Whores of Yore is a website, run by academic Kate Lister, which describes itself as follows: “We are proudly sex-positive. An inter-disciplinary, pro-sex worker rights hub, dedicated to exploring the history of human sexuality and challenging shame and stigma.” (Here’s the link – please note it’s a teensy bit NSFW, at least if your boss is a religious fundamentalist or an anti-sex feminist).
Along with intelligent writing and resources on sex work issues, the site includes a gallery of Vintage Erotica (click at your peril!) which ranges from topless imagery to some quite naughty stuff. Who knew our great-great grannies were getting up to this sort of thing? Few people would consider these images to be pornographic but then, porn is such a tricky thing to define.
Unswayed by this apparent problem, the government has promised (in the current Digital Economy Bill) to block pornography unless it’s behind an age verification check (one that forces you to enter your credit card, mobile phone or other personal details). So what definition of porn does the bill use?
The bill defines porn as video, imagery or audio that the BBFC (the video censor which will now become the Internet censor) would classify at either 18 or R18 certificate. And while R18 refers to explicit, hardcore action, 18 is reserved for the soft stuff: faked sex, striptease and even simple nudity, if the censors decide that it might be titillating. An added level of complication is that the BBFC only currently classifies video, not imagery. And as for audio… what do they consider audio porn to consist of? Well, we’ll soon find out.
The problem is that this breathtakingly broad definition of pornography will catch millions of sites that range far beyond pornography. So how about Whores of Yore? Since it’s a blog that doesn’t (and effectively can’t) age-check its users, will it break the law when it comes into effect? Will it be blocked? Will Kate Lister be paraded naked through the streets of London and pelted with rotten fruit? OK, the last one probably (and disappointingly) won’t happen.
So Kate contacted the BBFC, the UK’s soon-to-be Internet censor with a simple question: will she be a criminal, and will her site be blocked, under the new regime? After all, these rules are set to become law within a few months, and have been under discussion for years. Predictably, the BBFC responded to say they simply can’t answer:
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“Work in this area has not yet begun and so we are not in a position to advice [sic] you on your website. Pages 23 and 24 of our Classification Guidelines detail the standards applied when classifying sex works at 18 and R18 however and may be of interest to you.”
To save you the time of checking the BBFC’s online guidelines, let me assure you that they’re as useful as a chocolate dildo. Actually, far less useful than that. So either the BBFC really doesn’t know which sites it will be blocking later this year, or (and this seems more likely) it doesn’t want to admit that the law is so loosely drafted that almost anything might be blocked, at a whim.
And the response hints that the BBFC’s remit may soon go far beyond nude imagery (my highlight):
“Under its letters of designation the BBFC may not classify anything that may breach criminal law, including the Obscene Publications Act (OPA) as currently interpreted by the Crown Prosecution Service”
So we need to stop obsessing on the censorship of “niche porn”, which has served as a distraction from the main story. This is a blueprint for a state censor that can block anything it likes.
If you run a website, and are worried it may breach UK law, please contact the BBFC and ask whether you may be criminalised, or have your site blocked. It’s unacceptable, this late in the day, that the BBFC doesn’t know what content it’s going to censor. Let me know how they respond.