‘Sex Work’ at the BBFC, Part I

by Neil Jackson, University of Lincoln, UK. 

‘Hello Johnny! What is a knight of the realm doing in a porno movie?’

Peter O’Toole to Sir John Gielgud, on the set of Caligula in 1976 [1]

Has anybody seen a good ‘sex work’ recently? At best, it is a question that is likely to cause mildly embarrassed befuddlement in the casual film enthusiast. At worst, anybody even mildly attuned to sociolinguistic nuances may infer suggestion of voyeuristic interest in the workaday toils of prostitution. Either way, ‘sex work’ is a generic term that has been deployed by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) to distinguish the titillating, affective charge of wanton hardcore pornography. It is a phrase that has become the board’s common descriptor for hardcore films with an R18 classification (the ‘R’ being an abbreviation of ‘restricted’). This limits sale or projection to premises specially licensed to handle such material and separates it from non-pornographic, dramatic or documentary feature film formats that present sexually explicit themes and images for an adult audience at the 18 certificate level. Essentially, if the BBFC determines that a film is pornographic in nature and intent (that is, designed primarily to sexually arouse the spectator), it is dealt with as a ‘sex work’.   

Historically, the UK’s relationship to hardcore pornography has been bound by the legal requirements of the 1959 Obscene Publications Act, its hopelessly unreliable ‘deprave and corrupt’ test leading to widespread confusion in both the prosecution and the defence of charges steeped in sub-Victorian repression. The R18 was conceived in direct response to the mildly liberalising recommendations of the Williams Committee Report of 1979, which recognised a pressing need for clear distinctions between depictions of consenting sexual activity and the sexual violence that occasionally surfaced in hardcore films. It was implemented as a classification category in 1982, but its actual utilisation was sporadic until the DVD explosion of the 21st century, with reasons for its slow uptake ranging from economic prudence to legal pragmatism.

Nevertheless, it is significant that the BBFC has developed its own generic term for a cinematic phenomenon deemed to be utterly separate not only from conventional modes of dramatic representation, but also the general movement of film history itself. This may well be applicable to the ceaseless tide of home-made, ‘gonzo’ or short-form content that has characterised much moving image pornography over the years and dominated the R18 category in the digital epoch. However, the category of ‘sex work’ has effectively constructed a ghetto in which integral versions of several fascinating films from adult cinema’s most creatively vital 1970s period have been forced to reside, restricting the visibility of work by some of its key creative figures in the process.

The determination of pornography as a generic form is fraught with problems, not least navigating its appropriation of tropes and conventions from a host of other genres, which are often manifested in the form of parody. Pornography’s claims to genre status were focalised and elaborated in Linda Williams’ ground-breaking work, which foregrounded the visual affirmation of real carnal activity served by structural and iconographic elements that formed a potentially radical challenge to established modes of sexual representation. [2] Although pornography remained bound by the pre-dominance of a rigidly controlling male gaze, Williams pointed to progressive possibilities that, even now, still only form a marginal wing. In this sense, the BBFC’s category of ‘sex work’ has long seemed like a rigid, institutional imposition on top of an already heavily restrictive set of creative and ideological principles. Contrary to Andrew Tudor’s suggestion that a genre is what ‘we collectively believe it to be’, when it comes to sex on film in the UK, a genre is defined by what the BBFC tells us so. [3]

Although it has been firmly etched into retro-fitted American pop cultural histories of the 1970s, the phenomenon of so called ‘porno chic’ more or less bypassed the UK. This is thrown into sharp focus when we consider that in the years that US audiences were engaging, however superficially or voyeuristically, with the likes of Deep Throat (Gerard Damiano 1972), Behind the Green Door (Artie Mitchell and Jim Mitchell 1972) and The Devil in Miss Jones (Gerard Damiano 1973), the UK’s take on the commercially viable sex film were the nudge-wink comedies that reached their apotheosis with Confessions of a Window Cleaner (Val Guest 1974), which spawned three sequels and was supported by the British distribution arm of Columbia-Warner. Here were Hollywood studios quite content to profit from British cinema’s most despised sub-genre, while taking full advantage of the tax breaks still available amid the ruins of whatever passed for a UK film industry.   

Georgina Spelvin in The Devil in Miss Jones (Gerard Damiano 1973)

Some of those resolutely softcore British sex comedies would circulate in selected foreign territories in hardcore versions, a practice long denied by producers in fear that discovery might lead to their arrest and incarceration. Hardcore filmmakers (most notably John Lindsay) did exist in the UK in this period, yet the dissemination and consumption of hardcore material remained a fringe activity; Britain’s historical relationship to the pornographic film is one rife with tales of clandestine public screenings and under the counter sales of nth generation video cassettes, all carried out under fear of prosecution. None of those ‘porno-chic’ titles noted above were ever passed for theatrical exhibition by the BBFC at their time of original release, even in soft versions. However, there are scattered examples – such as The Story of Joanna (Gerard Damiano 1975), Through the Looking Glass (Jonas Middleton 1976), Desires Within Young Girls (Richard Kanter 1977) and Insatiable (Godfrey Daniels 1981) – of films originally produced in the hardcore format that did play theatrically, shorn even further from the soft versions submitted to the BBFC by the distributors.  

