Restrictions on porn that protect no-one


Content Warning: This post refers to a variety of sexual acts.

In July 2013, David Cameron outlined various steps his government were going to take in order to protect children on-line. These included amending the 2003 Communications Act to bring on-line pornography, produced in the UK, in line with the British Board of Film Classification’s R-18 certificate. Cameron said;

“There are examples of extreme pornography that are so bad you can’t even buy this material in a licensed sex shop, and today I can announce we’ll be legislating so that videos streamed online in the UK are subject to the same rules as those sold in shops.”

This legislation came into effect this week.

The BBFC and their classifications have undergone a slow and inconsistent evolution since the early days of cinema. The sexuality of men and women has always been treated quite differently; female nudity was relatively commonplace long before cinema-goers ever saw the front of a naked man. In the 1990s, no erect penis could be shown on general release unless it passed the Mull of Kintyre test (which is nothing to do with whether arousal can be sustained throughout the song).

Currently, the BBFC bans video featuring female ejaculation. It seems ludicrous that in 2014, we could be criminalising people who record and distribute video of a healthy anatomical event, describing it extreme pornography. Fisting and face-sitting – an act so depraved, it was celebrated by a a Monty Python song – are also banned. Most of the other rules are around kink, such as urinating on another person, spanking and whipping, which could be very disturbing for a child to see, but not necessarily as disturbing as penetrative sex to someone who never knew people did that. After all, it is still quite legal to spank a child.

Some of the BBFC’s rules are firmly about consent, the only aspect of content the law needs to worry about. For example, the BBFC has long forbidden video where anyone is gagged, because this removes the possibility of their withdrawing verbal consent. There are arguments about whether non-verbal consent can be adequately demonstrated, given the ability of lovers who are deaf, mute or don’t share a language to navigate consent successfully. However, these matters are everything that’s important about the contents of porn; does everyone involved want to be there? Is everyone involved happy with what’s happening?

If porn is to exist at all, there can be no child protection argument around the content. Children simply shouldn’t be able see the stuff. If we believe it is inevitable that children will access pornography, it would be difficult to argue that any one adult fantasy is more or less corrupting than another. Is an S&M dungeon scene complete with strange and spiky costumes more damaging than the coach having sex with all the cheerleaders, or films which pretend to spy on girls masturbating in the shower? Are any of these things more damaging than often two-dimensional and highly sexualised portrayals of women in mainstream cinema, television and advertising? And what about sexual violence or the commonplace use of murdered women to romance and titillate us on prime time TV?

Which brings us to the second most important point about porn, after consent. Context is how we look after everyone else.

Feminists are often portrayed as censorious, but freedom of expression lies at the heart of all egalitarian movements. As Oliver Burkeman recently wrote about so-called “political correctness”,

“Mainly, it’s not that there are things you can’t say. It’s that there are things you can’t say without the risk that people who previously lacked a voice might use their own freedom of speech to object.”

For example, the No More Page 3 campaign doesn’t seek to ban breasts from British Newspapers or anywhere else, but to demonstrate that there might be good social and commercial reasons for the Sun to drop its tradition. Feminists approach their various (and often differing) concerns about porn, not by seeking to ban things, but with attempts to address our culture, advocating for better education, seeking to have sexual imagery placed in appropriate contexts and even making our own porn – including some material now threatened by this legislation.

Our culture remains fairly screwed up about sex. On the one hand, sexual imagery (especially sexualised imagery of women and their bodies) is ubiquitous, sex is in every other news headline and there’s a tremendous pressure on adults to be both sexually attractive and sexually active. On the other hand, our culture continues to portray sex as something very narrow and heteronormative, something men demand and women acquiesce to, the preserve of young, slim, able-bodied beauties.

Further restrictions on what consenting adults can get up, record or view, to doesn’t strike me as a step forward.

[The image is a photograph of a white resin bishop chess piece, in the Staunton style, standing on a wooden chess board. It was taken by Michael Maggs, shared on Wikimedia under a Creative Commons license.]