BBFC People: Jan Chambers

Examiner with a porn problem

5th August

Dangerous Job...

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Watching hardcore porn for a living has a lowering, deadening effect on the mind
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So film censors all need therapy, eh? As prurient newspaper reports "revealed" yesterday, the BBFC has provided a psychotherapist to help its examiners. 

But why does this need to be treated sensationally? Supervision, or counselling, exists at the BBFC as it does in other professional areas, such as social services or special needs teaching, where difficult subject matter is dealt with daily. But one thing it did show is that Sir Quentin Thomas, announced last week as the board's new president, will have to get his head around a lot more than the odd erect penis on screen.

I resigned as an examiner in June after six months, wearied by the relentless viewing of hard-core pornography and its lowering, deadening effect on the mind. I felt like a gatekeeper to the sex industry. A sex worker.

Talking to friends was interesting. The smirks on their faces soon turned to slack-jawed bewilderment when I answered their questions about porn viewing. I could have given a lighter 18-cert touch to my replies, but their expressions of disgust confirmed to me that it is troubling to watch degrading stuff - even if you do get paid for it.

My friends and I are neither prudes nor puritans, but porn liberals who imagine hard-core tapes - those available only in registered sex shops and given the classification R18 - as liberating and exciting, rather than the joyless, graphic genital fests that they are, should consider the relentless debasement of (mostly) young women involved.

A typical R18 report might read: "Explicit hard-core porn tape set in private house. Woman strips on bed and masturbates. At two minutes man comes in. She fellates man. Second man enters; troilus sex ensues - she fellates him also. At six minutes double penetration of anus and vagina. At eight minutes close-up of double penetration of vagina only. Sex then includes more fellatio, cunnilingus and annilingus in close-up followed by vaginal, anal and dildo penetration. Man ejaculates on to woman's face... " and so on.

This would be uncut and describe the first of about seven similar scenarios of a two-hour tape, all accompanied by a ubiquitous drum'n'bass soundtrack and very little dialogue, listened to carefully for references to underage sex. Men frequently ejaculated into women's faces. To do it inside a woman's body is not spectacular enough and implies a certain intimacy of which there is none.

The above report might conclude: "All sexual activity consensual and fine within current BBFC guidelines. No UK laws have been broken."

These reports justify an R18 certificate - distinguishing tapes from the softer 18 porn which has implied sex only - and alert senior management to cuts to material that transgress the publicly available BBFC guidelines, such as sexual violence, reference to underage sex or dehumanising activity. Bestiality and rape is banned and therefore not presented. The BBFC list of can't dos in these guidelines is longer than that for cans, which is visibly consenting, physically safe sex between adults over 18. Occasionally a whole work may be rejected, but this is rare because porn distributors want their product through. Resubmitting costs money, and to present something illegal hands the BBFC a crime scene - so they play the game.

R18 tapes are only available in registered sex shops, of which there are relatively few. Yet something like 13% of the material on examiners' viewing schedules is made up of them - a significant increase from the 1% just three years ago. Why is this?

In 1999 the BBFC rejected seven hard-core tapes and was challenged through the video appeals committee by porn distributors. Despite arguing that these could be harmful to children, the board lost.

The board then commissioned research into the effects of pornography viewing on children and went for a judicial review. The research could only be based on child psychologists' caseloads, and it concluded that abused or neglected children are those most likely to be exposed to pornography, and therefore harmed by it. "Normal" children do not make it into psychologists' caseloads. The high court subsequently upheld the appeals committee's decision and the floodgates were open.

Although councils are not granting licences for more sex shops and the BBFC have no knowledge of any black market for R18 tapes, there is a much wider choice than three years ago. They are legal, however, and the BBFC has no choice but to classify.

I believe in the right of adults over 18 to watch what they choose and I supported the board's classifications of feature films such as The Piano Teacher, Baise Moi and Intimacy at 18. They all contain explicit sexual imagery, which can be used creatively and cathartically, but something lamentably different happens at R18, which degrades and desensualises sex.

I wonder how Sir Quentin will deal with what he finds at the bottom of the pond at the BBFC. It's not a question of his liberality, but the moral, social and psychological issues he has to get his head round. I wish him well.

BBFC Archive   Horror An interview with Richard Falcon speaking about the BBFC treatment of horror in 1995
  Blasphemy Ruling European Court of Human Rights upholds BBFC ban of Visions of Ecstasy in 1996
  The Ferman Chainsaw Massacre remembering the defunct website 'Ban the Board of Film Censors'
  Confessions of a Censor by Ros Hodgkiss, retired film examiner
  Sinful Days in Soho by Maggie Mills, retired film examiner
  Monster Love Carol Topolski tells of being a film examiner under James Ferman


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