In 1984, the Video Recordings Act was passed following a concentrated campaign to restrict access to the oft-uncensored exploitation and horror films that seeped into the UK in the as-yet-unregulated market. Around the same time, and perhaps in a fit of ironic self-awareness, the British Board of Film Censors became the British Board of Film Classification on the historical eve of one of the most notoriously scissor-happy periods in the board’s history. Taking up the role as gatekeeper of home video product, the BBFC spent much of the latter 1980s and 1990s ruthlessly executing a duty now enshrined in parliamentary legislation, rendering it the state censor in all but name.

However, even during the unregulated video rental surge of the early 1980s, companies such as Cal Vista and TCX specialised in distributing selected product of the US adult film industry utilising specially prepared softcore versions designed for less tolerant market territories. This evinced a caution not immediately apparent among the distributors of some of the more sexually violent films that became labelled as ‘video nasties’. Thus, when the adult film explosion of the 1970s finally reached the UK in any substantial form, it was through the home video format, with the films released in versions that conformed broadly to regulatory standards already governing pornography within its shores. When uncensored hardcore sex films did circulate in the UK, it was through tapes imported from the UK’s continental neighbours, a process enabled by cunningly placed advertisements in adult magazines and by enterprising dealers happy to run off multiple dupes to satisfy the burgeoning underground demand.         

An early dilemma for anybody wishing to deal in R18 films was the paucity of the market. As former BBFC director Robin Duval explains, by the early 1980s there were only ‘sixty or seventy’ of the pre-requisite licensed premises, and contemporaneous legal interpretations of the Obscene Publications Act by the board ensured that examiners ‘censored out all explicit portrayals of sexual activity and passed as R18 only what, even in those days, most people might call soft porn.’ [4] Therefore, the attempt at establishing a tentative level of acceptance for the R18 had only laid bare the draconian measures required to ensure that sex films resided within the boundaries of British legal requirement. In turn, the black market in uncensored tapes continued to flourish.  

This regulatory fencing off of the hardcore sex film was merely a reflection of an attitude that also permeated at the ministerial level. Duval’s predecessor, James Ferman, had been clandestinely liberalising the R18 since around the mid-1990s, a process that incurred the wrath of the new Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw, which expedited Ferman’s eventual retirement from the role in 1999. When Duval oversaw the board’s role in the eventual legalisation of consensual, non-violent pornographic material, it was a process that led to a major overhaul of the R18 guidelines in 2000, ironically fulfilling the ambitions that had instigated Ferman’s departure from the board just a year previously.   

Despite his professional integrity in this liberalising process, Duval made it clear that he saw little in the way of distinction between performers copulating for real on camera and those who engage in other professional forms of sexual activity. With barely concealed contempt and disdain, he dismissed pornography as ‘filmed prostitution, with its own female – and male – victims’. Accordingly, he looked upon their paymasters as little more than ‘pimps’ reaping the chief profits from their exchange value in a sordid skin trade. [5] For Duval, it seemed perfectly clear: if you participated on any level in a ‘sex work’, you were involved in an exploitative process of inter-personal and economic exchange, characterised by an inherently oppressive hierarchy. Here was a chief censor who looked upon hardcore pornography as a morally and legally dubious enterprise, but who felt compelled to usher in fresh guidelines defining its acceptable parameters. This achieved, what was for him, an undesirable side effect of enhancing its legitimacy. 

Of course, it has never just been straightforward depictions of real or simulated sex that have concerned the censor. Ferman often denounced and cut heavily into commercial mainstream or exploitation films showcasing what he defined as ‘porno-rape’, a blurring of consensual lines in which ‘the woman is raped at gunpoint or knifepoint and halfway through, without fail, she begins to enjoy it, and at the end she throws her arms around the rapist and thanks him for this glorious, liberating experience’. [6] Implicit in Ferman’s definition is that pornography was the lowest possible form of sexual representation, a level to which ‘legitimate’ filmmakers might stoop perilously close to derive maximum sensation from controversial subject matter. The comments of both Ferman and Duval bear a latent insistence that hardcore films were fundamentally flawed and dishonest and could never possibly aspire to the level of seriousness necessary to allow their exhibition outside the arena the censor had been complicit in constructing. 

