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UK Obscenity Law Update: Good News for BDSM Fans, Pornhub and Government Censors

Yesterday, the Crown Prosecution Service announced that they would be loosening their obscenity guidelines to formally allow – for the first time – strong fetish material, so long as it features consenting adults. This news was greeted with joy by fetishists and campaigners. But it was also an inevitable step towards stronger censorship of the Internet by the UK government.

Four years ago, the sex worker activist Charlotte Rose organised perhaps the most entertaining protest ever seen in the UK: the face-sitting protest, outside Parliament. I was one of the speakers at the event, which was called in response to a sly act of government censorship. Without even calling a parliamentary vote, the government had extended DVD pornography rules so they were now applied to Internet video.

Among the acts now banned were “dangerous” acts (hence face-sitting, which could in theory suffocate someone – I kid you not), watersports, female ejaculation, and fetish material including most spanking, sado-masochism and bondage. At a stroke, thousands of porn sites (including all of the free “tube” sites) became technically illegal. You probably didn’t notice, as nothing actually happened. The tubes, and many other sites, continued to stream face-sitting, spanking and squirting material into the UK, and British consumers continued to watch it.

The law change was a failed attempt by the media regulator ATVOD to gain the power to close down overseas websites. Their cunning plan was to approach banks, point out that they were clearing payments for content that was illegal in the UK, and ask them to withdraw their services from the offending sites. The banks, however, didn’t see much of a problem. The material was legal in the US, and the new law, having been sneaked in by the back door, didn’t have much standing. The regulator had failed, and porn had won.

ATVOD was later scrapped, and Ofcom, the mighty media regulator (and censor) took over the online remit. This time, there would be no half-measures. In 2017, the Digital Economy Act was passed. For the first time, a British state censor would have the right to order websites to be blocked if they didn’t conform to UK regulations. The Act allowed porn sites to be blocked on two grounds:

  1. If they didn’t verify the ages of visitors, or
  2. If they contained extreme material.

Now, porn businesses based in America or elsewhere would surely have to pay attention. And they did. Mindgeek (the giant owner of Pornhub and other leading tube sites) began to play ball, and announced it would be conforming to the new UK law. This gave them two massive headaches:

  1. How to verify the ages of millions of UK visitors, and
  2. What to do about all the material that was US-legal but UK-illegal.

The first problem has occupied the industry for some time (and set champagne corks popping in the boardrooms of age verification companies). But not much attention has been paid to the second problem.

The problem now was that big porn companies have accepted (albeit reluctantly) that they will enforce age verification for UK customers (hint – you can use a VPN to mask your location). But why would Mindgeek and others bother to enforce the age verification rule if their content is illegal in the UK anyway?

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If the new British censor – the BBFC – was unable to bring the porn industry on-board with its new regime, it would lose all credibility. Unless Mindgeek signed up, the new censorship law (due to go live this coming April) would fail. So, just for once, the interests of the porn industry and the British government coincided with those of the fetish community. In a nutshell, the change to the law transformed an unworkable system of censorship into a viable one.

So the timing of yesterday’s announcement is little surprise: unless UK obscenity laws were brought into line with American ones before April, the new censorship system would be a flop. It is of course wonderful (and long overdue) news that UK porn users will no longer be criminalised for enjoying a bit of face-sitting porn in the privacy of their own homes. But like much good news from the British authorities, it came with a catch.

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Three Massive Threats to Online Liberty in the UK

For British users at least, the Internet as we know it is about to change fundamentally. This development isn’t sudden: I’ve tracked the rising censorship regime for 10 years, from its early days as a voluntary pilot project called BBFC Online. But to most people, used to having access to most online content, the changes due to begin later this year will be seismic.

This shift represents a significant power-grab by elements of the British state that have resented their loss of power as the Internet has come to supplant TV, radio and newspapers. In particular, this refers to the media regulator Ofcom, which has amassed huge power to censor TV and radio, and has seen itself diminished by the rising power of the digital network. The rise in censorship is, in part, due to Ofcom (and its government supporters) trying to rebuild its old powers of control. But the coming changes go far further than that.

