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Why the UK is banning porn studios from depicting a bunch of sex acts

BDSM content is heavily restricted under the new rules.
BDSM content is heavily restricted under the new rules.
Shutterstock
  1. Britain is enacting a new set of regulations on porn produced in the UK.
  2. Online porn will have to meet the same restrictions that porn sold in stores does.
  3. That means no more online porn made in Britain that includes fisting or rape fantasies. BDSM content, female ejaculation and facesitting are severely restricted (contrary to some reports, spanking isn't categorically banned).
  4. Porn performers object that the rules are sexist, homophobic, and patronizing.

What the regulations actually do

The new rules require online video-on-demand pornography (basically, porn you pay for) produced in Britain to meet the same standards as pornography sold in physical sex shops.

To be sold in brick-and-mortar stores, or shown in adult cinemas, Britain-made porn has to receive a BBFC rating of R18. That's the most restrictive of the BBFC's ratings, which are mostly used to classify non-pornographic films.

What a R18 rating means

bbfc

(British Board of Film Classification)

The R18 classification comes with a number of unique restrictions. For one thing, stores and cinemas distributing films have to be licensed. Sales by mail order are prohibited. And certain sex acts aren't allowed in R18 films (more on that in a sec). If a film doesn't meet R18 requirements and is thus unclassified, it is generally illegal to sell or distribute; viewing, possessing, or buying it is legal.

As a side note, the BBFC isn't actually part of the British government. But under the Video Recordings Act of 1984, the Home Office, the British cabinet agency in charge of law and order, is required to designate a non-governmental rating authority for video sales and rentals, which to date has always been the BBFC. That means its rulings carry the force of law, at least so far as video distribution is concerned. Local governments still determine what can be shown in cinemas, but in practice they almost always abide by the BBFC's decisions.

Restricted material includes fisting, rape porn, and some BDSM porn

bdsm

The "BDSM" tag on Shutterstock is quite a tag. (Shutterstock)

R18 is not an "anything goes" rating. There are limits on what R18 films can show, most of them drawn from existing British obscenity law. Most either purport to relate to safety or restrict depictions of illegal sex. Sometimes that's fairly uncontroversial — as in the cases of necrophilia and bestiality — but rape depictions are generally banned as well.

Films that violate the Obscene Publications Act of 1959 are not eligible for R18 classification. The law deems a publication obscene if "the effect of any one of its items is, if taken as a whole, such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it."

That's super-vague, so the Crown Prosecution Service (the UK's federal prosecutor) helpfully provides some examples. We emphasized some key points, but the text is CPS's:

  • sexual act with an animal
  • realistic portrayals of rape
  • sadomasochistic material which goes beyond trifling and transient infliction of injury
  • torture with instruments
  • bondage (especially where gags are used with no apparent means of withdrawing consent)
  • dismemberment or graphic mutilation
  • activities involving perversion or degradation (such as drinking urine, urination or vomiting on to the body, or excretion or use of excreta)
  • fisting

The BBFC goes further, though, additionally listing these as verboten in R18 films:

  • material (including dialogue) likely to encourage an interest in sexually abusive activity, which may include adults role-playing as non-adults
  • penetration by any object associated with violence or likely to cause physical harm
  • sexual threats, humiliation or abuse which do not form part of a clearly consenting role-playing game. Strong physical or verbal abuse, even if consensual, is unlikely to be acceptable

Additionally, possession of "extreme pornography" has been banned in the UK since 2008. The definition of that is slightly different from the definition of obscenity but the main distinction is that the extreme pornography charge can be used to pursue people for merely owning porn rather than making it. This also is the only way the UK restricts foreign-made porn, since it obviously can't prosecute people for porn they made in other countries.

What the latest rules actually change

The restrictions on obscene content and extreme pornography aren't new at all. What's changed is the application of the R18 standard to online porn. The UK Department on Culture, Media, and Sport justified the move less on the merits than as a matter of consistency, stating, "There is public value in ensuring that there is consistency for regulation across platforms so that UK based VOD firms are compliant with the UK’s views on harmful content."

Is the kind of sex depicted actually safe?

stoya meme

There are two kinds of arguments typically offered for this kind of restriction on porn: that it's necessary for safety, or that certain kinds of porn negatively harms society.

