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Protesters Fight Against Harsh UK Porn Laws With A Massive "Face-Sitting"

Protesters gather at the British parliament on Friday to protest the regulations on internet pornography that many feel restrict female pleasure.

by Katie Engelhart
Dec 12 2014, 8:40pm

Photo by Katie Engelhart

About a hundred protesters — and just as many protester-chasing journalists — gathered on Friday at the Old Palace Yard: a small plot of soggy grass outside the UK's Houses of Parliament. They were gathered to oppose new regulations on UK-produced Internet pornography, which will for the first time prohibit online content showing acts such as "drinking urine," certain types of "physical restraint," "the infliction of pain," and "fisting."

Participants carried homemade signs with sex-themed slogans. "We Cum In Peace," read one. "Fist Me," read another. Charlotte Rose, a noted sex worker and activist, took to the stage with a mock cardboard microphone — Rose was not permitted to use a real microphone — and decried the new restrictions as "absolutely absurd." 

"Who has a right to take away our favorite things?" she asked.

Photos by Katie Engelhart

Friday's event was billed as a mass "face-sitting" — in which women would simulate the sexual act outside of parliament. And indeed, several of the protesters lifted their skirts and sat on the faces of fellow protesters, who were lying on towels spread over the grass. The gesture nods to what many have interpreted as a particular effort by regulatory bodies to suppress depictions of female sexual pleasure.

On December 1, the new Audiovisual Media Services Regulations went into effect. The regulations, imposed by a government order, essentially require that video-on-demand (VoD) online porn adhere to the same guidelines that currently cover porn DVDs sold in old school sex shops, which are regulated by the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC), a non-governmental body.

BBFC guidelines ban the representation of sexual acts that are "in breach of the criminal law," even if those acts are scripted and consensual. For instance, it is prohibited for porn to show "adults role-playing as non-adults."

The guidelines also ban "material judged to be obscene" under the Obscene Publications Act. This includes using objects associated with violence for penetration, strong physical or verbal abuse, and portraying sexual violence in an appealing manner. A separate set of regulations from the Crown Prosecution Service bars material that shows acts such as fisting, bondage, or realistic portrayals of rape.

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Photos by Katie Engelhart

On Friday, lawyer Myles Jackman — who purports to specialize in "Obscenity and Extreme Pornography" — addressed the face-sitting crowd to denounce the new regulations as an affront to free expression and a harbinger of censorship to come. "Consenting adults should be able to view and do what they want in the privacy of their own home," he said.

Later, when asked by VICE News whether the British government was justified in prohibiting the portrayal of illegal acts, Jackman bristled — insisting there is no evidence linking the watching of extreme pornography with the commitment of criminal activity or with actual harm. Indeed, a 2005 Home Office Consultation on the Possession of Extreme Pornographic Material failed to definitively establish that link, though its authors hypothesized that extreme pornography "may encourage or reinforce interest in violent and aberrant sexual activity."

He also argued that the new guidelines rest on an outmoded interpretation of the UK's Obscene Publications Act (OPA) as it was formulated over half-a-century ago, in 1959.

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The sex worker Charlotte Rose took a different slant, arguing that the new porn guidelines were invalid because they were imprecise. She used the example of "aggressive whipping," questioning the point at which whipping would be violent enough to merit censorship. Would that line shift if Rose had a "smile on my face" while she whipped?

After Rose spoke, her followers fanned out to engage with the media. Two young women stripped down to their underwear: one, revealing a smattering of bruises across her buttocks. "I love the pain," she laughed. A few others got down on the grass to simulate face-sitting.

Many protesters told VICE News that they were in attendance because of government regulations that specifically target women's pleasure. A number cited new prohibitions on both face-sitting and "female ejaculation."

"They don't ban blow jobs," shouted one woman, who did not give her name. "Lot's of women choke on dicks. They're taking the fun out of it."

But Peter Johnson, CEO of ATVOD, the body that regulates VoD programming, disputed the charge. "There is no blanket ban on face sitting and there is no ban on female ejaculation," he told VICE News.

With respect to face-sitting, Johnson said the ban covers only depictions of face sitting designed to restrict "breathing or blood flow to the brain," which he described as "potentially fatal." Johnson said that the ban applies to both genders. The term "face-sitting" does not appear in the new regulations.

Likewise, Johnson said that female ejaculation is not prohibited. But he argued that liquid displayed as female ejaculate in porn films is, in actuality, often urine — which is banned under the new guidelines when it is consumed or poured onto another performer. "What I have been told in the past by pornographers is that... they provide the performer with a large amount of water, and get the performer to urinate on cue." Johnson told VICE News that "there is a healthy debate among scientific communities about whether female ejaculation exists or not," or whether women who seem to ejaculate are simply peeing. 

Johnson said that the ATVOD would evaluate films on a case-by-case basis to determine whether they appeared to show "natural female ejaculation," in which case the film would pass censors, or urination, in which case it would not.

Photos by Katie Engelhart

Shortly after the new bill came into effect, the website Pornhub published stats indicating that Brits are more likely than others to watch pornography showing spanking and whipping.

On Thursday, Liberal Democratic MP Julian Huppert called for the new online porn regulations to be debated in parliament.

Ending her speech on Friday, the sex worker Rose somewhat incongruously ordered her followers to rally "in the style of William Wallace," the 13th century Scottish independence crusader, famously portrayed by Mel Gibson in the movie Bravehart. "Let's protect tomorrow by taking action today!"

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Follow Katie Engelhart on Twitter: @katieengelhart

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