A woman is standing trial in Utah for being topless in front of her her stepchildren, in her own home. Although she argued that Utah’s lewdness law is unconstitutional, the judge has disagree and so her trial continues. Read more...
Long-standing readers of this blog will know UK government attempts to censor the Internet under the banner of “child protection”. For years, media regulators and sections of government made the argument that online pornography was harming children. Given that there was little evidence to support this, they relied on disseminating moral panics in order to bounce government into taking action.
Various vested interests were rallied to support these panics and add a level of credibility. These included anti-sex feminists – who added a ‘women’s rights’ narrative, and the NSPCC (a child protection charity) which lent its brand to spreading dubious claims about porn addiction. I documented these campaigns in my book Porn Panic.
The solution offered by the regulators (which was passed into law in the Digital Economy Act of 2017) was to force porn providers to verify the ages of their visitors. While this might have sounded reasonable to the unaware, this would have involved large amounts of infrastructure spending in three places: first, porn vendors would be required implement age verification systems; second an “age verification regulator” (the BBFC) would be given powers to act against porn companies that did not comply; and third, ISPs would be required to block sites if ordered to do so by the BBFC.
Expensive change is always good for someone. In this case, the biggest winner would have been the Age Verification industry, which would have been granted a large state-enforced market. Unsurprisingly, members of the AV industry were often involved with lobbying activities, designed to make the case for the porn block. The AV industry also became a regular sponsor of adult industry events, in anticipation of the day that the porn companies would be forced to use their products.
Then after the election of Boris Johnson as the Tory Party leader, in a rare display of common sense, the government suddenly scrapped the scheme. This was good news for anti-censorship and privacy campaigners, but less good news for the AV industry.
Now, four AV industry providers (AgeChecked Ltd, VeriMe, AVYourself and AVSecure) are suing the government for £3m for changing its mind. Watch this space for more.
This is a slightly longer, unedited version of my article The Price of Sex, which appeared in Quillette recently.
Working as a photographer for a charity a few years back, I was travelling through Malawi and stopped overnight in a mining town. It was a Wednesday, and myself (plus the local charity workers I was travelling with) headed out to a bar. Other than a woman serving at the bar, everyone else there was male. Some were playing pool. Some were drinking, but most were doing neither. I asked the bargirl why there were no women in the place. Responding as if I was slightly dim, she explained: “the men get paid on Friday”. On the surface, in a mining town, the gender pay gap is huge, with the vast majority of money officially going to men. And yet, by Saturday morning, much of the cash has been transferred to bar owners, prostitutes, girlfriends and wives. A privileged observer might suggest that women in such a town should be ‘liberated’ to earn their own money. But the point is that they are. While most would agree that women should be free to take mining jobs if they choose, it’s unlikely that many women would want such gruelling, dangerous and unhealthy work when being a bar prostitute, a girlfriend or a wife to a miner is available as an alternative.
The total value of the sex trade could be said to be the value of the net transfer of wealth from men to women. How can we begin to value an industry this big, ancient and diverse, especially when much of it – probably most of it – is undocumented and untaxed?
During another African trip – this time to Bamako in Mali – I asked a young man whether he had a girlfriend. He explained “Non… pas moto, pas copine”. He had no moped, and so, no of course he didn’t have a girlfriend. He told me that the girls back home in his village were friendly and open, but the big-city Bamako girls had higher expectations. So of course, buying a moped became a first priority for any aspiring young Malian. I had noticed that Bamako’s streets were filled with mopeds, mostly driven by men, but often with women sitting on the back. For a man, a moped means sex as well as transport. These anecdotes point towards the difficulty involved in calculating the extent of the sex trade. Some percentage of Bamako’s moped sales represent a hidden transfer of wealth from men to women: men buy mopeds, and (attractive) women therefore get free transport. What is this transfer of value worth?
Now consider how many similar transfers of wealth take place. The UK flower industry was worth almost £1bn last year. Of course, flowers are bought by many people for all sorts of reasons, but many are bought romantically by men for their female partners, or for courtship. What about restaurant meals, hotel rooms, concert tickets, diamonds, taxi fares, cocktails, vacations…? What proportion of money spent by men on these things is related to a promise, a hint, or a mere hope, of sex, whether fulfilled or unfulfilled? Historically, what proportion of the silk carried (invariably by men) along the Silk Road found itself worn by the wealthy wives and mistresses of Europe?
