Why is the BBFC so scared of arousal?

Film classifiers’ fear that they might be turned on by porn if made to watch it alone reveals their elitist prudishness.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

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Having to work their way through around 1,200 porn films each year before deciding whether to license them with certificates, one might assume a little pornographic weariness amongst the 80 or so examiners at the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). In the past month alone, these stoic fellows have judiciously sat through such grotty masterpieces as house husbands’ favourite Buxom Sluts, the delicately titled UK Tranny Orgy, and Field of Teens, directed by what sounds like a 2003 anti-war slogan: Dick Bush.

If a recent Guardian report is to be believed, however, things are about to get a lot harder at the BBFC (1). Under the current examination procedure, BBFC classifiers watch the orifice-filling ingenuity of the porn industry in pairs. But this, unfortunately, is no longer cost-effective. So, as part of the BBFC’s economising drive, the proposal is to let the examiners go solo. While such a move might make financial sense, BBFC staff are not so sure, especially when it comes to porn: ‘Some are concerned that viewing pornographic content alone will increase the chances of being sexually aroused by the material’, it is reported. In other words, while the accountants tighten their belts, the examiners look set to unbuckle theirs.

There’s plenty that is absurd in the BBFC’s fear of arousal, not least the fact that porn films are generally watched because they arouse, unless, that is, you’re a fan of stilted dialogue and garish sofas. To be concerned that depictions of sex sexually arouse is like worrying that horror films horrify, or thrillers thrill. What the BBFC examiners’ anxiety over watching porn alone captures is the absurd contradiction at the heart of this institution: this unelected assortment of teachers, lawyers and doctors can be exposed to material they believe would damage the plebian majority while they themselves remain utterly unaffected by it.

The examiners don’t watch material in the way that the credulous masses do, yet they judge how we will watch it. They view films abstractly, technically, from on high, deciding whether certain scenes and moments will have inexorably harmful consequences for the public. In the words of the 1984 Video Recordings Act, which granted the BBFC its statutory role, they are required to ‘have special regard to any harm to those likely to view a video and any harm to society through the behaviour of those viewers afterwards’.

Strangely, in a BBFC report from 2007, they admit that studies looking for evidence of harm to society, such as rising rates of sex crime, after liberalisation of pornography have ‘fail[ed] to demonstrate any mass deleterious effect’ (2). And that other plinth of BBFC justification – the effect that over-18 material might have on any young people who happen to watch it – has also been dismissed. As the judge said at the time of the BBFC’s appeal against a ruling permitting the sale of hardcore pornography in 2000, the risk of the videos causing harm to young persons who might see it ‘is, on present evidence, insignificant’ (3).

But the BBFC’s role is not justified by hard evidence of monkey-see-monkey-do logic in action. Rather, it is to do with possible harm, with potential, imaginable outcomes. Such nightmarish speculation feeds off an anxiety about those for whom the BBFC is doing the classification: a public seen as all too susceptible and all too easily influenced by the kind of films that BBFC bigwigs can safely watch. That is why the prospect of arousal if BBFC officials are left to watch porn films alone rather than in pairs has twisted the BBFC’s knickers. For arousal testifies to an urge that certain images will elicit in viewers, the paradigmatic form of ‘cause and effect’. It is not just a voluntary response to visual stimuli, a case of taking matters in hand; arousal serves as evidence of the uncontrollable urges that watching certain films can inflame. It makes BBFC officials feel too much like the mob to whom they are supposed to be morally superior.

Established in 1912 as the British Board of Film Censors, before being renamed under the 1984 Video Recordings Act, the BBFC has always embodied an elite fear of the public’s behaviour. Indeed, it is precisely because film (and later videos, DVDs and the internet), rather than, for instance, literature, was the principal medium of mass entertainment that it became the focus of elite anxiety. And while the content of the censors’ fears has changed, from concern about Commies under the bed to what is happening on top of it, its institutional form, the BBFC, remains as censorious as ever. The idea that two BBFC officials would be more reliable than one in judging whether films are acceptable for mass viewing speaks to the utter elitism of this institution – and its individual officials’ fear of feeling aroused reveals their inner prudishness. Isn’t it time such snobs easily shocked by sex stopped classifying and censoring material ‘on behalf’ of the rest of us?

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Tim Black reckoned the BBFC was scarier than the The Dark Knight. Julian Petley attacked Labour’s censorious approach to pornography. Brendan O’Neill asked why some porn material gets chopped while others pass as art amongst the cultural elite and the censors. Barbara Hewson believed images are being fetishised. Neil Davenport argued that the more obsession with sex and sexuality becomes public, the more privacy becomes viewed as the place for perverts. Or read more at spiked issue Liberties.

(1) Censors revolt at plan to make them watch porn alone, Guardian, 23 February 2009

(2) Violence and abuse in ‘R18’ level pornography, BBFC Expert Consultation, 2007

(3) Green light for porn films, BBC News, 22 May 2000

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Topics Politics


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