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David Cooke

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Let's Talk About Sex

Posted: 26/07/2011 01:00

Of all the BBFC's classification issues, sex is perhaps the trickiest. For bad language, for instance, it's relatively easy to define and apply the rules. But when does a sex reference become too strong for 12A? And when does a sex reference, or sex scene, need to be restricted to adults only?

One important consideration is the disparity between what children are likely to be aware of and what adults feel they should be aware of. There may be families where this doesn't apply. But often it does, and red faces may be the result. The internet has exacerbated things, and there is much current concern in policy circles about issues such as porn on mobiles.

As a responsible regulator, the BBFC must strike a pragmatic balance, but one which gives full weight to the legitimate concerns of parents as to what they feel is suitable for their children at various stages of their development. We base our decisions on very large scale public consultation, and also on the views of experts, such as our Advisory Panel on Children's Viewing, which discussed this topic last Friday. Fellow HuffPost blogger John Carr is a member.

One problem at the 12A/15 border relates to what we used to call, rather quaintly, comedies of manners. These have been getting rather less mannerly of late. The intention behind many of these films is not to arouse anyone, but to create laughter. However, when such films are viewed with parents, the result can be acute embarrassment, for parents and children alike.

A recent example, which we viewed at the APCV meeting, is Little Fockers. This includes a scene in which Robert de Niro takes a Viagra-type pill, resulting in a sustained bulge in his trousers. In the right company, it's pretty funny. But we did receive some complaints from parents who had viewed the scene with their children, and I can well understand why. But is the notion of an erection and the comedy that may derive from it inherently unsuitable for 12-14 year olds? Will it harm them or simply amuse them?

At the 15/18 borderline, other considerations come into play. For instance, it is legal for people to have sex once they reach 16, so how can one justify withholding depictions of sexual activity from 16-17 year olds? This is not to ignore the valid concerns over issues such as teenage pregnancy. But is there any gap between what, for want of a better expression, one might call the real world, and parental and societal expectations?

In practice, the Board tends to base its distinctions and decisions here on a mixture of visual detail - sexualised nudity is acceptable, for example, but not sight of erections - and the intentions behind the scene - is it there to titillate and arouse, or does it add something to our understanding of the characters and the narrative? That's not to say that a sex scene at 15 can't be arousing, but rather that that shouldn't be its only or primary purpose.

A good recent example is Black Swan. This features a lesbian sex scene between two central characters. It's relatively protracted and passionate in nature. But it also serves a clear purpose within the narrative. And it's fairly discreetly filmed. Some people felt it went too far for 15. But our judgement was that it was unlikely to harm 15-17 year olds, and would be within the understanding of most of them. There would certainly have been upset people in this age group if they hadn't been allowed to see the film.

Some complaints mentioned the fact that the scene was homosexual rather than heterosexual. But we apply our Guidelines in the same way regardless of sexual orientation. And it's clear that that's what most of the public want us to do.

Is the BBFC right to adopt a relatively cautious approach towards sexual depictions, compared with many of our European neighbours? That is why, for instance, the uncut version of Bruno received an 18 rather than the 15 which the distributor wanted. It seems to be what the UK public as a whole prefers, although it's certainly no longer true that we want "No sex, please, we're British." So retaining a graded introduction to more adult and sexual material seems a reasonable and sensible approach, even if setting and policing these boundaries can be a difficult balancing act.