Males (in our species, and others) are, by definition, the low-value sex. The key difference between males and females in reproduction is that males are low investors and females are high investors. Female birds and reptiles lay big, nutritious eggs. Female mammals have to carry (and feed) infants for weeks or months of pregnancy, and then suckle them afterwards. Even in plants (at least those species that produce separate male and female flowers), the females are forced to invest more. It is no coincidence that marijuana farmers destroy male plants, and retain the females for their big, resin-heavy flowers. Females are more valuable, almost everywhere.
This truth about sex displays itself very differently in different species. In humans, it is expressed in a trade that is fundamental to us, and has shaped our recent evolution. In an essay titled Why Do Men Hunt? (published in a collection titled Why Is Sex Fun?), the science writer Jared Diamond explains the evolution of hunting skills in human males. His explanation? That men developed hunting skills and tools in order to acquire meat that could be traded for sex. Our recent evolution was heavily shaped by trade. Humans may not have the speed, strength, teeth or claws of most predators, so our brains evolved instead. Our ancestors developed language, teamwork, advanced weapons and the ability to strategise, because these abilities improved our chances of reproducing. A man who was a good hunter brought meat back to the clan, and a man with meat will mate more often and produce more children. The children in turn inherit the skills of their hunting fathers. The evolution of the modern human brain coincided with the extinction of the largest mammals (megafauna), on every continent, starting around 125,000 years ago. Until the rise of modern man, being big was a tried and tested survival mechanism. Humans changed that – the largest mammals were an early casualty of the human sex trade.
If Diamond answered the question Why Do Men Hunt?, the answer to the corollary question Why Don’t Women Hunt? was obvious. Women didn’t hunt (in the traditional sense at least) because they didn’t have to. Hunting was dangerous and required a large investment of valuable calories. Why hunt when men will bring you meat? This does not mean of course that women were freed from intra-sex competition. While men competed with each other in terms of hunting abilities such as strength, agility and technical innovation, women competed to win the best meat (and sperm) from successful hunters. While female competition was less physical than the male variety, it was no less intense, and was focused on presenting attractiveness and youth (which are proxies for fertility and genetic health). Women therefore took a lot of interest in their own, and their rivals’ appearances, both in order to copy techniques that other women employed to maximise their attractiveness, and to socially shun and stigmatise younger and better-looking rivals.
And so a primitive economy was born. The sex trade launched technological and economic growth, and the sex roles continued broadly as they had begun. Men relied on innovation, risk-taking and social status to attract mates, and women became skilled in the arts of attracting (and preferably keeping) a mate. As the male-led industries evolved and diversified from their origins in hunting and fishing, thousands of new industries, roles and professions were spawned.
The original female industry – the sex trade – was undoubtedly far bigger than any of the other (male-created) industries, because its role was to collect a dividend on all male-led activity. The greater the innovation and diversification of male-run industries, the larger the sex trade became.
As civilisation evolved, so did the sex trade. It began with ‘primitive prostitution’ – straightforward trades of meat (and other rare gifts such as honey or decorative items) for sex, but with technological advances such as private property, money and contracts (verbal or written), it became increasingly sophisticated. Private property allowed a man’s social status to be valued based on his wealth (which of course, he took care to signal loudly). Publicly-acknowledged contracts allowed the development of marriage, in which women could offer exclusive access to their fertility in exchange for a male promise to provide for them (and their children). Sexual exclusivity was valuable to men, who now had a level of certainty over having fathered their children. In exchange for this guarantee of paternity, men paid far more for sex with wives than they would for casual sex.
A value hierarchy emerged, with wives at the top above mistresses, then prostitutes, and at the bottom, ‘sluts’ – women who committed the sin of giving away sex for free. Each layer in the hierarchy undermined the value, and so incurred the wrath, of the layers above. It is no accident that today, the leading anti-sex campaigners (those who seek to restrict prostitution, striptease, pornography and other expressions of sexual freedom) are female. To reduce the availability of sexually available young women in society is to strengthen marriage, and push up the price of sex, the female commodity.
