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The Spanner Trust - Response to the BBFC

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Response to the BBFC Draft Guidelines 1999-2000

The British Board of Film Classification is the body responsible for classifying films, videos and DVDs in the UK. In 1999/2000 it issued a consultation paper which set out to revise the guidelines which set what was permissible in movies within each of its categories. Below is The Spanner Trust's response. A link to the BBFC web site is shown to the right.

Set up in the wake of the conviction of a number of gay men for consensual sexual sadomasochism (SM) in 1990, The Spanner Trust has a number aims, the primary of which is to advocate and lobby for a change in the law of the UK on consensual SM.

The legal judgements in the Spanner case made illegal a narrowly defined set of consensual activities - namely those where lasting harm or damage results. This could be interpreted to cover whipping and flogging and tattooing and piercing in a sexual context. The judgements took no account of the consensual nature of the activities.

All other SM activity is legal. So bondage, fetishism, role-play, fantasy re-enactment and most forms of corporal punishment remain legal. And legal judgements since the original 'Spanner' trials have cast doubt on the enforceability of the original judgement. (We can supply all the relevant legal references if necessary).

And while it is the primary aim of The Spanner Trust to reverse the original legal ruling, our aim is also to educate the public and the legislative bodies about consensual SM in general.

Consensual sadomasochism is a common activity amongst adults in the UK. Such activity can range from dressing up, fantasy role play and light bondage through domination, fetishism and restraint to prolonged captivity, whipping and permanent marking. All such activities take place within a trusting relationship of short or long duration and are designed for mutual pleasure. Most important of all they are consensual activities between adults.

Just as actors re-enacting a murder are not guilty of murder (and are not actually murdering anyone) so two adults re-enacting a rape or a captivity scene are not actually engaged in non-consensual rape or imprisonment.

Sadomasochism raises mixed emotions in the general public which often finds it hard to distinguish it from violence and other non-consensual activities.

Much of this is due to a confusion between the external superficial appearance of consensual SM activities (which may be fantasy re-enactments of non-consensual activities) and real unconsensual control, domination and violence.

This confusion is cleared in part when interested parties attend SM events and come across sexual SM materials whether they be written or visual (both still and moving). In the media it is always important that the consensual nature of SM activity is made clear to the reader or viewer.

It is of concern to us, therefore, that your guidelines fail to take note of the difference between the portrayal of actual violence and re-enactment of consensual SM scenes.

With general sex education, it is accepted, even in your own draft guidelines (page 6 - SEX - paragraph 3) that the explicit portrayal of sexual activity can be in the public interest.

Sexual education covers a wide remit and has to cover the whole gamut of human sexual activity including both homosexuality and heterosexuality, fetishism and transsexuality/transvestisism. As with all variations of sexual activity, SM sex can be done well or badly, safely or unsafely. And as with general sex education covering the wide range of legal adult sexual activities, SM deserves to be treated equally.

We would agree with your general guidelines that anything which encourages the viewer to commit illegal activities should be monitored carefully. Yet even within this it seems acceptable to show films which show murders taking place, banks being robbed and illegal drugs being taken.

It is important that the BBFC guidelines distinguish between the portrayal of illegal sexual activities - namely unconsensual sex and violence - and SM activities which may too involve "forcible restraint, pain or humiliation" (last paragraph page 6 - Sex).

It is not difficult to ensure that in any video or film being considered, the consensual nature of the activity is made clear. No-one consents to being raped though many consent to activities which re-enact rape fantasies. Consent is the key which distinguishes one from the other yet the BBFC's guidelines ignore this completely.

Finally we question the definitions of 'mutilation' and 'torture' in the last paragraph of that section. To many, a tattoo, a scarification or a body piercing are an adornment; to others they are a mutilation.

Following your guidelines to their logical conclusion, for example, you would not grant a certificate to a video of a male circumcision. Many consider it a mutilation yet many orthodox Jews viewers of such a video would gain pleasure from seeing it. And the subject of the mutilation (an 8-day old male infant) could hardly be deemed to have consented.

The word 'torture' usually means non-consensual infliction of pain on another. Yet many adults engaging in SM activities would use the same word to describe some of their consensual activities.

In summary, your guidelines on violence and sex ignore the very real difference between consensual and non-consensual sexual activity. In fact people engaging in SM activity never refer to their activity as violence. Yet your wording fails to recognise the difference.

This is not an easy issue to unravel and we would welcome an opportunity to discuss this submission and your draft further.

The British Board of Film Classification

The Spanner Trust always tries to ensure that all information provided is accurate and up-to-date. However, the law can change and is open to interpretation. Before relying upon any statement made by the Spanner Trust you should take your own independent legal advice and the Spanner Trust cannot accept any liability whatsoever.