By Andreas Whittam Smith.
A chance remark I made at lunch last week ended up on the front page of one the Sunday
newspapers yesterday: Film censor wants sex shop in every town. As a matter of
fact, I wasn't surprised to see it, for the author had rung me up afterwards to discuss my
views; the headline and the article were an accurate reflection of what I believe.
Parliament has decreed, through the Video Recordings Act passed in 1984, that there
shall be a system for licensing pornographic videos, the R18 category, and this is part of
the work of the BBFC. The legislation also enjoins that such material shall be sold only
through sex shops that have a local-authority permit. These are more strictly regulated
than ordinary video outlets.
The argument in favour of this system is that it exerts control where otherwise there
would be a huge black market. R18 videos may not show any material that is in breach of
the criminal law; the relevant statutes include the Protection of Children Act and the
Obscene Publications Act. They may not have the effect of encouraging an interest is
abusive sexual activity. Nor may the activities shown be other than consenting. That is
the legal territory.
Many readers won't like the sound of it. But there is a substantial, persistent demand
for pornography which cannot be halted or turned away. Better to subject what I might call
ordinary pornography to the light of day than let the whole trade be conducted illicitly
in dark alleys where crime flourishes. In taking this view, Parliament was, I think,
adopting a sensible, pragmatic approach. Except that the local authorities have contrived
to frustrate Parliament's wish. In fact no more than 65 sex shops throughout the entire
country are presently licensed. The bulk of them are in London, with as many as a quarter
in Soho. Even in London the licensed trade has to compete against an extensive black
market of almost the same size. In many local authority areas up and down the land there
are no licensed shops, and thus the illegal trade supplies the entire demand.
Consider what is available in illegal outlets. There can be found material which does
involve the use of children and animals, and which routinely mixes sex and violence, pain
and humiliation. When the police raid such premises, the result is often that the material
is taken in front of the local magistrates for a declaration that it is obscene, and it is
then confiscated. However the guilty parties often shrug their shoulders and start up
again in different premises in another part of town. Much less often are charges brought
in the Crown Court, where a guilty verdict can result in heavy fines and prison sentences.
I can understand why there is a reluctance to grant licences. It is thought that the very
presence of a sex shop in town imparts an unwholesome character to the area. Other
retailers do not want to find themselves next to one. But here I think that local
councillors are acting blindly. The trade will be going on anyway under their eyes.
Perhaps they rely upon the police to root out the business. But for the hard-pressed
constabulary, this can only be a sporadic and haphazard activity. Only the largest cities
have teams of police officers which specialise in obscenity.
I likewise find naive the remarks attributed to John Beyer, the director of the
National Viewers and Listeners Association. He was quoted as saying that the more
outlets, the more accessible this stuff becomes. I would put the matter differently:
the fewer the number of licensed outlets, the more the illegal trade flourishes.
For me the greatest risk that pornography poses is through its effect on children who
might see it. This most often happens in families where children are neglected and abused.
The use paedophiles make of pornography to groom children is well documented. Even without
abuse of that kind, the harm which can be inflicted upon children must include shock and
trauma, precocious sexualisation and the inculcation of the view that immediate sexual
gratification is the sole purpose of a relationship. Indeed, I think it is fair to say
that involving children in watching pornography is itself a form of sexual abuse. But
outside the cases of paedophila that reach the courts, and the extreme situations that
professionals working with distressed children come across in the course of their work,
little is known about the extent of children's exposure to pornography. The children don't
say and the parents won't divulge. The BBFC will shortly be publishing some research that
it has conducted in this area.
Meanwhile I am quite clear. So far as pornographic videos are concerned, the greatest
risks to society lie in the unregulated trade. A paedophile seeking material for grooming
vulnerable children is much more likely to go hunting on the black market than to enter a
licensed sex shop. I say to local authorities - control and supervise the trade rather
than ignore it.