illustration of fuzzy handcuffs

Several BDSM sites have been forced to remove content.

This article contains sexually explicit material.

The video showed “a male being caned by a female, with consequent red marks to the buttocks.” Considering the amount of violence and sexually explicit material regularly on view on TV, in movies and online, it hardly seemed exceptional. Yet in U.K. porn producer Pandora Blake’s case, the video would lead to a major roadblock, if not the end, to her career.

This video was at the center of a case that saw Blake’s website, Dreams of Spanking—her business and source of income—shut down, thanks to the U.K.’s updated Audiovisual Media Services Regulations (AVMS).

Until July of this year, London-based Blake, 31, prided herself on providing ethically produced, female-friendly BDSM-themed pornography. However, when the AVMS regulations changed in December 2014, U.K. porn producers such as Blake feared their work would end up in the firing line.

The AVMS regulations are enforced by Authority for Television on Demand (ATVOD), which regulates what can be shown in U.K. online video content. There is no U.S. equivalent of ATVOD; the closest regulatory body is the Federal Communications Commission, which only has power over televisual, not online, content.  

Blake is a BDSM enthusiast who has worked in porn since 2006 and launched Dreams of Spanking in 2011. Her site, which she designed, produced and ran, featured photos, videos, and audio stories of spanking and corporal punishment role-play, often starring Blake herself (she enjoys both giving and receiving spankings). She was emphatic about showing diverse and realistic bodies and genuine female pleasure in her work, depicting both men and women in dominant and submissive roles, and always paid performers fair rates. 

It was a devastating blow to see four years’ work lost in one sweep. With heavy irony, one of the videos on Dreams of Spanking deemed unsuitable was a sponsored caning to raise funds for Backlash, a U.K. legal group that is fighting the ATVOD regulations. The other was the video mentioned above, called “Slight Damage to the Rear End.” Both videos apparently violated the AVMS rule that bans “the infliction of pain or acts which may cause lasting physical harm, whether real or (in a sexual context) simulated.”   

Blake wrote on her personal blog at the time: 

“It’s ludicrous that a group of people who know almost nothing about BDSM should attempt this sort of external, ill-informed assessment of which acts ‘might cause lasting harm.'”

Blake and other U.K. porn producers can’t bypass the new regulations by hosting their sites abroad instead. “As long as I [as the person with editorial control over the content] am based in the U.K., I can’t get around the laws by publishing overseas,” Blake explained. “I would have to personally emigrate, or sell my business to someone else in another country.” None of these options, she continued, “holds any appeal.”

A ‘damaging message’ about female sexual pleasure

Blake’s story begins one year ago, when the new AVMS regulations banned the following acts from U.K.-produced online porn: face-sitting, female ejaculation (if done on another’s body or consumed), bondage in which all four limbs are restricted, and spanking, whipping, or caning that leaves significant marks. 

Depicting any of these acts would mean content was in violation of Rule 14, which dictates what material would be denied an R18 certificate, the highest possible rating under the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) Guidelines. (This tongue-in-cheek video provides a quick NSFW guide to the rules.) 

The new regulations were heavily criticized by porn producers, BDSM enthusiasts, and anti-censorship groups for their inconsistent, seemingly sexist targets. Fear blossomed that the rules would lead to a disproportionate censoring of female-domination (fem-dom) themed/female pleasure-centric porn sites. Blake told Vice at the time:

“The disproportionate emphasis on [banning] acts of female orgasm and sexual dominance—while allowing equivalent male acts involving male ejaculation and deep-throating—sends a damaging message that female sexual pleasure is considered more ‘disgusting’ or ‘unnatural’ than male sexual pleasure.”

Myles Jackman, a lawyer specializing in sexual freedom and obscenity cases, added in a piece he wrote in December 2014:

Confusingly, [the banned activities] are legal to perform in real-life with consent. Yet they are classified as obscene with the highly subjective and pejorative language of ‘perversion’ and ‘degradation,’ ignoring the performer’s’ right to consent to being ‘degraded.'”

Today, it seems fears about censorship were justified: During 2015, four U.K.-based online video providers were accused of breaching Rule 14. Two of the providers have been forced to shut down their websites, one of which was Blake’s Dreams of Spanking. All four providers produced BDSM material, and three were dominatrix-themed. During this time, no other pornographic online video services have been targeted by ATVOD under Rule 14. As Blake wrote in an email to the Daily Dot: 

If you look at the exact sites that have been contacted by ATVOD, a pattern emerges whereby sites depicting female dominance, female sexual agency, male submission and male penetration are disproportionately targeted.

Yet Pete Johnson, chief executive of ATVOD, shrugged off any suggestion of singling out certain adult content providers. When asked whether fem-dom sites were being subject to disproportionate scrutiny, Johnson told the Daily Dot, “They’re not specifically targeted.” He conceded that “because of the nature of the material, they are more likely to fall foul of the rules.”

Instead, he claimed sites targeted by his agency “are the subject of complaints in most cases,” but went on to clarify that only two of the four providers were actually investigated as a result of complaints. Additionally, Johnson added that of 16 services found in breach of AVMS rules during 2015, six of the investigations were instigated by his agency—confirming that the regulator has a significant degree of choice over who gets investigated.

Blake’s Dreams of Spanking was effectively shut down in July 2015. A skeleton of the site still exists, but she has been forced to delete all its content. Five months after the shutdown, she told the Daily Dot that she has lost work, money, and a huge amount of production-intensive content as a result of ATVOD’s decision and that her mental and physical health has suffered. 