The price of (female) sex is driven by men’s ability to pay, and by availability. Unlike virtually any other commodity, the supply is fairly inelastic, since biology mandates (approximately) a 50-50 population balance between men and women. This means that, as the male-led industries have grown exponentially, the price of sex has kept track. While the average price of sex is very hard to estimate accurately, the price of prostitution is a good proxy and is easy to measure. Cultural, economic and demographic changes have had the effect of increasing or reducing the price of sex. Wars and famines that reduce the male population more than the female will naturally affect the ratio of supply to demand and lower the cost of sex, and sex-selective abortion of girls, such as that seen in China and India, will increase it. Similarly, mass migration will tend to raise or lower the price, depending on the culture and gender balance of the migrants. When Polish people won free movement into the EU in 2004, I heard complaints from both low-skilled male friends in the building industry, and from sex workers that rates were being undercut by the new migrants. The Economist suggested in 2014 that German sex workers had felt a similar effect. But (the Economist reports in the same article), the price of sex has declined globally in recent decades, reflecting other trends including online advertising for sex workers, hookup culture driven by dating apps, and reduced social stigma for sex workers and women engaging in casual sex.
Uniquely as a commodity, the price of sex varies immensely based on the wealth and social status of the buyer. For example, in divorce cases, the value of years invested by wives is calculated based on the wealth of the husband. Possibly the greatest sex trade in history was the the $38bn divorce settlement from Jeff Bezos to his ex-wife MacKenzie. Although this was justified by the fact that MacKenzie had helped in the early stages of founding Amazon by driving cars and doing the accounts, her payout would have been far less if she had not also shared the founder’s bed. Her sexual value is considered equivalent to his role in creating one of the world’s biggest companies.
If the Bezos case represents the most valuable sexual contract on record, one of the most expensive individual shags in history was achieved by Boris Becker, who managed to impregnate a Russian model (Angela Ermokova) in a cupboard at a cost of £20m ($25m). As in the Bezos case, the value of the sex (and the payments for the resulting offspring) was based on Becker’s wealth rather than either the local average price of sex or the typical cost of raising a child. The acquisition of a wealthy man’s sperm is a lucrative niche of the sex trade.
Unsurprisingly, sex workers are better aware than most of the value of sex, and less ashamed to discuss it without euphemism. I’ve seen posts from sex workers asking for free services, from photoshoots and car repairs, to video editing and rodent removal.
How does one value all this free stuff, given willingly by men in exchange for sex, or a hope of sex, or merely to impress an attractive woman? This question is probably unanswerable to any degree of certainty. One thing is sure though: for men, sexual and romantic relationships can be expensive. In 2017, the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that men from poor backgrounds in their forties were twice as likely to be single as men from wealthy backgrounds. Another British study revealed that men spend about £1,300 a year more than women on dating. Dating is not just a way to discover a person’s personality, but a way to assess a man’s wealth and generosity. Women are advised by friends to ‘value themselves’ and not sleep with men on a first date. The modern generation of dating apps produce data that reveals the extent of difference between male and female courtship behaviours. A study on Tinder for example found that men have to swipe right about 15 times more than women to get a similar level of response. These are not marginal differences, and they shine a light on an old reality: that female sex is vastly more valuable than male.
We may not be able to calculate the extent of the wealth transfer from men to women, but we can gauge the scale of the trade by examining male and female relative outcomes. The gender pay gap has become well known, and is widely (and falsely) presented as evidence of female disadvantage. The gap is typically calculated at between 10% and 20%. Not only do women earn less than men on average, but they work for fewer years of their lives than men. On this basis women must – surely – be poorer than men? If they are, this will be easy to demonstrate via various metrics. A naive researcher might expect the outcomes for gender to be similar to the racial disparities in the United States, where African Americans are paid less (on average) than Whites or Asians. Predictably, this racial pay gap is represented in other metrics: African Americans are more likely to be jailed, to be shot by police, and (most important) to die younger than other groups. Life expectancy is an excellent proxy measure of general wellbeing.
And yet, when the same measures are applied to gender, the outcomes are the reverse of what might be expected. American men are more than ten times more likely to be imprisoned than women and around 20 times more likely to be shot dead by police. Similarly, women outlive men significantly. How is it that women should be nominally poorer than men (based on pay differences, at least), yet by all metrics of wellbeing appear to be better off? This difference in lifespan tends to be blithely dismissed as ‘biology’, but this alone is no explanation. Yes, biology is the underlying reason men have worse outcomes than women. Not because men are inherently prone to die younger, but because the sex trade requires men to take the greatest risks and the toughest jobs.
