12 Jan 2017

The Mull of Kintyre Myth: Yes, it IS legal to show an erection on UK TV

Yesterday, I was reading a post about penises. It wasn't the kind of garden-variety smut I might be apt to come across in my life as a feminist who also writes about BDSM, sexuality and censorship, but actually an excellent piece by sex educators Bish. In an article that examines why we're all so hung up on big penises (so to speak), the writer acknowledges that the lack of normal willies visible in our media may have something to do with it - after all, the huge, constantly-hard, always-coming penises you see in porn only represent a tiny segment of the male population. But I had to actually take to Twitter to correct the writer on the next point - "You might also see some penises in TV or film (they aren’t allowed to be hard though – you can only show hard dicks in porn)" - because in the UK at least, that's not actually true.

The problem is, everyone thinks it is true. So the myth keeps perpetuating itself.

In preparation for what is hopefully going to be my next book (shhh!), I've been going down some fascinating rabbit holes regarding obscenity law and censorship in this country. And what I've found is that while many ridiculous situations in our media landscape are, sadly, enshrined in law (see this piece by me for more detail on the legal sex acts that are illegal to show in UK porn), others have no legal basis. Instead, they're nothing more than the result of endless Chinese whispers, which few of us have ever bothered to question. The "Mull of Kintyre" myth - the idea that you can't show an erection on UK TV or in UK magazines - is a perfect example of this.

There is literally nothing in UK law that says you can't show a hard cock on paper or on screen. The Obscene Publications Act (1959, updated 1964) only says that a piece of media is obscene if it will "tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely to. . . read, see or hear the matter." The Crown Prosecution Service guidelines on what is likely to meet this criteria includes torture, dismemberment, bestiality, and (more controversially) fisting and watersports/scat play, but also specifically state that consensual sex, including oral and anal sex and masturbation, plus "mild bondage", would not be considered obscene. So far, no forbidden boners. Nor does the British Board of Film Classification (whose guidelines inform those of OfCom, the UK TV regulator) forbid the showing of erections; nudity and simulated sex are permitted in the 18 category (and in the 15 category if "in a non-sexual or educational context"), although real sex is saved for the R18 category. But there's nothing saying "nudity ONLY IF THE GUY IS FLACCID," so where else could this myth have come from?

OfCom, the body in charge of TV, radio and internet content regulation in the UK, only has this to say regarding post-watershed (9pm) sexual content:
1.19 Broadcasters must ensure that material broadcast after the watershed which contains images and/or language of a strong or explicit sexual nature. . . is justified by the context.
Same goes for nudity, which can also be justified before the watershed if for an educational purpose.

When I interviewed Suraya Sidhu Singh, who ran the erotic women's magazine Filament from 2009 - 2013, as part of my research on obscenity law, she told me of the repeated issues she had getting her magazine into shops thanks to distributors and vendors hiding behind the "Law of No Boners" myth. Although at its height Filament was stocked in 900 shops across the USA, sSingh could not get it stocked in UK shops. She told me "The erection thing was an issue. No one knows where [the myth] came from, but people believe it and retailers repeat it." A major UK retailers told Singh that they could not stock her magazine because their guidelines, "based on the Obscene Publications Act and Protection of Children Act," did not allow them to show male nudity. Well actually, neither of those Acts would prevent the sale of a magazine depicting nudity or sex between consenting adults, as long as it's correctly displayed and only sold to adults (duh). They could have at least just come out and admitted they didn't like the idea of women whacking off to naked pictures of men, rather than hiding behind legislation that never existed.

Zak Jane Keir, a former editor of For Women, a hugely popular erotic magazine that launched in the 90s aimed at straight women, described similar struggles to me, and like Singh, spoke of encountering an almost entirely male landscape of hostile retailers and vendors. Keir wrote:
It’s the problem that erotic products aimed at women have always faced in a world where men still have most of the power – the Man in a Suit somewhere up the production chain (a distributor, a head buyer for a chain of newsagents) ‘My wife wouldn’t buy that, so no normal woman would buy that.'
Indeed, it doesn't seem too outrageous to suggest that in a media landscape in which key decisions are still far too often made by men, the myth of the forbidden boner is going to keep getting conveniently perpetuated, because god forbid men's bodies are ever subject to the same sexualisation and scrutiny that women are expected to be happy to accept. Keir added that the problem certainly wasn't women not wanting see erections:
There was a point, fairly early on, where [For Women magazine] ran a ‘General Erection’ campaign, asking if readers wanted to see stiff dicks. Of course, the vast majority did, but the printers/distributors/company lawyers all went ‘WAAAGH NO YOU CAN’T DO THAT.”
If even lawyers believed that it was impossible to show a boner (and didn't bother taking the time to actually fact-check this claim), what hope did a magazine already struggling under the weight of extreme hostility to female-aimed erotica have of righting this wrong? It may feel like this is all irrelevant now porn is all over the internet, but as the Bish article points out, this isn't allowing us to see bodies that are representative of actual men in any way, and if we can agree that body positivity is needed for both genders, whence the representation for average-sized willies that - SHOCKER - get hard?

As Oscar Ricketts points out in his bluntly titled article, "We need more penises on our screens" the idea that we have so much female nudity yet so little full-front male nudity on our screens because the former is somehow "justified by the context," is just bollocks. 
Female actors are often objectified, the reasons for their nudity sometimes having little to do with character, and everything to do with satisfying the male gaze. . .it is not “justified by the context” – and everything to do with feeding the male viewer a little Nuts magazine-style thrill.
 As someone who had the misfortune to flick over to Film4 last night and catch a few minutes of The Wolf of Wall Street, I can only concur. I think I could have understood precisely what a decadent lifestyle Jordan Whatsisname was supposed to have lived without seeing Margot Robbie's vulva, thanks guys. But if this is the standard we're agreeing to on UK TV, then it should at least apply across the board. Since his character in TWoWS apparently had sooo much sex, and we had to see sooo many naked women in the movie in order to convey this, where were the gratuitous shots of DiCaprio's erect penis? Were they absent because, as porn producer Ms Naughty writes in The Feminist Porn Book, the erection remains "a last bastion of secrecy, a final preserve of male power"? I feel like that's got to have at least something to do with it, otherwise why would such an easily debunked myth keep persisting, even in an age where we can fact-check the existence of a rule with one mere swipe on our smartphones?

So pass it on, folks. Post-watershed erections are legal. Boners in magazines are legal. Go forth and demand them! ;)



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