The 1984 Video Recordings Act established a two-tier system of classification for
sex videos. Videos rated 18 may be sold in general shops where children may be present.
This coupled with a lack of confidence in the enforcement of age restrictions has led to a
category that is strictly softcore and largely devoid of sex. The classification of R18 is
restricted to sales from licensed sex shops where the authorities have more confidence in
the age restrictions. Here failure to comply would result in the loss of the license.
In theory, R18, videos are only censored to comply with laws of the land such as the
Obscene Publications Act and the Protection of Children Act. In practice the
interpretation of Obscene Publications has been so strict as to make very little
difference between the 18 and R18 versions. The only reported differences prior to 1997
were that R18 videos allowed the depiction of non-explicit group sex and the famed
category guideline; outer labia in, inner labia out. The commercial graveyard of a very
limited R18 release is reinforced by the large majority of distributors who opt to request
the few extra cuts required to obtain an 18 certificate. This at least gives them a viable
distribution, but leaves the sex shop sector in spiralling decline.
The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) has been concerned for some time that
the UK censorship system for sex videos has been something of a failure. This has been
accelerating in recent years to the point where the black market now appears to easily out
perform its legal counterpart. Although James Ferman, the BBFC Director, must be
applauded for his bravery in sanctioning legal porn, it does appear that this move has
been forced on him by the success of the black market rather than any championing of our
liberty. The following extracts from recent BBFC annual reports outline the sequence of
events that has led up to the recent liberalisation of censorship guidelines.
In 1993, the BBFC reported that the system of R18 videos was not working too well.
under British law has also been determined by the degree of explicitness in sexual
depictions, so that even the R18 category has never included the sort of frank depictions
of sex which are legal in most of our continental neighbours. This leaves some sex shop
customers dissatisfied at the gulf between what can be acquired on the continent and what
is supplied in Britain. The lowering of customs barriers with our EC neighbours in 1992
brought home this disparity in standards, with the result that the sex shop category,
already in decline has virtually ceased to operate.
There were 55 R18 releases in 1990 but this had declined to 14 & 19 by 1992 &
1993 respectively. The BBFC also blame the decline in legal sex shops on the reluctance of
local authorities to issue licences. To me this seems to pale into insignificance compared
with the fact that they are trying to sell a product that nobody wants to buy. Also in
1993 the Video Consultative Committee (representatives from the public, local authorities
and the video industry) wondered whether it was wise to restrict the availability of
censored porn in favour of under-the-counter product which might be far less socially
The sex video producers are always trying to find new ways to sell their videos that
are saddled with a total absence of sex and some of these methods caused concern at the
BBFC. The appearance of camcorder sex videos in 1995, most notably those of the Ben Dover
series by Steve Perry prompted the following comments. For British release, these
camcorder sex videos are tailored to 18 guidelines, avoiding explicit genitalia and
devoting a high proportion of the video to the mating game, ie flirting, persuasion,
seduction, bribes by instalment and whatever other pressures the male can bring to bear on
the female short of force. This social context is thought be some examiners to be less
honest and more sexist than frank hardcore porn. The censors were again wondering
whether the strictness of UK censorship was doing more harm than good.
By 1996 there was a realisation that the impracticalities of the system have helped to
generate a thriving black market. It was this that prompted the liberalisation of the R18
guidelines as described in the annual report: Unfortunately, the spread of unlicensed
sex shops carrying illegal and unclassified material has been difficult to restrict. The
City of Westminster Act gave the police power to close down black market premises, but the
owners seemed able, with very little delay or inconvenience, to move their illicit
operations into empty shops in the same vicinity. Both the police and a junior Home Office
Minister suggested to the Board in June 1996 that the closing of shops and seizing of
assets might have to be accompanied by steps to direct patronage to licensed sex shops
instead. I hope that the BBFC carefully filed memos from these discussions because
later on Jack Straw would accuse them of acting unilaterally.
The next question is how far should the BBFC go in relaxing their guidelines. The
answer is of course, not very. In the interests of research I have compared three versions
of the video Orgy in Paris, Summer Wind 2. ie the 18 version, the R18 version and the
For the first time in Britain, hardcore scenes are present in the R18 version of an
entertainment video (ie as opposed to art-house or educational videos). Explicit
erections, oral sex and vaginal intercourse all make an appearance. However, this is very
much a qualified improvement as such scenes are present only as brief snippets. The
majority of each sex scene is the usual censored softcore material with a couple of
seconds of explicit footage thrown in once or twice every five minutes. The usual
irritating video trickery is used for the majority of the scene, ie zooming into the image
and reframing the explicit material offscreen, repeating inoffensive shots several times
and cutting the rest entirely. The comparison with the original reveals that there are
still several prohibitions in operation. All explicit scenes were shown in medium or long
shot with no close-ups of genitalia. All cum shots were cut along with any depiction of
anal sex (or indeed any verbal references)
It is difficult to understand where this peculiarly British compromise is heading. A
viewer who wants to watch porn will not appreciate why it is that a few seconds are OK yet
any longer segment is forbidden. Those that want to ban porn will still consider explicit
sex objectionable whether there are 2 seconds or 2 hours of such material. The commercial
justification behind the move is even harder to understand. The few seconds of hardcore
will serve to intermittently remind the viewer that the rest of the material is being
censored. This will both add to the irritation value of the censorship and make customers
aware of what they should expect from the uncensored product that is so readily available
from alternative suppliers.
