No Sex Please, We’re British

New pornography regulations in the United Kingdom seem to be little more than the latest in a series of campaigns against female sexuality.
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(Photo: Peerayot/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Peerayot/Shutterstock)

On a recent cold December Friday in London, the area around the Houses of Parliament were scattered with a few hundred half-naked men and women, sitting on each other’s faces, and encouraging people to watch and take photos. These people—political protesters—had gathered in response to a new regulation, an update to the 2003 Communications Act, which had recently been adopted by Britain’s government. It bans a very specific list of otherwise legal sex acts from being depicted in sexually explicit films produced in the United Kingdom. Many activists feel these regulations unfairly target sex acts that are geared toward female pleasure, including female ejaculation, and fisting; others are almost everyday, and include some role-play and spanking.

The protest, which revolved around one banned act in particular—face-sitting—was titillating, a bit ridiculous, and highly photogenic. As such, it was covered extensively in the media. The Irish Independent headlined its article “Party Whips at Parliament's Porno Pantomime Protest”; Vice, in its gonzo style, bragged,” We Went to Today's Pro-BDSM Face-Sitting Protest in Westminster;” Germany’s Der Spiegel, ever sober-minded, wrote “Porno-Zensur: Sexarbeiter Demonstrieren in London” (Porn Censorship: Sex Workers Demonstrate in London).

"Part of the American Dream is having unfettered access to a space to realize your fantasies. There is thus (currently) more freedom given to the porn industry here; although there is also a constant struggle between sexual libertarians and censorious moral crusaders."

The organizers, a loose coalition of sex workers and sex rights advocates, were thrilled, having generated more attention then they imagined possible. “I never knew it would go global,” says Charlotte Rose, a sex worker and activist who organized the protest. “People should not be afraid to speak their mind in what they believe in due to moans and groans from others! That's the whole point of free speech!”

In fact, these regulations are simply the latest in an ongoing campaign against pornography that has been waged over the last several years in the U.K. In the summer of 2013, for example, the government made sweeping new regulations requiring that Internet service providers block access to all explicit websites by default. Users would have to manually disable the filters should they want access to some of the Web’s more popular content. Also lost in the face-sitting media furor was the fact that the new regulations applied only to pornography produced in the U.K. and designed for video on demand (i.e., meant to be seen over the Internet). In fact, these regulations were already in place for more traditional movies produced in the U.K. and sold on DVD.

A broader panic around “sexualization” is all over British culture. An article from the Guardian’s website last year began by asking, “Are you offended by pornographic images on magazine and newspaper shelves in supermarkets and service stations?”—and went on to ask readers to send in pictures of what they found offensive. A 2013 Channel 4 documentary, Porn on the Brain, included a former editor of “lad mag” Loaded saying, “But now, [pornography] is turning our kids into psychopaths!”

Why has the U.K. become so anti-sex?

“The answer can only be found in a deep-seated and long-held fear of female sexuality in the home of the Anglosphere,” says London-born academic Dominic Pettman, who studies the media at The New School’s Eugene Lang College in New York. “Female ‘squirting’ upsets the established order of things, and could lubricate the slippery slope to polymorphous multisexuality.”

Sexually explicit works, and their public reaction, vary greatly between America and the U.K. “Part of the American Dream is having unfettered access to a space to realize your fantasies,” Pittman says. “There is thus (currently) more freedom given to the porn industry here; although there is also a constant struggle between sexual libertarians and censorious moral crusaders. One should never take Pornhub's smorgasbord of options for granted.... English Puritanism is still hampered by decorum and Downton Abbey-style keeping up appearances. The great modernist author, Elizabeth Bowen said, ‘There is vice now, but you cannot simply be naughty.’”

Pittman, whose book After the Orgy: Toward a Politics of Exhaustion examined the intersection of decadence, technology, and media, also sees these regulations as an attempt to combat the overwhelming barrage of sexual images online. “One way of reading the ban on quintessentially English pastimes like spanking,” he says, “is a nostalgia for a time when sex was simply risqué, and not some kind of traumatic contest. Ultimately, the English may be perversely attempting to maintain a sense of transgression within the flood of filth that is the Internet.” Making some acts forbidden, in other words, only makes them sexier.

What do the supporters of these laws say? Explaining why he backs Internet filtering to the BBC program The Women’s Hour in 2013, British Prime Minister David Cameron focused on two pillars: protecting children and fighting pedophiles, two longstanding manias of British conservatism.

"Ultimately, the English may be perversely attempting to maintain a sense of transgression within the flood of filth that is the Internet."

