More sex, please, we're British

Attitudes to pornography are changing, but try telling that to Labour. <strong>Laurence O'Toole</str

On 17 August, the Video Appeals Committee (VAC) overturned the decision by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) to ban seven sex films. That's twice in a year that this little-known body has thwarted the board's forbidding stance on porn. Put simply, the committee - stuffed to the gills with representatives of the great and good, including a former deputy director of public prosecutions, John Wood, and the novelists Fay Weldon and Nina Bawden - doesn't see anything wrong with adults watching other consenting adults have sex on film. And why should it, when virtually no other country in the western world does either?

The committee's ruling carries statutory weight. It ought to signal the end of the film censor's current porn policy. But, although no one at the BBFC will publicly admit it, the decision as to what happens next lies with the government. Labour is seriously anti-porn. A moral distaste, combined with an authoritarian streak, has brought Britain to the verge of outright state censorship of film. So far, such back-room repression has caused little reproach. But the public mood could shift. Now's the time for Labour to do the right thing, not only on porn, but in demonstrating a proper respect for the law. Otherwise it runs the risk of being outed as a party of anti-democratic, moralistic killjoys.

Before making its landmark decision, the VAC held a rare public hearing in a building off London's Soho Square. Consider the contrast. Outside was a thriving Soho, a cosmopolitan urban space founded upon a tolerance of alter-native lifestyles and sexualities. Cut to the appeal hearings, for the contrary position of the grey, paternalistic BBFC seeking to foist a singular morality on pluralist 1990s Britain. It was as if the last 40 years hadn't happened, and when Lord Leicester, senior legal counsel for the BBFC, wondered out loud if sex videos were suitable viewing for all adults, it was like the trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover all over again.

The present difficulties over porn date back to the tail-end of the Tory era. In the summer of 1996, the then Home Office minister Tom Sackville held a meeting with the BBFC, during which he suggested that British obscenity laws were "in shreds". Sackville pointed out that R18 videos - a specialist category available for purchase only from licensed sex shops - didn't have enough sex in them to draw customers away from black-market porn tapes. It was agreed that a liberalisation to allow some hard-core was "worth exploring". During 1997 Britain's licit sex films suddenly got sexier, with tapes such as The Pyramid and BatBabe sporting erections and brief glimpses of oral and penetrative sex. But this porn breakthrough in the UK - albeit lukewarm and low-key - turned out to be short-lived.

Six months after Labour came to power, HM Customs and London's vice police complained to Jack Straw about the BBFC's unilateral porno liberalisation. Straw, a man who several years earlier had described porn as "nasty, degenerate and worthless", reputedly told them there was no way he was going soft on hard-core. Soon after, a new management team was installed at the BBFC. Out went James Ferman after 23 years as director. In came Andreas Whittam-Smith, founding editor of the Independent and not a man known for his liberal views on sexual matters. The brief experiment with explicit porn ceased.

Except that Britain's usually quiescent sex industry wouldn't come quietly. Last year the distributors Sheptonhurst contested the BBFC's banning of the film Makin' Whoopee. Although its sexual content was of equivalent strength to that of BatBabe - the film would have included brief scenes of oral and penetrative sex - the BBFC now argued that this was obscene. The VAC did not agree. "It may offend or disgust, but it is unlikely to deprave and corrupt," observed the committee, whose members that day included Biddy Baxter, a former editor of Blue Peter.

This ruling failed to bring the film censor into line, as the board continued rejecting similar sex films, forcing the committee to meet again this summer. This time the BBFC bizarrely argued that the videos had to be banned in order to protect children. The lone expert witness mustered to support this argument was a psychiatrist who admitted that in 20 years she had come across fewer than six cases of children who might have had contact with porn, and that this experience might possibly have caused them emotional and mental distress. This was hardly an impressive marshalling of the issues.