Threat #1: The Digital Economy Act (2017) introduced an official online censor

This issue has been one of my primary focuses. As presented by the government, the DEA simply introduced steps to protect children from viewing pornography. But this misses the point. In fact, the DEA creates the role of online content “regulator” (i.e. censor), with the power to block websites that don’t comply to its rules. Initially, its rules relate to sexual content (not just porn), so can be presented as sex-related. But the rules can – and will – be changed easily. The key change is the appointment of the BBFC, under the aegis of Ofcom, as the country’s first official Internet censor.

Although the law was passed in 2017, it was due to go live in April 2018. This was delayed, most likely for technical reasons, and is now expected in late-2018. When it goes live, most sexually explicit content online will be blocked by ISPs. The only content to be allowed through will be hosted on the handful of sites that age-verify their users.

This significant change to British culture has largely been dismissed by news editors as “ah well, it’s just porn”. Likewise, campaigning organisations like the Open Rights Group have focused too narrowly on the threat to pornography rather than the far broader threat to free expression. Yet Ofcom and the government haven’t tried hard to disguise the fact that the regime will be extended beyond sexual content in future – porn is just the testing ground.

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Threat #2: the drive towards “online safety”

This month, the government announced ominous plans to improve “online safety”, while exhibiting a shyness to explain what that actually means. This new law will take a couple of years to put into place: the likelihood being that this will be the second, far broader wave of censorship following the “porn block” test phase. As I describe in Porn Panic!, sections of the feminist movement in particular have been keen to describe speech as “online violence” to deliberately blur the line between expression and action. This law signals an extension of existing powers against hateful or merely offensive content.

Threat #3: laws against “sex-trafficking”

As everyone knows, sex-trafficking is one of the great threats of the 21st century. Except it isn’t. Fueled largely by anecdotes rather than solid data, the anti-prostitution and anti-immigration movements have united to create a scare-story that has gripped the media and political class. Upon the back of this myth rides a huge new industry – dubbed the Rescue Industry by researcher and author Laura Agustin.

The shortage of victims doesn’t stop the Rescue Industry – it simply raises its rhetoric to ever greater levels of hysteria to drown out sober commentators. And now, sex-trafficking is the excuse for America’s greatest ever attack on Internet freedom. The FOSTA act, signed recently into law by President Trump, criminalises online platforms for enabling sex trafficking. In practise, this means that not only escort listing services, but hookup and dating sites, and even Google, have been forced to censor their platforms. Craigslist closed its personals section in the UK as well as the US. Now, in a huge escalation of the porn panic, all sex might be sex trafficking, and so all online attempts to find sexual partners may criminalised.

In the short term, should this idea cross the Atlantic, this raises a threat to British escort listings sites like AdultWork and Viva Street (the latter is already likely to struggle to implement the age verification measures within the Digital Economy Act). This, despite the fact that prostitution is broadly legal in the UK, unlike in America. In the longer term, any site with user-submitted content, from social networks to forums, may face problems.

The principle that platforms are now responsible for the content they host will inevitably seep into UK culture. Combined with the blocking effects of the Digital Economy Act and the planned drive towards “online safety”, the direction of travel is obvious: only those sites – like Facebook  – that can spend vast amounts of time and money policing their content can be confident they will survive.

Incel, Sexual Frustration and Male Violence

The aftermath of the recent van attack in Toronto, which resulted in the deaths of 10 people, followed a now familiar pattern. Immediately after the attack, people divided into their rigid political tribes. Right-wingers expressed the belief (possibly even the hope) that the attacker was an Islamist. Even if he wasn’t, they said, this is surely the modus operandi of the Islamist terrorist. Similarly, left-wingers quietly hoped they could somehow pin this on the alt-right.

