Alison Bechdel, get thee to a cinema now! Here is a film that not only passes your revolutionary test with flying colours but has a strong female protagonist whose position stems from her achievement, not her youth, family, or appearance. There are even roles (sadly, small and insignificant) for a few non-white actors.
Based on a true story, Denial, directed by by Mick Jackson, opens with Deborah Lipstadt (played brilliantly by Rachel Weisz), on a book tour, reading from her new work, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, published by Penguin. She is explaining to the audience that she does not debate deniers (just as she does not debate those who claim Elvis lives), when David Irving, an infamous Holocaust denier, slips in at the back. Shouting and waving his arms about histrionically, he accuses her (falsely) of attacking him, shouts over her, and cracks a few jokes to get the audience on his side before being removed by security. As he is escorted out, Irving tells the audience to come and get one of his books (free) after Lipstadt’s reading, offering a thousand dollars to anyone who can produce a single document that proves the Holocaust happened.
In that brief scene, the techniques of falsifiers and deniers in any debate are made clear:
1) Claim to have been attacked and treated rudely when you have actually only been disagreed with and, in fact, you are the one attacking and being rude. Trade on the fact that your opponent will behave well (often under obligation to appear professional) when under attack and you will gain an attentional advantage.
2) Shout loudly, be colourful and entertaining, maybe crack a few jokes. You know that on a grim issue like the Holocaust (or other nasty issues, like Female Genital Mutilation or prostitution), this will bring the many who cannot face brutal reality onto your side where you hope to keep them. Disparagement humour has been shown to allow haters to deny their own hatred by claiming that it is “just a joke.” That your opponent does not engage in this way will work in your favour — they can be mocked as dour and humourless (especially if your opponent is female!)
3) Whatever you do, don’t distinguish between assertions and claims vs. evidenced facts and expert opinion. Act as if these are all equally valid and very much the same thing.
4) At every opportunity set up an apparently simple challenge like, “Who can show me a single document that proves the Holocaust happened?” This is attention-grabbing and exciting (a welcome escape from the grim issue under discussion), but is virtually impossible to do, because real history is built up by evidence upon evidence, not (in modern times at least) by a single document.
5) Above all, create the (totally false) impression that there are two equally valid sides in this “debate.” This is how the media often tackles controversial issues: by setting up a short discussion, allowing each side make a point or two, and considering the job done. However, we know — and this film demonstrates — that on big issues, one needs to look deeply at the evidence and engage in critical thinking in order to form a valid conclusion. Simply having an opposing viewpoint doesn’t mean it’s of equal value. (Five stars to this film if it helps Joanna Public to really understand that all opinions are not made equal and start to look at things a little more deeply; six stars if Joanna starts investigating!)
Irving brought a libel suit against Penguin Books and Lipstadt, based on the fact he was named in in the book as a Holocaust denier and purveyor of false history, which she decides to fight. After meeting the lawyers, we move to a fact-finding tour of Auschwitz.
A great strength of the argument that the Holocaust really happened is, of course, that Auschwitz is still there — you can see it. How much easier it would be to prove the harms of prostitution if visual evidence existed, for all to see, of the injuries — external and internal — caused by male violence, the impacts of substance abuse (as a result of a need to self-medicate and numb oneself), the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, the resistance to antibiotics caused by repeated use to treat STIs, and the deaths caused by pimps and johns. Have you ever seen pictures of excised clitorises as evidence against FGM? Probably not. While such images can be traumatic to look at, they prevent people from being able to distance themselves from the awful truth. We know that thousands upon thousands of men torture, abuse, and murder prostituted women, but because society doesn’t see it, it’s very easy to pretend it doesn’t exist at all.
Lipstadt finds it hard to believe that, under UK law, she has to defend herself against his accusations. “But,” she argues, “he is an anti-semite!” Her lawyer replies, “Unfortunately, to many military historians that is a mere detail.”
