Category Archives: News

Will the BBFC Block Whores of Yore, A Sex Work History Site?

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).

Kate Lister

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:

“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.

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Podcast 14: Jerry at BBFC HQ

For a long time, I’ve predicted that the “porn panic” was leading to mass website blocking. Recently, this very measure was introduced to the draft Digital Economy Bill. Britain is set to be the world’s first democracy with a powerful Internet censor. So I went to BBFC HQ in Soho Square to rant about it. This is the audio version – the video is on our YouTube channel.

Queen's Speech Promises State Censorship

Buy Some Free Speech This Xmas

The UK state will begin censoring the web in 2017 – and almost nobody has noticed. Online free speech as we’ve known it for over 25 years is about to come under fundamental assault. The Digital Economy Bill, currently going through Parliament, will become law in 2017. It contains a little section about “protecting children from pornography”. And who could disagree with that? But this isn’t about porn, or child protection: it’s a power grab by the state, which wants to control the Internet as it does TV and video.

From next year, a state-approved private company (the BBFC), funded with £millions of taxpayers money, will have the power to block websites that it considers pose a “threat to children”. Initially, this related to sites containing sexual or erotic images, video or even audio. But we know it won’t stop there. Porn is the testing ground for one of the greatest attacks on free speech in British history. This campaign has worked for three years to inform the press and public about a disguised threat to Internet freedom.

It is vital that we continue to educate journalists, politicians and the public on what this law is actually about: censorship. I can’t continue this work without your help. Please donate to support Sex & Censorship – donations above £20 will receive a signed copy of my book Porn Panic!, which documents how the “porn threat” is used as an excuse to attack sexual freedom and free speech in the UK.

In The Press

It’s been a busy week for me, following the (totally unsurprising) announcement that the BBFC will be getting the power to block websites that breach its own rules. Or to put it another way, a private organisation is going to be writing its own law and applying its own punishments without oversight from Parliament or the courts.

Below are some press links from the Guardian, Huffington Post and the Independent. These are article I’ve written or in which I’ve been quoted. I’ve also been on the radio, and have made a video on this subject.

 

BBFC Internet censorship

Britain’s First Official Internet Censor Is… The BBFC

Today’s news, that the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) will become an official Internet censor, is not so surprising, if you’ve followed the long saga of British state attempts to censor the mass media. The story is long and convoluted, begins in the 1970s, and is summarised in part in my book Porn Panic!

The creation of the new censorship function is part of the “anti-porn” measures in the Digital Economy Bill, which is currently in Parliament. So here’s the first weird thing – the action of appointing the BBFC has taken place before the law is passed. Cart-before-horse, much? But this abuse of process is minor, compared to what has come before. The bill will, no doubt, be passed with little scrutiny, because the UK’s first great step into Internet censorship has been sold under the banner (as I’ve long predicted) of “protecting children from pornography”.

Let’s remind ourselves that, in regulator-speak, “pornography” means “anything we want to censor”. Remember David Cameron’s optional “porn filters” which block 19% of the Internet, for example? In the current draft of the Bill, the definition of porn has been hugely extended from hardcore material to any sexual/nude/erotic material. The old regulations have been extended from covering just video to including still imagery and even audio. Audio porn? you ask… what’s that? Well, exactly. This bill will begin broad and get broader.

As I’ve repeatedly pointed out in the three years since I started this blog and campaign, this isn’t about BDSM, or kink, or porn, or even sex. It’s about everything.

The BBFC was an film industry body until (suitably) 1984, when it was given government-approved powers to censor (as well as classify) video. Ironically, just as it was given this draconian censorship power, it changed the C in its name from Censorship to Classification. George Orwell would be proud. One of the results of the 1984 change in law was an immediate ban by the BBFC (a private organisation) on hardcore pornography, without a debate or discussion in Parliament. Our censorship laws are written by unelected officials with minimal accountability to our elected government. This should deeply worry anybody who cares about democracy.

In 2007, I went to meet a certain Pete Johnson, the BBFC’s Head of Online, who was attempting to set up a programme for regulating online video. Johnson’s scheme failed to get approval, but he was instead appointed head of ATVOD, the video-on-demand regulator, reporting to Ofcom, which (heavily) censors TV and radio. I campaigned against ATVOD’s bullying and arbitrary behaviour for some years.

A year ago, it was announced that ATVOD would be dissolved, and powers returned to Ofcom. This was greeted with applause by campaigners, but as I pointed out at the time – this was a case of jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Now, the new law will give the new regulator (which, we now know, is the BBFC) far stronger powers than ATVOD had. The scope of the regulator (as mentioned above) will be far broader than ATVOD’s “TV-like content”. Any commercial site carrying “porn” (i.e. nude video/imagery/audio…) and not properly verifying the age of its visitors will face sanctions from the BBFC. Furthermore, unlike ATVOD, the BBFC will have powers to sanction overseas providers. (Note – the age verification requirement is onerous, and has been banned by the US Supreme Court as censorship. I previously explained this issue in a post).

