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Posted by on Feb 26, 2013 in Aesthetics, Culture, In the news, Law | 1 comment

Chris Berg on I Want Your Love

Chris Berg has written a cogent and comprehensive piece about the ban in Australia on the film I Want Your Love. It seems that the ban is motivated by a claim that a six-minute sex scene does not have narrative justification. Berg argues about how this could ever be established, and it does, indeed, seem like a weak basis for banning anything. Whether or not you consider a particular scene in a narrative of any kind to be justified – as opposed to “gratuitous”, I suppose – is going to depend very much on your overall interpretation of the narrative.

That’s not to say we can never make judgments – whether as writers, editors, or readers/viewers of narratives – that certain scenes could be left out without loss of narrative coherence or artistic impact. Indeed, we all make judgments like this all the time. Some such judgments may make more sense than others, and it may be that some could be justified to the majority of people who have been brought up in a particular narrative tradition. All the same, it’s drawing a long bow to think that these sorts of judgments should be given legal effect, especially in contested and perhaps complex cases.

In any event, even if a sex scene could be shown to most people’s satisfaction to be gratuitous in the context of a particular film (viewed, in turn, in the context of a particular tradition of filmmaking and watching), so what? What is it about sex that makes it so problematic that it has to be given some special narrative justification? Why is a film with an arguably gratuitous sex scene more problematic than any other film that we might consider flabby or self-indulgent, or badly edited, with scenes that the audience could have done without? Really, what’s wrong with enjoying sex scenes for their own sake without worrying too much about how much narrative justification they might have? A scene that strikes us as gratuitous might detract from the artistic merit of a film, as judged by some relevantly widely accepted standard… but why should that be the law’s business? Surely the law doesn’t exist to force films to be tightly edited, all for the artistic gratification of the public.

No, sex is being treated here as especially dangerous to the social order. Sex scenes are considered prima facie problematic as a matter of public policy, requiring some special artistic justification (this sounds a bit like the way reproduction is used, in some moral systems, to justify actual sex… sex is viewed as prima facie shameful and wrong). But, again, why is that so?

If it could somehow be demonstrated that there is a tight causal nexus between people viewing sex scenes and the occurrence of substantial downstream harmful acts, such as rapes and sexual assaults, at least we’d have the beginning of an argument. But nothing like that has ever been demonstrated – not even with specific types of high-impact pornography.

Don’t get me wrong. Within a prevailing tradition of interpretation it might be possible to conclude, in a class of cases, that a scene is gratuitous – that the artistic effect and narrative coherence of a film don’t require it, given how people “read” films in the society. It’s even possible that the censorship board made a supportable decision, based on the law, in this particular case. But there is no reason for the law to take this form. Sex is not a mad dog that needs to be locked up and muzzled. Sex doesn’t bite. The whole thing is ridiculous.