12/12/14 UPDATE: This rant of mine matured over the course of the week and has become an article that I wrote for Thought Catalog called “Why Everyone Should Care that British Porn is F**ked” (note the classy asterisks!). I’m really happy to have it up on a larger forum, as I think this issue is massively important. Click HERE to check it out.
A few days ago, British pornographers were quietly hit with draconian new regulations. The UK’s new Audiovisual Media Services Regulations 2014 are aimed at “Video on Demand,” ie: porn on the internet, which is now subject to the same restrictions as porn sold on DVD. As of December 1st, all pornographic content produced in the UK must adhere to the British Board of Film Classification’s rating of R-18, which falls roughly between the NC-17 and X ratings in the U.S. Click here for a full list of the newly banned sexual acts, accompanied by elucidating commentary from obscenity lawyer, Myles Jackman. The ban is fairly extensive, so here are a few highlights from the list of banned sexual acts, courtesy of The Independent.
According to the new restrictions, it is no longer legal for porn produced in the UK to portray spanking, caning, physical restraint, verbal or physical abuse (regardless of consent), humiliation, female ejaculation, face-sitting and fisting. The BBFC banned the last two items on the list on the grounds that they are “potentially life-endangering.”
Really? Interesting…. I’ll remember that the next time I want to take someone’s life in my hands.
There have been a number of excellent articles and essays published in the wake of these regulations that cover the many reasons why the new standards are problematic and discriminatory on multiple levels. Girl on the Net wrote an impassioned break down of the regulation’s idiocy, sex act by sex act. (I especially appreciated her pointing out the ironies inherent in the restrictions). Pandora Blake addressed the regulations as one of the independent porn producers whose livelihood is going to be directly affected by the ban. Remittance Girl addressed the BBFC’s overblown exercise of governmental power, and Stavvers examined the disturbing manner in which the restrictions target women’s sexuality and sexual pleasure, as well many aspects of the kink / minority / fetish sexualities, while leaving mainstream / male pornographic tropes far less restricted. For example, while face-sitting is banned as potentially life-threatening, face fucking is just fine. I’d encourage anyone interested in learning more about the BBFC’s new standards to check any of those articles out, or to go to the Backlash website, an organization committed to defending freedom of sexual expression.
It hasn’t gotten quite so much coverage in the U.S. In fact, apart from an excellent article in Reason, it’s barely registered here. So, why does an erotica writer living in the United States care any all this? After all, it’s not as if people can’t spank each other or sit on their loved one’s faces in the comfort and privacy of their own homes, right? They just can’t see it in porn. Besides, that’s all happening an ocean away. We’re sitting pretty behind the First Amendment here. What does it really matter?
After three days of sitting with that question, I’ve come up with two answers. The first is more general so I’ll start there. I care because our culture, (meaning Western / European culture), moves like a pendulum. Periods of great conservatism are often followed by decades of social progress. Look at the turn of the 20th century when Victorian morality slowly gave way to the Roaring 20’s, a period fueled by popular resistance to prohibition. Consider the way the pendulum swung back to social conservatism in the years following World War II, when sexual and emotional repression became the standard way of life. That repression persisted until the rise of feminism and the sexual revolution pushed the pendulum back towards liberalism in the 60’s and 70’s. Still not convinced? How about the fiscal conservatism in the 80’s that lead to a popular culture that was both totally decadent and oddly repressed, particularly in the wake of AIDS. Then the nineties came around and the LGBT community mobilized, ushering in new struggles and discussions and efforts at re-education centering on sexual freedoms. And now here we are, in a relatively progressive, sex positive age where bondage is out of the closet and people buy 50 Shades of Grey in Walmart. But what does that even mean?
It means a lot changed very quickly, and we are now hitting up against cultural resistance.
