In 2018, the BBFC undertook a public consultation exercise that will inform its 2019 Classification Guidelines. Thus far, journalists have over-reached in their reactions to the exercise. To illustrate, various press outlets erroneously declared that films featuring sexual violence will be automatically allocated an 18-certificate under the BBFC’s 2019 guidelines. Both the Daily Mail’s Emily Kent Smith and The Daily Telegraph’s Charles Hymas refer to (but fail to substantiate) the motivating factors for the as-yet unconfirmed shift in BBFC policy, pointing towards ‘widespread concern that current age ratings are sometimes misjudged’ and ‘public backlash over “liberal” classifications following the #MeToo movement’. Hymas’s reference to #MeToo conflates real-world sexual assault with fictional representations of sexual violence. #MeToo was certainly driven by discussions about sexual assault within the film industry. However, outrage over real-world incidents of sexual assault does not directly equate to concerns about representations of sexual violence in fiction film; the latter may be of concern to ‘the public’, but the #MeToo campaign does not evince any such concern. Moreover, any change in BBFC policy would only impact on how films are classified; it would not directly curb instances of sexual assault within the film industry, for instance. Conflating real-world sexual assault with fictional representations is unhelpful inasmuch as it distracts from the campaign to prevent real-world sexual violence by changing working conditions within the film industry (and beyond).
There are few films that have proven more troublesome for the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) than Sam Peckinpah’s Cornish-set modern western Straw Dogs (1971) with its notorious double rape scene. For those unfamiliar, it tells the story of American professor David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) arriving in a remote Cornish village with his young wife Amy (Susan George). Given a sabbatical to pursue research, David has come hoping to find peace and quiet in Amy’s former home -- a remote farmhouse -- but his appearance stirs resentment and hostility in the tight-knit, patriarchal community. At the same time, Amy’s return to her roots sparks the predatory interest of several men in the village, notably her former lover Charlie (Del Henney). The pent-up hostility boils over in a sexual assault: Amy is the victim first of Charlie and then of his friend Scutt (Ken Hutchison). Soon after, a siege of the farmhouse results in the death of a local magistrate who has attempted to intervene. Finally, all five of the villagers besieging the building, including Charlie and Scutt, are killed. Amy and David survive.
By David Church, Northern Arizona University, US. Prosecutions of theatre owners for obscenity increased after the US Supreme Court’s 1973 Miller v. California decision returned responsibility for obscenity definitions to the judgment of local community standards, meaning that ‘smaller hard-core theatres suffered through a lack of product and a suddenly more discerning hard-core audience.’  One of the major implications of this legal precedent was a deliberate toning down of ostensibly aberrant or ‘taboo’ content in many post-1973 hardcore films. […] In the theatrical pornographic feature, illicit acts seldom appeared to begin with, but even a handful of 35mm genre ‘classics’- such as The Story of Joanna (1975), Femmes de Sade (1976), Barbara Broadcast (1977), Pretty Peaches (1978), Candy Stripers (1978), and 800 Fantasy Lane (1979) - suffered trims of select scenes when later appearing on video.
by Neil Jackson, University of Lincoln, UK. The uncut Caligula (Tinto Brass 1979) received an 18 certificate in 2008 regardless of the fact that it was relieved of more than 10 minutes of its running time before an ‘X’ certificate was granted for its theatrical release in 1980. This new-found sympathy for the film was justified because its hardcore imagery supposedly ‘served some kind of purpose in order to illustrate the decadence of ancient Rome’, that wasn’t ‘wholly gratuitous’ and that, quite importantly in this context, ‘it would be viewed today as a historical curio’. This is underpinned by the contention on the BBFC’s own website that ‘the passage of nearly 30 years had significantly diminished the film’s impact’. Regardless of all of this obfuscation, the fact remains that this was a film produced by Bob Guccione, one of America’s premier pornographer publishers, and directed by Tinto Brass, Europe’s seminal exponent of high end, softcore erotica. In light of Cooke’s justification, it would appear that two male individuals, both of whom were steeped in the creative and commercial global possibilities of real and simulated sex on film, somehow forged an infamously uneasy alliance that contrived to produce something that wasn’t actually a ‘sex work’.
by Neil Jackson, University of Lincoln, UK. 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’.