Britain’s New Moral Panic Part Two: ‘Reviewing’ The Censorship Laws

Britain has a plethora of laws relating to pornography and sex – yet is still determined to find room for more.

The British laws governing ‘pornography’ – and we use that word very cautiously, as these laws cover everything from semi-nudity to child abuse material – are extensive. As well as the Obscene Publications Act that covers almost everything as a ‘publication’, there is the Video Recordings Act, The Indecent Displays Act, The Protection of Children Act, laws covering ‘extreme pornography’ (itself a very broad definition), ‘revenge porn’, licencing of sex shops and strip clubs and the forthcoming Online Safety Bill that will enforce age checks and other restrictions on a whole slew of websites, not just the free porn sites. Between all that and the myriad laws that already control sex work of every kind, you might be wondering what could possibly be missing. But never put it past the British government to seek out loopholes and find new things to legislate against, even if they are not sure exactly what just yet.

The regulation of online pornography is about to undergo “a thorough review”, the government has announced this week. What will this review be looking at? Well, it will “investigate any gaps in UK regulation which allows exploitation and abuse to take place online as well as identifying barriers to enforcing criminal law.” This might sound reasonable – none of us are in favour of exploitation and abuse, after all. But let’s not forget that this is the British government that we are talking about, egged on by various pressure groups – so their idea of ‘exploitation and abuse’ will most likely be what is actually consensual sexual activity between adults. After all, these are people who don’t believe that anyone could possibly consent to, let alone actively pursue, a career in the sex industry. The review, we are informed, will look at the role of the pornography industry in trafficking and exploiting adult performers – a role for which there is no evidence beyond the questionable claims of anti-porn groups and some ex-porn stars who have been made to feel guilty about their former careers and offered a ‘get-out’ by religious groups who use them for propaganda purposes if they agree to say the right thing. In any case, trafficking is already illegal – and just why do the authorities and the media focus entirely on sex trafficking, a crime that has been considerably exaggerated over the years while ignoring all other forms of trafficking and forced labour… well, you can probably guess. Sex, by default, is seen as already questionable by people who will make excuses for people who run sweatshops, import slave labour or simply avoid paying the minimum wage.

The review will also, apparently, ensure that illegal and harmful content is “robustly dealt with”. The example given is child abuse material, which not only helps reinforce the government’s blurring of the lines between adult entertainment and criminal abuse, but which is something that we might note is already covered by the law. The suggestion that child abuse imagery is somehow slipping through the legislative net is ludicrous – many, many people have been arrested and imprisoned for what they have on their computers. It is hardly an offence that has been allowed to carry on without legislation.

The same could be said about other illegal material – it’s already covered by the law, hence the fact that it is illegal to begin with. So what is this review going to really tell us? Perhaps it will suggest that all illegal material be brought under a single law rather than the variety of legislation that currently exists, which seems like a good idea until you start to think about the very different levels of illegality involved. Perhaps it will find new levels of illegality, though it is hard to see what these might be beyond setting out a checklist of forbidden imagery – and this is something that has been resisted in the past for sensible reasons, from making images of legal acts illegal to own through to the question of context and levels of explicitness that make such rules hard to enforce. Even the ‘extreme porn’ laws have struggled with how to define what is extreme and where the line is drawn between fiction and reality, consensual and non-consensual.

A consistent law at least makes sense – maybe we don’t need the Video Recordings Act anymore, maybe all the licencing and vague rules about public displays and so on could all be tossed aside in favour of a law that focuses entirely on criminal acts and exploitation. If we threw aside all the old morality-driven laws about pornography and the consensual sexual acts that are seen as  ‘perverted’ and so must be controlled – from BDSM to queer expression, from roleplaying to watersports – and instead focused on dealing with the abusive and dangerous images of child abuse, rape and sexual activity that is illegal in real life, we might free up a lot of police time and ensure that we don’t risk blurring the lines by referring to everything from page 3 girls to bestiality under the same ‘porn’ banner.

