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What is obscene these days?

Peep show

By Chris Summers
BBC News

It's 2008 and sex seems to be everywhere. So who holds the line between permissiveness and obscenity? What is obscene these days? And how do those people entrusted to make these calls cope with the harrowing work?

"People think 'what a great job - you sit and watch porn all day'," says Inspector Andy Shortland, who heads the Metropolitan Police's Obscene Publications Squad.

"I think to myself you really would not want to see this stuff. It's not top shelf magazine stuff or soft-core porn which you might hire at Blockbuster. This is really horrible stuff. And when I say that it usually stops them dead.

"But it's just human nature to laugh about it," he adds.

The squad, the only one of its type in the country, consists of 12 officers, including one woman. Its role is threefold - to monitor what is on sale at licensed sex shops, to target and convict pedlars of illegal pornography and to advise other law enforcement agencies.

Lady Chatterley's Lover
Lady Chatterley's Lover was once considered obscene but certainly wouldn't be now
Inspector Andy Shortland

But what, in these more permissive times, is considered obscene?

During the trial of American pornographer Larry Flynt in the 1970s, his lawyer Louis Sirkin observed: "One man's obscenity is another man's art." In England, the law is governed by a piece of legislation almost half-a-century old - the 1959 Obscene Publications Act.

It defines obscenity as "content whose effect will tend to deprave and corrupt those likely to read, see or hear" it.

It helpfully adds: "This could include images of extreme sexual activity such as bestiality, necrophilia, rape or torture."

Insp Shortland says: "What was socially unacceptable 10 or 20 years ago may be acceptable now. There is a moving line. For example Lady Chatterley's Lover was once considered obscene but certainly wouldn't be now.

"But bestiality, necrophilia, rape and torture would still be considered obscene," he says, as would depictions of sexual gratification through lavatorial functions.

The Obscene Publications Squad works closely with the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), which is responsible for censoring and labelling all films released in the UK, whether they are movies for the cinema, videos and DVDs for the regular retail market or specialist sex shop material.

Straw Dogs release

Rape and torture scenes - sometimes in mainstream movies - have been problematic for both the police and the BBFC.

Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine
In America Larry Flynt fought a long fight to defend pornography

"There is quite a high threshold," says Insp Shortland. "Some caning films can have bad injuries - which are not life-threatening - and that is considered to be obscene. Some rape films are 'fake' with actors portraying rape. It is quite a difficult line to judge."

The case of the 1971 film Straw Dogs, directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George, is well known to many film buffs. Originally banned because of a horrific rape depiction, the BBFC passed a different edit of the film in 2002 - which included the scene.

It would be wrong to assume the decision was due to greater tolerance of sexual violence, says the BBFC's senior examiner, Murray Perkins. Far from it.

"Sexual violence is one of the areas where our position which has not changed much over the years," says Mr Perkins. "It's still one of our main concerns. The mixing of sex and violence is something which concerns people and rightly so.

"The makers of Straw Dogs had done their own edit and in the process the film gave the impression that the female character enjoyed the rape. In the full uncut version, that was balanced by another event in the film which gave it context and that was why we were able to pass it."

'They want to be here'

Viewing the scene is deeply unpleasant even for someone who appreciates the film's artistic merit. So how do those who must watch this sort of material for hours each week cope?

U certificate - 2,480
PG - 2,721
12A - 2,562
15 - 2,344
18 - 950
R18 - 1,159 (27% of which were cut)
Rejected - 1 (for drug references)
Source - British Board of Film Classification

Insp Shortland admits it can be tough on his team, but says there are safeguards in place to ensure officers' mental health is not endangered.

"They will not be monitored all the time. If there is one officer dealing with all the material then they will be offered open access to the occupational health department.

"If someone comes to me and says 'I can't take any more of this' I will listen to that. But at the end of the day they are here because they want to be here. They work as a team and are quite open about what they can and can't manage to watch. Each person knows their limit and what they feel less comfortable with."

The workload for Mr Perkins and his fellow examiners at the BBFC is less gruelling.

"Some people think it sounds like the best job in the world," says Mr Perkins. "But the way we do the viewing you are disengaged to a certain extent because you are making notes and are hyper-sensitive to the language and the context. You are viewing it as a job and you've got to be mindful of policy, guidelines and public expectation."

But do examiners risk becoming desensitised?

Legal defence

"If you see something which is raw, misogynistic, aggressive and violent you don't become desensitised to it. What is not right is never right."

Nine Songs, which came out in 2004
The film Nine Songs, which came out in 2004, contained real sex but was uncut
Last year the BBFC issued 1,159 films with an R18 rating, meaning they could only be sold in licensed sex shops. Of those, 27% required cuts.

"The majority of the cuts were little sections rather than a whole scene. It may be strong abuse, violent behaviour, temporary strangling, or it may be a reference to under-age sex," Mr Perkins says.