Under pressure, the BBFC had offered a plainly misguided argument. It is impossible to guarantee that any 18 film classified for video release will never be seen by a minor. The whole film classificatory system would cease to function if such a policy were adopted. As the VAC's ruling observes: "We do not, in general, prevent adults having access to material just because it might be harmful to children if it fell into their hands."

Rather than look foolish in public, the BBFC should have stood up to the government and told Straw that, where severe anti-porn measures are concerned, the game is up. A British Social Attitudes Survey reported in 1997 that the public are less exercised than a decade ago over representations of "straightforward, mutually pleasurable sex, however explicit it might be". Recent legal decisions bear this out. Juries rarely find erotic materials obscene when they show consensual sexual intercourse between adults, however graphic. (That doesn't stop police, customs and magistrates regularly destroying such materials, claiming, falsely, that they do so with the support of the law.)

The irony is that the BBFC has recently given 18 certificates to several arthouse movies featuring brief glimpses of hard-core imagery - Sitcom, The Idiots, I Stand Alone and the forthcoming, highly regarded Romance. Such a discrepancy is blatantly elitist.

Until two or three years ago, the received wisdom about porn was largely disdainful and negative; hardly anyone had a good word to say about the stuff. Porn was seen as sexist, representing a grave threat to female emancipation. But lately things have changed. While campaigners such as Andrea Dworkin argue that women who make porn are victims of male coercion, hardly a month passes without another TV programme or magazine article about California's hard-core porn industry, featuring confident, intelligent performers such as Julie Ashton, Nina Hartley and Veronica Hart articulately defending their chosen career path. We've had Louis Theroux and Ruby Wax on the subject, Sex and Shopping, too, and now Channel 4 is trailing its monumental Pornography - A Secret History of Civilisation. Although by no means perfect, the American hard-core porn industry is a regulated, $4 billion-a-year business selling a big chunk of its product via regular telephone, broadcasting, cable and hotel companies such as AT&T, Time-Warner, Sheraton and News Corp, which in effect take a share of the overall profits generated by the sex movies the UK government wishes to bury.

At least a quarter of all porn sales in America are directly generated by women. That so many women are interested in porn makes it difficult to argue that it is definitively sexist, in need of being rooted out. The last Kinsey Institute Study on Sexual Behaviour, from 1995, showed that among American college students, 80 per cent of women had experienced some kind of adult material. These days even high-powered feminist academics such as Linda Williams and Constance Penley teach college courses on hard-core.

Meanwhile the worlds of fashion, art and music are having a major flirtation with porn. 3G from Massive Attack and Liam from the Prodigy are writing the soundtrack for a hard-core movie, ad campaigns for the fashion label Sisley mimic sex films and the Hollywood director Doug Liman cites hard-core as a key influence for his new teen flick, Go. But as popular culture re-evaluates its position on porn, Labour hasn't been keeping up. To continue to block hard-core is contrary to the wishes of a significant portion of British society, many of whom are simply voting with their remote controls, satellite dishes and modems. Britain's porn laws are not only an unacceptable restraint on freedom of speech - a concept that means little if it won't stand for controversial minority opinions to be aired - but also increasingly delusive, given that such materials are readily accessible through the Internet.

This is a critical moment for film censorship in Britain. Labour is out of touch on porn, and without a leg to stand on legally. In the light of last week's judgment, it should instruct the BBFC to liberalise its porn policy, and tell the police, customs and magistrates to abide by the law. Labour must also ditch the Obscene Publications Act, a woefully antique piece of law, which not only cannot deal with this new era of global telecommunciations but is flagrantly against the spirit of the European Convention of Human Rights, which the government incorporated into British law with such a fanfare. Only then can we begin a more grown-up, better-informed debate on how we feel about pornography at the turn of the millennium.

A new edition of Laurence O'Toole's "Pornocopia: porn, sex, technology and desire" is published in October by Serpent's Tail at £8.99

This article first appeared in the 30 August 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Gordon Brown, the great feminist