educational

Obscenity Laws Around the World

Alex Henderson
In an increasingly global economy, many American adult entertainment companies will no doubt intensify their international marketing efforts — and the more they know about obscenity laws around the world, the better off they will be. Obscenity laws can differ radically from one country to another, and sexually explicit material that isn't even controversial in some parts of the globe can result in long prison terms or even the death penalty in others.

The United States remains the most porn-producing country in the world, but it is far from the most liberal where erotica is concerned. As a general rule, the most porn-friendly part of the world is Continental Europe. Spain, Holland, Portugal, Italy, Greece, France, Denmark and the Czech Republic are generally known for being quite tolerant of adult entertainment, and it isn't hard to find hardcore porn being sold right out in the open in major European cities like Barcelona and Athens. Porn stars often appear as guests on very mainstream television programs in Spain, and Barcelona is the home of Private Media Group (Europe's largest adult company). Meanwhile, the U.K. tends to be more sexually restrictive than much of Continental Europe even though it is one of the world's top porn producers. Like the United States and Canada, the U.K. is a place where erotica is legal as long as it isn't determined to be obscene — and edgy material that Spanish, Italian or Dutch prosecutors wouldn't consider obscene could result in an obscenity conviction in England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. How risky the U.K. is for adult businesses depends on the type of erotica involved; licensed sex shops in major U.K. cities regularly sell Vivid, Wicked Pictures and Hustler titles without any problem, and the gay retail chain Clone Zone is an institution in the British gay community. Explicit vanilla porn, both gay and straight, that receives an R18 rating from the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) can legally be sold in licensed sex shops. But authorities in the U.K. are notoriously restrictive when it comes to BDSM erotica. In fact, Britain's BDSM community has been quite worried about England and Wales' new "extreme porn" law, which says that one can be imprisoned for three years for simple possession of what British politicians have been loosely describing as "extreme porn." In recent decades, obscenity law in the United States, Canada, England and other major western democracies has dealt with production, sales and distribution rather than simple possession; the U.S. Supreme Court's Stanley v. Georgia ruling of 1969 clearly states that while selling obscene adult entertainment is a crime, merely possessing it is not. But with the "extreme porn" law now in effect, mere possession of what authorities may consider "extreme porn" is now a felony in England and Wales. British BDSM activists fear that Internet users in London or Manchester could be sentenced to three years in prison for merely downloading spanking content, and the London-based BDSM activist Demolition Red has described the "extreme porn" law as "the most draconian anti-porn legislation of any modern western democracy."

But if the U.K. is restrictive compared to much of Continental Europe, it is downright liberal compared to many places. Porn is flat-out illegal in India, and Indian courts have ruled that selling any type of porn online is punishable by imprisonment. Porn is also banned altogether by the Islamic fundamentalist governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran; in those countries, an obscenity conviction is punishable by death. Since the Middle East and Arabic North Africa are known for having some of the harshest anti-porn laws in the world, adult entrepreneurs need to stay away from Syria, Libya, Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) altogether. But two Middle Eastern countries that are relatively porn-friendly are Turkey and Israel. Porn is legally produced in both of those countries, although any adult entrepreneur who hopes to do business in either Turkey or Israel should consult a seasoned attorney who understands the intricacies of their obscenity laws.

Very few communist countries are left in 2009, but the ones that remain are extremely intolerant of porn. All porn is flat-out illegal in Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos and the People's Republic of China; in 2002, communist officials demanded that Chinese webmasters remove all sexually explicit material from their websites, and they have been quick to jail webmasters who haven't complied. Porn is also illegal in many non-communist Asian countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. But in Japan, porn is both legal and plentiful. Japan is the capital of hentai (erotic Japanese animation), and countless adult webmasters are based in Tokyo. Nonetheless, Japan has had its share of obscenity prosecutions in recent years. Like the United States, the U.K., Canada and Australia, Japan is relatively tolerant of porn, but less tolerant than Holland, France, Portugal, Greece or Spain.

Obscenity law is a matter of degree; a British or Canadian court might say that explicit oral sex on a gay adult website is perfectly acceptable, but that a BDSM spanking clip is obscene. A Spanish court might say that the same spanking clip is not obscene because it involves consensual activity among adults. And a Saudi court might say that even an Italian lingerie ad constitutes obscenity.

In much of Latin America, obscenity laws are so vague that it's difficult to know exactly what is and isn't legal. On one hand, Brazil has such a large adult entertainment industry that the country even has its own version of the Free Speech Coalition: the Associação Brasileira das Empresas do Mercado Erótico e Sensual (Abeme). Argentina and Columbia also produce their share of erotica, but Panama, on the other hand, is where American adult filmmaker Fred Salaff, a.k.a. Clayton Blacquemoor, spent months in a hellish prison in the mid-2000s. Panamanian authorities assured Salaff that adult entertainment was perfectly legal in Panama, but even though Salaff was never charged with obscenity, he was accused of corrupting minors after some children climbed trees outside his property in the hope of spying on his productions. Salaff was eventually acquitted, and he returned to Los Angeles. Commenting on Salaff's nightmare in 2005, Michelle L. Freridge, the FSC's executive director at the time, stressed that parts of Latin America can be risky for adult entrepreneurs because when a country has had a lot of political instability, that isn't conducive to establishing a long history of case law — and in an obscenity trial, legal precedents are vital to building a strong defense.

First Amendment attorney Gregory Piccionelli has often stated that the early 21st century will go down in history as the era of the culture wars. Those who oppose all porn on ideological grounds (whether they are Christian or Islamic fundamentalists, communists or radical feminists like Catherine MacKinnon and the late Andrea Dworkin) will continue to push for aggressive prosecutions of adult businesses, while civil libertarians who see nothing wrong with adult entertainment will argue that prosecutors should focus on combating child pornography instead. And as long as the culture wars continue, adult entertainment will continue to be widely accepted in some countries while being the target of forceful obscenity prosecutions in others.

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