The reality of these outcome disparities is that black people represent a disproportionate proportion of America’s least successful 20%, and so do men. America’s prisons are full of poor people (disproportionately black and disproportionately male) who broke the law, in many cases, because they could find no other way to survive. Middle-class women have little understanding of how poor communities function, and so will happily accept ‘toxic masculinity’ explanations for male criminality. But working-class women tend to see things more clearly. When I interviewed Lady Andromeda, a black, south London sex worker, she explained simply: in poor communities, women can sell sex and do relatively well. In fact, working-class women in London who sell sex can easily earn more than most middle-class men. But what options do men have in the poorest communities? “They steal cars, or sell drugs,” she said. It is not, of course, that women cannot do these things. But they have a safer, better-paying, and (in London at least) legal alternative. This is why poor men are far more likely to end up in prison, or murdered than either poor women or wealthier men.
So women, thanks to the sex trade, have better outcomes than men. This still leaves the chicken-and-egg question: does the sex trade exist because women choose it, or because (as feminist theorists may claim) it is forced upon them by systemic misogyny and glass ceilings? Clearly, women do greatly better than men in poor communities and mining towns, but what about at the high end of society? We are often told that the gender disparity in corporate board positions is proof of a male-rigged system. Wouldn’t women become CEOs too, given the opportunity? It appears not. The book Superfreakonomics outlines a study of male and female MBA graduates. While women earned similarly to men early in their careers, the wage gap rapidly increased. However, it was found that women “…who leave the workforce are disproportionately those with very high-earning husbands.” It appeared that female MBA graduates often used their MBA to marry high-earning men rather than pursue long-term business careers. On paper, their earnings fell behind men, but in practise their lifestyles were upheld by switching some of their corporate earnings for sex trade earnings. After all, being a senior manager of a large corporation is punishing, involving long hours, endless travel, and missing out on social and family time. Is it better to be a CEO or a CEO’s wife? Each shares the same wealth, home, vacations, but arguably, the CEO’s wife has a better lifestyle than her husband.
From Jared Diamond’s question Why Do Men Hunt? to the modern versions: Why Do Men Mine?, Why Do Men Sell Drugs? or Why Do Men CEO? the answers are similar. But the direction of travel looks positive for equality. The trends of recent decades – for women to join the once-male economy, for increased sexual freedom, and for the price of sex to fall – point towards a narrowing of the gap in outcomes between men and women. Economic innovations such as Universal Basic Income may help narrow the gap further. Conversely, the current trends towards conservatism and nationalism may halt and reverse the liberal revolutions of the 20th century, with potentially unhappy consequences for men and women.
Recently, there has been a disturbing rise in antisemitic incidents emanating from certain black nationalist groups, especially the Black Hebrew Israelites. These have included assaults in London, and the shooting of three people at a kosher supermarket in New Jersey. My latest article, at Areo Magazine, looks at the history of these movements, and wonders whether the anti-racist left is capable of challenging such ideologies.
I wrote this piece for Poliquads, a Canadian site. In it, I outlined the background to the UK general election, in terms of three populist earthquakes that have gripped the UK over the past few years.
In the space of five years, Britain’s two main parties have been transformed from pro-EU, pro-migration, pro-trade positions to populist, anti-EU forces. The Tories are now openly hostile towards migration, and even historically pro-immigration Labour is now split in a struggle over the issue, with regular flip-flops in position over whether it supports free movement of European workers.
My latest article (and my first to be published in Arc Digital) examines the steep decline in sexual activity among young Americans.
“The young are having a lot less sex than older people. Instinctively — for Generation X-ers like me, at least — this matches the popular idea of a more puritanical, socially conservative generation. The young are having less sex, taking less recreational drugs, and having less fun than we did.”
Yesterday, Ofcom circulated a confidential email to broadcasters signalling its intention to increase the strength of its censorship regime. This has been provided anonymously to Sex & Censorship, and is published in the public interest.
