immediate discussion!” scenario. I watched on iPlayer the other night, AJP Taylor’s 25 minute lecture about Winston Churchill, and recall one phrase in particular: “If it wasn’t possible to do something effective, he would rather do something ineffective.” That was a criticism of Churchill, whose decisions on that basis led to many lives being wasted in pointless military misadventures. Nevertheless, I sometimes think that when it comes to a protest movement it is better to do something (even if it isn’t particularly effective) than to do nothing, so long as resources are kept back for when an effective protest becomes possible.

Besides which, it seems to me that effective protest usually has people working in different ways and on different fronts. It used to be the case that centralised committees could dictate and direct a campaign in a very coordinated way between these various fronts; it seems to me that the modern form, while much more democratic, lacks this coordination and ends up with people telling each other to stop because they each perceive the other approaches as undermining their own efforts. It seems to me to be better to have a variety of tactics, even if they are not entirely synchronised or fitting together well, rather than one, or, as often seems to happen, none.

All of which goes to say, yes: we need to write to our MPs. Heck, that’s what I’m best at. I love sitting down to compose a short persuasive essay with specific requests and demands for my MP to act upon, and sending that to my elected representative in government. I’m good at that sort of thing. But not everyone has the talents that I have, and I lack some of the talents that others possess. Not everyone has the time or mental energy to sit down and write out a coherent protest email. Some people, I suppose more extraverted than Yours Truly, have much better energy for making placards or for doing showy stunts. Some with time and/or energy for neither, can still help by signing petitions, doing social media, or whatever else. Some like the “let’s get together to demonstrate”, but prefer a more sober style of gathering.

As for what good the gathering does, it attracts attention. What the second criticism says is that it attracts the wrong kind of attention. The debate here is between bad publicity or no publicity – defenders of the “stunt” can argue that if no one hears about the protest, then it has no effect and better they laugh than that they ignore totally. As Oscar Wilde is quoted as saying, “The only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about.”

I’ve had a look at some of the reports on the face-sitting protest on various newspaper websites already: the Guardian, Independent and the Telegraph (the last because someone linked the piece on Twitter – I am not a Telegraph reader). While the “weird-looking people” angle certainly gives the journalists their headlines and images, most have used it as a way to get their readers hooked, and then feed in the censorship issues. As far as “showing the normals who like porn”, my favourite quote comes from the Telegraph:

Around 200 men and women turned up to make their opposition to this censorship known – many of them middle-aged and none of them ashamed to be publicly defending a type of porn others might prefer to express their appreciation of privately, behind closed doors and curtains.

(Emphasis added)

In terms of what I would hope for in coverage of the issues and protest, I would be disappointed. At the same time, I think the reporting is much better than the critics of the face-sitting protest seemed to predict.

However, I am reminded of the problematic language that surrounds a lot of gay rights protests: “Keep away the freaky-looking gays until after the vote, we don’t want to scare off the straights from voting for us!” The fact is, some people don’t need to “dress up” as Dommes because it’s how they like to dress anyway. Complaining that the press will “just focus on the freaks in funny clothes” is a way of saying that people who happen to be “freaks” who like to wear “funny clothes” should sit down, shut up, and not try to be included when people are debating their rights and freedom of expression. And yes, I’ve been on the wrong side of that, in the past, and had people make this point at me.

The point about inaccurate or mistaken protesters I think is more problematic. On the face of it, the criticism is correct. People claiming that female ejaculation was being classed as “dangerous” have conflated two different parts of the regulations: while some things are banned because the BBFC assumes them to be dangerous, the female ejaculation (or “squirting”) ban is because in the view of the BBFC (and therefore now ATVOD) female ejaculate is indistinguishable from urine, and if it lands on someone then that’s deemed “degrading”. It is also true that, strictly speaking, face-sitting as such is not banned; the justification for such a ban rests on it appearing to block the airways, and face-sitting is only referenced in that context, and not as a thing in itself.

This criticism is entirely accurate. It is, however, also hugely problematic. Firstly, on an “expert qualification” implication, and secondly, on a “effect rather than wording” point.

The “expert qualification” point takes two forms, basically both concerned about nuance versus communication. As indicated in the previous paragraph, there are some quite fine points to present an accurate picture of what is or is not likely to be affected by the new regulations. The proper place for those points is in a longer, written, protest – and that’s why it’s important to get people writing to their MPs if they can.

My biggest concern about pointing out inaccuracies by protesters, is that it seems to send the message that only those who understand to an expert, or at least, highly nuanced, level, have the right to protest against a law that they understand to be bad. Where that understanding might change substantially their view of the law, then perhaps there is a valid argument to be made here, but in this case, we are not talking about such fine points. The argument is that censorship of adult sexual material is by-and-large wrong, and any extension thereof should be fought. The exact details of what is or is not being banned at this particular moment, is less significant than that any ban is damaging. Some may be hanging their protest more on the “it’s sexist” than the “it’s censorship” argument, and it may be more significant for them, but on those grounds the distinction is still clearly made by the protest wording.

Overall, the idea that, “You can only protest if you get it exactly right,” is a worrying one to me. Given that some of those I’ve seen using this are people who are generally against elitist access/restriction to political engagement, I found it quite hard to understand. I’m a pretty erudite, educated and literate person; nevertheless, I missed the distinction between “face-sitting as a form of breathplay” and “face-sitting is a form of breathplay” (which is to say, I had understood that all face-sitting was banned because the BBFC/ATVOD assumed that all face-sitting would involve blocking the airways; whereas in fact it is supposedly only banned if it does). For someone without the benefits and privileges that go with my education and command of language, how much more difficult might it be to get it exactly right? How much harder for them to participate in political debate if they are forever being told, “No, your opinion doesn’t count because you can’t express it so well/don’t really understand the issues”? At a public demonstration, if anywhere, there should be room for the un-nuanced generally-supportive protester (also, they surely make up the bulk of a successful petition).

At the face-sitting protest, there are several very intelligent people (some, I feel, must be being misquoted or paraphrased or taken out of context in the press reports linked earlier). It can’t be that all these people are just misunderstanding the precise nature of what’s being banned. That leads me to the next reason why the criticism seems to be poorly aimed.

It can be quite hard to convey in 140 characters a nuanced argument or situation. When you’ve got a placard, and need a pithy soundbite or slogan to put on it, nuance pretty much goes out the window. Wit and memorability matter far more. And when you’re going for a stunt-based protest, then you want to find something that you can (a) get away with, and (b) conveys the nature of your issue. “Face-sitting” as such may not be being banned, but most of the things that are being banned could not reasonably be simulated without fear of arrest. It is close enough to the subject matter, and creates enough of a spectacle, to make the point. As it happens, at the face-sitting protest, the “breathplay” aspect was signalled by the use of “colour charts” to check whether the face-sittees were suffocating (a pretty bad way of actually telling if someone’s in trouble, but as a visual aid to making the point, quite effective – and reported in at least one newspaper’s article).

So the point is to convey to an audience that in general is not going to care so much for nuance and precise definitions, but wants easy hooks for their angle. That goes both for the reporters, and for the readers the reporters write for. It’s to drum up support and, hopefully, get some people to want to find out more, or at the very least add their names to the petitions. A lecture on the details is not going to be effective. Using the broad categories and headline activities affected in some way, gets more people to pay attention and, perhaps, get involved. It may not be “accurate”, but it’s effective.

Finally, there comes the question of whether the wording, or the effect, is what’s being protested. First off, the information provided by OscenityLawyer is in some ways confusing. The main part of the piece is based on a seminar held by ATVOD and BBFC, and that’s where the most nuanced information is available; but the wording of the R18 regulations (and the OPA), which ObscentityLawyer provides at the bottom of the piece, is much less precise (as he goes on to explain beneath it in his article).

Having had the opportunity to compare (thanks to mail-order, and non-UK suppliers/internet not being affected as easily by UK censorship) uncut porn videos with the information the BBFC gave on their website about why they were cut, I am very much not satisfied that the BBFC (or ATVOD) censors have any ability to distinguish between what does and does not constitute breathplay or airway restriction. I would anticipate that ATVOD would tend to err on the side of saying that a face-sitting scene does involve airway restriction than that it doesn’t. I would not like to be in the place of a porn producer in the UK, having filmed a face-sitting scene, then having to decide whether or not I can show it because I can’t tell whether ATVOD will agree that I have made sure the model’s airways are clear. Therefore, despite what the nuanced information from the seminar says, I would tend to argue that the effect of the regulations, as worded, would almost certainly prohibit the use of face-sitting in UK fetish porn.

Similarly, the upshot of the “female ejaculate is indistinguishable from urine” ruling, while not ruling out solo masturbation squirting, if a woman on camera has sex with a partner and ends up squirting, then for most sexual positions that would seem to preclude showing her orgasm. While not strictly accurate to say that female ejaculation is banned, the overall impact is very similar. I’m not sure people would make that distinction if it were ruled that the only male ejaculations allowed in porn were from solo masturbation.

Therefore, the protesters may very well be more accurate in terms of protesting the “chilling effect” of anti-porn censorship, than might appear from looking at the nuanced interpretations would suggest. A great deal of this protest seems to be about the ways in which people feel threatened by the censorship of sexual material, and how they – and women especially – feel a creeping sense of being ignored or silenced. The specifics may not be precise, but the emotions and impact felt, are.

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In conclusion: yes, there are problems with the way the face-sitting protest ended up being presented. Nevertheless, I am convinced that is better that this protest happened, than that it didn’t happen. The criticisms, while valid, also seem to me to be not sufficient reason to say this was a bad way to do protesting.

But the best way to do protesting is to keep at it. Don’t just show up for the fun things; show up for the rest, too. And show up for other, related, issues. A lot of people are asking, “Will the same protesters be there on 17th December?” because that’s International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers. I really hope they will.

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About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
This entry was posted in Gender, Kink, Politics, Sex and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to In defence of face-sitting protest

  1. Pingback: Staring past awkward stories | Valery North – Writer

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