The reason I am so concerned about this 'New Puritanism' is that I think it is based on an individualistic, neo-liberal philosophy, and is implicitly moralistic and self-righteous. Also, perhaps most worryingly, it can only lead to negative action such as censorship and the criminalisation of particular groups and individuals in our society.
Take lap-dancing for example. Recently two feminist groups-OBJECT and The Fawcett Society-successfully campaigned for (and helped design) legislation making it harder for lap-dancing clubs to obtain licenses in England. This change in the law comes as a direct result of lobbying on behalf of those who feel 'offended' by the presence of these clubs in their cities and towns. It did not result from any consultation with those who will be most affected by the new laws: women who work in those clubs.
Another example of the power of the offended comes from advertising. A recent advert placed in glossy home decor magazines was banned by the Advertising Standards Authority after it received only six complaints. The advert showed a geisha, bound and lying on a tiled floor (the product being advertised). The ASA decided the image condoned sexual violence as the woman, in a 'submissive' pose, looked 'upset'. I wonder how the photographer, a Japanese artist, felt, being accused of making images that 'condone rape'.
If we look at this 'New Puritanism' through a slightly different lens, we can see clearly how it permeates our society in many reactionary and damaging ways. Traditional Catholics find abortion offensive, and do all they can to obstruct women's right to choose. Many Muslims were so offended by Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses, they ordered a fatwa. Members of the Christian Right in America find homosexuality offensive, and they promote and act out homophobic behaviours and policies as a result. The fact is that different people find different things offensive, so to turn on that which offends you is, well, impractical, but also, in my view morally wrong.
So while feminists are flicking through Home and Garden, tutting at the objectified imagery of women in adverts for expensive floor coverings, our civil liberties are being taken from us right under our turned-up noses. In 2008 an ammendment to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act making it illegal to possess 'extreme pornography' was passed without so much as a murmur from most feminist groups. So suddenly people who look at and own images of 'violent' consensual BDSM acts, are liable to be prosecuted and sentenced to up to three years in jail.
What I find most disappointing about the 'New Puritans' is that their approach lacks intellectual sophistication and critical thought. The relationship between representation and reality is complex, the meanings and implications of pornography, sex work and advertising are many and varied, and sometimes contradictory. If feminism is to have any chance of achieving its aim of say, ending violence against women, it has to embrace this complexity and contradiction. I don't want to offend anyone, but the 'new puritans' don't have the analytical or philosophical backbone to do this. I'm not offended by their attachment to Mary Whitehouse style knee-jerk moralism, but I am pretty pissed off.
'Geisha' advert http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8280980.stm
Criminal Justice And Immigration Act and BDSM:http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/10/22/bondage_protest/