Eyes Wide Shut: Jarv looks at the censorship of sex
Welcome to part 2 in what is going to now be my censorship series. The title has been cribbed from the Cruise and Kidman voyeurism vehicle, as I think it is amazingly fitting for an article about sex in the movies.
Sex is one of the hot topics of censorship. It’s astonishing that in the modern world films that contain relatively graphic violence can be passed with either a low rating or completely uncut at a higher one, but consensual fornication between two adults causes the various bodies to explode. Admittedly, the standards are now relaxed, with a tide of erect penises on screen from the likes of France, Spain and Italy, but these are countries that have always had a more, shall we say, laissez-faire attitude towards depictions of sex. Not so here in good old Blighty, where historically the censor has come down on it with the wrath of a vengeful god.
Incidentally, Sex is unique in this series in that I can place the exact film that caused the change in the censor’s attitude in the UK.
This essay is completely safe for work.
Ooooooh! You are terrible!
I have absolutely no idea why sex gets the censor’s knickers in a twist. Depictions of sex in art have been around as long as art itself, with the ancient Greeks(for example) in particular not being shy about filthy pictures on pottery (lewd and extremely NSFW picture here). In fact, I’m willing to bet that the first cave painting was of a, in the words of Brad Pitt in Fight Club, nice big cock on a wall. Obviously, when the Neanderthals had finished sniggering, wiped it off and drew a vision of them hunting a buffalo (or whatever), the pictures vanished but it’s just human nature to draw smut. Incidentally, I’ve got a feeling, although I can’t find proof for it, that some of the first films ever recorded were shady black and white “stag” movies where impressively moustached men fixed the Edwardian equivalent of a photocopier.
However, something terrible seemed to happen in Britain in the 19th Century. We went from having a relatively lax attitude towards lewd antics to a nation of stuffy prudes. What’s worse is that we had an empire, so managed to spread our prurient outlook around large amounts of the globe.
Anyway, we’re the nation that produced the innuendo-laden Carry on Films, where end-of-pier seaside cartoons are alleged to be actually funny (they’re not). So why, when the national tendency is to snigger at every available opportunity did we get such a hang up about sex on the screen?
It has to come down to something intangible, some feeling of mild shame, or discomfort at the sight of a naked body. Perhaps because it rains so often that we’re not only discouraged from revolution but simply unused to the sight of naked flesh. All facetiousness aside, though, I actually have no idea why this is the case (you couldn’t even get hard-core porn in the UK for a long time) and prefer to lay the blame on the hold that puritanical religion and the moral majority have on those in authority.
Historically, there was nothing more guaranteed to upset the censor than the sight of a finely turned ankle, and so when I was growing up the concept of hard-core pornography was something that was shrouded in either urban myth or shady under the counter videos usually from somewhere like Germany. My teenaged concept of filth was the copy of some soft-core scud magazine such as Club International, or the occasional red triangle clad art film (invariably a hacked to death Emmanuelle) on Channel 4 at midnight.
Yet in the latter part of the 90’s the situation began to change, and for the first time the BBFC started to actually allow hard-core images into not only pornography but mainstream cinema.
A rising tide of European Smut hits our “Green and Pleasant Land”
So what happened? Well, the sea change in the censor’s opinion was down to one film. That film? 1999’s Romance. This is, and don’t get me wrong, a fundamentally terrible movie.
Incidentally, Romance was responsible for Australia brining in a “new” R18+ rating.
However, if any film was going to slide past the censor and allow the sight of erect penises on screen, then this one stood as much, if not more, of a chance than any other. Firstly, the film is principally about the sexuality of a very confused woman. Secondly, it’s French and therefore to the censor all sophisticated and whatnot (this would never have got an 18 were it Italian). Thirdly, it is clearly an art film. Fourthly, it was written and directed by a woman: Catherine Breillat, thereby torpedoing all “exploitation of wimmin, innit” arguments. Finally, and most importantly, it’s not erotic in the slightest. Nobody out there is going to spend a quiet night in with a box of Kleenex and the Romance DVD.
If they do, well, it’s none of my business and I’ll even recommend an optician.
Anyway, in 1999 the BBFC took the previously unheard of and frankly unbelievable measure of passing a film starring Italian Porn Star Rocco Siffredi featuring penetration, S&M, oral sex and sodomy completely uncut. The justification for this, and steady yourselves here, because I’m not joking, is that Romance was “very French”.
Leaving aside my actual opinion of the boring loaf of a film for a moment, how can the BBFC possibly justify this? Before we go any further, the BBFC define obscenity as:
A work is obscene if, taken as a whole, it has a tendency to deprave and corrupt (ie, make morally bad) a significant proportion of those likely to see it.
Useful, eh? Well, not really, because the terms “deprave and corrupt”, “morally bad”, “significant proportion” and “likely to see it” are as open to interpretation as any in the English language. What it boils down to is that if they don’t like it, and it possibly gives them a tingle in their naughty place, then it isn’t getting a certificate.