Many of us would like to think that holding racist or sexist views should preclude anyone from being taken seriously, but, as this film reinforces, many at the highest levels still think bigoted attitudes are perfectly reasonable.
While at Auschwitz, the barrister (played by Tom Wilkinson), upon hearing some of the evidence for and against the gas chambers being used to kill, exclaims, aghast, “Why hasn’t there been a proper scientific study of this?”
It’s a good question. To answer it we have to recognize that science is no more or less independent than any other branch of inquiry. How do we find a non-anti-Semitic scientist? Choose a Jewish one? Then s/he would be open to accusations of bias. When it comes to investigating evidence about the physical and psychological impacts of the sex industry, most senior scientists and heads of funding streams are male, and benefit, potentially if not inevitably, from the confirmation and bolstering of their dominant gender status provided by the system of prostitution. Or, to put it another way, they like to know that flattery, sexual satisfaction, and a little light coercion and control is an option for them if they so desire. Even open-minded men may struggle to empathize with the plight of a group wherein their own sex is only slightly represented at the margins.
But it’s not only men who lazily accept prostitution as a harmless norm. Many women also like to play the role of “cool and down with ‘sex workers,’” and believe they must support the decriminalization of pimps and brothel-keepers in order to do so. Because prostitution is such a controversial and still-taboo topic, when it comes up in conversation, people are often unsure about what to say or what opinion is acceptable for them to have. They might be concerned about being labelled a prude or closed-minded. Even feminists are shamed into avoiding criticisms of the sex industry, told that unless they personally identify as “sex workers,” they may not speak on the topic. Women know that, these days, those who speak out against the sex trade are mercilessly slandered, discredited, censored, and harassed. Uncritically adopting the recently popularized “sex work is real work” line allows people to avoid these kinds of attacks and avoid discussing a difficult topic truthfully, while simultaneously making them appear au fait with the issue.
Avoiding the truth is easy. And, like Holocaust denial, the harms of prostitution and inequality are deniable until you look at the evidence — until you really, really look. Then doubt disappears.
A key moment in the film is when the lawyers decide that their approach will be to attack Irving’s work and personal attitudes. This means that they can subpoena Irving’s diaries as evidence. In a touching scene, lawyers visit his house to fetch these, and we see Irving playing gently on the floor with his little daughter Jessica before asking the nanny to take her away while he holds the meeting. He offers tea, and the audience is left to wonder if he is really a nice guy after all. Later we hear a poem Irving sang for his daughter, which focusses solely on her future husband (as if marrying a man should be the most important focus for a young girl). The rhyme assures her that she will marry an Aryan, and refers to people of colour as “apes” — a toxic mix of racism and sexism which belies his apparently child-friendly attitude.
Teams of researchers comb through Irving’s many diaries for evidence of racist attitudes and connections with far-right groups. The lawyers manage to have the case tried by a single judge rather than a jury in order to focus on the evidence, worried that a jury would fall for Irving’s histrionics. The same tactics Irving would surely use to manipulate a jury are a major obstacle in the fight against prostitution. Many academics and experts like Melissa Farley, Janice Raymond, and Gail Dines have shown through numerous evidential, peer-reviewed works that the harms of the sex trade are unconscionable. That evidence all falls to the wayside, though, in this faked-up “debate,” when a few (preferably pretty and young) women to turn up with red umbrellas, shouting “sex worker rights!”
People cave instantly to the “sex work is work” mantra, thinking they are doing the right thing, listening to a group who has positioned themselves as marginalized (but may be more representative of pimps and brothel-owners rather than women who sell sex). One such group, the so-called International Union of Sex Workers, when challenged by a judge in Northern Ireland, was revealed to be “a small closed unrepresentative organization of only 10 members, none of whom live in Northern Ireland and who include pimps,” as Kat Banyard reveals in her book, Pimp State.
Just as Irving’s histrionics distract attention from the Holocaust, sex worker rights protests hide the pimps and brothel owners behind the scenes who profit massively from women’s exploitation, the women tricked and trafficked, the girls groomed for the industry since childhood — sexually abused, then transitioned seamlessly into a life of paid abuse — or the punters cheating on wives and girlfriends because they “need” a quick dose of flattery and orgasm. Like Uncle Tom who purported to be happy as a slave, like scabs throughout history who have betrayed their working class brothers and sisters by breaking strikes, most people don’t want to look any further because, deep down, they know they will not like what they see. Those who say the Holocaust didn’t happen, that prostitution is simply a choice made by empowered, sexually liberated women, that slavery wasn’t so bad, and that labouring under the man is fine and dandy, are enticing because it they allow the privileged to remain complacent.
An uncomfortable moment — and to me the biggest surprise in the film — is when Lipstadt dines in comfort and style with representatives of the London Jewish community. They have, paradoxically, been stingy in contributing to her legal fighting fund. They want her to settle but are unclear why. They say they are used to Irving, as they have lived with his presence in London for years. Perhaps they are comfortable in their lives, and don’t want any more trouble. Similar complacency exists in the prostitution debate, as unexamined arguments like, “It’s the oldest profession” and “Prostitution will always exist” (both untrue) are used to end discussion and justify doing nothing. Even many women who otherwise support progressive causes and who you’d think would want to protect their sisters from a life of abuse and degradation adopt a faux-worldly attitude, conveying that, despite being female, prostitution is not their issue (it’s just the way the world is, get over it prude).
Near the end of the trial, the judge asks the defence barrister, “What if Irving really believes what he says?” But of course the evidence for Irving’s racism, sexism, and Holocaust denial is there. Wishful thinking can’t change that.
In the end, as we know, the judge finds for the defence. Nonetheless, Irving continues to pretend that it was a fair fight and a two-sided debate, holding out his hand to congratulate the defence team (it is refused). Later, we see real footage of Irving interviewed exhaustively by Jeremy Paxman. Irving is adamant that yes, he will persevere in his Holocaust denial despite the ruling against him.
The film reminds us of the link between racism and sexism illustrated so amply in the sex industry — a place that exaggerates and thrives off of both. It reminds us all to examine our own attitudes and beliefs critically and on an ongoing basis, in light of evidence. It reminds us that when the Nazis came for the Jews, people stood by and did nothing because they were not Jewish — because it was easier to turn a blind eye, to say they deserved it or chose it, and to pretend things weren’t so bad.
One key issue not addressed in the film that is common to both Holocaust denial and prostitution denial is money. Many German firms, like Bayer and Volkswagen, profited from Jewish slave labour, and many Nazis received confiscated Jewish homes, goods, money, and art work who, in the face of demands for reparations, are likely to be keen, if discreet, supporters of Holocaust denial. Groundbreaking historian Goetz Aly illustrated this his book, Hitler’s Beneficiaries. He writes:
“By engaging in a campaign of theft on an almost unimaginable scale, and by channeling the proceeds into a succession of generous social programs, Hitler literally bought the consent of the German people. Drawing on secret Nazi files and unexamined financial records, Aly shows that while Jews and citizens of occupied lands suffered crippling taxation, mass looting, enslavement, and destruction, most Germans enjoyed a marked improvement in their standard of living.”
Similarly, thousands of pimps, brothel owners, and pornographers lobby to decriminalize the shady operations that enable their wealth. There are many less obvious beneficiaries, as well, from hotels to taxi companies to governments who collect taxes from prostitution.
We, as a society, need to get better at recognizing denial (including, perhaps especially, our own), seeing the motives beneath it, and challenging it. Sex buyers, porn consumers, and those who defend them must confront the fact their denial is enabling harm. When in a hole, don’t keep digging. It is healthier to admit your mistakes and change.
When faced with deniers we must always ask for reputable evidence and analyze it thoroughly. And always, we should ask, as Cicero did, “Cui bono?” (Who is benefitting here?)
Janice Williams is a classicist psychologist ADHD feminist activist single-parent TERF and campaigner against the sex industry.