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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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear