BBFC is to adjust sexual and sadistic violence policy to take into account key areas of public concern. Recent research has helped the BBFC to respond to concerns about depictions of rape, sexual assault and other sadistic violence in films and
Research carried out on behalf of the BBFC in 2002 and again in 2012 demonstrates that members of the film viewing public find unacceptable certain depictions of sexual and sadistic violence which, in their view, have the potential to cause harm.
Although the research reaffirms views that adults should be able to choose what they see, provided it remains within the law and is not potentially harmful. They are concerned about young men with little experience, and more vulnerable viewers,
accessing sadistic and sexually violent content, which could serve to normalise rape and other forms of violence and offer a distorted view of women.
Film viewing members of the public support intervention at the adult category, by the BBFC, to remove certain depictions of violence on the grounds that they consider them to be potentially harmful.
The research carried out by Ipsos MORI in 2012 highlights concerns about certain depictions of sadistic and sexual violence to which the BBFC must respond. Much of the public believe that sexual and sadistic violence are legitimate areas for film makers
to explore. But they are concerned by certain depictions which may be potentially harmful to some, including scenes which:
make sexual or sadistic violence look appealing
reinforce the suggestion that victims enjoy rape
invite viewer complicity in rape or other harmful violent activities.
Most of those involved in the research expect the BBFC to intervene to remove potential harm from such scenes. The BBFC may also intervene where a depiction is so demeaning or degrading to human dignity (for example it consists of strong abuse, torture
or death without any significant mitigating factors) as to pose a harm risk.
David Cooke, Director of the BBFC said:
"There is no 'one size fits all' rule for any theme under the BBFC classification guidelines, as long as what is depicted is within the law and does not pose a harm risk. Once again the public have told us that context, tone and impact, and a work's
over all message, can aggravate a theme, or make it acceptable, even in cases of sexual and sadistic violence. The decision as to whether and how to intervene in scenes of sexual and sadistic violence is complex, but drawing out and applying these
aggravating and mitigating factors is helpful in arriving at a decision which balances freedom of expression against public protection".
SEXUAL AND SADISTIC VIOLENCE: RESPONSE OF THE BBFC TO PUBLIC ATTITUDES AND CONCERNS
Research carried out on behalf of the BBFC, most recently by Ipsos MORI in 2012, demonstrates that film viewing members of the public find unacceptable certain depictions of sexual and sadistic violence which, in their view, have the potential to cause
harm. This concern is particularly acute in relation to young men, without much life experience, and other vulnerable viewers accessing a diet of sadistic and sexually violent content, which could serve to normalise rape and other forms of violence
and offer a distorted view of women.
Further, there is support for intervention, at the adult category, to remove certain depictions of violence on the grounds that many of the public consider them to be potentially harmful.
The BBFC's response to these concerns must strike a balance between, on the one hand, freedom of expression and the principle that adults should be free to choose what they see provided it remains within the law and is not potentially harmful, and the
need to protect the vulnerable from material which may cause harm.
The response outlined below covers situations where the BBFC is considering cutting, or even rejecting, works aimed at adults and containing violence, in the absence of a specific legal prohibition on depiction of the activity.
When considering such intervention, the test the BBFC will apply is whether there is a real, as opposed to a fanciful, risk of harm. Research in this area is contested. There are difficulties both in carrying out such research and in translating
findings from the laboratory to society. However, the difficulty of establishing broad and replicated findings from such research does not mean that there are no harm risks. The research literature, and reviews of it, often warn that certain
works may pose certain risks for certain individuals in certain circumstances.
What the public considers to be potentially harmful is also important. This is not simply because members of the public may have practical experience of harm risks in operation in society which cannot easily be addressed in the lab. Furthermore, the
confidence of the public that the classification system will protect the vulnerable from material that has the potential to cause harm is itself an important indicator of whether the system is effective.
B. The response of the BBFC
This response covers both fictional and documentary (for example "extreme reality" works) which contain sexual and/or sadistic violence.
Intervention is likely in relation to any depiction of sexual or sadistic violence which is likely to pose a non trivial harm risk through, for example:
making sexual or sadistic violence look appealing
reinforcing the suggestion that victims enjoy rape
inviting viewer complicity in rape or other harmful violent activities.
Intervention may also be required in cases where a depiction is so demeaning or degrading to human dignity (for example it consists of strong abuse, torture or death without any significant mitigating factors) as to pose a harm risk.