She appealed the decision to Ofcom, the U.K. telecommunications regulator, in August 2015. However, she said she does not want to risk publishing further content on her site while awaiting the outcome. 

Blake believes she was targeted by the government as a result of speaking out against the new regulations. “I was contacted by ATVOD very soon after appearing on Newsnight [a British politics/news TV show] and BBC Woman’s Hour [a British radio show],” she explained. “So it seems likely that my public criticism of the new regulations brought me to ATVOD’s attention.”

When asked for comment, Johnson would only say that the site “came to our attention through a variety of sources,” and refused to specify further when asked. He also denied that the investigation into Blake’s site was “heavy-handed,” as she has claimed.

Mistress Megara Furie

Mistress Megara Furie, a Glasgow-based producer of fem-dom porn, is another adult content provider who has run afoul of the new regulations. In February 2015, a video on her website, “Ballbusting,” which showed sustained kicks to a man’s genitals causing pain and bleeding, was ruled by ATVOD to be “beyond the allowance made by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) for moderate, non-abusive consensual activity.” 

Furie learned about her violation via “a plain recorded delivery envelope through my door with a bunch of scary looking paperwork inside which they told me I had breached four rules.” Afraid of the consequences, she complied and removed the offending video clip from her site. In doing so, she asked ATVOD to keep the details of her business with them private. As she wrote to the Daily Dot in an email:

ATVOD agreed, but then went ahead and printed a news blog featuring my case. . .and my photograph was in all the national papers. I had to move house due to the anxiety this caused for me and the strain it put on the relationship between my landlord and I.

Furie now distributes her work via another U.K.-based provider and is careful not to produce any more content that could be in violation of the AVMS regulations. Her earnings have taken a hit now that she no longer runs her own website. 

In one way, however, the attention has had a silver lining: Furie also said that her reputation as an ethical dominatrix has grown thanks to the publicity of the ATVOD case, and she has been asked to lecture at several U.K. universities on “safe, sane, and consensual” (a mantra of sorts in the kink scene) BDSM practices.

Ultimately, she is extremely frustrated by the “government-level body shaming,” she has endured over her adult content. “I personally find gang-bangs much more obscene and harmful to attitudes to women,” she wrote the Daily Dot. “However, I would not be the one to tell anyone they cannot watch this type of porn.” 

Mistress R’eal and the Bondage Mistress Club

Mistress R’eal, a South Wales-based dominatrix, was also ruled to have breached the same provisions. Her film series, titled “A Bullwhipping In The Woods,” showed “a man whipped with consequent red marks on his back.” This video content was flagged because it depicted a man bound and gagged, constituting “physical restraint which prevents participants from indicating a withdrawal of consent.”

Mistress R’eal appealed, taking the line that the content on her website was not sufficiently “TV-like” to fall under the jurisdiction of ATVOD. And surprisingly, the ruling went in her favor, which may set a useful precedent for other online video providers who fall foul of the regulations.

However, the fourth site targeted by ATVOD was not so lucky. In July 2015, the Bondage Mistress Club website was ruled to be in violation of Rule 14 due a video that showed anal penetration of a man by a dildo and later a woman’s fist, and breath restriction via face-sitting. (The latter act was the subject of much controversy when the ATVOD rules were first released—indeed, a group of fetishists and sex workers held a “face sitting protest” outside British Parliament in December 2014.)

It seems curious that there is a concern about a man being harmed while performing oral sex on a woman, yet the language of the rules reflects no such fears regarding the reverse scenario (even though, as Telegraph reports, the BBFC admits that the pornographic act it most regularly has to censor is “scenes of choking and gagging during deep throat fellatio”).

The Bondage Mistress Club website shut down following a statement from ATVOD in August 2015 that said failure to remove the offending content would result in the case being referred to OfCom, the U.K. telecommunications regulator, which has the power to enforce fines of up to £250,000 (roughly $380,000 U.S.). 

‘A shameful waste of talent and money’

Feminist BDSM porn creators believe these rules are out of touch with 21st century sexual attitudes. After all, the past several years have seen millions of dollars made from a trio of BDSM-themed romance novels. The U.K.’s rules, however, are a half century behind the times: The AVMS regulations derive from the Crown Prosecution Service’s guidance on existing British Board of Film Classification regulations, which in turn derive from the Obscene Publications Act (OPA) of 1959.

Although the OPA can be updated in response to legal precedent, it currently remains out of step with recent rulings. Despite a jury finding in favor of the defendant in the 2012 case of R. vs Peacock, and concluding that gay BDSM DVDs portraying fisting were not likely to “deprave or corrupt” anyone, fisting remains one of the acts considered “obscene” under U.K. publication law. Therefore, three years after a jury decided it was not bothered by fisting, the Bondage Mistress Club website was still forced to shut down for depictions of that very act.

Blake fears that her career as a porn producer and performer is now on ice thanks to the ATVOD’s regulations. “It is hugely frustrating having to put all my filmmaking plans and ideas on hold,” she said.

Mistress Megara Furie agreed, characterizing the results of the AVMS regulation changes as “a shameful waste of talent and money.” She continued: 

“ATVOD stated they wanted to work with the porn industry and small producers. But the truth is, people are scared to approach them for fear of being shut down. Their heavy-handed approach has led to the demise of independent amateur porn.”

One wonders whether that may be been the intention all along.

 Illustration by Max Fleishman

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