For what it’s worth, here’s a little guess: could Pete Johnson, a well known anti-porn activist regulator when he ran ATVOD, be about to make a triumphal return to the BBFC?

Until now, those backing this law have insisted that the sanctions will relate to withholding payment services, and similar. But in Parliament yesterday, the (presumably jubilant) BBFC director David Austin said that “sanctioned sites could find web properties blocked by IP address and de-indexed from search engines”.

I’ve been following the porn panic for almost ten years. For almost that long, it has been crystal-clear where all this is leading, though it has moved like treacle. Cleverly, the introduction of Britain’s first Internet censor has been justified, from start to end, by pornography.

Our cause isn’t helped by sexual freedom campaigners who still think this is about “kinkphobia” or “sexist porn censorship”. It really isn’t, it’s about our most fundamental rights of free expression. We’re witnessing the greatest attack on free speech in generations, and our press and politicians are still asleep on the job. Please help me wake them up.

Please buy my book or make a donation to this campaign. Every little helps. Thank you.

Keith Vaz

Keith Vaz, Brothel Clampdowns and Dark Clouds

When, a few weeks ago, a parliamentary committee – chaired by Keith Vaz MP – declared its support, in an interim report, for decriminalising sex workers, I was sceptical. My scepticism was based, not on inside knowledge of the committee, but on two main things:

  1. The declared purpose of the inquiry was to determine whether clients should be criminalised for paying for sex. But this point was ignored in the interim report. So why was an interim report issued before even considering the most important issue? This remains unclear.
  2. Over recent years, I’ve documented a rising ultra-conservatism which is permeating society, and is prevalent across the entire political spectrum (see my book Porn Panic! for details). Could it be, just as the pendulum is so clearly swinging away from liberal values, that we are about to see sex work fully decriminalised? Much as I’d like to believe that, it seems unlikely.

In the mean time, a couple of things have happened. The sudden downfall of Keith Vaz, following a tabloid sting, has led to him stepping down from the committee. The sting (which involved recording his alleged encounter with two young Romanian men), exposes him as a potential hypocrite (MP IN HYPOCRITE SHOCKER!) and has led to him stepping down from the committee. This was immediately seized upon by abolitionists, who called for the entire review to be scrapped.

Whether it is, in fact, hypocritical to pay sex workers while chairing a committee on sex work, will be left for another discussion. Can one imagine “Hypocrite MP who chaired football enquiry discovered to be Arsenal fan!”? Me neither.

Even more creepy than the carefully planned sting on Vaz was yesterday’s call from the “anti-slavery commissioner” (ugh) for Londoners to shop suspected brothels to the Metropolitan Police. The “sex trafficking” narrative has been escalated to a “sex slavery” one. The new campaign has been accompanied by hysterical language: “…sex workers in the capital were being beaten, raped and sometimes starved by the men controlling them in a form of human slavery that was blighting the capital”.

The coverage neglected to mention the almost total failure of the police to find “sex slaves”. In fact, raids on brothels have been used to arrest and humiliate sex workers, bust them for drug possession, and identify (and then deport) illegal immigrants. In short, the sex slavery hysteria is yet another new cover for the recently merged anti-prostitution and anti-immigration movements. “Rescuing” has become code for “harassing, criminalising and deporting”.

This new, Stasi-type attempt at citizen spying also ignores the fact that Vaz’s parliamentary committee has recommended the decriminalisation of brothel keeping. The police are ramping up anti-brothel raids under a law that is now widely seen – including by parliamentarians – as outdated and redundant.

Not only have illegal immigrants been targeted in this way, but even legal migrants have been targeted for deportation. In May it was reported that Romanian sex workers – EU citizens – are facing deportation on the basis that they are criminals. And their crime? This is unclear, as prostitution is legal in the UK.

So while we appear to be looking at isolated incidents, these events take place in an atmosphere of rising authoritarianism, anti-sex prudery and xenophobia. While Keith Vaz is in no way a libertine, one can predict with confidence that he will be replaced (on the Home Affairs committee) by somebody more socially conservative.

As I document the rising fascism in British society, I frequently check myself: am I cherry-picking to fit my narrative? Have I been swayed by conspiracy theorists? I’d like to discover that my pessimism about the state of society is misplaced. But sadly, I don’t think it is (feel free to reassure me in the comments section below).