Such is the sad state of political discourse today: blaming the opposite side has become more important than respectfully remembering the individuals who died. The need for “our side” to be good and “their side” to be evil is now stronger than the need for compassion and human kindness. Politics is no longer politics: it has become religion.

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The attacker, it turned out, was declared to be an Incel: an involuntarily celibate man. Incel is defined by Wikipedia as: “online communities whose members define themselves by being unable to find a romantic or sexual partner”.

This news was seized on with enthusiasm by the identitarian left. It perfectly fitted the “toxic masculinity” and “systemic misogyny” narratives of neo-feminism. And it gave a chance to mock those who had confidently pinned the attack on Muslims. Like most political narratives today, of left or right, it was sneering, hateful, triumphant, and an excuse to hate a broad group of people for the actions of one person. This is all so predictable now. If Owen Jones hasn’t yet penned a Guardian opinion piece on how all men need to take responsibility for this murderer, he will soon.

But there is a broad truth here, about humans as a species, and it’s about sex. If the mass media and the political establishment weren’t so tightly wed to social-construction theories of human behaviour, they might realise that evolutionary, genetic and psychological science has far better explanations for these occurrences than sociology can provide.

I have said, repeatedly, that a rise in violence is the inevitable outcome of attacks on sexual freedom. In my 2016 response to Ofcom’s consultation on porn regulation, I warned the regulator as follows:

“…the government’s own research suggests that restricting sexual imagery to teenagers may result in a rise in sexual violence…”

The government ignored such feedback, and has pressed ahead with censorship plans that will cause a rise in sexual and other violence: we must hold them to account for this.

Involuntary celibacy isn’t new: it is an ancient condition of mankind. Sexual relations between humans, in all societies, are defined by the fact that women, not men, choose mates. Given a free choice, women will opt for the genetically and socially fittest mate, even if he already has other mates. So polygyny (one man with multiple mates) is the predominant form of family unit in ancient societies. Recent genetic research has revealed the astounding fact that, 8,000 years ago, women were 17 times more successful at mating than men were. In other words, for every man that mated, there were at least 16 who never did. This gross inequality in the distribution of sex has defined the human state for most of our existence.

Women, past or present, have had no problem finding mates: the issue for women is to find the best available mate. For men, on the other hand, the issue has been simply one of mating at all. The rise of civilisation in the Middle East gave rise to new ideas, including egalitarianism. For the first time, societies recognised the unfair distribution of sex, and set out to balance this. This can be clearly seen in the writings of the Abrahamic religions: ancient Jewish law is inclined towards monogamy, and Christianity strongly so. Islam imposes a limit of four wives.

Although state-imposed rules on marriage are increasingly seen as outdated, the imposition of monogamy was radical and egalitarian. It recognised that most men were losers in the mating game, and that this situation created grave problems for society, including sexual violence.

Put simply, a truth about humanity is this: the more sexual frustration that exists, the more violent society will be. Anyone who has travelled in sexually repressed cultures will be aware of this: for example, while we travelled in Morocco, my partner was groped repeatedly, even in my company. When I attended a hip hop festival in Morocco, fist-fights broke out constantly around me, despite the almost complete absence of alcohol. Sexually frustrated men are more likely to be violent, it’s this simple.

The Incel phenomenon isn’t just confined to angry western men. The promise of “72 virgins in heaven” to Al Qaida terrorists was a strong motivation for their mass murder. The promise of sex slaves in Syria was a motivation to go and fight jihad there.

The rise in sexual freedom since the invention of the pill has created new problems to solve. Monogamy is declining, and the number of single men has increased, especially among those with autistic and other social disorders. There are remedies to this new sexual tension: free pornography, legal and destigmatised sex work, and (in the near future) realistic sex dolls. The easier and cheaper sex and relationships (even virtual relationships) are to find, the less sexual frustration we will have to deal with. And the less frustration, the more peaceful and safe society will be.

Later this year, the British authorities will attempt to block pornography from exactly that segment of the population that is most inclined towards violence: 15-18 year old teenage males. They are creating a tinder box. Please help me fight back.