The first rationale comes into play with acts like fisting, facesitting, and extreme S&M. Obscenity lawyer Myles Jackman reports that a UK porn producer was told that face-sitting is restricted, at least when "employed as a breathing restriction or any other form of smothering," on safety grounds. In theory that distinction makes some sense but enforcing it could be a nightmare. "Is a 69 face-sitting?" adult performer and director Joanna Angel asks. "I sure do hope at some point the UK government draws some cartoon illustrations of the physical mechanics of what is exactly illegal and what isn't."

The ban on fisting — the insertion of a whole hand into the anus or vagina — has also prompted skepticism. Sex educators recommend taking precautions like using lots of lube and going slowly, but if done properly fisting is safe. "Having put a large penis in my vaginal canal along with the four fingers on my right hand and the four fingers on my left hand [on camera], and having had people's whole hands inside me off camera in a recreational way, I fail to see how fisting is any more dangerous," adult actor Stoya says, adding:

"Show me the statistics on how many people have died from fisting, and compare them to the number of black kids killed by police for walking while black, and come back and try to tell me that fisting is dangerous."

The larger theory behind the safety rationale is that porn shouldn't show behavior that could be dangerous if imitated by the audience. Adult performer and sex educator Jiz Lee disputes that whole premise. "The justification of banning something simply because it gives a bad example is ludicrous when it comes to entertainment," they say. "If that were the case, there'd be no smoking, no driving automobiles, and absolutely no homicides in movies, because according to numerous fatality records these are some among the leading causes of death. (Compare to, say, there being no record to date of death by genital suffocation — i.e. Facesitting/smothering — on PubMed.)"

But is extreme porn just bad for the world?

porn protest

Women Against Pornography (WAP) march on Times Square on October 20th 1979; feminist opposition to porn has declined substantially in recent decades. (Barbara Alper/Getty Images)

The second argument — that extreme porn causes lasting societal damage — is basically impossible to verify or disprove, but what evidence we have doesn't support the hypothesis that it does major harm. In their review of the research on pornography and sex crimes, psychologists Christopher Ferguson and Richard Hartley write:

Considered together, the available data about pornography consumption and rape rates in the United States seem to rule out a causal relationship, at least with respect to pornography availability causing an increase in the incidence of rape. One could even argue that the available research and self-reported and official statistics might provide evidence for the reverse effect; the increasing availability of pornography appears to be associated with a decline in rape.

University of Hawaii sex researcher Milton Diamond similarly concluded, "It has been found everywhere it was scientifically investigated that as pornography has increased in availability, sex crimes have either decreased or not increased."

It's harder to rule out subtler effects, but the evidence is quite thin. Ferguson and Hartley write that the evidence on pornography's role in perpetuating negative attitudes toward women is "generally mixed and the type of research methodology used in the study often greatly affects the outcome." Alan McKee's survey of porn consumers in Australia found no correlation between frequency of porn consumption and attitudes toward women, as did Kimberley Davies' survey conducted in the US in the 1980s. Paul Wright and Michelle Funk find that exposure to pornography is correlated with reduced support for affirmative action for women. But Wright, Robert Tokunaga, and Soyoung Bae also find that people who consume more porn are likelier to support gay rights.

Are the regulations sexist?

One of the most frequent criticisms of the new British rules is that they appear to restrict acts that result in female pleasure more than those that result in male pleasure.

For example, Jackman writes that depictions of female ejaculation are only allowed "if fairly brief, isolated, and not deliberately consumed or put onto a body." By contrast, porn in which men cum on women's bodies, or into their mouths, is not restricted at all. The face-sitting restriction creates a similar double standard by limiting cunnilingus but not fellatio. By contrast, Jackman says, "Gagging on cock and deep throat are acceptable if not for the whole scene."

"Obvious visible female pleasure is threatening while obvious visible male pleasure is par for the course and assumed," Stoya observes.

This problem also manifests itself in subtler ways. English performer Pandora Blake notes that fisting is "an important part of authentic queer sexuality" and restricting it "will disproportionately affect producers of queer, lesbian, and gay porn."

The BDSM regulations might have a similar effect. Vice's Frankie Mullin argues that the law's main effect will be "not on the large porn studios, which tend to favor the strip, blowjob, fuck, cum-all-over-a-woman's-face formula, but the UK's smaller, independent producers." Mullin highlights dominatrix Itziar Bilbao Urrutia — nom de guerre: Ms Tytania — whose site Urban Chick Supremacy Cell depicts a female-supremacist terror group; the videos involve things like "men being forced to recite radical feminist writing from the 1960." The site could well be shut down under the new rules, whereas more mainstream, non-feminist/queer porn is likely to be safe.

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