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BDSM Ethics and Practice, and other training for the BBFC

Posted at 17:00 on 14 Sep 2018 by Pandora / Blake

Tags: age verification, BBFC, BDSM, consent, ethics

Last week I was invited to visit the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) and deliver a half day of training. This was something of a coup. Three years ago, my ethical porn website had just been closed down by the previous online porn regulator, due to my films contravening guidelines maintained by the BBFC. Now, the new online porn regulator were asking me to come and deliver an expert briefing to their compliance team about BDSM, its ethics and practice, and my recommendations regarding the way BDSM films are regulated.

It was an amazing opportunity to meet the people making decisions that affects filmmakers like me, talk to them about the issues, and create a shared context. I was excited to have the chance to share my knowledge and experience to help the team's understanding as they make classification recommendations on BDSM content.

Given that the people at the meeting were already involved in regulating 18 and R18 adult content (under the Video Recordings Act), and will be involved in work enforcing the Digital Economy Act going forwards, my liaison at the BBFC also invited me to address any areas of the BBFC’s work about which I have concerns - from regulatory misunderstandings or misapprehensions about spanking and BDSM in particular, to obstacles I feel the current and developing legal and regulatory arrangements put in our way.

Initially this was proposed as an hour session, but when I heard the brief I knew we would need more time than that to do these rich and complex topics justice without devolving into over-simplifications or stereotype. I wanted to have time to handle the topics in a nuanced way, with plenty of time for questions and discussion. As such, they agreed to allow four hours for the session. I was excited, and set to work preparing an interactive seminar that was part presentation and part workshop.

Here are the slides and handouts:

Slides: BDSM Ethics and Practice 

Slides: Classifying BDSM Material 

Slides: Age Verification: Risks and Recommendations 

The first session was well received. The participants were curious and engaged, and the discussion felt valuable. At the end, various of the compliance team requested that I send around the slide of "Things to look out for" to discern consent in BDSM films, which has now been done. I'm hopeful that this training has informed the team about how BDSM players keep themselves safe, and what best practice looks like off and on film. 

I screened two short porn clips that make consent visible in different ways - either within the scene itself, or in contextualising materials - in scenes involving bondage with a gag, or hard spanking that leaves marks; material that the BBFC have historically refused to classify. The clips triggered a lively and informative discussion.

Some BDSM scenes can look violent and even non-consensual, but if you know what to look for, the intimacy, joy and connection between the players is revealed. There is a massive difference between abuse and consensual BDSM, and while filmmakers have a responsibility to make performer consent transparent to the viewer, either in scene or behind the scenes, there is also an onus on the BBFC to educate themselves about what to look for, and ensure that they don't bring any ignorance or misconceptions to their viewing. 

The response was fantastic, and I felt like we could have continued diving deep into this topic for much longer. I gave out my email address and hope that we can keep the conversation going.

By the end of the session on BDSM ethics and practice, it was clear that the participants understood that people can and do consent to risky and painful activities within the framework of BDSM - not for self-destructive reasons, but because the experiences generate trust, vulnerability and intimacy, and we find the challenges exciting. However, the BBFC's regulations around what content they will refuse to classify, even as their most adult classification R18, exclude many consensual and harmless fetish activities: such as watersports, caning and stringent bondage; queer sex acts such as fisting; and even squirting, a completely normal sexual response for many vulva owners.

In the second two sessions I therefore decided to take up the invitation to talk about the regulatory framework, and deliver some friendly criticism  to the BBFC around their regulatory approach to date. 

I challenged them on R18, providing some historical and legal context and screening two short queer porn clips, one depicting fisting and the other squirting, both scenes visibly joyful and consensual. I kept it personal and authentic, talking about my own perspective as a performer in one of the clips, and centering the real life experiences of BDSM players and performers. 

There is a clear gap between the intimacy and pleasure experienced in real life; the legal requirements of the Obscene Publications Act (OPA), which ignores consent and pleasure; and the BBFC's R18 guidelines, which also look for potential "social harm" above and beyond what is illegal under the OPA. 

I called attention to the fact that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), whose Guidance on the OPA informs what is legal and illegal to publish in the UK, are currently consulting on a revised edition of their Guidance which greatly improves the legal framework, legalising the publication of many of the consensual BDSM acts under contention. I challenged the BBFC not to drag their heels, and to raise the ceiling of their R18 standard to make good use of the revised CPS Guidance as soon as it comes into effect.

In the third session we examined age verification for online porn, the forthcoming UK child protection policy which the BBFC will be responsible for enforcing. I highlighted anomalies and uncertainties in the policy, including the introduction of audio as a type of material subject to classification which creates a real risk of ableist enforcement, the unwanted social impact of requiring sex worker websites, amateur and low-income websites to install age verification, the complexity around the parallel legal framework affecting On-Demand Service Providers (regulated by Ofcom), and the inadequate privacy protections enshrined in the Digital Economy Act.

I talked about the risks of age verification, particularly the risk to viewer privacy if their porn viewing habits are outed, if age verification providers store browsing data (which they are legally entitled to do under this legislation) that is later leaked, sold or hacked. I also talked about the impact of the policy on site owners like myself, and on society as a whole. Finally I invited the participants to discuss what it was like for them to be operating in this context; and what they could do to make the situation more workable.

It turned out that only a couple of the participants were actually on the age verification team, so this session was a little less engaged than the previous two had been. Nonetheless, I'm glad I tackled this material. I feel that it's important that staff members at the new regulatory body are well-informed about what they are taking on, and hopefully I've provided food for thought that will nourish ongoing internal conversations.

Age verification is intended to fulfil a crucial role - keeping young people safe. Specifically, it's designed to support young people in reaching sexual maturity at their own pace, without being coerced into sexual situations before they are ready. This is an aim I wholeheartedly support, which chimes gracefully with the priority the BDSM community places on informed consent.

However, the Digital Economy Act 2017 was rushed through and is problematic in the details. It places the BBFC in the unfortunate position of obliging adult sites to use age verification solutions which are themselves completely unregulated, and which are not required by law to have sufficient privacy and security systems in place. If millions of viewers' private sexual data is outed, it won't do the BBFC any favours. As the regulator, they are uniquely placed to put pressure on the Government to make this policy fit for purpose, and they have an opportunity - arguably an obligation - to refuse to enforce age verification unless robust privacy protections are put in place. The Open Rights Group briefing document Age Verification - Risks and Recommendations has some suggestions about how such protections might be designed.

I've you share my concerns around age verification, you can back our campaign here.

I came away a little unsure about how well the event had been received, but was reassured to wake up the next morning to glowing emails from participants. One attendee wrote, "Thank you so much for delivering such an engaging and enlightening session. I am also a soft skills trainer in one of my other lives and thought you were great. You had a warm and accessible manner, a fabulous use of language and great activities. I was also pleased that you didn’t come in with an instructional session about how the practice of BDSM play, not because I wouldn’t have enjoyed it but because what you offered was so perfectly appropriate to the work of the BBFC." I was delighted to receive such a positive response, and that my choices to grapple with the complexities of regulating BDSM films and enforcing age verification paid off. 

This was my first time delivering training like this, and I'm thrilled to have done it. I'm looking forward to seeing how the BBFC handle the challenges of age verification, and step up to the opportunity presented by the revised obscenity guidelines. Before too long, I hope to be able to celebrate a new liberalised R18 category by submitting some of my own fisting, squirting and caning films for classification!

If you've enjoyed reading this, you can join me on Patreon to ensure I can keep writing. Your support makes this possible.

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