How does it feel to fight the law - and win?

Posted at 18:10 on 9 Jun 2016 by Pandora Blake

Tags: appeal win, ATVOD, censorship, Dreams of Spanking, Ofcom

On Monday it was officially announced that I'd won my appeal to Ofcom against the ATVOD decision that forced Dreams of Spanking offline last year. "Congratulations!" people have been saying, "You must be over the moon." And so I reply that I am. I tell the papers that I'm overjoyed, because that's the story: I fought the law, and I won. This is my moment of triumph. Of course I'm delighted.

But how does it really feel?

Even here - my blog that is more political than personal these days, but still the closest thing I have to an online journal - I'm not sure if I should stick to the "official" story. You want to hear how happy I am, right? And I am happy. I am. I think. But the truth is that with events this huge, processing emotions can be more complicated than that. I've been struggling to access my happiness over the last few weeks, since I first found out that I was going to win. I thought that it would all connect up on Monday, when the win was announced, but I still find myself feeling weirdly ambivalent. And hey, this blog has always been about authenticity, so you get to hear all about it.

I found out I would probably win, off the record, back in March - but it wasn't yet confirmed, so my relief was provisional. Still, I had to plan for a win, without knowing when it would happen: I emailed Girl on the Net and AJ Levi to let them know, and tentatively enquire if they wanted their jobs back, or if they even had time to work on Dreams of Spanking any more. We started making plans for the re-launch, and guesstimated that Ofcom would probably take a year in total to process my appeal - I hadn't heard of them making a decision in under 11 months, so we started setting our sights at July or August. Meanwhile I was up to the ears in political work sponsored by my newly launched Patreon campaign, so I didn't have much headspace leftover for thinking about Dreams of Spanking.

A month ago, I received Ofcom's Preliminary View that they would grant my appeal. That was my first official notice, but we weren't at the end of the process yet. Next there was a gap while I could make additional legal representations if I wanted (but I was happy with their decision, so I didn't) and then after that, there was another gap while they prepared their Final Decision, taking my representations into account, if any. Even after sending me the Final Decision there was a press embargo, banning me from saying anything about the result until they announced it on their own website. This would be on a Monday. I didn't know any more than that.

So for a month, I knew I would win my appeal, but I couldn't tell anyone. Every time I saw someone who asked "how's the appeal going?" I had to lie and pretend I didn't know. I gave the answers that had become autopilot over the preceding eight months: "Still waiting, I'll let you know as soon as I hear anything." This was a lie; something I was expected to say, but legally obliged not to do. Even after I received Ofcom's Final Decision, the embargo enforced my silence. I met with the English Collective of Prostitutes last Thursday. "Tell us about your case!" Niki said, pressing my hands, "We're all dying to know how it's going - and if we can help?" 

I couldn't tell them my news. I recalled the wording I'd heard Myles Jackman use on previous occasions when I'd asked him about ongoing court cases: "I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to discuss it." I added apologetically, "I would if I could."

She stared at me. "You're kidding. Do they really impose a gagging order on you? Unbelievable."

So my victory has been deferred and secret until, by the time the announcement was made on Monday, it felt like the moment of triumph I'd been waiting for had already slipped away. The news was climactic for everyone else, but anticlimactic for me.

And yet going public did make a difference. It wasn't until I started to see the congratulations flood into my Twitter mentions and my email inbox that I felt an answering flicker of joy. Your happiness for me helps me access my happiness.

Team Win: Assemble!

In the run up to the announcement I had my work cut out. Uncertain when it would happen, I had to get the press campaign ready in advance. I assembled Team Win, consisting of Jo - my new PA who has been helping me with my Patreon fundraising and other admin - AJ and Girl on the Net (the original Dreams of Spanking superstars; not being able to continue hiring them was one of the most devastating aspects of having the site forced offline). We made a plan so watertight that it could be carried out without me, if necessary - it was possible that the announcement would made on the Monday when I was in a field in Wales, out of phone signal. Luckily, this didn't happen. Press releases were drafted and redrafted; thanks to Zak Jane Keir for jumping in at the last minute to help at zero notice. 

I received the Final Decision on Wednesday 1st June, but I still wasn't sure whether the announcement would be the 6th or the 12th until Jo mentioned the next day that the attached letter explicitly said the 6th. Somehow I'd missed that. It's a good job my assistants pay attention, or I'd be completely stuffed.

Once the press release was ready to go, it was a job of calling every journalist I had a good relationship with, pre-releasing the news, cautioning them about the embargo, and trying to talk them into covering the story. This process was more successful than I expected. I ended up spending most of Friday and Monday giving interviews - it's been intense.

