The U.K.'s R18 Rating

Alex Henderson
Great Britain has a long history of erotic expression — from the Skin Two Rubber Ball (one of the world's largest S&M/fetish gatherings) to London's notoriously decadent Hellfire Club of the 18th century to the dominatrix-like attire that actress Diana Rigg often favored when she portrayed sexy spy Emma Peel on "The Avengers" — and the country's demand for erotica may be at an all-time high.

According to a survey by the security technology firm Secure Computing, more than 8.5 million pages of online adult entertainment was hosted in the Internet's U.K. suffix in 2004. But despite that demand, the United Kingdom has some of Western Europe's more restrictive obscenity laws — and for those interested in distributing, selling or buying sexually explicit videos in Great Britain, an ongoing challenge has been the R18 rating. In the United Kingdom, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) tends to give its 18 rating to softcore erotica and the more restrictive R18 rating to hardcore, sexually explicit videos.

The BBFC's website describes R18 as "a special and legally restricted classification primarily for explicit works of consenting sex between adults." R18-rated videos are perfectly legal in the United Kingdom — they don't violate British obscenity laws — but they can be sold only in specially licensed sex shops, and retailers who want to sell R18-rated videos anywhere in England, Wales or Scotland must obtain a sex shop license from a local authority. According to Mike McCann, chairman of Britain's Adult Industry Trade Association (AITA) and president of Clone Zone, a gay-oriented adult retail chain, there are about 270 licensed sex shops in the United Kingdom. The number of sex shop licenses that are sold in a particular area is up to the area's local council.

"Glasgow is the largest city in Scotland, and there are no sex shop licenses there," London-based McCann told XBiz.

"Sex shop licenses are given by local councils, which would be committees made up of anywhere between five and 25 people, and if a council decides it doesn't want a sex shop within its boundaries, then you won't get [it]. Glasgow has zero sex shops, but if you get on the train and go 45 minutes to Edinburgh, which is the second-largest city in Scotland, there are four sex shop licenses. So what makes Edinburgh people more able to buy R18s than Glasgow people? It's nonsense. One of the things that AITA is doing is trying to get some logical responses from local governments."

McCann added that Glasgow's lack of sex shops wouldn't be so senseless if adult websites could sell R18-rated videos online in the United Kingdom, but R18 titles — unlike 18-rated titles — cannot be sold legally by mail order. Some mail-order companies try to sidestep that law by having offices outside the United Kingdom. Various websites are selling hardcore adult DVDs online to U.K. customers and listing prices in British pounds, but their offices might be in Amsterdam or Barcelona — places known for being much less restrictive of adult entertainment.

Out-of-Country Offices
"What has happened is that a lot of the U.K. companies have set up offices in Holland and Spain just to send product back into the United Kingdom by mail order," McCann explained. The AITA chairman asserted that forbidding the sale of R18-rated videos by mail order within the country is bad for the British economy because when mail-order companies move to other countries, it means less tax revenue for Great Britain.

"It would make a lot more sense for adult companies to be able to sell R18s by mail order within the United Kingdom," McCann stressed. "Clone Zone, my company, cannot sell a gay DVD by mail order within the United Kingdom, but if we set up a company in Spain, then we can sell from Spain back into the United Kingdom, and that is revenue that is not being obtained by the British government, it's revenue that is going to [continental] Europe."

McCann and Tim Woodward, publisher of the S&M/fetish-themed Skin Two magazine and founder of London's annual Skin Two Rubber Ball, both feel that U.K. sex shop licenses are much too expensive. McCann noted that in London's Soho section, for example, "a license would cost £30,000 [about $55,000] a year." And Woodward told XBiz, "Sex shop licenses are expensive and hard to get. So most hardcore porn is traded illegally in the United Kingdom."

According to Woodward, many British consumers are purchasing R18-rated videos on the black market because the R18 system is such a hassle. Woodward isn't proposing that censorship be done away with altogether in Great Britain — like the vast majority of British erotica enthusiasts, he sees nothing wrong with using U.K. obscenity laws to combat illegal child pornography — but he's quite critical of the way legal, consensual, non-harmful erotica of either the vanilla or S&M/bondage variety is so restricted under R18 laws.

"I have no problem with censorship in principle; for example, I am happy to agree to banning child sex or abuse of animals," Woodward said. "However, the U.K. laws are too repressive for any reasonable person."

S&M's Battle
S&M-oriented porn, Woodward explained, is fighting an uphill battle in Britain despite the demand for it. "Most kinkier firms do not try to sell in the United Kingdom," Woodward said. "They simply sell via websites, and U.K. citizens will order illegally if they wish to. Customs may steal the DVDs as they come into the country — hence the popularity of downloading videos from web sites rather than getting them by mail."

The R18 guidelines posted on the BBFC's website allow for some S&M/bondage activity. The site indicates that in kinky porn, "some allowance may be made for mild consensual activity" but states that "strong abuse, even if consensual, is unlikely to be acceptable."

And if an S&M-themed video cannot receive at least an R18 rating from the BBFC, it is essentially banned in the United Kingdom. British and Scottish customs officials have a right to confiscate erotic videos mailed from other countries if they believe they don't fall within R18 guidelines.

Great Britain's R18 debates come at a time when there has been a movement in the U.K. to block sexually violent websites. The movement began after the 2003 killing of Brighton schoolteacher Jane Longhurst. Graham Coutts, the man sentenced to life in prison for strangling the 31-year-old Longhurst, was, according to the BBC, "addicted to extreme websites that featured the abuse of women for sexual gratification."

Depicting rape, asphyxiation and necrophilia, the types of sites Coutts was visiting violated U.K. obscenity laws and can be shut down by the British government if they are U.K.-based — and Longhurst's mother has campaigned to have sexually violent sites blocked from the United Kingdom if they are based in other countries.

The Black Market
The vast majorities of adult videos that are being sold illegally on Great Britain's black market, either vanilla or kinky, are not depicting extreme sexual violence and are easily available in much of continental Europe. Woodward asserted that while the laws governing the sale of R18-rated material are too restrictive and encourages black-market sales, he doubts that British politicians are in a hurry to bring about reforms.

"It is true that when governments permit something to be legally sold, they may then raise tax revenue from it," Woodward noted. "However, any attempt to allow porn to be less restricted in the United Kingdom would cost votes."

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