The government won't expose women's enjoyment of sex. Photo: Getty
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No spanking or bondage: why the government’s new porn laws are arbitrary and sexist

The Audiovisual Media Services Regulations 2014 impose restrictions on the content of pornography made and sold within the UK with a perplexing ignorance.

In a hopeless government attempt to control what Britons get off on, new rules regulating the UK porn industry have come into force this week. The Audiovisual Media Services Regulations 2014 imposes restrictions on the content of pornography made and sold within the UK – and it does so with a perplexing ignorance about the realities of modern technology.

British porn producers and consumers will now be subject to some of the harshest restrictions anywhere in Europe, with speculation that this is only the beginning. Video-on-demand content produced or sold in the UK is no longer permitted to show a vague and arbitrary list of explicit acts.

Physical or verbal abuse, depictions of non-consensual sex, strangulation, and urination in sexual context are all included on the list. Only “gentle” spanking, whipping and caning is allowed, though where exactly the government draws the line between the gentle and the excessive on this particular matter is unclear.

Some of the acts facing on-screen censorship are especially popular in LGBT and BDSM communities, and participants argue that taking part in them poses no risk to consenting adults. Much more taboo sexual activities such as bukkake (a large group of men climaxing all over the same woman) and paraphilic infantilism (dressing up and being treated like a baby for sexual pleasure) are seemingly not addressed by this new legislation.

Not only is the law misguided, it’s also deeply sexist. Showing female ejaculation on screen has been outlawed completely, while male ejaculation (on the face, breasts, feet, backside, wherever) faces no direct restrictions. Is female ejaculation really so vulgar and explicit that people shouldn’t see it, in pornography or anywhere else?

Restrictions on fisting, facesitting and which objects can be inserted into an adult’s body are included too. Regulating depictions of these acts – those relating directly to female sexual pleasure – make it seem like society is at risk from exposure to women’s enjoyment of sex, at least according to the government.

Protecting under-18s is supposedly at the heart of these regulations – preventing children from accessing “harmful material” that may “seriously impair” them. The peculiar piece of legislation only impacts paid-for, video-on-demand (VoD) content, so the idea that it in itself will have any real impact on the kind of porn that UK consumers – of age or otherwise – regularly access is ridiculous.

It’s not young people who are subscribing and accessing paid-for content online; these kinds of sites normally require a credit card or Paypal account to get past their paywalls. The new rules do nothing to address free, non-regulated content produced in other countries and uploaded to global streaming websites. So it begs the question, what’s the point of all this?

After the quiet ushering through of the Bill – seemingly without public surveys or much independent research to back it up – some have expressed concerns that this law change is the first step towards restricting access to “undesirable” foreign websites, with huge implications for the freedom of information online. With no concern for consent within or enjoyment of these sexual practices, the government appears to be legislating its own moral judgements on what is deemed acceptable in British society.

As legal adviser for Backlash Myles Jackman puts it: “Pornography is the canary in the coalmine of free speech: it is the first freedom to die. If this assault on liberty is allowed to go unchallenged, other freedoms will fall as a consequence.”

Lauren Razavi is a freelance columnist and features writer. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenRazavi.

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I'd only given a literary talk, but someone still told me to leave the country

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

So here I am at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Belgrave Square. Eventually. After a misunderstanding that finds me first, forlorn and bemused, at Olympia, with the London Book Fair closing down for the evening, watching my fee grow wings and fly away into the night air. I am called up and told where I could more profitably go instead – that is to say, the venue I should be at. On reassurance that my expenses will be met, I hop into a cab as soon as I find one (which, on Kensington High Street at 7pm, takes far longer than you would think. I will not use Uber).

I am going there in order to be on a panel that is talking about Benjamin Fondane (1898-1944), the Romanian intellectual, poet, essayist, philosopher and all-round dude. I know nothing about the guy beyond what I learned from reviewing a selection of his writings last July but this makes me, apparently, one of this country’s leading experts on him. Such is the level of intellectual curiosity in this part of the world. Fondane was treated much better in Paris, where he moved after finding studying law in Bucharest too boring; treated very much worse in 1944, when he was sent to Auschwitz.

A little corner of me is panicking a bit before the gig starts: I know next to nothing about the man, especially compared to my co-panellists, and I might betray this to the audience of around 80 (I refer to their number, not their age), sitting in their little gilt chairs, in a nice gilt drawing room, which is par for the course for European cultural institutes in this neck of the woods.

Another part of me says: “Don’t be silly, you’ll be fine,” and it turns out I am. I even manage to throw in a few jokes. During the course of one of my answers I say that the UK is a cultural desert and that there was a reason Fondane stopped moving when he got to Paris. The idea of coming to London to breathe the pure air of artistic freedom and inspiration was, and remains, laughable. It gets a chuckle or two out of the (mostly Mittel-European) audience, who like a bit of British self-deprecation as much as we do.

Or do we? Downstairs, and clutching my first glass of the evening (a perfectly drinkable Romanian Merlot), I chat to various people who come up and say they like my reviews etc, etc. All very pleasant. And then a man comes up to me, about my age, maybe a year or three younger, smartly tweeded.

“I was very offended by what you said about this country being a cultural desert,” he says. He is not joking.

“Oh?” I say. “Well, it is.”

He has the look of someone about to come up with a devastating argument.

“What about Shakespeare?” he asks me. “What about Oscar Wilde?”

“They’re dead,” I say, leaving aside the fact that Wilde was Irish, and that anywhere was better than Ireland in the 19th century for gay playwrights.

“So’s Fondane,” he says.

I think at this point I might have raised my glasses and massaged the bridge of my nose with finger and thumb, a sign for those who know me of extreme exasperation, and a precursor to verbal violence.

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

“Do not presume to tell me, sir, whether I should leave the country.”

He tells me he has a Polish wife, as if that has any bearing on the matter. He says something else, which for the life of me I can’t remember, but I do know that when I replied to it, I used only one word, and that the word was “bollocks”.

“Well, if you’re going to use bad language . . .”

“I’ve got more,” I say, and proceed to launch a volley of it at him. Things have escalated quickly, I know, but there is no jest in his tone and what I am detecting is, I realise, his strong awareness of the Z in my name, my nose, and my flawless olive complexion. One develops antennae for this kind of thing, after almost half a century. And there’s a lot more of it about these days.

In the end, I become pretty much incoherent. On stage I’d caught myself thinking: “Golly, talking is even easier than writing;” but now my fluency deserts me. But God, it’s fun getting into a fight like this.

I’ve left my tobacco at home but the Romanian government gives me a whole pack of Marlboro Gold, and more wine. Vata-n libertate ori moarte! As they say. You can work it out. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution