The British Board of Film Classification has an excellent and in-depth web site about their work, for they are the group who determine what may legally be shown in films and videos in this country. They get a fairly bad press ("who are they to tell me what I can and can't watch?") but I think that on the whole they do a good job.
Their historical archive of their activities over time is particularly interesting. From 1931 onwards, films were certified "U" (Universal), "A" (presumably Adult, though what that standard actually meant at the time is an interesting question) and "Rejected". This categorisation system carries on until 1950, though the proportion of films rejected decreases.
In 1951, the "X" rating is introduced. It would be interesting to find out what the difference is between U, A and X at this point - whether A is for "Adult" or for "Advisory" and how "A" is enforced.
The next formal change is in 1968, where "AA" is introduced to give U, A, AA and X. As I understand it, X is "adults only", or 18+; AA is 16+; A is either explicitly 5+, explicitly 7+ or merely an advisory twist of unsuitability for the very young. My parents suggest that there may have been occasional unofficial categorisations of XX or H for horror films, but I suspect this may have been a marketing gimmick only - the BBFC offers no formal record of this. The first couple of years sees the AA category used extremely seldom; from 1970 onwards, AA is quite frequent - somewhere between one third and two thirds as frequent as X. (When did the age of majority drop from 21 to 18 in this country? That too may be a significant factor.)
1982 is a milestone year. U/A/AA/X change to U/PG/15/18. U and PG are "Universal" and "Parental Guidance" respectively, much as in the US. I don't know to what extent the move was for standardisation and to what extent the move was for simplification. Incidentally, 15 is an absolute minimum restriction; I understand that its US counterpart, "R", is advisory only. The standards change, too; from 1985 onwards, "15" certifications overtake "18" certifications in popularity.
1983 introduces the R18 category, for explicit pornography. Mainstream cinemas do not regularly broadcast films certificated as R18, though a small number of dedicated adult cinemas exist. I understand that, prior to 1983, such movies were traded in an illicit fashion without regulation. At the time, about ninety licensed premises were established for the sale of pornographic videos. It's probable that there may have been additional regulations about what is legal implemented at the same time. (To clear up overseas visitors' possible misconceptions, "sex shops" are not brothels - you cannot purchase sex at them.)
1989 sees the introduction of the 12 category, so we now have U/PG/12/15/18 and also R18 for videos. The first 12 certificate film is Batman. Schoolboy urban legend (remember, I would have been 13 or 14 at the time) has it that the second 12 certificate film is "The Delinquents", in which Kylie Minogue exposes her breasts. (From the buzz going round, I think opinion was that a 12 certificate was just right in that situation.)
Today's change loses 12 and gains 12A. Effectively, by way of analogue to the US "PG-13", this is PG-12. If you're 12+, you can go alone; if you're 11-, you can go if and only if you're accompanied by an adult. (Not necessarily a parent, but they must go in and watch the film with you.) There have been a few cases where the 12 certificate has been awarded for issues raised rather than for images broadcast and the local council has overruled the BBFC's recommendation, downgrading the 12 certificate to a PG. The most famous example of this is "Mrs. Doubtfire", which some councils saw as excellent viewing for kids struggling to cope with the concept of divorces. This change puts the decision firmly in the relevant adults' hands.
One of the most sensible decisions that the BBFC have made is that the standards to earn a specific certificate for video release are not the same as for cinema release. When you have material on video, you have your own rewind/fast-forward buttons and can look at individual scenes many times if you like. This means that if your video contains material which might be considered instructional for naughty purposes - a specific example given here is that of drug use - you'll get slapped with a higher certificate or you might have to edit the offending sequence out altogether. An insightful move.
Every now and again, the BBFC consults to discover what the consensus of British opinion finds acceptable and what it finds unacceptable. Since the advent of the Internet, apparently there has been a continuous (but not large, literate or well-argued) stream requesting the permission of harder and harder material. I have a suspicion that the standards have been relaxed slightly in this regard.
There is a socially-liberal point of view which says that "people should be able to do whatever they like to one another, so long as it's all completely consensual", which extends to "people should be able to watch people doing whatever they like to one another, so long as it's all completely consensual". Essentially, this turns out to be the R18 guideline. Maybe Britain is more enlightened than the conventional image would have us believe.
Drawing the line between things which are evidently consensual and not evidently consensual strikes me as being very hard, though. I think the list that they supply does a decent job. To wit:
The following content is not acceptable
- any material which is in breach of the criminal law.
- material (including dialogue) likely to encourage an interest in abusive sexual activity (e.g., paedophilia, incest) which may include depictions involving adults role-playing as non-adults.
- the portrayal of any sexual activity, whether real or simulated, which involves lack of consent.
- the infliction of pain or physical harm, real or (in a sexual context) simulated. Some allowance may be made for mild consensual activity.
- any sexual threats or humiliation which do not form part of a clearly consenting role-playing game.
- the use of any form of physical restraint which prevents participants from withdrawing consent, for example, ball gags.
- penetration by any object likely to cause actual harm or associated with violence.
- activity which is degrading or dehumanising (examples include the portrayal of bestiality, necrophilia, defecation, urolagnia).
The following content, subject to the above, may be permitted
- aroused genitalia
- oral-genital contact including kissing, licking and sucking
- penetration by finger, penis, tongue, vibrator or dildo
- non-harmful fetish material
- group sexual activity
- ejaculation and semen
These guidelines make no distinction between heterosexual and homosexual activity.
I have a suspicion that part of the attraction of porn, like part of the attraction of horror, is to appeal to your self-destructive side - to try to deliberately distress yourself. Therefore if someone goes on camera and says "I, (name), being of sound mind, certify that I explicitly consent to give my body to (named pornographer) to do with as she/he will, however degrading or outrageous her/his chosen activities might be." then all restrictions are off and all bodily contact becomes accepted. Technically, this is permitted, because it's impossible to prohibit, but you just can't legally distribute the video afterwards.
A lot of restrictions on matters like these have arguments in favour which run along the lines of "It's easy for people to take advantage of the feeble" which, these days, effectively translates to those addled by narcotics to the detriment of their mental faculties. Yes, the crack whores. It could be argued that the few protections that are in place are there to protect the crack whores.
Whether you think these final measures are wise or not will be a matter of personal opinion, but they seem to be about right for my relatively statist tastes. A tip of the cap for explicitly stating that there is to be no difference made in standards according to the gender preferences of the pornography itself, which is open-mindedness that many countries apparently do not implement.
The general perception of British sexual permissivity is based on the material which is available on general top shelves, which seems to largely follow the rules "no insertion, no separation, no exposed arousal and no fluids". However, it is less generally well known just how much is permitted to be available behind the plain sex shop doors and the statutory large-type, plain notices that decorate them.
Yes, I am posting this in a blatant effort to (a) get more hits and (b) follow yesterday's advice to "Be sexy". So sue me!</lj-text>