Ofcom is better known as the UK’s media and communications regulator, but it is also the UK’s media censor. It is hugely powerful and well funded, formed by the merger of multiple earlier regulators covering various sectors of TV and radio. It has always applied ludicrously stringent censorship, often driven by compaints from a handful of individuals, and it throws out huge fines for the smallest of infringements. Its power began to be eroded by the rise of the internet, broadband, and streaming services, but it has long signalled that it intends to extend it remit over all forms of communication.
Ofcom not only censors the British media, but actually writes its own censorship policy – surely something that should be done by government with parliamentary oversight, rather than an unelected body. British (small-L) liberals have long worried about Ofcom’s power. David Cameron, possibly the most liberal of all Tory leaders, signalled his intention to drastically reduce Ofcom’s power before the 2010 election. Presumably, his wrist was slapped by the establishment, and his pledge was never heard of again.
Yesterday’s email reads as follows:
From: Ofcom Standards Team <OfcomStandardsTeam@ofcom.org.uk>
Sent: 18 November 2019
Subject: Note to Broadcasters – Daytime chat and adult chat television services
We would like to draw your attention to the Note to Broadcasters featured in Issue 391 of Ofcom’s Broadcast and On Demand Bulletin which was published today.
The note reminds broadcasters of daytime chat and adult chat services of Ofcom’s guidance in this area and puts these broadcasters on notice that it will be commencing a targeted monitoring exercise of these services. [my highlight]
Standards and Audience Protection team
The linked document is worth reading, because it gives an insight into the tight level of monitoring to which broadcasters are subject. Ofcom has the power to levy fines of hundreds of thousands of pounds, without recourse to the courts. For smaller broadcasters (and streaming companies), these would be impossible to bear. Broadcasters have no option but to tightly self-censor, or be put out of business.
As an afterthought, consider in this context the Labour Party’s recently announced plans for a state-owned, free broadband service. It is unimaginable that the government-run broadband service would allow this to function like a normal ISP that allows full access to the internet, including sexual material or open discussion of difficult issues related to race, sexuality or gender. Given the Tories’ recent attempts to censor the internet, I am deeply distrustful of both major parties with regard to civil liberties, and am keeping my fingers crossed for a hung Parliament.
My latest article, The Price of Sex, examines the economics of sex. While many people regard the sex trade as simply a synonym for sex work, it goes far deeper than that. The sex trade is everywhere, fundamentally woven into the human psyche, into the economy, and into our history. It’s so widespread and obvious that, like the air around us, we usually choose not to notice it. This is an article I’ve been planning to write for a long time, and I’m delighted that Quillette chose to publish it. Click to view the article at Quillette.
Recently, I came across a campaign called We Can’t Consent to This, which purports to be ‘a response to the increasing use of “rough sex” defences to the killing or violent injury of women and girls’. But when I browsed the campaign’s site, it seemed somewhat familiar, and I started to suspect that the campaign was not what it claimed to be. British radical feminist campaigns tend to fit a particular pattern – a pattern with which I became familiar when I observed it over a number of years for my book Porn Panic!
For several years, a small, active (and hateful) radical feminist group called Object was a key driving force behind claims that pornography was harmful, and made repeated calls for porn to be censored. Additionally, Object was behind a number of other pop-up anti-sex campaigns. These included Stripping the Illusion (a campaign to get strip club licenses revoked by councils), Lose the Lads Mags (which attempted to stop supermarkets selling magazines such as Zoo and Nuts), and Rewind and Reframe, which called for the censorship of “sexist” music videos. Object may also have been influential in the No More Page 3 (NMP3) campaign, which called for the Sun newspaper to end its iconic daily topless model on page 3. The same groups of people are also behind anti-sex work campaigns such as Nordic Model Now. At times it seems there are more radfem campaigns than there are activists.
Each campaign had a set of common features, most obvious of which was the shallowness of their arguments. In place of evidence that porn (or lads’ mags, music videos, …) was harmful, the campaign would resort to fear-mongering and the vague insinuation that erotic imagery caused ‘objectification’ which in turn (somehow) caused men to harm women. The campaigns rarely, if ever, attempted to provide evidence of the alleged harm, and with good reason: there was none to be found. Instead they relied on moral panic, scary anecdotes, and the endless repetition of the word ‘objectification’, as if this alone was all the justification they needed. In the rare cases when the campaigns provided statistical evidence, it was often false or misrepresented. One such case was the use of the ‘Lilith Report’ to demonstrate that strip clubs contributed to the prevalence of rape in the local area. This report was mercilessly dismantled by Dr Brooke Magnanti, who showed that the Lilith result had been falsified by cherry-picking only the evidence that matched the claim and ignoring evidence that contradicted it. This did not prevent Object from quoting Lilith for years after it had been discredited.
