Strict censorship fails to stop pornography’s rising popularity

Warning: the following article contains words and concepts some of you may find offensive. Words like “erection” and “censorship”. Concepts like “exploitation of women” and “money for old rope”.

Last week, I visited a licensed sex shop in Brewer Street, Soho (purely out of professional interest, you understand). Occupying a single basement room, staffed by two young men of unshaven seediness, it was full of magazines, videos and sex toys whose packaging promised hair-raising contents.

The real contents are apparently less explicit – except in the case of the shop’s best-sellers: four videos, classified R18 (which means they can only be sold in licensed sex shops), featuring explicit scenes of sexual intercourse. Priced at between 15 and 30, they turn over some 20,000 a week, the manager reckoned.

The reason these four tapes sell so well is that they’re considerably more explicit than any film previously licensed on video by the British Board of Film Classification. The board’s guidelines say that even R18 films, though they may show erections, must not show shots of penetration. These films do.

They were classified last year. When the police and customs discovered what the BBFC had done, they were appalled. They told the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, that if they came across such material in unlicensed sex shops, they would seize it on the grounds that it was obscene and magistrates would grant a forfeiture order.

Straw told the BBFC to apply the same standards as the police and magistrates. Titles subsequently classified R18 have been notably “softer”. When the board refused to grant an R18 certificate to a film called “Makin’ Whoopee” unless cuts were made to render it less explicit, the distributors (part of Sport publisher David Sullivan’s empire, like the licensed shop in Brewer Street) went to the Video Appeals Committee.

Last Thursday, the Committee backed Sullivan, saying the video might offend or disgust, but was unlikely to deprave or corrupt (the legal test for obscenity). It should be given an R18 certificate.

Meanwhile, after Straw intervened, an outsider, Andreas Whittam-Smith, the founder editor of The Independent, was appointed the BBFC’s new president. Shortly afterwards, the Board’s director, James Ferman, announced his retirement after more than 23 years as Britain’s chief censor – though he’d prefer the term “classifier”, as an old-fashioned liberal who believes adults should be able to make their own decisions about what to see.

Last week, in media interviews and through a valedictory piece in the Board’s annual report, Ferman caused a furore by calling for even more explicit videos than last year’s four R18 titles to be available in licensed sex shops, provided they were limited to depictions of sex between consenting adults and avoided anything degrading, violent or obscene.

Mere depictions of consensual sex, says Ferman, are not obscene in the sense that they tend to deprave and corrupt, making people morally bad. They are merely arousing – he likens them to Viagra – and therefore harmless, even beneficial.

He argues that one of the BBFC’s and the UK’s greatest failures has been the inability to stamp out the black market in pornography, which everyone agrees is huge. This is partly because the videos on sale in licensed sex shops are too tame.

Ferman says punters in search of harder images are driven into unlicensed shops where they’re offered not just tapes showing intercourse, but a great deal of much more unpleasant material as well.

Ferman thinks the police and magistrates have been much too strict in their interpretation of the law. Sullivan, not surprisingly, agrees, saying illegal sex shop operators are putting two fingers up to the law and making more money than legitimate operators as a result.

But Ferman received little support elsewhere. The police agree the law needs sorting out, but are opposed to liberalisation. So, reputedly, is Straw. The Home Office argues the existence of pornography laws helps protect women from exploitation by pornographic film-makers. Anti-porn campaigners want the law strengthened. Feminists oppose relaxation because they view pornography as degrading to women.

What’s more, there is no clear evidence that relaxation of the rules on what’s available in licensed shops would in fact lead to any reduction in the black market.

Politically, relaxation of the kind Ferman advocates isn’t a runner. But the problem of pornography is always with us. The Internet, entirely un-regulated, makes readily available to anyone with a PC material which leaves R18 videos looking like Thomas the Tank Engine.

Britain’s laws on pornography are much stricter than those of most European countries. But, even in the UK, there is a large and growing market for legitimate erotic (some would say pornographic) fiction. Pictures of naked women have come off the top shelf and into the phenomenally successful lads’ magazines, and sexually-charged imagery is a feature of advertisements for everything from ice cream to cars.

Sexual imagery of a kind unthinkable 20 years ago is now ubiquitous. I can’t help feeling that, whatever the police and the Home Secretary have to say about it, the tide is running James Ferman’s way.

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