Criminalizing Kink in the UK: The 50 Shades Effect

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Last month I reached out to LA-based expat Anna Span, an English porn producer (and one-time Liberal Democrat candidate) who awhile back, fought the UK’s ban on showing female ejaculation in porn—and won! I was anxious to hear her take on the recent crackdown on sadomasochistic practices in adult films, specifically whether “BDSM-themed art porn” is technically even legal in the UK nowadays.

BDSM is not my area of specialty, but the rule always used to be that you can have BDSM scenes, and you can have hardcore sex scenes, but you can’t have them both in the same film. I guess they find that to be blurring the boundaries, and therefore normalising BDSM sex.

Anna responded via email. She continued:

It doesn’t matter what style the film is, so art porn would probably not be passed—but it does matter whether the film is mostly a narrative. The film 9 Songs is a good example of that. If it is a narrative you can have hardcore sex in it, whilst achieving an 18 certificate rather than an R18 certificate (meaning that it can only be bought in licenced sex shops).

While quite helpful, Span’s answer also left me a bit confused. And got me thinking even more about that “mostly a narrative” distinction. After all, BDSM always involves some form of role-play—so, technically, there’s usually a storyline, even in “porn.” And why does the mere presence of a storyline separate “art film” from porn anyhow? Why do the regulations focus on narrative as the boundary dividing the two? Experimental film often lacks a narrative but can still be considered “art.” This all seemed rather arbitrary.

So I decided to do some research, find out exactly what these “certificates” entail, while also hypothesizing a bit about that aforementioned Winterbottom film, the sexually explicit 2005 flick 9 Songs. And as far as I can tell, if that film were to be shot today—but with a BDSM relationship at its core (i.e., those hardcore scenes contained any fetish play)—it would receive not the 18 rating that it did, but that of R18, putting it in the same category as pornographic work. For according to the BBFC Classification System, “An 18 film or video might also contain depictions of real sex, as long as the film or video is not a sex work.” And what exactly defines a “sex work” in the UK? The definition includes:

Those containing clear images of real sex, strong fetish material, sexually explicit animated images, or other very strong sexual images will be confined to the R18 category. Material which is unacceptable in a sex work at R18 is also unacceptable in a sex work at 18.

In other words, “strong fetish material” is a no-no if a filmmaker wants that 18. Not only that, if Winterbottom had then released this hypothetical, spanking new (literally) 9 Songs online, he would—according to the 2014 Audiovisual Media Services Regulations—even have broken UK law. Lest we forget, it’s 2015, sadomasochism was removed from the most recent DSM in 2013, and yet its depiction continues to be criminalized in so-called “enlightened” countries. Which makes me suspect that this recent wave of UK anti-porn legislation (or more accurately, anti-indie-porn legislation, as it doesn’t much touch the run of the mill, white male fantasy juggernaut) is nothing more than a conservative backlash against the normalization, as Span so rightly noted, of BDSM. Call it the 50 Shades effect.

As for the subject of BDSM itself, it’s no surprise 50 Shades sprung from the mind of a British writer (or for that matter, that it was the first UK publisher I contacted that took a chance on my own BDSM-themed erotic memoir nearly a decade ago, regardless of its NYC setting). BDSM has long been part of the sexual subculture of Britain—much more so than in the US. (It’s also no surprise that 50 Shades has done so well in America because it’s less a portrayal of a BDSM relationship than it is a reflection of a very American Twilight fantasy.) Certain cultures have certain sexual proclivities, and as such inspire a very specific puritanical backlash. The US has a long history of trying to regulate sex, though not BDSM—not because we accept it here on our shores, but because until recently it’s just not been on the public radar. (I can even recall back in the 90s when the word “dominatrix” still required some explanation.)

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Operation Spanner, the UK’s BDSM Stonewall moment—which needs its own movie!—having been undertaken in the US. The DSM may have de-stigmatized sadomasochism two years back—yet in legal terms the UK is still operating in the time when homosexual sex was forbidden onscreen. Though I guess it should also be no surprise that the BDSM community—overflowing with feminists and queers—remains a target. This is merely the sex business as usual. Lest we forget.


Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and festival programmer, and a contributing editor at Filmmaker magazine. Her writing can also be regularly read at Documentary Magazine, Salon, Bitch Media and Hammer to Nail. Her book Under My Master’s Wings, a memoir about her time spent as the personal slave to a gay-for-pay stripper, is available from Random House sub-imprint Nexus Books. More from this author →