The 18 version of Orgy in Paris is remarkable only for its total absence of sex. The
few scenes that are acceptable to the censors are repeated ad nauseum, ie just the facial
expressions from each participant interspersed with a few views of the girls breasts. Even
the sight of pubic hair is only tolerated in fleeting glimpses. The best example was an
unconvincing rape scene that used an old gramophone as a link between several different
camera angles. The 18 version deleted all the sex and left only the ridiculous and tedious
view of the gramophone plus a few background moans and groans. All in all a totally
unwatchable and unacceptable product.
For the records, the original version runs for 127minutes, the sex scenes account for
63 minutes of this. The R18 version retains 46 minutes of the sex of which about half is
interfered with in one way or another. The 18 version contains 37 minutes of sex and
probably three quarters of this is censored by video trickery. The BBFC do not own up to
this amount of cutting and it is therefore probably the distributor that did the required
hatchet work prior to submission.
Jack Straw is at least consistent in his policy of banning every pleasure known to man.
R18 videos proved to be no exception. The Home Office was reportedly notified by the
customs service that feared that the R18 videos would undermine their fight against
imported porn. The police also chipped in with a similar argument. I thought that both
services were supposed to enforce the law of the land, not to write it. After so many
years of deciding law for themselves I guess they have simply forgotten their role.
Anyway, Jack Straw came down hard on the BBFC. The R18 policy was suspended pending review
(whatever that means) but worse was to come.
Jack Straw elected to exercise his legal option to appoint the president of the BBFC.
Lord Harewood had retired due to ill health and the Vice President; Lord Birkett had been
standing in pending Home Office approval. Instead Straw chose Andreas Whittam Smith, ex
editor of the Independent. It was not long before the reasoning became apparent. An
interview on Newsnight revealed that Whittam Smith never watches violent or erotic movies
and believes that any video more restrictive than a PG should not be available for home
viewing. In response to Straw's decision, James Ferman has been reported to have
accused Straw of 'playing to the gallery' presumably made up of Daily Mail
Unfortunately for Ferman he may have hit the mark and it was only a few weeks before he
announced his decision to resign. Apparently he had been considering the timing of his
resignation for the past 3 years. A few days after the controversial granting of an 18
certificate to Lolita did not appear to be a sensible culmination to that 3 years of
consideration. David Alton best captured the mood 'from the gallery'
the hand of Jack Straw at work. He believes sex and violence in films should be reduced.
Ferman would never go along with that. I suspect the only people who will regret Mr
Ferman's decision to retire will be the makers of violent films.
Whittam Smith has been directed to improve the public accountability of the BBFC. I
guess that Straw believes that if the public are given the power to challenge the
decisions of the BBFC then it will be Mary Whitehouse types who will go on the attack. Let
us hope that this reasoning backfires and that more liberal groupings mount the challenge.
On the positive side the BBFC have become far more forthcoming in the details of
censorship cuts which are now made available to the public via their internet web site.
What will the future hold for the sex video market? The politicians clearly care more
about votes than people and so are happy to maintain the current total ban accompanied by
an inevitably thriving black market of uncontrolled material. The Daily Mail voter is
happy because everything is banned. Sex video customers are happy as the black market is
so extensive as to cover all needs. The suppliers are happy, there is always good money in
porn. Even the law enforcers are happy, they can continue to play raiding parties, luckily
they usually have better things to do though
Only the censors are effectively pushing for change. For all of their failings they
seem to at least care about peoples exposure to what the BBFC perceive as harmful
material. They are aware of the scale of the black market and may eventually compromise
sufficiently to achieve a resumption of the legal market. Perhaps we should support their
campaign by continuing to support the black market. Think of the price of a dodgy video
not as an excessive charge for a second generation copy but as a political donation
towards the cause of liberty and respect for people's rights.
In theory, the incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights into British
law should help defend the freedom of expression. Any restriction on publishing can only
be sanctioned when the authorities provide positive proof of harm. On the other hand, the
whole procedure is being implemented by politicians and Labour politicians at that. I am
not holding my breath. For the most censored country In Europe after Ireland it is a good
job we have satellite dishes, a postal service, car boot sales, regular foreign travel,
local dodgy video shops and the internet or else we might have to take notice of what the
Daily Mail, politicians and censors say. God Forbid!