Focus: LOST IN A TIDE OF PORN

A booming black market and unrestricted access to material via the Internet are making a mockery of the law. The outgoing director of the British Board of Film Classification says something must be done - which is the only thing all sides can agree on
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Indy Lifestyle Online
EVEN WHEN you step through the rainbow curtains which separate the street from the sex shop, the British pornography industry remains shrouded in mystery. For all the promise of the neon signs and the warnings of explicit material, the alluring and suggestive video-cassette cases and cling-filmed magazines disappoint the customer seeking real pornography.

London's Soho, along Old Compton and Brewer Streets, is at the epicentre of Britain's porn industry, though much of the area has now moved up market. Matteo from Naples sits in his Frith Street sex shop, frustrated at Britain's illiberal legislation. "These videos would cost pounds 3 in Italy, but I have to drive to Holland or Germany to buy them because no one can make them in your country. So you foot the costs [videos retail at between pounds 15 and pounds 30]," he says. "Look at the boxes, none of them in English. The laws here are crazy. It's like the licensing laws, telling everyone to stop drinking at 11. But being in Europe, Britain will eventually have to come into line with the others."

The content of his and similar shops is not particularly edifying: sex toys and open-mouthed dolls (male or female) vie for attention, alongside leather and PVC bondage gear. Clamps and 'cuffs hang from the ceiling.

But that, normally, is where the titillation ends. Britain believes in soft rather than hard pornography, the distinction, in effect, applying to presentation of the male organ. Any video showing penetrative sex (genital, and genital-oral, contact) is liable to be seized by the police or Customs. Those selling material deemed "obscene" face prosecution, a maximum fine of pounds 20,000, or a jail sentence of up to three years. Material sold as a matter of course on the Continent is, officially, unavailable in Britain.

It is impossible to obtain a definition from the Home Office or the Metropolitan Police about what they might seize in their regular visits to sex shops. It is a hit and miss business: a video's contents are unknown until viewed.

Matteo is watching Newsnight as we talk. He shows me a court summons for possession of illegal material, citing the seizure of some 50 videos: "This happens every month. It's like a tax from the authorities, because all my business is cash in hand. The council and police know where I am, they could close me down if they wanted. But they want their share of my business." I ask Matteo if maybe he has something a little more hardcore. "Two hours of animals I can do for pounds 150," he says.

Last week, James Ferman, outgoing director of the British Board of Film Classification, reignited the debate about Britain's pornography laws. Having acknowledged in his last annual report the difficulty juries appeared to face in convicting pornographers, he suggested that the industry would be better legalised as long as it were also severely regulated. He said: "As we enter a new millennium, we must find a solution to the problem of pornography, which will not go away. The law has been applied by police and magistrates in too strict a manner to allow the material the customers want."

Otherwise, he said, the black market would grow. His solution was to propose a new film classification, R18, covering scenes of, for example, group and homosexual intercourse. The Daily Mail called him "craven", the Guardian reminded him that "one of feminism's founding principles" was that "pornography is wrong". The National Viewers and Listeners Association and the Movement for Christian Democracy condemned his comments.

THE DEBATE echoes attempts to decriminalise soft drugs: one side wishes to kowtow to the consumer, while the other behaves with King Canute-like obstinacy in the face of a tidal wave. The difference with pornography is that the legislators have to classify the minutiae of body behaviour rather than chemical make up. Tuppy Owens, editor of Consenting Adults magazine, complains: "I have had to sit down with Customs and Excise simply to discuss what was erect and what flaccid."

The obscenity laws, invoked in the past to prosecute, for example, Ulysses and Lady Chatterley's Lover, date from 1868. They were originally framed because of, bizarrely, the import of a particularly erotic Japanese chess set. It was then that obscenity (in a wording still used today) was defined as anything tending "to deprave and corrupt".

Pornography per se is not illegal, but, given such wording, the legal dividing line between pornography and obscenity has become blurred, and juries - Mr Ferman's central point - have been reluctant to convict. "One jury," says a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Police, "may find something obscene, others wouldn't. There are just no clear parameters. It depends entirely on the make-up of the jury, so it's a continual testing ground, entirely open to interpretation."

"It's a grey area," admits Mike Thomson, a spokesman for Customs and Excise, "and, basically, it's up to courts to decide what is obscene or not." In the 1996-7 financial year, there were 8,029 detections of obscene material by Customs (as compared with 7790 detections of drugs). That figure resulted in the seizure of some 45,000 items, from CD-Roms to single photographs.

The number of seizures by the Clubs and Vice Squad within the Metropolitan Police is on the increase. Some 44,000 videos were taken in 1997, and 181 video recorders; that compares with a mere 28,000 videos and 19 recorders three years earlier (the figures exclude CID operations).

But while the industry is mushrooming, successful prosecutions are rare. For 1996, in magistrates courts in England and Wales, there were only 312 convictions for possession of obscene material - there were 153 acquittals. Legal risks are clearly worth taking in such a lucrative industry.