This concept of creative or artistic integrity (or lack thereof) is at the heart of what has continued to define ‘sex work’. Duval’s successor as chief censor, David Cooke, has gone to some lengths in attempting to distinguish between ‘sex works’ and those films featuring explicit sexual detail that is ‘justified by context’ and underpinned by a repeated emphasis upon what he calls ‘the conceptual distinction’ between ‘pornographic’ images and ‘explicit’ images. [7] In short, the former seeks to arouse and excite the viewer, while the latter aims to enhance and deepen the viewer’s critical appreciation of thematic, narrative and character-centred developments within a specific film. Exemplary in terms of the latter are films that have played almost exclusively in limited art-house theatrical engagements, but are now available for home viewing in an uncut form, including In The Realm of the Senses (Nagisa Oshima 1976), Prostitute (Tony Garnett 1980), Taxi zum Klo (Frank Ripploh 1980), The Idiots (Lars von Trier 1998), Romance (Catherine Breillat 1999), Baise-moi (Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi 2000), Intimacy (Patrice Chéreau 2001) The Brown Bunny (Vincent Gallo 2003) 9 Songs (Michael Winterbottom 2004), Destricted (Various 2006), Shortbus (John Cameron Mitchell 2006), Import Export (Ulrich Seidl 2007), Antichrist (Lars von Trier 2009), Dogtooth (Yorgos Lanthimos 2009), Nymphomaniac (Lars von Trier 2013), and Love (Gaspar Noé 2015). 

Mark Rylance and Kerry Fox in Intimacy (Patrice Chéreau 2001)

Itemised in this way, the pattern is patently obvious as far as the categorisation and assumed consumers of these films are concerned: avowedly serious ‘art’ cinema for educated, cine-literate audiences, often with an auteurist slant, and frequently in a language other than English. When considered alongside other sexually explicit, BBFC approved, documentary titles such as Inside Deep Throat (Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbara 2005) and Interior. Leather Bar. (James Franco and Travis Mathews 2013), and instructional programmes such as The Lovers’ Guide series (Lifetime Vision 1991–2011), it is abundantly clear that the British film censor is still mired in the quaint notion of cinematic sex appreciation as an intellectual or educational exercise, often practised by select elite audiences. Any extended bout of explicit detail is obliged to supply (either accidentally or by design) an abundance of mitigating ‘context’, framing the sounds and images of copulation within a legitimising complex of textual detail.  

Regardless of his contention that ‘it is not the board’s role to make aesthetic decisions’, Cooke’s defence of the BBFC’s position on ‘sex works’ more or less acknowledges that they are enacting that very process. [8] His proclamation that 9 Songs ‘wasn’t shot like porn and it doesn’t look like porn’ admits that decisions on the identity of an individual film are informed by judgements on form, style, and narrative structure. [9] It also sounds like little more than an unwitting variation upon ‘I know it when I see it’, the infamous phrase uttered in 1964 by US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart to explain his personal understanding of pornography while he summarily dismissed obscenity charges against Louis Malle’s Les Amants (1964). Citing the BBFC’s recent reliance upon public consultation as a major factor in its policy-making, Cooke is quite keen to establish that the continued resistance to passing ‘sex works’ at the 18 category is due to a general consumer resistance. 

However, what seems extraordinary in light of this is his insistence that Caligula (Tinto Brass 1979), passed fully uncut with an 18 certificate in 2008, did not constitute a ‘sex work’. The reasons for this are somewhat convoluted and unconvincing and raise many questions regarding the BBFC’s relative handling of sexually explicit films from opposite ends of the cultural scale.  

Neil Jackson continues his examination of the BBFC and sex work in Part II published next month.


[1]  Quoted in Malcolm McDowell. 2013. ‘Malcolm McDowell on Peter O’Toole: Caligula, catacombs and chicken gizzards’. The Guardian. Online. 17 December.

[2] See Linda Williams. 1999. Hardcore: Power, Pleasure and the Frenzy of the Visible (expanded edition). Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.  

[3] Andrew Tudor. 1986. ‘Genre’. In Barry Keith Grant, ed. Film Genre Reader. Austin: University of Texas Press, 7. 

[4] Robin Duval. 2012. ‘The Last Days of the Board’. In Edward Lamberti, ed. Behind the Scenes at the BBFC: Film Classification from the Silver Screen to the Digital Age. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 147.

[5] Ibid, 150.

[6] James Ferman. 1991. ‘James Ferman Talks to Himself’. In Stefan Jaworzyn. Shock Xpress vol. 1: Essential Guide to Exploitation Cinema. London: Titan Books, 8.

[7] David Cooke. 2012. ‘The Director’s Commentary’. In Lamberti, ed. 162.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.


Neil Blog

Dr Neil Jackson is Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Lincoln, UK. He is co-editor of Snuff: Real Death and Screen Media (2016) and his article on ‘Exhausted: John C Holmes the Real Story’ (1981) appears in Grindhouse: Cultural Exchange on 42nd Street and Beyond (edited by Austin Fisher and Johnny Walker 2016). He is currently preparing a study of the representation of the Vietnam War in exploitation cinema.


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