I talked to D about extending our bandwidth limit on the server we share to cover what I hoped would be a barrage of traffic. I wanted to take advantage of the press coverage to accept as many new members as possible as soon as I was legally allowed to re-open the site. If I didn't increase the limit, any funds from sales made after re-opening might welll get eaten up by excess bandwidth charges. We guessed high, and bought an additional 10TB of bandwidth to cover the anticipated surge in traffic.

If you suppress sadness, it just gets bigger

Anyone who has watched the amazing kids' film "Inside Out" knows how this goes. Sadness is a natural part of our emotions, and we should make space for it. Rather than squashing it down, putting it aside, ignoring it and carrying blithely on as if it wasn't there, we need to sit down with it and listen to it. Otherwise it can overwhelm us when we least expect it.

Since taking Dreams of Spanking offline last August, I'd been determined not to wallow in unhappiness. I didn't want to feel like a victim. I'd filed my appeal; that was all I could reasonably do. In the meantime, I wanted to recover from all the stress and trauma of the ATVOD investigation. I went travelling; I made time for self-care and fun with friends; I got stuck into new projects and political activism to take my mind off the powerlessness and anxiety of knowing I'd be waiting months for an answer.

Now I had my answer, and the whole world was about to hear the good news, I expected to feel happy. Relieved. But after sending out the press release to journalists on Friday, I crashed. Saturday was a bad mental health day for me. Anxiety wracked my body, and I felt desperately unhappy without knowing why. I couldn't stop crying. 

D was bewildered, wondering if it was just that I'd been working too hard lately or was underslept. I tried to explain it to him with a clumsy analogy. "Imagine if you were told your mum had cancer and might die, and after the initial shock, you got on with what needed doing, tried to be practical. And then after nine months you were told she had got better and wasn't going to die after all. Maybe that was when you'd finally have a proper cry; only after you found out it would all be okay after all."

I hope that no-one who has experienced this for real is offended or upset by the comparison. I am quite sure that what I have experienced is less traumatic than going through the potentially lethal illness of a loved one. But in terms of a situation that delays your emotional processing, I think there are valid similarities.

I'd been hanging onto the grief and uncertainty for so long, burying it under distractions, travelling and new projects, that it was only now the nightmare was over that those big, difficult emotions were able to come out. When you're anticipating a loss, it seems silly to grieve prematurely. Better to get on with fighting: focus on keeping your head above water, do the best you can to keep going under the circumstances. I felt powerless, hoping for good news without any way to accelerate the process. I felt frustrated, perhaps, about being so helpless; but not grief, not yet. There was no point feeling bereaved when it might turn out to be good news.

But all of that anticipated grief, that fear of loss - it builds up, on top of the stress of managing any actual loss experienced during the process. And although I've got my site back, there have been losses. For starters, there was a loss of identity. Dreams of Spanking had given me emotional stability like nothing else in my life, a secure place on which to stand and face the world; now it had been pulled out from under me, I was no longer sure who I was. I had poured my life, my creativity, my energy, my eroticism, and my love into that project, and now I wasn't allowed to work on it any more. My libido shriveled up. I lost my fetish; I didn't fantasise about spanking once while the appeal was underway. I lost income, I lost community, I lost closeness with my family amid traumatising fears that I would be outed, I lost career direction, and I lost a creative outlet for my self-expression. While experiencing those losses, I knew they might not be lasting - but I didn't know for sure. In the end it turned out that they weren't permanent. But that doesn't mean they weren't real.

The weekend before my win was announced, I learned that a lot more sadness had built up during the appeal process than I'd realised. Now the end was in sight, it all bubbled out.

On the day of the announcement

It all started to pay off when journalists got back to me in response to my phonecalls and interviews, saying their editors were interested, asking for interviews. It was great to know that the story was going to be picked up - it looked like it would be covered by the Guardian, the Independent and the Times as well as high-profile web publications like Broadly, Dazed and the Daily Dot. The Guardian asked me if the embargo was only in place until 12:01am on Monday morning, or until Ofcom updated their website sometime during Monday daytime. I checked with Myles and told them that one minute past midnight would be fine. The letter had said "6 June" and hadn't specified a time. Still, it took someone sharing the Guardian link on Twitter for me to see that they'd taken me at my word, which led to this rather scrambled succession of tweets at 12.30am on Monday morning:

So I didn't quite stay on top of the news cycle - and I didn't get much sleep on Sunday night, either. First thing Monday morning, I got online to see every social media feed I was logged into sharing the Guardian and Independent articles, and my Twitter mentions and email inbox start to fill up with congratulations, well wishes and praise. My excitement ramped up a notch every time I saw a new article go up. All the coverage has been positive, to my lasting relief - none of the writers have been sneering or stigmatising about my work as a pornographer. 