Well, the usual arguments against Pornographic/ obscene imagery in cinema just simply don’t apply to Romance. It isn’t titillating in the slightest. What it is, is an immensely glum and horribly self-congratulatory analysis of one disturbed woman’s psyche. There’s just simply nothing erotic here, and the BBFC took the chance that they could, perhaps, sneak it through given that a)nobody was going to see it anyway outside of an art-house crowd who are inherently anti-censorship; b)it quite clearly isn’t for onanistic purposes, so therefore at best it would be a storm in a teacup; and c) they survived the Crash “ban this filth” outrage from a few years previously.
Predictably without seeing it, the British Tabloid press did kick off (I bet this doesn’t come as a shock), but by their own definition, the BBFC were right to allow Romance a certificate- those likely to see it (pretentious art-house hipster douchebags) simply weren’t going to choke into their moccachinos at the sight of Senor Siffredi’s erect, condom clad cock, and the S&M in the film was nothing particularly sordid to write home about. If anything, the most traumatic image for this type would probably be the birth scene at the end, but hey, these are the people that claim Antichrist is cinematic gold, so it’s probably not going to make them cry.
Yet, mystifyingly, society didn’t collapse.
What did happen, though, was that a plethora of films from continental Europe suddenly started receiving certificates that they wouldn’t have otherwise got. Notorious movies such as Baise-Moi (awful nihilistic French sex road movie), or more subtle films such as Sex and Lucia suddenly started appearing in our cinemas. Hell, we even got in on the act with the dreary kitchen sink Intimacy, and the dismally boring 9 Songs. It was no longer taboo for the censor to allow an erection to penetrate the mainstream.
More tea vicar? No? Perhaps you would prefer a nice big cock then?
The BBFC, actually, were perfectly correct to not only allow these films onto the big screen (even if Baise-Moi’s depressingly mechanical hard-core fuck scenes exist purely for provocation). In their guidelines, they state that they take into account the following:
The expectations of the public in general and the work’s audience in particular
So, what else was new in the late 1990’s that may have altered the public’s stance on this?
That’ll be the internet, then. Back in 1999, broadband was but a futuristic dream, with much slower connection speeds than we enjoy today. However, that didn’t stop any sweaty-palmed teenage pervert from frantically clicking a mouse and indulging in some one-handed surfing to the most explicit imagery made anywhere in the world. It just took longer.
Therefore, the archaic view of sex in the media, and more importantly the ability to access images of sex was completely out of date. The rise of the digital age had meant that the tide of filth predicted to reduce us all to sex crazed animals had already arrived. People were already starting to become accustomed to sex, and more importantly were perhaps already becoming desensitized. The novelty value had gone.
When taken in context with the aforementioned disclaimers and loopholes that the BBFC use to classify movies, it is therefore, very easy to see how and why they became willing to allow images of consenting adults engaging in sex, no matter how graphic. It’s not as if they could do anything to stop it, anyway, and they were by now starting to learn to pick their battles.
The point about sex in the cinema is that we’re now almost at the limit of what is ever going to be allowed on mainstream screens. The BBFC will, within reason, give anything containing graphic sex a certificate (there’s yet to be anal sex, but it’s coming) provided, the overall purpose of the work in question isn’t “arousal and stimulation”- i.e. it isn’t what they coyly describe as a “sex work”- although that will also garner a certificate, just a restricted one. Furthermore, and this is the important point, any work has to depict acts that are legal in the UK and they will ban:
where the material is in breach of the criminal law, or has been created through the commission of a criminal offence
So, what does that leave in the case of sex? In my opinion, very little. All that’s left is non-consensual sex (actual not simulated), paedophilia, animal abuse, and that’s about it. All of which are quite correctly in breach of criminal law, and should not, frankly, ever be filmed. There’s no art to a pervert sodomising a chicken, and thus sex has a comparatively easy place to draw the line in the sand. It is, therefore, impossible to intentionally provoke the censor with lurid depictions of sex and then claim “art” and “freedom of speech” in the way that the extreme violence movies do.
Of all the reasons that censorship exists, sex is probably the easiest one to defend as it stands at the moment, and yet it was the hardest (no pun intended) to make a case for 20 years ago. I find it mildly pleasing that society has evolved and we no longer prevent people from seeing images of consenting adults fornicating, and it’s hardly the end of the world that we can, and anyway it isn’t as if any censor can stop us.
What is less defensible, however, is the classification system itself. I’ve limited this to banning for a reason, and that’s because I cannot for the life of me fathom a system that will award certificates to films at 15 level with the most graphic violence out there, and yet nudity will automatically kick it up to 18. I suppose the answer lies partly with the age of consent laws, but more importantly with the question of desensitisation.
When I think back to my teenage years, where gaining access to smut was a challenge, and if you were unlucky you ended up with a copy of Razzle, it does make me wonder what this generation will be like when they’re 34. I’m not suggesting sex is something that has to take place with the lights off, I am more enlightened than that, but I am curious how exposure to filth that was beyond my wildest dreams will see them turn out.
My money is on just like us.
Next up in this series, I’m going to throw in a review of a film that had severe difficulties with the censor for sexual content.