Where are the liberals when pornography is attacked? They are silent. Where are the feminists when dominatrixes are censored? They say nothing.
Pornography is the great silencer. It makes usual defenders of free speech hold their tongue and proponents of equality forget their values.
For years now, pornography laws have been contrary to the fundamental values of British justice. People are branded sex offenders for images they do not know they possess, whether by being sent them unsolicited on social media or because they featured somewhere on a website they once read. Quite simply, it is impossible for any user of pornography, no matter how mainstream or infrequent, to know they are not breaking the law.
Since the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, pornography showing sado-masochism has effectively been outlawed, with images depicting acts which might cause harm to the breast, anus or genitals falling foul of the law. That is their stock-in-trade. Have these viewers been thrown in jail en-masse? No, although some of them have. The rest could be branded sex offenders too, at any time, with all the social condemnation which comes with that.
This week, a whole host of new sex acts were outlawed from ‘TV-like’ services. You can show peeing or squirting, but not on someone, and you can’t show anyone drinking it. You can’t show fisting. You can show vomiting, but not if anyone looks like they’re enjoying it. You can’t show someone who is bound with all four limbs if they also have a gag in their mouth. You can’t show spanking or other pain play if the injury is likely to cause injury more than “transient or trifling”. You cannot show anyone sitting on someone’s face unless it is clear the airways are open. You cannot show someone having their balls yanked. You can only show someone being trampled on depending on the surface they lie on.
The restrictions are remarkably draconian. Does this affect the average video site? If it is based in the UK, probably yes. Because there is no definition of what ‘TV-like’ actually is. All we have are a case-by-case rulings from Ofcom. There are no rules someone might follow to avoid the restrictions.
This is not about an unexpected freezing effect. This is a case of the freezing effect being the purpose of the regulation. British authorities are gearing up for an all-out war with online porn. Sources tell me plans are afoot to start blocking British access to foreign so-called tube sites, which host porn videos, regardless of where they are based or whether the scenes they show are legal. The attack on TV-like services is just the latest stage in a war which could severely restrict people’s access to porn.
This is how it went. In the eighties, the EU issued a directive on broadcast regulation. A few years’ back, it was updated to include on-demand services like Netflix, iPlayer or 4oD. For most countries this involved adding a short line to whatever pre-existing law they had to include these new technologies. In the UK, it saw the creation of a new regulator, called the Authority for Television On Demand (Atvod). We were the only country to create a separate regulator for on-demand video. Interestingly, it is privately-owned with regulatory powers. The potential for conflict of interest is obvious and should have been well recognised.
The regulator spread its tentacles instantly. Hundreds of services, including the Sun and Telegraph newspaper websites, were told they were TV-like because they had video on them. Really, any website with video was vulnerable. The newspapers fought it off. Individual YouTube sites also successfully fought it off. Then it decided all porn sites were TV-like.
Most of them gave in rather than fight and started paying their yearly £2,900 fee, which was set at a flat rate for the Beeb and small businesses alike. Then a couple of years later, the first strike came. They were told to prove they had no users under the age of 18. That sounds reasonable enough, but the requirements were so severe as to put them out of business. Many were reduced to asking members to provide copies of their passports or their driving licences. Obviously, they lost most of their customers overnight and closed down. British porn was destroyed almost at the stroke of a pen.
This week, the regulations changed so that sites could only show material which was equivalent to a BBFC R18 rating.
As ever, the attack starts with the most esoteric material. Pornography showing women in the dominant position is disproportionately targeted. The Urban Chick Supremacy Cell, which deals in very weird female domination (femdom) porn with a Baader Meinhof / Valerie Solanas twist, just managed to fight off a threat from Atvod.
The material which is prohibited clearly discriminates against femdoms. While any form of male ejaculate can be eaten on screen, women’s ejaculate falls under the drinking urine category and is banned.
It is acceptable to show face-fucking, where a man roughly has sex with a woman’s mouth. This often has fairly strong misogynistic overtones. But it is not acceptable to show face-sitting, where women sit on (usually) a man’s face, aside from the caveats about airways described above.
Sado-masochists have always been the first line of attack and so it is now. Authorities are targeting the soft underbelly, where the big corporations don’t need to fight.
There are strong indications the next move is to close down access to tube sites overseas, using case law from the very early days of the internet which would treat the process of downloading as an act of publication. This would act as if consumption was production and capture UK viewing habits into the pre-existing restrictions on content. This fits with David Cameron’s commitment to a porn filter and the general government push towards a substantial clamp-down on pornography.
Sources tell me the big porn companies are in on it. They hate the tube sites, which provide their content for free. More than anything, they want them closed down. Most of the content they provide is fairly vanilla. They’re happy for these other sites to be closed down on the expectation – which may or may not be true – that their viewers will migrate over to their less esoteric content once they run out of other options.
We are now firmly in the world of thought crime. Anything but the most mainstream porn is being wiped out from British viewing habits. No-one will stand up for it. An unnatural coalition of Tory Mary Whitehouse types and the reactionary wing of the radical feminist movement is pushing the agenda, with regulators working behind the scenes to make it a reality.
It is not really a war on porn. It is a war on difference. It is a war on the strange turn-ons of unusual people, the exploration of what does and doesn’t work for you. It is a war against sexual experimentation and the extraordinarily vast and unpredictable landscape of human fantasy.
Politically speaking, it restricts porn to the mainstream variety, which is invariable vanilla or a variation on the idea of a male power fantasy. Male power fantasies are like McDonalds. It’s fine, but if you have it all the time it will mess you up. We are banning the creative imagination of porn, its ability to provide challenges to day-to-day social norms, while supporting the tedious material which already dominates the landscape.
These are the restrictions of the puritan, who has never understood the difference between fantasy and reality, or the moralist, who demands that all think according to his creed.
For a long time, social liberalism and technology made free-thinkers believe they had won the battle of ideas. But while they became complacent, their opponents got to work.
What happened this week is just the latest salvo. The puritans are back. And unless liberals, feminists and free-thinkers hit back, the next battle is already lost.
Ian Dunt is Editor-in-chief of Politics.co.uk