John O'Neill

John O’Neill: The British Man Banned From Having Sex

This blog has long documented ways in which the British anti-sex movement has set out to stigmatise legal, consensual sex between adults. By establishing a series of porn-panic concepts, from the odd idea that we’re all being “sexualised” to the recent insistence that porn is a “public health crisis”, the movement has laid the groundwork for politicians and police to begin rolling back recent advances in sexual freedom. The story of John O’Neill is among the most bizarre of all recent cases.

O’Neill was accused of rape, but swiftly found not guilty in court. Nonetheless, the judge requested that police continue to treat him as a threat to women. O’Neill must now give police 24 hours notice before having sexual contact with anyone; this apparently includes flirting or kissing. It appears that John O’Neill’s “crime” was nothing more than an interest in BDSM with consenting adults.

This excellent article in Reprobate magazine explains this unprecedented attack on an innocent man’s human rights.

Ofcom

Ofcom’s Internet Power Grab is Finally Underway

Yesterday, the UK government released the result of its consultation into (yet again) protecting children from online pornography. Predictably, the finding was that children DO need even more protection, and so Ofcom must be granted additional powers to censor online content.

This process has been so long and treacle-slow that it’s been clear for many years where it is leading. Stripping away the various convoluted steps that brought us here, one simple fact has always been obvious: Ofcom and the government were always going to act against a free Internet which undermined their powerful censorship controls over the mass media, and especially over sexual content.

So what will the new law – the Digital Economy Bill – say? It cements and the significantly extends the existing AVMS regulations which have been in place since 2010. So, as before, adult video-on-demand sites based in the UK are required to verify the ages of their visitors before revealing adult content to them. Failure to do so can (as before) result in a fine of up to £250,000. This regulation is the reason the UK adult industry has been decimated in the past few years.

Here’s the new stuff:

  1. The law no longer applies to “TV-like” video-on-demand services, but to all content, including still photography. This will close the loophole which a handful of websites have used to evade the regulations.
  2. Apps are to be included as well as websites.
  3. Ofcom will put pressure on payment companies as well as “advertising companies, web hosting services and others” to ensure that “the business models and profits of companies that do not comply with the new regulations can be undermined”. This enables Ofcom to target overseas content that breaches UK regulations.

Note the vagueness in this last point: this could easily include, in future, requiring ISPs to block services. So here is the law that I’ve warned of for some years: one that will allow Ofcom to manage – and close – our digital borders. The great firewall of Britain is coming.

Unless I’ve missed it, I can’t find any definition of “porn” in the report. The consultation hinted that soft content – non-explicit nudity and erotica – may be included, at Ofcom’s discretion.

It’s Not About Porn

Here’s a point I’ve made repeatedly. In my book Porn Panic!, I argue that the war on porn has been merely a symptom of a deeper intolerance to free speech that has long been rising in British society. Ofcom will not, of course, stop at targeting commercial porn sites, or even all sexual content. The British state considers myriad forms of content to be unsuitable for under-18s, and will now grant itself the powers to deal with it.

Brexit

And finally, a note on Brexit. It is likely that “undermining” (i.e. blocking or forcing to close) a legal, EU-based adult service would breach EU trade regulations. Sadly, should we leave the EU (as looks likely), we lose any legal recourse against this rising state censorship. Here, as in so many other ways, the EU has protected the British people against the excesses of our own government. Just as we will lose the free movement of people across borders, so we are beginning to lose the free transmission of information across borders.

UK Committee Recommends Sex Work Decriminalisation (Kinda)

British sex workers are jubilant as the parliamentary sex work inquiry, led by Labour MP Keith Vaz, has recommended scrapping laws restricting the sale of sex in the UK. While sex work is legal, sex workers have long called for complete decriminalisation.  In particular, sex work activists have pointed at the brothel-keeping law which effectively prevents two or more women working together for safety.

The statement includes a quote from Vaz which strongly recommends the scrapping of these laws:

“Treating soliciting as a criminal offence is having an adverse effect, and it is that sex workers, who are predominantly women, should be penalised and stigmatised in this way. The criminalisation of sex workers should therefore end.

The current law on brothel keeping also means sex-workers can be too afraid of prosecution to work together at the same premises, which can often compromise their safety.”

This is fantastic for those who have campaigned to make life safer for sex workers. There are caveats, however:

“There must however be zero tolerance of the organised criminal exploitation of sex workers, and changes to legislation should not lessen the Home Office’s ability to prosecute those engaged in exploitation.”

So, for example, it is unclear whether a partner of a sex worker who works from home might still be criminalised. Such a statement suggests that full decriminalisation is not, in fact, on the cards – rather a loosening of existing laws. Nonetheless, life is set to become easier and safer for sex workers in general.

