18 August 2016

Safe Space v Freedom of Expression

The Society had two related talks in July. The first, where we once again welcomed Maryam Namizie to the Hall on Sunday 17th July 2016, was entitled “Apostasy, Blasphemy and Resistance to Islam” and provided an update on her campaigning for Iran Solidarity, One Law for All and the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. The second was given by Robbie Travers, a 20-year-old law student and commentator for the Gatestone Institute (a non-partisan, not-for-profit international policy council and think tank, dedicated to educating the public about what the mainstream media fails to report in promoting human rights and in particular freedom of expression). Both speakers highlighted the current threats to freedom of expression in the UK.

Maryam has been experiencing limitations being placed on her freedom to set out her point of view with the recent advocacy for “safe spaces” at universities. She expressed concern that particularly in some universities many “liberals” and “socialists” now seem to regard anything that might be derogatory about religion, in particular Islam, as unacceptable. She has been labelled as a “race traitor” and “Islamaphobe”.

In December 2015 she gave a talk about blasphemy at the Goldsmiths University in London, sponsored by the university's Atheist, Secularist and Humanist society. During her talk, members of the university's Islamic Society caused a disruption by heckling, switching off her presentation and behaving in an intimidatory way. In response to the incident, the university's Feminist Society released a statement expressing support for the Islamic Society, and condemning the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society for inviting "known islamophobes" to speak at the university.

Maryam emphasised that while the beliefs of individuals must be protected, organised religions were often ideologies that could result in fascist societies if allowed to take power, and must be open to criticism and mockery. She was adamant that religions must accept that apostasy and blasphemy are permitted behaviours and, while they may not be welcome, must be tolerated.

Both Maryam and Robbie emphasised the need for Muslims to be able to challenge the ultra orthodox conservative interpretations of Islam and that those who supported progressive political views needed to support groups such as One Law for All, the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and British Muslims for Secular Democracy. However both highlighted the fact that people they might normally have regarded as “Progressive” and of the “Left” more often supported Islamists, who advocate death for apostasy, adultery and homosexuality, rather than oppose them.

Robbie highlighted that this was a problem particularly with the younger generation and was particularly well demonstrated by the concept of “safe space”. The term was originally introduced to indicate that a teacher, educational institution or student body does not tolerate anti-LGBT violence, harassment or hate speech, thereby creating a safe place for all LGBT students. However this became extended to refer to the protection of any individuals who felt marginalized on a university campus from being exposed to views that they would find upsetting. Such a rule makes robust free expression impossible.

Some students involved in political discourse now refuse to listen to or engage with people of opposing points of view on the basis that it violates their entitlement to “safe space”. Some also argue that only LGBT people can be regarded as qualified to discuss LGBT issues and only “black” people are qualified to discuss racism etc. Robbie believes that such ideas lead to “group think” and stereotyping.

Robbie put forward the hypothesis that young people are rebelling against the equalities and human rights agendas pursued by the post war generation. Instead they are advocating rights for groups that they feel have been discriminated against in the past. This means that not all groups (and hence people) have the same rights. He highlighted the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM). This was now being labelled as female genital circumcision and regarded as a norm for some Islamic groups. As such some of these “avant garde” groups maintain that it should be regarded as acceptable. Hence one young lady, who had suffered FGM and opposed the practice, was told to shut up and branded a “race traitor” by a group of student “feminists”.

It was suggested that the current student generation has grown up in an era when there was no longer a folk memory of the horrors of the World Wars. Many students no longer appreciate how essential it is to avoid stereotyping and that everyone must be entitled to their human rights as individuals, together with equality before the law. Robbie suggested that the older generation, including our membership, needed to try and engage with the younger generation through social media, even if they felt uncomfortable with it, as advocates for liberty and human rights.

11 July 2016

Kinky Sex, Education & Human Rights

John Pendal
John Pendal gave a very entertaining and thought-provoking talk on Sunday 10th July 2016.