Monday, then, was jubilant. Every time someone sent me their congratulations it opened me up a little bit more to my own happiness, lurking somewhere deep beneath nine months of worry and suspicion. With so many good wishes coming in from the community, it was impossible for me to stay ambivalent. I gave more interviews, feeling genuinely triumphant. I loved seeing my story in print on page 5 of Monday's Guardian.

 And the online journalists were being generous: most of the pieces included a live hyperlink to Dreams of Spanking, rather than simply naming the site. Mainstream press publications are often reluctant to include links to porn sites, but links from news sites are incredibly good Google-fu. A couple of them even linked to my Patreon campaign, which was extra nice of them.

Publications I hadn't contacted started picking up the story, raiding my blog and Twitter profile for pictures and quotes rather than interviewing me. It was lovely to see the good news wing its way across the Internet, with celebratory coverage from the Washington Times, XBiz, Reason and the Huffington Post without any extra effort on my part.

"I hope you're enjoying your celebrations!" people tweeted at me, raising a metaphorical glass. Actually, I'd planned to spend the evening sending out newsletters, writing this blogpost, and being available for more interviews. But by late afternoon, the well-wishers had convinced me. It was a sunny day in London, and I decided to take the evening off and invite some friends over to help me celebrate. It was the right decision. My friends told me how proud and happy they were, and I felt victorious.

It was surreal and brilliant to watch new articles appear while I was sunning myself in the garden. Everything I'd said in my interviews was true: I felt relieved, and vindicated, and very very good.

The fly in the ointment

There was only one problem. I was still waiting for CCBill to reactivate my billing account. Until they did, I couldn't re-open the site or start accepting memberships.

During my low period in the weekend before the announcement, I mostly hid from the internet. Saturday was a total washout, and Sunday was about self-care and gentle recovery. Kashmira Gander had sent me some interview questions to answer for her piece in the Independent, but I didn't manage to answer them until Sunday evening. That was also when I confronted the fact that I didn't currently have billing.

You see, while Dreams of Spanking was dormant, CCBill had taken it upon themselves to deactivate my merchant account. I am no longer able to receive credit card transactions. I had to go through the whole process of submitting the site to Compliance, letting them investigate it to make sure it meets their terms and conditions, and then making any amendments necessary, before they would re-activate my account.

I got the site ready for them to look at and wrote to them at 6pm on Sunday, sending them a members login and requesting reactivation. It's now 6pm on Wednesday, and I still haven't heard back. I've made a right nuisance of myself in the meantime - sending an email nudge on Tuesday (no reply), and talking to a representative via live chat who assured me they would get back to me the same day. They didn't. It's now four days after I first got in touch, and I still don't have billing.

I hate waiting. I hated waiting for Ofcom to decide my appeal, and I'm hating waiting for CCBill to reinstate my billing account. It makes me anxious and twitchy and impatient. Yes, I am a control freak, why do you ask; this is why I've always run my own businesses rather than being reliant on anyone else. It has bugged the hell out of me over the last year and a half that the government has had control over whether or not I can keep my website; if and when I might be able to reopen it. Now it's bugging the hell out of me that CCBill have control over when I can re-launch and start accepting memberships.

While I've been waiting, I've been trying to make the most of it. As well as the press release, the Dreams of Spanking homepage now has links to my Patreon campaign, my Clips4sale store, and a mailing list signup form. But it's bloody frustrating.

When Dreams of Spanking was forced offline last year, it was averaging four thousand unique visitors a day. That number took me three and a half years to achieve. While it was dormant during the Ofcom appeal, it went down to four hundred visitors a day. On Monday, when the announcement went live and the Guardian and Independent articles came out, it spiked to over five thousand visitors - my second highest ever (since Zoe Williams' fantastic ethical porn feature in November 2014). Since then it's been sinking at a rate of a thousand visitors a day - and I still don't have billing. 

I knew that even if I won my appeal, I was never going to receive reparations from ATVOD or Ofcom for lost earnings. My best hope was to use the re-launch to draw traffic to the site, and get some sales and curious new visitors as a positive side effect, alongside the key aim of raising awareness about the political issues. But I didn't kickstart the billing reactivation process soon enough, and now CCBill are dragging their heels.

It's not a big deal. I'm not primarily in this for the money, after all; and keen Dreams of Spanking fans have already very kindly reassured me that they're eager to re-purchase memberships as soon as they can. But one consequence of the delay is that it's drained the energy I had to engage with the appeal win. I feel like I'm in limbo, and I don't really want to bang on about it online or do any of the other writing or promotion I had planned until the site is actually open.

Since Tuesday morning, to be honest, I've mostly been sleeping. I had a three hour nap yesterday afternoon. It was great. I have had very little energy for sending out newsletters, writing blogposts, posting on social media, replying to emails or doing any of the other things expected of me. I just want to go to sleep and wake up when CCBill have reinstated my billing account.