While an R18 rating is not a legal defence for a pornographer, it would be very unlikely for the Obscene Publications Squad to take action over a film passed by the BBFC.

Insp Shortland says they have had very few trials as few pornographers are willing to pin their hopes on 12 jurors. And he thinks pushing smut has become too easy nowadays. "You just get a master DVD burner and make thousands of copies in your attic. The overheads are very low."

Back at the BBFC, there have been glimpses of more permissiveness in what it's willing to license for mainstream distribution. Films given a regular 18 certificate are only supposed to contain "simulated sex" but there are exceptions, such as Michael Winterbottom's controversial 2004 movie Nine Songs.

The censors judged it to be "exceptionally justified by the context of the film". Surprisingly, perhaps, the only DVD rejected outright by the BBFC was a box set of season two of the TV series Weeds. That was not because of sex or violence, but a scene was seen as promoting drug use.

Send us your comments using the form below.

Sex and elicit content within films should be cut down or significantly reduced. I'm a youth worker and i have young people who are 13/14 watching 18's because there friends are renting them for them or are downloading them from the internet.

There needs to be stronger regulations and film makers need to start taking more responsibility rather than trying to out do each other for the most realistic sex scene.
Tom , Amersham

"If you see something which is raw, misogynistic, aggressive and violent you don't become desensitised to it. What is not right is never right."

I'll remember that quote next time someone claims that computer games, hip-hop (or anything else the person doesn't understand) is desensitising the youth of today...
Rod, Edinburgh

Things are very relaxed these days with regard to nakedness in films. I can't remember the last time I watched a film that didn't show a naked or semi naked woman. If the male body was exhibited in the same context as the female body it would have been banned years ago. It would be nice if we had equality in this respect

I worked in a multi-national corporate security department for many years in the late 90's. One of our jobs was to follow up and enforce the company's policies on computer use. Take it from me, this is not a pleasant job - peadophilia, necrophilia, bestiality and images of violence were all being viewed by a minority. Enforcement was obvious and police were involved where a case could be built. But day in day out review of what is now considered acceptable porn depraved my view of women. In order to do my job more effectively and trace and detect people for misuse, I had entered the mind of the pornographer. What is now considered 'acceptable' is still immensely damaging to society.
Jonathan, London

Virgin Media has a load of series and sections to watch on its Virgin TV Section. Recently they've added a 'late night section'. Basically, it's porn. I didn't ask for it, I don't want it, I don't like it, but it's just assumed that along with crime and music, I want porn. I don't object to porn, if that's what you need, but I object to it being everywhere you go, whether I like it or not.
Meme, London

Of interest: The definition of "Obscene" is likely to corrupt or deprave the viewer. And the "expert" on the panel says "you don't become desensitised to it. What is not right is never right." So, by not being "depraved and corrupted" by watching the "Nasty stuff", it proves it's not obscene? Or do they believe everyone else is inherently more corruptable than them?

Rather than have the lofty sounding ideals, why not simply state the law as "distasteful to the prevailing morality of society in its current state"? Just as fuzzy, and probably more accurate.
Rich, Bristol

As per usual this shows the Hypocrisy of governing bodies like this. They claim that they can watch any type of movie and know their limits but the public can't. Who are they to decide what is decent? If no one is breaking the law in front of the camera then it should be allowed. What i find obscene and what they find absence might be completely different
kenneth campbell, Southend

The test should be that if it is legal to do it, it should be legal to view it. That way age concerns are addressed as are other issues.
Not so prudish, Cheshire, UK

In the days of the internet I feel that BBFC and the OPS are fairly ineffective. You can get anything you want on the internet including uncut versions of films and TV shows. Refusing to clasify a film or show would only keep it from the casual viewer.
Ronnie, Edinburgh

Funny how the officers watching illegal pornograohy are not affected or desensitised to it?! Or are they saying that other people I suppose vulnerable, impressionable, unstable adults or adolescents would be affected by this material and therefore it's banned ?
Lisa, paris

GK Chesterton once said something like "whenever we attempt to remove a fence we should always pause long enough to find out why it was put there in the first place"
Andrew, London

If the Obscene Publications Act 1959 defines obscenity as "content whose effect will tend to deprave and corrupt those likely to read, see or hear" it but Mr Perkins of the BBFC states that "if you see something which is raw, misogynistic, aggressive and violent you don't become desensitised to it. What is not right is never right.", then on what authority exactly is most of the censorship legal? And in any case, I've got broadband.
Michael, Dundee

I can't understand why our attitude to pornography is a moving line! If something is obscene why on earth do the watchdogs and public accept a slackening of the limits? Given the society we now live in, and try to bring up our children in, it's time to say "you've passed the line in the sand. Move back and review the harm that's been done and think again".
trevor knowles, Great Ayton, North Yorkshire

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