Britain's anti-porn campaigner was a #MeToo pioneer

Michael Cook
March 11, 2022
Reproduced with Permission

Mrs Mary Whitehouse was once the most ridiculed and hated woman in Britain. From the 1960s to the 1990s she campaigned against pornography in the media.

The head of the BBC in the 1960s, Sir Hugh Carleton Greene (brother of Graham Greene), loathed her because she lobbied so effectively against the sexual content and obscene language in some of the BBC's flagship programs. In his office he kept a grotesque oil portrait of a naked Mrs Whitehouse with six breasts and reportedly used it as a dartboard.

In 1977 she successfully launched a private prosecution for blasphemous libel over a poem published in a now-defunct publication called Gay News. Supporters demonstrated with posters linking her to Hitler while a mob screamed, "Whitehouse - Kill! Kill! Kill!" She received death threats. Pink Floyd referred to her in its song "Pigs" as a "house-proud town mouse". A porn star changed her name by deed poll to "Mary Whitehouse" (and later committed suicide).

When she died in 2001, she was described as a formidable woman whose life's work of imposing good-two-shoes prudery had ended in complete failure. The shackles of repression and shame had been struck from the wrists of the nation's youth and sex of every variety was acceptable and available. In 2009 the BBC danced on her grave with a sniggering biopic, "Filth: The Mary Whitehouse Story". The sexual revolution had triumphed.

But something odd has happened. Mary Whitehouse is no longer on the wrong side of history. BBC Radio recently featured an hour-long review of her life by journalist Samira Ahmed. Based on her diaries, which are now held in Oxford's Bodleian Museum, Ahmed portrayed her as a woman ahead of her time, "a devoutly Christian Cassandra", who warned the nation about "a destructive tsunami of digital pornography to come".

It turns out that she was decades ahead of her time when she lobbied for regulation of video pornography. Her warnings have come true, in spades, for the #MeToo generation. In a speech to a computer industry conference in Rome in 1975 she said: "May I first share my fear that technology is overstepping itself. It does seem, to the lay mind, that the power of computer technology can reach a point where man is incapable of arresting the forces which he has released."

And, as Ahmed acknowledges, that is exactly what happened :

"She could have been talking about the impact of porn on school-age children today. An Ofsted report in June 2021 found 80% of girls were pressured to provide sexual images, and nominally adults-only platforms such as Pornhub and OnlyFans have been accused by campaigners and MPs of consistently failing to deal with abusive and exploitative material including under age content, upskirting, revenge porn and other non-consensual imagery."

"A bit of a Boudicca" was Mary Whitehouse, says Ahmed, referring to the legendary British woman who led an army against Roman legions.

A pity about her Christianity, though.

For Mrs Whitehouse was a devout Evangelical whose crusade was inspired by her deep Christian convictions. In a radio recording she once explained why she had taken umbrage at the blasphemous poem:

"I did what I did starting that case out of love of the Lord. But the challenge to me was this. If I did nothing about that, I was then part and identified myself with the people who turned their back on Christ, who didn't want to know Christ at the time of his crucifixion. I know I had to do something."

Ahmed, however, is a "humanist". While she treats Mrs Whitehouse with genuine respect, she concludes elsewhere that her fierce energy held back progressive humanism in Britain for more than a decade.

But is "humanism" capable of building a levee against the flood of pornography and toxic sexuality in Britain (and elsewhere)? Its track record, as even Ahmed acknowledges , isn't good. At the same time as Sir Hugh was throwing darts at her in his office, one of the stars of the BBC, Jimmy Savile, was prowling through its corridors, a voracious and predatory sex offender. That was in the 60s. In the 70s, the British Humanist Association was associated with a campaign by the National Council for Civil Liberties (now called Liberty) to lower the age of consent to 14, or even 10, and to legalise incest.

Now that the BBC is reluctantly admitting that Mary Whitehouse was right about pornography, perhaps it should examine why Sir Hugh & Co were wrong. Instead of women becoming more liberated, they have been turned into sex objects; marriage is wilting and the sex industry is flourishing. Her Christianity explains why this has happened; his "humanism" doesn't.

Christian convictions inspired the valiant Mrs Whitehouse to battle on through decades of spite and ridicule. While individual Christians have often failed, traditional Christian morality is the best defence that women have ever had against - to use one of Mrs Whitehead's key words - "sexploitation".