However, this is an interim statement, and there is a huge omission: the committee has yet to determine whether sex buyers will be criminalised under the so-called Nordic Model, which has been implemented in Sweden, Northern Ireland, and most recently in France.

“The Committee will evaluate a number of the alternative models as this inquiry continues, including the sex-buyers law as operated in Sweden, the full decriminalised model used in Denmark, and the legalised model used in Germany and the Netherlands.”

As I reported in my article about France, the introduction of the Nordic model was dishonestly presented as decriminalisation. A Twitter user suggested to me that:

“France is not banning prostitution actually quite the contrary. We are banning the buying of sex and de-criminilising prostitutes” [sic]

So the language of decriminalisation is malleable and slippery. Since “decriminalisation” has become a popular word, so prohibitionists have adopted it and changed its meaning. Shifting the legal burden from workers to clients is not, of course, decriminalisation – it just uses different tools to achieve the same ends; it would also make a mockery of a new law that allows brothels to be kept, but doesn’t allow anyone to visit them.

So there is certainly great cause for celebration, but perhaps the most important decision has been left to a later date. We await with interest.

Brexit

Britons Light Fuse With Brexit

This article was first published at XBIZ.com on Friday.

In my new book, Porn Panic!, I recount the rise of a new British fascism. What began a few years ago, for me, as a campaign against anti-sex feminists who were trying to censor pornography, grew gradually into a realisation that free speech and other fundamental underpinnings of liberty were under fierce assault from all sides. This new authoritarian movement, which is taking over both wings of politics, has been slowly gaining ground over the past 10-15 years. But with yesterday’s Brexit vote, the way is clear for an explosive rise in fascism across Europe – and beyond.

Having stayed up most of last night to watch, with increasing incredulity, the EU referendum results, I’m still reeling. It’s not that the result was especially unexpected; but the scale of the catastrophe that is now – in real time – engulfing the UK and European economy is staggering, and dwarfs the 2008 meltdown. And if the economic fallout is massive, the political implications will be even more so. Yesterday, the British people lit the fuse. The explosions are only just beginning.

For months, most people with any understanding of what has been unfolding have just looked at each other and said “But we’d never actually vote to leave the EU, would we?”, and we’ve reassured each other that, no, when it comes to the crunch, the British people would pull back from the brink. And so this morning’s news – that the UK population voted by 52% to 48% to exit the EU – is hard to stomach.

From the perspective of the goals of my campaign, Sex & Censorship, the news is very bad. Many of the protections of free speech, net neutrality and human rights that exist in British law have been passed down to us from the EU. EU law offers a good deal of protection against the anti-sex and anti-free speech laws and regulations that I’ve campaigned against. Now, those protections risk being stripped away. The British state, restrained in many ways by the liberalising influence of the EU, may shortly get free rein to pass laws that would not have been acceptable in a western democracy during the liberal postwar era. It’s probably fair to say that yesterday, that era came to an end.

The fact that the resignation of the Prime Minister is one of the more minor stories in today’s news helps illustrate the scale of events. It’s hard to find a comparison on a historical scale. Certainly, this crisis of European politics looks to be every bit as significant as that of the 1930s. Nationalism, which has been slowly rising in Europe (as well as globally) since 9/11, has now been unleashed in a way that few living Europeans have seen in their lifetimes. The European Union has presided over the longest era of peace in European history; the British people just voted to burn it down.

The global significance of the referendum was underpinned by the fact that Donald Trump chose today to fly in and visit the UK (he quietly pre-announced the visit a few weeks ago). Trump understands the nature of fascism, and has shown a far deeper understanding of the threat to western democracy than most of the established political class. This morning, he hailed the referendum result. Simultaneously, the odds of a Trump win in November were cut sharply. Nationalism begets nationalism, and today’s Europe provides Trump with all the nationalistic sentiment he needs to further his authoritarian bandwagon. Elsewhere in Europe, fascists are celebrating. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders celebrated the British poll and called for one to be held locally. In France, the far-right leader Marine Le Pen did the same. Those with a knowledge of WWII history will know that the Netherlands and France were deeply infected by the fascist bug in the 1930s/40s. It is not so surprising that the anti-immigrant backlash is growing rapidly in those same countries today.

Amidst the chaos, it seems churlish to ask what this means for the adult industry. But as has been so often pointed out, sex is the canary in the coalmine of liberty. Sexual and political freedoms have always gone hand-in hand; an attack on one is an attack on the other. And so surely we all – on both sides of the Atlantic – are in for a huge battle in the coming months.

 

Jerry Barnett is an author and campaigner, and runs the Sex & Censorship campaign and blog. His book, Porn Panic!, will be published in August, and is available now for pre-order on Amazon.