Iceland has recently proposed changing its laws on pornography. The Committee on Criminal Legislation at the Ministry of the Interior in Iceland is preparing a Bill with the aim of narrowing the legal definition of pornography; and an additional committee is charged with exploring how the law can be implemented, especially in relation to on-line material.
Before the 90s, pornography in Iceland had been in the form of a few imported magazines, like Hustler and Playboy, as well as behind-the-counter videotapes in specific video rental stores. Although prostitution existed, there has never been a tradition of street-prostitution in Iceland or specific neighbourhoods where prostitution was available. In addition, strip-clubs did not exist in Iceland prior to the mid-90s. Pornography was, and is, illegal – Act 210 in the Penal Code stipulates that it is illegal to publish, import, sell, hand out, or distribute pornographic material, or to hold a public lecture or play which is similarly “immoral”. Prostitution, as a main occupation, was illegal according to the Penal Code, and it was illegal to make money off prostitution as a third party (pimping). There was, however, no specific legislation addressing the running of strip-clubs.
As was the case in many other countries all over the world, things changed rapidly after the fall of the Soviet Union which exposed Europe to massive socio-economic inequalities, making room for unfettered capitalism and individualism. By the mid 90s, several strip-clubs had popped-up in Reykjavík and, by the late 90s/early two-thousands, we had more strip-clubs per capita than any other country in Europe. The women dancing at the strip-clubs mostly came from Eastern Europe and rumours of prostitution and trafficking were rampant. At the same time, internet use was increasing, exposing mostly young people, as primary users of the internet, to the ever growing industry of on-line pornography. The pornographisation of public spaces was also on the increase, culminating in an ad campaign by Icelandair, Iceland’s main airline, with the message: “One night stand in Iceland”, implying that if you come to Iceland, and presumably fly with Icelandair, an Icelandic woman will sleep with you. Icelandair was, as such, effectively pimping out Icelandic women.
It is an understatement to say that these changes galvanized a then semi-dormant feminist movement. Young women created activists groups in the late 90s and by 2003 the Feminist Association was founded. Pornography and prostitution were understood to be a form of men’s violence against women, undermining gender equality. In the Nordic tradition, feminists focused much of their energy on the state demanding that strip-clubs would be regulated or banned; that Iceland should follow the Swedish example and de-criminalise people working in prostitution and criminalise the buyers of prostitutions; and that the law on pornography should be properly implemented. In 2002, the local government in Reykjavík had regulated the strip-club business by banning private dancing and some of them subsequently went out of business; a couple of other local governments followed suit. In 2007, the selling of prostitution was also de-criminalised.
The implementation of the Pornography Act has, however, remained elusive. Legal experts have pointed out that cases that have been brought to courts under the Pornography Act have mostly ended in guilty verdicts. In recent years, however, very few cases have been brought to the courts. When the Assistant Prosecutor at the Metropolitan Police station was asked why so few cases on pornography have been investigated, her response was that the sex crimes unit was short of staff and cases involving rapes and sexual offences against children were their first priority. There is also reason to believe that the police have simply given up on implementing the Pornography Act given the massive on-line supply.
The feminist efforts received fierce criticism mainly coming from the liberal right, mostly by young men, as well as young men commenting on-line, often in a disturbingly hateful way. Not many ventured into the debate to begin with and most political parties avoided the issue, with the exception of a few women parliamentarians on the left wing, especially the Left Green Movement. Kolbrún Halldórsdóttir, an opposition MP for the Left Green Movement, proposed a Bill criminalising buyers of prostitution multiple times between 2000 – 2003 and in 2007, managing to rally increasing support for it each time, firstly within her own party and then among women in other parties, but to no avail. It is also worth noting that the feminist debate in Iceland has in many ways been one-sided emphasising prostitution as violence against women, undermining gender equality – the sex-worker’s rights discourse has been all but non-existent.
After 12 years of a right wing government, that had emphasised deregulation and privatisation, Iceland was hit hard in the economic collapse. The government resigned due to mass demonstrations and the first left wing government in Iceland’s history was voted into power, comprised of the Social Democratic Party and the Left Green Movement. Feminists had made a lot of headway within these two parties, particularly the Left Green Party. By 2009, and with little opposition, the buying of prostitution and the running of strip-clubs had been made illegal. Members of the right-wing party (the Independence Party) mostly abstained instead of voting against the Bill – perhaps due to the changing political climate where social responsibility was suddenly being emphasised.
