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Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Regulating Sex

I managed to get to this event at the British Academy, organised by the Onscenity Research Network, yesterday afternoon. It was a terrific session full of informative stuff and thought-provoking insights that I'm still mulling over.

There were several places where I felt that there were points that could be historicised and generalised - e.g. Laura Agustin's problematising of 'state feminism' in Sweden. This resonated with me on the one hand with some of the rather dubious alliances of the late C19th-early C20th British social purity movement with institutions of the state or 'governmentality', and the problems of feminism in engaging with any state/other institution which has long traditions and practices which are the reverse of feminist, but may see circumstantial benefits in making apparent concessions (dangers of co-optation of agenda). On the other, I was also reminded of my readings appertaining to venereal disease control and the regulation of prostitution in Sweden and my sense that for a very long time it has been highly invested in state regulation of matters which in other countries were managed in rather different ways, from laissez-faire to delegation to other authorities (medical, police, etc). I was additionally reminded of Stella Browne's acerbic comments about certain feminists of her own day and their 'mania for prohibition': in terms of internal differences within feminism, that trend still seems to be depressingly healthy.

Re questions about censorship and prostitution, there seemed to be a couple of issues similar to those I've found around sex education. Not just the whole 'we've got to protect the kiddies' thing which has been pretty much central to the development of the law on censorship in the UK and has been so pernicious a mindset around sex-ed since the 1880s, but also the fact that, even if the bulk of the public takes a relatively liberal line and can be demonstrated by surveys to do so (e.g. Isobel Allen's stats on parents' desire for children to receive sex education in schools) it only takes one person drumming up a disingenuous moral panic in the press to derail liberalising initiatives, get questions asked in parliament, a following of at least a handful of equally vociferous objecters, etc.

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