Feminist porn producer/performer Pandora Blake is one of the more high profile victims of the Orwellian Audiovisual Media Services Regulations 2014, an amendment to the UK’s 2003 Communications Act – which basically bans the country’s porn producers from showing a long and seemingly arbitrary list of run-of-the-mill BDSM practices. Though Blake’s award-winning website Dreams of Spanking was shut down last August – after she’d done a whirlwind of media interviews decrying the legislation and even organized a fundraiser for Backlash, the sexual freedom-defending nonprofit – she’s refused to take the attack on her livelihood lying down, so to speak. I was fortunate enough to catch up with the kink-positive activist, who’s currently appealing the Dreams of Spanking ruling, a few days before Valentine’s Day.
Lauren Wissot: So this was certainly bizarre legislation to be enacting in a global world where you can download pretty much any kind of kinky porn your heart desires – and yet you can’t shoot certain types of sex scenes on UK soil. Do you have any theories as to why this crackdown on particular UK-based pornographers came about, and why now?
Pandora Blake: I agree that it’s totally bizarre to ban the publication of certain types of content within the UK, when viewers can go ahead and look at sites based overseas with impunity. These regulations have no effect on what viewers can watch – the only impact is on UK business.
It starts to make sense when you look at it in the context of comments made by Pete Johnson, CEO of the Authority for Television On Demand (ATVOD) – the video on demand regulator that oversaw the introduction of the Audiovisual Media Services (AVMS) regulations, and zealously enforced them. He noted that even sites based overseas might be illegal if downloaded in the UK. He seemed to be paving the way for a system under which all international websites available to view from the UK would need to register with ATVOD – effectively creating a Great Firewall for the UK.
Of course, UK internet filters (blocking sites containing information on file-sharing, terrorism, pedophilia, and a surprisingly long list of other material) already exist. I’m not talking about the adult content filters you get on your mobile phone until you opt out of it (and 90% of Brits do opt out – a censored internet isn’t exactly popular), but filters imposed by ISPs, which you can only get around by using a VPN or something similar. It seems that the powers that be want to control what we are able to see online, and are looking for any way they can to make increased internet controls seem even vaguely legitimate.
Ofcom, the UK Office of Communications, announced towards the end of 2015 that ATVOD would be re-absorbed into its parent body (Ofcom), which would be taking over sole regulatory responsibility starting Jan 1st, 2016. It seems that the enthusiasm with which Pete Johnson went after harmless niche fetish sites, particularly femdom sites, has turned out to be a bit of an embarrassment for the government – especially since Mr. Johnson was paying himself an annual salary of £130k plus benefits for the pleasure, all funded by the fees and fines they extorted from small porn business owners. Whether the idea of a Great Firewall, imposing porn censorship on all international sites accessed from the UK, will survive the end of the ATVOD regime is unclear.
You asked about my theories. I think Mr. Johnson was trying to build a career for himself by trashing the UK alternative porn industry, particularly the femdom genre. Why he should care so much is anyone’s guess. This seems to have backfired. But online porn is always going to be an easy excuse for legislators who want to increase their control of the internet – and their ability to make money from it. There’s a strong conservative backlash to the overall increased sexual progressiveness of society, with feminist politicians forming unlikely alliances with the Christian Right to criminalize sex work and forms of sexual expression. Porn is an easy target.
LW: You spent a good part of last year fighting – mostly in vain, unfortunately – to keep your (fairtrade produced) site Dreams of Spanking online. You’re still currently in the appeals process. For those filmmakers who may also find themselves afoul of the law, was there anything you would have done differently – or do you feel you’ve done everything you possibly could?
PB: My strong political stance was very satisfying, but very bad for business. Other producers made other decisions, and chose to keep their heads down, or quietly migrate overseas, rather than speak out against the new laws. I can’t criticize anyone for choosing to protect their livelihood. I don’t have any regrets. Given the ethical nature of my site Dreams of Spanking, and how firmly it was rooted in my principles, keeping quiet wasn’t an option as far as I was concerned. In terms of how effective my resistance was, I definitely feel that I did everything I could. It’s been an interesting year – and the process isn’t over yet.
LW: You’ve been on an enforced hiatus since being found in breach of the law, so I’m wondering if you ever considered leaving the country to work. Why did you decide to stay and fight?
PB: No, I never considered emigration to be an option. My partner of 10 years, my non-porn business interests, my chosen family, my birth family, my cat and myriad other factors all keep me rooted in the UK. I’ve travelled widely, but every time I come back here I’m grateful to call it my home. Perhaps I’m just stubborn, but I refuse to lose everything just because of a stupid law that doesn’t stand up to serious scrutiny. Besides, I’ve spent 10 years working in the UK to raise awareness and reduce shame around kinky sexualities, to improve accessibility to information, and to make a wider range of ethically erotic materials available to people who like something a bit different. When our freedoms are compromised, running away doesn’t solve the problem. When faced with bad laws, I’m not one to quietly accept them. I believe in making as much fuss as possible and trying to change things for the better.
LW: It certainly appears that the British government targeted you as a result of your high visibility in speaking out against the draconian legislation. How has the government responded to these charges, though? Do they deny specifically singling you out for your activism?
PB: ATVOD weren’t really the “government” – they were a private company founded by Ofcom to regulate video on demand providers online. Sort of like the government’s bailiffs. They do deny singling me out. They claim that they only targeted companies about whom complaints were made, or who showed up in the press. So it seems pretty clear that my media activity called me to their attention. They sent out a lot of enforcement notices in the final weeks before they folded, at the end of last year. ATVOD, and Johnson in particular, were definitely on a mission to wreck the UK fetish porn industry, and particularly to target anyone who tried to fight back. But good luck getting them to admit it.
LW: Can you discuss what you see as signs of “clearer skies on the horizon”? Do you think the legislation might be overturned anytime soon?
PB: Now that ATVOD have folded, we can hope that the regulations (which remain as stupid as ever) will be enforced in a rather more professional and fair-minded way by Ofcom. At least Johnson and his weird obsession with femdom are no longer in the picture. I believe UK fetish producers have reasons to be optimistic, but I’m not at liberty to discuss the details. Follow lawyer Myles Jackman (@mylesjackman) for updates!