In 2010, one of our most radical left wing politicians was made the Minister of the Interior, a ministry that oversees judicial affairs; and he chose, as his political aid, a relatively young radical feminist activist. One of the key issues they emphasised was tackling violence against women. They organised extensive consultations on sexual violence and the processing of rape cases in the justice system, which included police, child protection specialists, lawyers and academic researchers. One of the key concerns raised by these experts was the potential effects of pornography on sexual violence and gendered relations among young people in particular. In response to these concerns, three ministries – the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, and the Ministry of Welfare – called upon a wide range of professionals to discuss and analyse the societal effects of violent pornography and to contribute to the development of a comprehensive, holistic policy. Proposals emerging from this process are now being implemented under the auspices of the three ministries. These include increased emphasis on violence prevention, revision of sex education and the forming of a comprehensive policy on sexual health; and proposals on legal amendments to the Pornography Act.
A Bill, which is expected to be finalised this month, is currently being prepared by the Committee on Criminal Legislation at the Ministry of the Interior with the aim of narrowing the legal definition of pornography. The idea is to define illegal pornography as a violent and degrading sexual material, making a distinction between sex and violence. This approach is based on the Norwegian penal code. There is general consensus on the proposed definition of pornography, that pornography is visual material that shows a woman or a man in sexual acts, including with animals, which are portrayed in a violent, coercive or degrading manner and does not have artistic, scientific or educational value. One key issue that has been raised is to what degree the amendment should be underpinned by notions of morality, in order to protect children from obscene imagery, as opposed to being focused on the right not to be exposed to violent pornography that can have harmful effects on women, gender-relations, and children. Another issue that has been raised is whether the amendment should make possession of violent pornography illegal. This measure has been seen as problematic, with arguments that the possession offence should only cover material where an illegal act has been committed in the making of it, as in the case of child pornography. This is not a strong argument, however, since, in 2012, changes were made to the Child Pornography Act whereby material showing an adult made out to look like a child and participating in sexual acts, and material including virtual representations and cartoons, has been defined as child pornography. In the Explanatory Notes of the Bill, it is stated that such imagery can encourage child abuse.
The second initiative by the Ministry of the Interior relates to the implementation of the law. A committee that is headed by the ministry, with representatives from the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the National Commissioner of the Icelandic Police, and the Technology Department of the Reykjavik Metropolitan Police, has been charged with exploring how the law can be implemented especially in relation to on-line material. The key question pertains to the possibility of placing restrictions on online distribution of violent and degrading pornography in Iceland. The committee is looking into both technical solutions and legal and procedural measures.
The key critics of this effort have been the newly founded Pirate Party in Iceland that, like its sister parties elsewhere in Europe, emphasises direct democracy utilising the internet, reform of copyright and patent law, free sharing of knowledge, information privacy, transparency, and freedom of information. Most importantly, they advocate for universal, unrestricted access to the Internet as a key condition to the above. The Pirate Party received 5% of the vote now in the April 2013 elections and got three representatives in Parliament. They have vehemently opposed efforts to regulate violent pornography on the internet in the name of free-speech, stating that parents should be responsible regulating their children’s internet access by using home internet filtering. They have also emphasised that it would be impossible to regulate the internet with a national internet filter due to the nature of the internet, file-sharing networks, etc. Halla Gunnarsdóttir, the political advisor to the Minister of the Interior, has responded by pointing out that we must be able to discuss ways to reduce access to violent pornography without forcing the debate into an impasse between complete laissez-faire on the internet vs online censorship; and that not only parents are responsible for children’s welfare but society as a whole (noting the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as well as the collective approach to welfare being one of the cornerstones of the Nordic welfare model). Regarding if it is even possible to filter out specific internet content on a national level, she has pointed out that if there is a will there is a way and that we have leave it to the technical experts to see if, and then what, solutions are available.
Given the outcome of the April 2013 general elections and (most likely) the new government between the Independence Party and the Progressive Party, it is unclear what will happen. The Committee on Criminal Law will be finalising the Bill on the amendment of the Pornography Act this month and it could be passed in Parliament next year. However, it is difficult to say what will happen to the work of the committee charged with finding innovative ways of implementing the law. It is both unclear what the committee will propose and what, if anything, the new government will do with the proposals.