Fifty Shades of censorship

50 Shades of Censorship

This Valentine’s Day, herds of Clinton-carded couples will huddle in cinema queues up and down the country, excitedly awaiting the moment when the screen doors will be spread wide, allowing them to edge inside.

But this year, the movie du jour won’t be some sappy love story in which the most surprising moment involves Channing Tatum managing to simultaneously deliver more than one consecutive sentence and a facial expression other than ‘huh?’. Oh no.

This movie is responsible for the most streamed trailer of 2014. At the height of its not-easily-understated popularity, the book on which it is based prompted a run on whips and handcuffs (and a 78 per cent increase in sales) at Ann Summers. This is not your ordinary V-day schmaltz.

Fifty Shades of Grey is a story about a 21 year old virgin falling desperately in love with a wealthy young entrepreneur with a “burning smoky gaze”, who proceeds to buy her a MacBook and a car, hoping to convince her she should sign away her ability to consent to being flogged, gagged and genitally clamped.

Funny then, that on December 2 last year, Parliament introduced the Audiovisual Media Services Act 2014 (AMSA), which banned UK studios from making porn depicting many of the sex acts that made 2012 the most saturated summer ever for the bikini bottoms of sun lounger bound, Kindle-toting mums.

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To be precise, the new act bans the online provision of (the rules apply to physical DVDs already) porn showing spanking, aggressive whipping, physical and verbal abuse, humiliation, physical restraint – all activities the newly deflowered Ana and the infamous Christian Grey engage in.

Other things they didn’t get around to – and now couldn’t if they wanted to make a porno on this weird little island – include pee-related fun, fisting, caning, penetration by any object “associated with violence”, strangulation, facesitting and female ejaculation. All regardless of consent.

For about one day, the AMSA was widely slammed for being censorious and arbitrary – ‘who is the government to say a dude can’t piss in another dude’s face in homegrown porn?’, the internet said.

But the specifics of what can’t be shown are actually laid down by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), not the government. This, Jerry Barnett of campaign group Sex & Censorship says, amounts to an “affront to free expression: unelected, unaccountable officials can refuse to allow a film to be distributed in the UK. Few democracies have such tight censorship of film and video.” And because of a legal technicality, the rolling out of the BBFC’s rules to online was never even debated by our elected representatives.

Then there’s the sexism thing. Squirting is absolutely prohibited, but spunking into a girl’s eye? Crack on lads. Sitting on your buddy’s face is banned for safety reasons, but violent deep throating? Knock yourself out. Or choke. Whatever.

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Producers of femdom (female domination) porn are particularly indignant. They say the new legislation affects them disproportionately and will only serve to increase the market power of the corporate giants that have already monopolised the industry.

Today, the benignly named IT firm MindGeek owns the world’s top five adult streaming sites, as well as pretty much all of the other major ones: ExtremeTube, GayTube, KeezMovies, Peeperz, PornIQ, PornMD, Pornhub, RedTube, Mofos, Sextube, SpankWire, Tube8, XTube, and YouPorn. It also owns many of the key studios that produce the content said websites buy. The elimination of British kink, the femdomers say, will further homogenise the content available online.

According to Itziar Bilbao Urrutia – subversive fetish content producer and performer, activist with sexual freedom campaign group Backlash, and doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham – companies like MindGeek will be unaffected. “These niche activities now forbidden are of no interest to them, preferring to represent the type of sex that focuses its activities on the use of women as passive receptacles of the male penis and its sperm, a substance which, in opposition to the very maligned ‘female ejaculation’, is celebrated.”

Itziar Bilbao Urrutia runs the Urban Chick Supremacy Cell website, specialising in 'full action, full Femdom, audiovisual propaganda'

Itziar Bilbao Urrutia runs the Urban Chick Supremacy Cell website, which specialises in ‘full action, full Femdom, audiovisual propaganda’, and won a legal battle to secure its exemption from the regulations.

Two months on, independent fetish porn producers are still reeling. They weren’t warned about the legislation; many had their websites, their livelihoods, blocked by their ISPs overnight. According to Itziar, some of the affected studios have sold their content to foreign buyers – “our content is, after all, our currency” – while some have relocated abroad entirely.

Some studios are still operating as normal, producing and selling content online in the hope that the regulators won’t notice them: a keep calm and carry on kinking kind of mentality. A few are appealing to Ofcom.

Incidentally, Itziar thinks Fifty Shades sucks. “The book, and the film too, I expect, reinforces very traditional gender roles, where women agree to have sex in exchange for material security and babies… it offers a very limited, heteronormative view of relationships and the purpose of love and sex.”

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In the days following the introduction of the AMSA, the Lib Dem MP Julian Huppert submitted a motion to repeal it, which, if successful, would give Parliament a chance to debate the issue. But it only has five signatures at the moment, compared to, for context, one about seeds that has 108. Seeds. Putting it bluntly, the chance of the law being reconsidered is whip-thin.

So for now, if you’re into British BDSM videos, you’d better get used to American accents and/or incomprehensible German growling, because the censors are staying put. If you find you can’t, just go watch some crying girl have her sphincter torn on Brazzers – that stuff is still A-okay.