Yes, sex positive efforts at education and advocacy are still active, now more than ever. In fact, they’ve expanded to include most marginalized sexualities, gender identifications and sexual kinks, including, but certainly not limited to, BDSM and D/s practices. But that doesn’t mean the pendulum can’t swing to the other way, back to a “safer,” less sexually challenging mode. I believe that the tighter porn restriction in the UK is one sign, (one of many small, subtle indicators), that it is already swinging back to what I will uncomfortably call “moral conservatism.”
The reasoning behind the restrictions is embedded in the language of the BBFC’s new regulations, and that reasoning boils down to this:
We want to protect our populace from being exposed to sex acts that we find subjectively uncomfortable and / or questionable. If people don’t know it exists, they won’t want to do it at home. They’ll stick to nice, “normal” things, like PIV and the occasional blow-job. They won’t try all of that crazy 50 Shades shit and get themselves hurt.
Which brings me to the second reason I care. In a move so ironic it still boggles my mind, the British government has nullified consent in an effort to protect people. It doesn’t matter if a fetish film clearly portrays a man consenting to have his ass whipped raw by a lovely woman with a cane. It doesn’t matter if a woman consents to being fisted by a man, (or another woman), on film, (and let’s not forget that anal fisting is included, fans of gay porn). The fact that the actors involved legally consent to whatever it is they’re doing doesn’t matter. IT DOESN’T MATTER. Because the government knows better. The government wants to keep you safe from all those dangerous, questionable things. The government will protect you from yourself.
Does this sound paranoid? It might, and for that I apologize. After all, we’re still just talking porn, right? Not real life…. Well, no. I’m afraid not.
As Myles Jackman states, “this declaration of State censorship will affect millions of consenting adults who choose to view British pornography.” You might still be able to spank your lover, but you can’t knowingly consent to watch a spanking video because, as the wording of the regulations imply, spanking is a moral danger and a health risk. They don’t want grown adults to get it into their silly heads to try it, so they’ve attempted to limit popular exposure by keeping it out of porn. And if you can’t show it in porn, then it must be really bad, right?
It’s another shove to the pendulum – one away from sex positivity, education and healthy bodily awareness. It’s a shove back towards shame and subjective moral judgment, and I’ll be honest. It pisses me off.
The cultural pendulum is going to swing, because that’s what it does. That’s what it’s always done. But to watch governments try to regulate it into swinging faster is galling, and please don’t think the UK is alone in passing regulations like these. Canada is trodding a similar path with its Porn-Block Bill and Australia’s censors have become slowly and increasingly more hostile to pornographic content. But what about the First Amendment? We have that here in the States! Surely, that’ll keep our freedoms of expression safe!
Yes, it will keep some of our freedoms safe, but I’m afraid porn is a bit of a grey area with the First Amendment. It is still subject to obscenity laws, laws that the Federal government is, at this moment, using to hold banks hostage for housing the funds of tax paying porn actors, directors and producers. At a state level, even California is using obscenity laws to make the state a legally hostile place for pornographers. Luckily for them, Nevada is next door.
Porn has been called “the canary in the coalmine of free speech” and this is, in the end, exactly what I’m getting at. We need to care about the restrictions on the British porn industry, because they are indicative of how our progressive, liberal Western society is feeling about sexuality. And kids, between Amazon censoring erotica and porn getting restricted right into the vanilla mainstream, our culture doesn’t appear to be feeling all that sexually open right now.
So what do we do? Well, the best thing anyone can do is to be aware and take an interest. If you’re British and the regulations piss you off, complain , sign this petition, and support legal objections. If you live in the States, don’t dismiss what’s happening as unimportant because it isn’t happening here. If you identify with or practice anything that might be considered an alternative sexuality, live your life. Consume the media that turns you on as much as you can, and provide a real, public, honest example of a healthy, consensual, joyful sexuality to anyone you feel comfortable doing so with.
The pendulum is swinging and things are going to change. How and to what degree remains to be seen, but the worst thing one can do is assume that progress can’t reverse.