John is a gay comedian and an advocate for sexual liberty. He grew up in a religious family that was part of a strict Baptist Church which could not accept that homosexuality was anything more than a life choice. When he declared that he was gay, but intended to remain celibate, he was still expelled from the Church.

He gradually moved into the Gay community and found he had a propensity for leather, becoming involved in that scene. He won the Mr Hoist title in 2003, the prize being that he was sponsored to enter the 25th annual International Mr Leather contest in Chicago in May 2003, which he also won. It turns out that the contest is about finding the person most able to act as an ambassador for those who like to indulge in leather. John took the year off work travelling to events full time from July 2003 to June 2004, covering 100,000 miles and visiting 28 cities in the US, Europe and Canada, while raising money for charities.

John emphasised that the sado/masochistic (S/M) scene was very much based on consent and he felt that this was an area that was not sufficiently covered in what most schools teach within sex education. He put great emphasis on the need for everyone to understand that consent is always provisional, can be revoked at any time and must always be respected. Many people (including just about all who produce pornography) seem to regard initial consent as sufficient. This is something we need to change.

The point was made that S/M sex is just a part of the spectrum of what, in the final analysis, is rather weird human behaviour. He pointed out that much of this behaviour either produces an endorphins rush (such as that experienced from strong physical exercise such as running, cycling or swimming) or an adrenalin rush caused by undertaking what are perceived as high risk behaviours, such as riding on a roller coaster or bungee jumping. Why do we regard slightly weird sex as being unacceptable while accepting running or bungee jumping as being perfectly normal? Why can indulging in sex outside the normal range of behaviours be considered a mental illness when other equally strange hobbies are not?

John also highlighted how the law discriminates against those who wish to indulge in unorthodox sex. In the early 1990's sixteen gay men were prosecuted for private, consensual S/M play under the "Offences Against the Person Act 1861" (R v. Brown). None had required medical treatment and all believed that they were innocent as they had consented throughout. However, the judge decided that "sexual pleasure" was not a good enough reason for people to be able to consent to an assault, and so he wouldn't allow consent as a defence. Consequently the men pleaded guilty and were sentenced to up to four and a half years in prison.

The police investigation was called "Operation Spanner" and a defence fund was set up and trustees appointed to what became the Spanner Trust. An appeal resulted in reduced sentences but the convictions were not overturned. The convictions were upheld by both the House of Lords and the European Court of Human Rights. The trust now has the task of trying to change the law.

Currently it is illegal in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to engage in any activities for sexual pleasure which result in an injury other than "transient or trifling". Even a love-bite is technically illegal. This means that S/M players are still at risk of arrest and prosecution. It restricts S/M education (increasing the danger that people will injure themselves during play) while making it difficult for S/M players to get medical attention if there is a problem. It also enhances the prejudices against those in the S/M community, driving the scene underground and making it harder for essential safety information (such as the difference between S/M and abuse) to be disseminated widely. S/M activities can also be used against people in custody court cases, or lead to blackmail or the loss of jobs.

In addition, bad laws spread from country to country. The Spanner verdict has been quoted in trials in at least three other countries as an example of where a government can over-rule your right to consent. In America it was quoted during the Texas sodomy trial as evidence that it was acceptable for a government to stop people having the kind of sex they wanted - even if the sex was private, consensual and caused no harm.

Currently the law appears to be anomalous. In the court cases seen to date there have been three different types of verdicts:

  • For S/M play within a heterosexual married couple, only the male (active) partner was prosecuted and he was acquitted. The judge said that a man branding a woman with a knife was "acceptable behaviour within marriage".
  • For S/M play between an unmarried heterosexual couple, only the male (active) partner was prosecuted and he was found guilty.
  • For S/M play between gay men both the active and passive participants were prosecuted and ALL were found guilty. The passive players were prosecuted for "aiding and abetting an assault against themselves"!

John hopes that the Spanner Trust will be able to use the 1998 Human Rights Act to pursue a claim in the High Court that the Spanner decision (R v Brown) is contrary to the Human Rights Act, thereby forcing a change in the law. To do that they will need claimants (people willing to come forward and say they are at risk of prosecution) and money.