But that isn’t what is going to happen. In previous decades, governments have been embarrassed by reviews of porn laws that failed to deliver the required results. The Williams Committee in 1979 and a later study by Guy Cumberbatch came up with the rather inconvenient results that there was no evidence of harm caused by porn and no case for it to remain illegal; similarly, the BBFC’s battle in the R18 case collapsed because the evidence of harm – even to children – just wasn’t there. Do you really think that the government will make that same mistake again? Not likely. Instead, they are more likely to listen to ‘studies’ like the recent one by anti-porn group Dignify that – through less than thorough methodology – found that 22% of children aged 14 – 18 “had viewed porn on multiple occasions” – a statement so vague as to be meaningless (what counts as ‘multiple’? How many viewers were 18 and so legally allowed to watch it anyway?) and that one in ten felt addicted, even though there is no such thing as porn addiction. But, you know, hype that fear in the awareness that no one will question it. They’ll ask the BBFC, who have already been saying that a lot of online porn is material that they wouldn’t pass – though that brings up a lot of questions about their rules, given that back in 2019, obscenity regulations were relaxed to no longer cover a lot of kinky acts, and the BBFC should be following those rules. Certainly, online content might not always follow BBFC guidelines but that is not, in itself, evidence of illegality as we should always remember. And they’ll ask all manner of pressure groups that have carried out iffy surveys and then passed them off as research or who cling to outdated and discredited claims. They won’t ask many researchers or academics beyond those who are confirmed anti-porn campaigners and they certainly won’t ask anyone in the industry.

This might still crash and burn – if the answers are not what the government demand, then the whole thing will be quietly shoved into a corner and forgotten about. Either that or they will just cherry-pick the parts that tell them what they want to hear, as happened with the Williams Committee report. At worst, though, it will see new laws that sit alongside the old ones, taking a sledgehammer approach to dealing with small and often imaginary problems while making life as difficult as possible for the sex industry and the consumers. Which is always the plan. We should not to lulled into complacency – this is a review designed to crush the sex industry – and it won’t stop there. Prepare for battle.


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  1. I said on twitter but I live in wishful thinking that the age verification requirements at least will not happen as it didn’t happen the last time and there’s already a law for that for porn specifically (the DEact) so why not just activate it? Plus given the new AV requirements are about making sure your over 13 at least, that just baffles me the most. Our government are so inept at the Internet that they really don’t see what’s wrong creating a law that creates an environment where random sites asking young people for a picture of there face just to use a user to user platform is normalised and no one sees how bad actors can create sites that exploit that for abusing children. When I was young we were taught not to put to much info online not even our name’s and now look. At this rate the only way to really make this safe would be to have a license to have your site show in the uk which would mean the only sites that would exist are big businesses and not small niche sites. We can only hope this review crashes and burns (not bloody likely) but with labour set to win next year you never know what will happen. They could have ideas worse than the tories.

  2. something else that’s bothering me about this review is it say’s they want to educate young people about the “danger’s of porn”, never mind the obvious that this report seems to have already decided what there going to do, and we can mostly agree with TRYING to keep teenagers away from porn, given there’s no evidence of harm i can’t think of a worse this to do to kids going through puberty, having these feeling’s by image’s that are perfectly natural and telling them it’s wrong. there’s talk of a mental health crises in young people but it’s clearly not social media it’s adult’s telling then there natural feeling’s are wrong. plus that report that claimed young people have porn addiction also claimed young people can’t escape it because it’s everywhere highlighting twitter but also Instagram as an example. Instagram doesn’t allow porn on it’s service no meta owned platform does, unless as always your broadening the meaning of porn.

  3. Well this is Britain isn’t it, and apart from a few years around the turn of the millennium, I can’t think of a time when anti-porn fanatics haven’t been on the rampage here. If an attempt to block online porn was partially successful it would merely become forbidden fruit, prompting tech savvy teenagers to seek it out. The only light in the short term is that the present government is so incompetent that any proposed measures will probably fail. Which will not deter those control freaks and zealots on the Opposition benches when their time comes.

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