These campaigns had a number of other things in common. First, they all received uncritical backing from the Guardian, sometimes in comment pieces and occasionally via editorials and planted ‘news’ stories. Second, they all drew their arguments from a small number of unreliable sources: often the leading anti-porn radical feminist activist Gail Dines. And third, they were supported by small numbers of MPs, generally from the Labour Party, and often including the veteran Labour MP (and radical feminist) Harriet Harman, who regularly lends her name to anti-porn and anti-prostitution lobbying efforts. The Guardian, Dines and Harman reappear regularly in support of anti-sex campaigns. All three appear in conjunction with We Can’t Consent to This, with the Guardian publishing a supportive piece, rich in anecdote and panic, on the subject.
We Can’t Consent to This makes the central claim that, increasingly, men accused of murder are using the defence that the death occurred during ‘sex games gone wrong’. It does provide some statistics in a briefing document. However, the statistics quoted by WCCTT themselves seem to suggest that the use of such a defence is extremely rare, and that in any case it doesn’t appear to be taken seriously by the courts. WCCTT’s own data suggests that the defence has been used in the killings of 57 women and girls since 1972 (a timeframe of 47 years), and never more than five times in any year. Furthermore, in almost all cases (51), the defendant was found guilty of either murder or manslaughter. One case has yet to reach court.
WCCTT is a strange campaign: not only is the problem it identifies (the use of a ‘sex game gone wrong’ defence) extremely rare, but the defence it complains of rarely, if ever, works. The briefing document does suggest that the defence has helped reduce charges or mitigate sentencing, but provides no evidence to support this. Most of the site is dedicated to the individual, harrowing, stories of women who have been brutally murdered. So given that murder and manslaughter are already illegal, what exactly is WCCTT trying to achieve?
The direct goals of the campaign are not stated clearly anywhere on the site, but are hinted at: “We do not believe that women can consent to their grievous injury or death, and will campaign until claiming this is no longer a useful defence”. WCCTT asks supporters to write to their MPs calling on their support for an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill. The content of the amendment is not on the WCCTT site; to find out what it actually says, one must visit Parliament’s website, and now we can finally see what the campaign’s true mission is.
There’s a subtle difference between this amendment and the wording on the WCCTT website. While the campaign refers to death and serious injury, the amendment also includes a third category: actual bodily harm. But ABH is defined as follows:
Actual bodily harm is a criminal offence in which someone gives another person a minor injury
ABH refers to bruises, scratches and so on. So this law is primarily designed to stop people causing minor injury to each other. It’s likely that 99% of injuries sustained during sex are both minor and consensual. And so here, apparently, is the big con: We Can’t Consent to This talks loudly about murders and horrific injuries, but actually is campaigning for consenting BDSM, fetish and kink sex to be criminalised.
Is this deliberate, or naive? Fiona Mackenzie of WCCTT contacted me on Twitter after I tweeted about the issue, and denied that the campaign was anti-kink.
I pointed out the campaign seemed to be linked with well known anti-sex campaigners.
Mackenzie is right. According to legal precedent, one cannot consent to being injured. In 1993, during the trial of R vs Brown (aka the Spanner case), a group of gay men were convicted of “unlawful and malicious wounding” after participating in a sadomasochistic sex party, despite the fact that all participants were consenting. However, the case was seen to be deeply homophobic as well as an intrusion into people’s private sex lives. It is unlikely, these days, that police would choose to arrest people for going to an S&M party. And yet, this is what Mackenzie, Harman and their supporters seem to want. I thought I should clarify this point:
She didn’t reply. I tried again:
Again, Fiona Mackenzie failed to reply. I have contacted her again, asking for comment, and will update this article if she responds further.
So We Can’t Consent to This is actually acting to prevent pro-dommes and lifestyle kinksters from enjoying perfectly consensual and (barring the odd bruise) harmless sex lives. The campaign should perhaps be renamed to We Don’t Approve of You Consenting to This.