Customers expect to part with about pounds 50 on a typical visit to a sex shop. The profit puts in perspective the pounds 19,000 which each of the 11 sex shops in Soho pays to Westminster City Council for a licence each year. The cost of printing off copies of continental magazines is low, and it is cheap to run off videos from a mastertape.

But for all the promise of these shops, and whatever they are prepared to provide under the counter, the real boom in pornography is not happening here. It comes instead in areas that are outside the control of Mr Ferman's BBFC. As Tim Brain, Deputy Chief Constable of Gloucestershire and the police spokesman on pornography, admits: "Since the introduction of the Obscene Publications Act, the law and technology have developed to a stage at which the legal position on pornography is unclear and makes effective enforcement difficult."

For, in the same way that domestic videos ushered in an era of blissful porn-privacy in the 1970s, the Internet and satellite television in the 1990s have not only cut out the embarrassing necessity for a middleman, they have also by-passed almost every legal obstacle, avoiding any form of import control and bringing to this country the almost unregulated worlds of Continental Europe and North America.

Brett Pittam is the sales manager of X-Net, a bi-monthly Internet magazine "for men", which has become the third best-selling of all Internet titles. He says: "Of the top 100 sites visited on the Internet, 95 per cent are of an adult nature; it's the adult market which is driving Internet technology forward." The magazine has listings for 1,500 adult websites, many capable of showing video images, which effectively turns them into cinemas.

The only censorship on such sites comes from the ISPs (the Internet Service Providers) and is inevitably erratic. A half-hour trawl, giving the search engine predictable keywords, yields far more explicit material than anything that is overtly available in Matteo's Frith Street shop - this time for free. The website for Desire Direct, an introductions magazine, has 1.5 million "hits" (visitors) every month.

Lesley Sharrock - one of many women now in the industry - is one of Desire Direct's editors. "The things the British proscribe are perfectly legal in America and all over Europe. People go abroad and surf sites, so they know this stuff exists. You can't brush it under the carpet." She adds: "Pornography is a highly emotive word, but it's all in the eye of the beholder. We find that pornography enriches people's lives, adds to their freedoms. People who say otherwise - the Andrea Dworkins - have very twisted minds."

On TV, although the satellite smut of Red Hot Dutch is now defunct, its replacement, Rendezvous (beamed via satellite from Paris), is easily accessible. British companies such as Techtronics offer to deliver decoders and smart cards to your door. A spokeswoman for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, concedes: "The technology to scramble or jam television channels from the Continent simply doesn't exist. The only recourse we have is to notify the Independent Television Commission, and it is then up to the courts to decide if the material being broadcast is obscene."

HISTORICALLY, attempts to control pornography and to prosecute obscenity have resulted only in embarrassment for the authorities. Within years of the beginning of etching and engraving, Mannerist prints were available of erect penises, and the tradition continued in chapbooks, penny-dreadfuls and lithographs. John Cleland was prosecuted for his 1748 publication, Fanny Hill, and John Wilkes was expelled from Parliament and the Hellfire Club for his Number 45: "Awake my Fanny! Leave all meaner things;/This morn shall prove what rapture swiveing brings..." Both, of course, gained notoriety through prosecution.

The Chartists had a bank-rolling pornographic publication, Paul Pry, which satirised aristocratic vice, while even during the high Victorian period, in 1856, police were impounding more than 3,000 books belonging to the porn-peddler extraordinaire, William Dugdale. The pursuit of both Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde, for alleged obscenities in art and life, created only martyrs rather than morals.

Another woman in the industry, 30-year-old Rowan Pelling (who edits the cultivated Erotic Review) denies that we are now any more depraved than in the past. "People tend to assume that the 20th century is so degenerate, but each generation has been the same. There is nothing new under the sun. It's ridiculous to say that society is in some mortal peril. Most of middle-England is very tolerant. It's just that that silent majority don't march with placards saying, 'We want more sex', so they are drowned by the loud voices of the Daily Mail."

Meanwhile, Mr Ferman has reiterated that his is an argument not for deregulation but for closer inspection. "I want very strict licensing controls. We have cut films quite ruthlessly in the last 23 years to separate violence from sex. I want no animals, no children, no degradation. And I'd like to see the obscenity laws taken very literally, whereby the proper test is whether it is an 'immoral influence'."

In this, Mr Ferman is attempting to separate sexual play from violence, animal and paedophile material, which are otherwise mixed up in the same illicit morass. Citing a poll last week conducted by Teletext, in which 64 per cent of the 1,274 viewers who voted called for more sexual content in videos, he says: "Most people have come to terms with the fact that sex is a part of everyday life, that being turned-on doesn't make you wicked, it makes you randy. But what I would target is unlicensed sex shops, and the dreadful material they sell."

Words, Culture, page 15

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