Thursday 4 December 2014

New porn restrictions should worry us all

New restrictions came into force at the beginning of this month on the freedom of UK-based producers of pornography to depict certain sex acts.

This is a very concerning move and anyone who values freedom of expression—whatever their views on porn—should be concerned. Pornography is, in the words of Myles Jackman, a lawyer specialising in obscenity law, “the canary in the coalmine of free speech: it is the first freedom to die”. If this is allowed to go unchallenged what will be next?

Beyond that though these regulations, which have been brought in with almost no-one noticing, represent the regressive thinking typical of our current government. The list of banned acts seems to be mostly a checklist of what, in the collective mind of the assorted old Etonians that run the UK, could be considered pure deviance. These include spanking, urination, female ejaculation, face-sitting and fisting. Jackman has gone into more detail on precisely what is affected on his blog.

The restrictions are contained in the Audiovisual Media Services Regulations 2014, an amendment to the 2003 Communications Act. The mechanism it invokes is to bring online material into the same categorisation as shop-sold DVDs, that is to make it conform to the R18 Certificate. Of course this certificate itself is pretty arbitrary: a taped together hotch-potch of things that at various times have provoked a negative reaction amongst a combination of the police, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) and the Crown Prosecution Service.

In an article in the Guardian Murray Perkins, senior examiner at the BBFC explained that his organisation had two main responsibilities that were being discharged through these regulations: protecting potential viewers of such material from harm and ensuring that no material is made available that would be liable to prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act. Additionally he was clear that no blanket bans were being proposed: everything would be judged in context. Let’s look at those claims.

To begin with, let’s look at the idea that viewing certain material—the example given is the restriction on breath that may occur during the act of face-sitting—could be harmful to the viewer. Perkins elaborates that “breath restriction for the purposes of sexual enjoyment can result in death. Given such a clear and well-documented risk of harm, passing such breath play in a sex work would be contrary to the BBFC’s designated responsibility”. Now I—alongside pretty much everyone else—do a multitude of things every day that could result in death, from descending the stairs in my house to taking a train to work. All of them have clear and well-documented risks of harm. Just imagine what would be left if all such activites were cut from the average episode of Casualty. It’s not going to happen, and nor should it with regard to pornography.

Moving on to the other main responsibility of the BBFC, Perkins suggest a prime example of an activity liable to prosecution would be “any repeated focus on urination during sex and urination over any other person, including any act which cannot be distinguished from urination on the basis of the onscreen evidence alone”. Seriously: the depiction of someone pissing—not even on another person—is grounds for prosecution. Whether or not that turns you on, it is hard to take seriously the idea that it should be illegal.

In some ways though the claim of taking account of context is the most pernicious. From the point of view of producers of porn, how will they know in advance what will constitute an acceptable context for their work? Given the arbitrary and subjective way this operates the safest option is to avoid potentially unacceptable subjects altogether. That would represent for many producers working in minority and niche areas of interest a step too far and drive them either out of business, out of the UK, or to produce material that is more in line with the mainstream and which is, frankly, far less interesting within the wide and varied realm of human sexuality.

But not just that. Much mainstream pornography is—in many cases rightly—considered to be deeply misogynist. Conversely many of the activities that are under threat here are precisely those that talk about both pleasure and power from a woman’s perspective: male ejaculation is fine but the female equivalent (because the BBFC can’t tell if it’s actually urination) is not. Causing a woman to gag during oral sex is acceptable but for a woman to sit on a man’s face is beyond the pale. As erotic film-maker Erika Lust points out in a piece in the Independent: “With this legislation, the UK is in danger of finding itself back in an age where porn is simply the boring, unrealistic, male fantasy of bimbos eagerly pleasing men as if it is their duty, where women are submissive and lack ownership of their sexuality. Women in the industry will now fear the loss of their livelihoods as well as their sexual independence.”

This is a deeply illiberal and reactionary step and potentially paves the way for further far-reaching changes in how our media is produced and consumed. If you are in agreement with me and many others on that, sign the petition here to demand its repeal.

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