If you are a pro-domme, or enjoy a fetish lifestyle, and would like to support my work, you can make a contribution here.
(Photo credits: photos courtesy Hyena Photography and Red Heaven Media)
Today, it was announced that the UK government’s plans to introduce age verification for online porn, and to block any content that did not comply, were being shelved.
For me, it all began about 12 years ago. I was running Strictly Broadband, a British streaming porn movie rental site, which was one of the UK’s best known porn outlets. I began to hear that the British Board of Films Classification (the BBFC – formerly, and more accurately, known as the British Board of Film Censors) were investigating the idea of classifying online streaming movies, in the same way they already did for cinema and DVD releases. Given that porn was heavily restricted on DVD (and completely banned in cinemas), this was worrying for the British industry, which would have to heavily cut content to conform to British standards.
We were already beginning to suffer from the effects of free content from the newly-launched ‘tube’ sites such as Youporn.com, so this was unwelcome news for an industry that was already struggling.
I went to the meet the BBFC’s new Head of Online, Pete Johnson, to discuss his plans. He was introducing a scheme called BBFC Online, under which movies should display the appropriate BBFC certificate (which was either 18 for soft titles or R18 for hard ones, although many titles that were legal in the EU or USA would not be allowed at all). Johnson explained that the scheme was voluntary, but would likely be adopted soon by UK regulators. My team implemented BBFC Online on our site, but we were just about the only site to do so, and the scheme failed.
Johnson, however, jumped ship to run a new regulator, ATVOD, which would report to Ofcom, the UK’s giant media regulator and censor of TV and radio. Again, I met with him, and registered my site with ATVOD (and paid the hefty registration fee). ATVOD was supposed to be a general-purpose regulator of all video-on-demand (VoD) services, but Johnson appeared to have a particular obsession with regulating pornography.
ATVOD’s Rule 11 was especially suspect. It required adult sites to verify the ages of all visitors before allowing them to view any content. This age verification was far more than just a button saying “I’m Over 18”. Sites were required to check age using a credit card (debit cards were not considered secure enough) or some other method, such as a passport check. To implement this would have simply meant that we went bust. I began lobbying on behalf of the industry, pointing out that there was no point simply chasing us all out of business or offshore; but the regulator seemed to relish the chance of destroying the UK’s small adult industry.
Johnson began to pick on a series of small sites – mostly those whose owners had made contact with him to enquire about the regulations. Then ATVOD served notice on Playboy TV and my own business. Playboy (who were by now owned by the biggest porn company) simply closed their UK operation and migrated to Canada. Given only two weeks to comply, I had little option but to sell my site and close my company.
However, ATVOD was short-lived. Johnson’s porn obsession was annoying the big broadcasters – BBC, Channel 4, Sky, and so on – who were largely funding the regulator. Eventually, Ofcom closed ATVOD down, and took the regulation in-house. This was not the end of attempts to censor pornography, but the start of an escalation.
In 2016, Ofcom began a consultation on adult content, to which I submitted a response. This appeared to be rigged, with the outcome predetermined to recommend censorship. Sure enough, Ofcom rapidly announced that children were indeed threatened by the existence of online porn, and that legislation was required to protect them (aka give Ofcom powers to censor the internet).
The legislation (the Digital Economy Act) was rolled out in April 2017. This created the role of Age Verification Regulator, and granted this new regulator powers to fine and disrupt services that did not verify the ages of visitors. It was later announced that the AV regulator would be the BBFC (which was no doubt grateful, as its business from DVD censorship was quickly dying).
More significant, it was announced that ISPs would be required to block sites on a blacklist provided by the BBFC. This would be the most powerful internet censor in British history – and possibly in any democratic country.
However, the immense cost of the block, and various civil liberties issues, appear to have finally changed the government’s mind, and they pulled the plug. This is bad news indeed for the BBFC and the age verification industry, but good news for civil liberties. However, the government ominously suggests it will continue to act against “Online Harm”. It may be that, given the rise of social media in the past few years, the blocking system simply makes little sense any more. Far easier to threaten Facebook and Twitter to control what content can be shared on their platforms.
Watch this space for the next thrilling installment…