Why we’re not taking the new porn laws lying down

United Kingdom (OpenDemocracy) – Who cares about a bunch of queers flogging each other when there’s a migrant crisis and article 50 has been triggered? We do.

We set up the London Porn Film Festival because we wanted to address two small but significant aspects of the changing political scene. First, we felt it was high time that the culture and spirit of the Berlin Porn Film Festival made it to the UK; and second, we wanted a festival that unapologetically embraced and celebrated sexuality in all its forms. We wanted to do these things because we live in strange times. Britain is at the epicentre of a global political shift via Brexit that could change the course of history. The people bearing the brunt of this shift most publicly are migrant and Muslim populations, but behind the scenes the structures that govern our society are being subtly and permanently changed.

On the one hand we are enjoying what appear to be freedoms, the like of which have never been seen before. LGBT rights are seemingly on the ascent: marriage is now an established fact for LGBT people; Pride is a huge attraction each year, and it has the support of institutions that once marginalised and maligned us. Trans people have made huge headway in re-defining the narrative and gaining better access to medical care. It’s easy to think the fight is over—that a few loose strings here and there need to be tidied up, and then we’re done.

But this is only one part of a much bigger picture. The London Porn Film Festival is not a political outfit in itself, but we are acutely aware of the conditions in which we operate. The steep increase of hate crimes against racial and sexual minorities in the wake of Brexit indicates that a backlash is around the corner, and the climate in which such behaviour is acceptable is being fostered by vague and opaque laws such as the Audiovisual Media Services Regulations of 2014, better known as the face-sitting ban; the Investigatory Powers Act of 2016, otherwise known as the Snooper’s Charter; and the Digital Economy Bill, which is expected to become law in 2017.

These laws work together to form an alarming mesh of powers. The Audiovisual Media Services Regulation means that several sexual acts including spanking, caning, aggressive whipping, urolagnia (known as “water sports”), female ejaculation, face-sitting and fisting can no longer be represented or shown on screen in the UK. This has been roundly criticised for targeting women and queer people. American hardcore pornography remains, for the most part, untouched. But the worrying thing is that in addition the Investigatory Powers Act (which means that unless you are using a Virtual Private Network, your Internet Service Provider is keeping records of every page you visit for twelve months) and the Digital Economy Bill (which is bad for small, DIY porn businesses because of the cost of implementing new age-verification requirements), the government has given itself the power to outlaw relatively innocuous acts and spy on us.

The implications of these news laws don’t make headlines—it’s difficult to splash something so seemingly obscure on the front page, or rouse popular passions when other more spectacular things are happening. But as the obscenity lawyer Myles Jackman puts it, “Pornography is the canary in the coal mine of free speech. It is the first freedom to die. If assaults on liberty like this are allowed to go unchallenged, further freedoms will fall as a consequence.”

Hence, the increase in hate crime in the UK (both homophobic and racist) is no coincidence. The surge of authoritarian, right-wing rhetoric about ‘taking back control’ is understood very clearly by those of us on the margins as a desire to erase many of the social freedoms and much of the political recognition we have gained. By narrowing the definition of what constitutes ‘normal’ in one sphere, this definition can then be enforced in another. The London Porn Film Festival stands against that process, and we hope to provide a space in which the insidiousness of these new laws is actively challenged.

Over the years, the Berlin porn film festival on which we are modeled has  developed into a huge, sell-out affair and the centre of a brilliant, fun, imaginative scene—developing  porn that does not conform to mainstream standards. Indeed, their goal  is very different: to focus on sexual liberation, not as a wishy-washy affair, but as a mode in which people from different demographics, walks of life, and experiences are presented as valid sexual agents, valid people to desire. We can’t speak about sex without speaking about race without speaking about class without speaking about economics—all of these things are intertwined.

This might seem like a trivial point. After all, who cares about a bunch of queers flogging each other when there’s a migrant crisis and article 50 has been triggered? But to an extent, that question provides its own answer. Repressive laws don’t target mainstream populations because there would be too much resistance. Instead, they begin with people who do not matter to the mainstream. If the attitude towards some people is “Who cares?” then they are ripe for being targeted by the state. The prevailing attitude towards queer people, particularly those who do not conform to homonormative ambitions to be just like heterosexual people, is increasingly that we are less important than others.

Anti-Porn Sign – By Piast – Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The London Porn Film Festival has been established not only because we like queer porn but because we care about it. We care about the sex workers, porn performers and producers who make it. We believe that queer, radical porn is a fascinating form of expression that can provide huge political, theoretical and artistic insights, insights that should be available in the blooming cultural scene in what should be a world-leading city of free speech. But the truth is that the laws are so vague and so open to interpretation that we’re not sure where we stand.

And we’re far from the only group or issue being targeted. The fight for digital liberties is a key part of all our futures, and the lack of outrage around the UK Government’s ‘Digital Economy Bill’ is largely due to the fact that most people don’t understand the technology that rules their lives. The days of a separation between real and cyber space are over. The next frontier, and perhaps the cleverest, is to curb what can and cannot be viewed online, starting with online porn, and taking small steps that seem paltry in comparison to the more repressive measure of curbing ‘real life’ freedoms.

Examples include Pandora Blake’s Dreams of Spanking which was forced offline for ten months; attempting to bankrupt small businesses by enforcing age verification technologies but providing no support for their implementation; and requiring Internet Service Providers to record the websites you visit. Unless you are taking precautions, the UK Government is quietly but surely collecting information about what you look at, who you connect with, and what you read. And you can be sure that at some point in the future they will have something to say about it.

We’re doing this because it’s important, and because queer porn is a small corner of our broader culture that’s under attack. There has always been strong feeling against sexual agency. It is usually the first thing to be attacked during a tide of authoritarianism. How willing we are to let that happen is a signal to the powers that be about how far they can go. Porn is a genre in which we can re-imagine ourselves, our sexuality and our future.

Do we think a really hot sex scene will change the world? No. But it’s not about a really hot sex scene. It’s about protecting the margins, and showing strong resistance so that we do not allow ourselves to slide into ever more repressive circumstances.

Check out the London Porn Film Festival Programme here.

This report prepared by Rude Juud, Ingo Cando and Epiphyllum Oxypetalum for OpenDemocracy