I'm going to be a massive goth and post New Order lyrics. Sorry.

How does it feel
To treat me like you do
When you've laid your hands upon me
And told me who you are

I thought I was mistaken
I thought I heard your words
Tell me how do I feel
Tell me now how do I feel

And I still find it so hard
To say what I need to say
But I'm quite sure that you'll tell me
Just how I should feel today

Now I stand here waiting

So how does it feel, to take on the UK government - and win? In my good moments, I feel vindicated. It's an amazing feeling, actually; to feel like I have a voice, like I have the power to stand up to state-sponsored bullies - and win. A year ago, I felt totally helpless, wondering what the point was of being born in the internet age if it turned out I didn't have free speech after all; experiencing a deep sense of injustice at having my work singled out as "harmful" when I'd worked so hard to make it ethical, and positive, and safe. Now, I feel righteous; validated.

I experience joy, excitement and anger as being quite close together on my inner emotional wheel. The word that suits best is fierce. I fought the law, and the law lost. Fuck yeah!

When I heard the news, I didn't feel shocked or surprised. I thought, damn right. If I'm truly honest, I always believed I would win; otherwise I wouldn't have bothered. I felt like this was the only correct, fair, and just result. If I'd been wrong - if my risk hadn't paid off - it would have rekindled all the anger and helplessness and frustration and loss that accompanied ATVOD's decision in the first place. But I was right, and it felt right. It's very satisfying to know that the risk, struggles, trauma and hard work have all paid off, and that I can re-open my website and share my films with people again. I'm really looking forward to being able to properly re-launch; and perhaps when I can, I'll finally be able to connect with that elusive joy I felt a flicker of on Monday.

But primarily, what I'm feeling right now is grateful. I am massively indebted to Myles Jackman, who has worked long and hard behind the scenes to make this happen, providing invaluable support and advice during the investigation process, helping me draft my appeal, and even meeting with Ofcom to informally advocate on my behalf while the appeal was still ongoing. His experience and expertise were also immeasurably valuable in talking the press over the last week, putting together the press release and giving the story as wide a reach as possible. Myles is a tireless campaigner for sexual freedom, and does huge amounts of pro bono work providing legal support to people affected by anti-kink, porn and obscenity law. If you're happy about this appeal win, please show your appreciation by pledging a small donation to his Patreon campaign, because it quite literally wouldn't have happened without him.

I also want to give mad love to Team Win: Jo, AJ and Girl on the Net, who have all been hugely supportive during the last few weeks, and helped me get things done when I was struggling. Thanks also to Zak Jane Keir, who stepped in at zero notice last Thursday to help me polish up the press release announcing the win.

I owe D a debt of gratitude for all the emotional support he's given me over the last eighteen months; since I told him nervously on the train in December 2014 "I don't think I'm going to comply", he has held my hand throughout all of the drama that single stubborn, principled decision has led to. I remember him hugging me when I confessed I was going to put my life and my business through the wringer for the sake of staying true to my political values, and telling me how proud he was of me. Neither of us was under the illusion that it was a sensible decision to make, or that it would make my life easier. We both knew that it would be difficult. But he's stood by me, and put up with my anxiety and depression at its worst over the subsequent months, and I love him and value him more than I can say.

But most of all, I feel utterly humbled by the community support I've received over the last year. From everyone who donated to our sponsored caning fundraiser or played their own part to raise money for Backlash; to everyone who has helped fund my political activism on Patreon, supporting my attempt to rebuild a paying job for myself in the ashes of my business (with what turned out to be rather ironic timing); to all the people who have shared my press on Twitter and sent me supportive messages; to all my spanking clients, keeping my rent paid during the difficult months; and all the Dreams of Spanking members, everyone who mourned the loss of the site and shared my sense of outrage. Without that public support, that awareness of a community standing behind me who agreed that ATVOD's actions were unjust and the AVMS regulations not fit for purpose, I wouldn't have had the strength to stand and fight. I couldn't have done this alone, and I'm humbled and grateful that I didn't have to.

And without that community support - without journalists publically taking my side in the mainstream press - I personally believe that Ofcom would have been far less likely to uphold my appeal. Public opinion is a powerful thing. Government bureaucracies are slow machines, grinding with inertia, and getting them to change direction is not a fast process. But they know that if they don't have voters on side, they lose their power. And this is how we can get bad laws changed: through grassroots organising, through blogposts, through Twitter, through fundraising campaigns, and yes, through clickbait, media-savvy protests that open doors for lots of sensible interviews in the press.

A year ago, I felt like a little girl, standing in front of the huge iron doors of Westminster and having them slammed in my face. Now, the cheering crowd surrounding me has forced those doors open, and given me the chance to be heard. So thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

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