Art Vs Porn – sex film licensing laws

On 28 April 2019 CinePunked held one of our trademark interactive panel discussions. The discussion was labelled Art Vs Porn, and sought to engage in discourse on the fine lines aesthetically, morally and legally between art and pornography.

As part of the discussion we hoped to screen appropriate imagery pertinent to the debate, including scenes of hardcore pornography. In order on stimulate discussion, we would like to facilitate the viewing of a film that bridges the line, that might even have crossed the barrier from one into the other. Top of our list was the compilation of vintage pornography – The Good Old Naughty Days.However there are complications.

Hardcore pornography that has been passed for exhibition by the BBFC (the UK’s film censorship body) receives an R18 certificate. Such certified films can only be viewed or sold at licensed sex establishments. There are no licensed sex cinemas in Northern Ireland at this time and so we found ourselves in the position of needing to apply for one in order to keep within the law.

In effect, though it was never our original plan, we find ourselves arguing the case for the licensing of a sex cinema in Belfast. At least for one evening.

We made enquires with the local council about the possibility of a temporary license to allow the screening on this one night. However as we research the application process we noticed a number of issues. Firstly, in spite of numerous applications over the years, only one sex establishment license has ever been granted in Northern Ireland, and that was by Newtownabbey Borough Council for a sex shop in the middle of an industrial estate. The sex shops that have lined Belfast’s Gresham Street for three decades or more, have all been illegally operating. With licenses turned down because Belfast City Council argues there shouldn’t be any sex establishments in that area.

What hope then for a temporary application? In the university quarter? An area with a diverse community of shops, bars, educational establishments, residential properties and places of worship?

The application process for a sex establishment is presently set at £3200. Which if unsuccessful will see £500 returned to the applicant. This is already far in excess of any income we projected to take on the evening, and not appropriate in a situation where applications are likely to be rebutted.

Belfast City Council also has it in its power to waive the film certificate restrictions on an individual basis, which would allow us to continue unhindered with our chosen venue and screening. The films we are looking at have been passed by the censor. The content is not illegal. And can be sourced and purchased online without restriction.

We wish to be able to screen the legal material we are discussing. In a private space. With appropriate ID. Without risk of prosecution.

It is as much an issue with current UK legislation as it is with the restrictions of any council. As the online world makes more material readily available in the comfort of one’s home, it seems counterintuitive not to be able to view the same material in a public space.

We are not seeking to transform any of our partner venues into a permanent sex cinema. It’s simply that for a few hours, in order to host the debate in the way we desire, it must be designated as one.

In order to stay within the law we ultimately refrained from even showing clips – arguably, scenes of penetrative unstimulated sex from th likes of Antichrist or 9 Songs would be as pornographic as any R18 film we’d have screened in its entirety. Screening such clips is meaningless unless we can also screen the R18 rated clips.

Our attendees voiced disappointment that we were not able to screen the material, demonstrating a willingness to engage with the debate.

We are not seeking the setting up of a permanent sex cinema in Northern Ireland. Although we do not see why such an establishment shouldn’t be permitted in Belfast or elsewhere.

We do seek to stimulate debate, and to establish the hard and soft limits of what is culturally, morally and legally acceptable in this country.

The ArtVsPorn conversation was recorded and will be made available soon via our podcast. We would be happy to follow it up should any interested parties wish to collaborate or facilitate a continuation, or indeed go down the path of acquiring the relevant licenses themselves.

CinePunked believes in using film to stimulate debate and discussion. We are happy to facilitate difficult conversations, and will continue to do so.

Robert JE Simpson


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