Filtering, Cameron said, was essential to protecting the innocence of children. “I've talked to parents who've had very direct experience of this happening,” Cameron said, “where the children were looking for something totally legitimate but ended up with, you know, some pretty horrible things in front of them, and so this is a problem and that's why this whole issue of filters and filters for the Internet are so important.” This filtering is achieved both by requiring online search engines like Google to hide potentially harmful links in its search results and by requiring the biggest U.K. ISPs (Virgin, British Telecom, and Sky) install filters for all new customers. These measures supposedly also stop pedophiles from accessing illegal materials, though some critics point out that a dedicated offender has plenty of other avenues available to them. Aren’t these filters more troublesome for ordinary Britons than hardcore pedophiles?

Cameron cedes this point, after a fashion. The U.K.’s filtering system is designed more to thwart those just beginning to investigate child pornography, he said. "You've got people who are dabbling in this, experimenting in this,” he told The Women’s Hour, “and who are using the open Internet and they won't get search returns, so it stops their revolting journey, as it were.”

Writing in the Guardian, Murray Perkins, senior examiner with the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), the organization behind the new VOD regulations, said that he was guided by “have special regard to any harm that may be caused to potential viewers, or, through their behaviour, to society.” Therefore, any act “where imitation or the influencing of attitudes is a particular concern,” like restricting someone’s breathing, is banned. This leads him to a bit of linguistic tap-dancing: “It would be wrong to assume that the BBFC consequently cuts all sight of people sitting across other people’s faces. But the BBFC will cut sight of clear and deliberate restriction of a person’s ability to breathe during sexual play.”

“It’s very difficult to get in there and regulate actual sex acts,” says feminist erotic filmmaker Erika Lust, who has been active in campaigning against the new regulations. “What can you do, and what can you not do? What should be allowed? What should be allowed in reality, and what can you watch in a film? It’s all getting very, very complicated. People are starting to make jokes, like, so can you have sex with a hat on? Can you wear your socks? We’re getting into a very difficult sphere of rules.”

Lust has sympathy for the regulators. “I do understand what they thought,” she says. “They’re sitting there, saying ‘This isn’t giving out good signals to the people, we have to stop this kind of behavior.’ But they have probably not really considered this. The feeling you get from it is that they’re very vanilla, and they don't have a lot of imagination or creativity outside of their own bedroom, you know? You get the feeling that they think what they’re doing in their bedroom is the normal thing, and that’s what’s OK.”

As in many programs, the devil is in the details. Despite Cameron’s comments, which make the porn filters seem like they focus exclusively on child safety, their reach is much more broad. The filters affect almost one in five websites, according to a report by Internet freedom monitor Open Rights Group. In addition to traditional pornography, it restricts access to websites containing depictions of nudity, suicide, self-harm, alcohol, and tobacco. Perhaps this is why such small numbers of people have chosen to leave them in place: only four percent of Virgin Media customers, five percent of BT customers, and eight percent of Sky customers, according to a recent study by the U.K. communications regulator OfCom (curiously, another I.S.P., TalkTalk, reported a much higher acceptance rate of 36 percent).

Remarkable unpopularity is also a hallmark of the new video regulations, whose detractors include many people outside of the sex trade. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg backed those protesting the bans, saying at his most recent monthly press conference that, “Government is not there to stick its nose in the bedroom as long as people are not doing things which are illegal under the law.”

Even traditional anti-pornography organizations oppose the bans. Mediawatch, one of the U.K.’s most prominent and active anti-pornography groups—its founder, the late Mary Whitehouse, was a famous crusader against sex and violence in media in the U.K. in the 1970s and ’80s who once referred to Doctor Who as “teatime brutality for tots”; a recently published posthumous collection of her letters was titled Ban This Filth!—stops short of supporting the new regulations. In an emailed statement, its director, Vivienne Pattison, says, “We are in full support of measures to ensure that life endangering practices cannot be shown but, whilst in no way wishing to criticize the police, the CPS and other institutions which have used their expertise to compile the banned list, we are confused that some practices have made the list but others which are equally, if not more, concerning have not.”

A mania about childhood innocence seems to be behind much of the current hysteria concerning pornography in England. Newspapers and television programs endlessly fret and whip up hysteria around the idea that sexualized media is corrupting children, being fed to them by pedophiles, or otherwise warping their brain.

Writing in the Routledge Companion to British Media History, Clarissa Smith posits that the Internet has replaced the 19th-century bête noir—the city—as a zone of danger and temptation for children. It’s “a gateway to predators and corruptors,” she writes. Some people in the U.K. see it as their eternal duty to protect us from what lays beyond that gate. Most residents of the U.K., however, seem at least interested in having a peek to the other side.

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