Material of this nature might also be considered obscene. When considering intervention on the ground of obscenity, the BBFC will take account of the defence of public good and the significance of the overall nature and purpose of the work in
establishing whether or not a work is likely to be found obscene.
The BBFC will also take into account the right to freedom of expression established under the Human Rights Act 1988.
The decision as to whether and how to intervene is complex and subject to a number of aggravating or mitigating indicators which need to be balanced out in order to arrive at a decision.
These indicators are listed below. They are a guide to assist BBFC Examiners in making recommendations in relation to works which are on the edge of suitability for classification according to the BBFC's Classification Guidelines.
The indicators are not designed to be a tick list. No one indicator will of itself necessarily determine the classification of a work. Examiners will balance the indicators and use their judgement when deciding which course of action to recommend --
passing the work uncut; passing the work with cuts; or determining that the work is unsuitable for classification. The presence of one or two aggravating indicators will not necessarily lead a work to be cut or even rejected, if the mitigating
indicators outweigh them. Nevertheless, if Examiners recommend not intervening, they will highlight any aggravating indicators in their reports and justify why they do not lead to intervention.
Each factor listed below is expanded with possible examples of when the factor might come into play.
Does the depiction make sexual or sadistic violence seem normal, appealing, or arousing?
For example, the perpetrators are characters with whom the viewer might identify. The scene is shot in a way which might invite the viewer to identify with the perpetrator(s). Violence is glamorised in a way which could arouse the
viewer. The scene places an emphasis on the sexual pleasure of the perpetrator(s). The sequence offers a "how to" guide on how to perpetrate sexual or sadistic violence. The sequence has the potential to raise concerns about
the enactment of sexual fantasies, particularly among vulnerable viewers.
Is the depiction likely to appeal especially to impressionable or vulnerable viewers, including young men and gang members, with the result that it might influence their behaviour or attitudes in a way which may cause harm?
For example, there is a gang mentality at play which suggests that sadistic or sexual violence can be a bonding experience within a group.
Does the depiction perpetuate any suggestion that victims enjoy rape?
For example, the depiction suggests that women may become sexually aroused through being raped or that "no" means "yes".
Is the depiction of sexual or sadistic violence gratuitous, including in terms of excessive length and/or detail?
For example, the depiction is out of step with what is required by the narrative. The work does not have much of a narrative. Rape features a focus on eroticising detail, such as nudity. The scene wallows in gratuitous
Are children involved in the sequence?
Participants in the 2012 research felt that the rape of children, or the juxtaposition of images of children with sexual violence to be potentially more harmful than any other form of sexual violence.
Does the depiction amount to an unacceptable degradation of human dignity?
For example, the sequence features strong, including real life, abuse, torture, killing or other violence without significant contextual justification or other mitigating factors to the extent that it offers human suffering as entertainment in
itself? Might the sequence be considered significantly to erode viewer empathy?
Does the work make it clear that the violence depicted is not condoned?
For example, the perpetrators of sexual or sadistic violence are punished within a work's narrative. The narrative is balanced. (For example, it does not contain 80 minutes of graphic rape followed by two minutes of mild rebuke.) The
viewer is invited to identify with the victim(s).
Does the work or scene lack credibility in a way which undermines its power?
For example, the work is dated and/or ridiculous. The depiction of sexual or sadistic violence is comic and unlikely to be taken seriously. The sequence is otherwise risible. Low production values can add to the lack of credibility.
Is the scene discreetly shot?
For example, it leaves some detail to the imagination. The scene only as long as the narrative requires it to be. The treatment is in keeping with the narrative.
Is the scene narratively justified?
For example, it is based on a true story or carries a strong anti-rape message. What the viewer sees is necessary to explain character motivation. The work raises awareness of an issue of public concern in a responsible way.
Where there is any nudity is it outside the context of rape?
Most participants in the 2012 research felt that merely combining violent images with nudity, even sexualised nudity, was not necessarily a problem in itself. These viewers drew a clear distinction between rape, where eroticising detail could be
potentially harmful, and violence which is shot in a titillatory way.
The website Film School Rejects has written an interesting article about the BBFC's pitiful justification for a
The article quotes Catherine Anderson of the BBFC defending the board's actions:
We are satisfied that the research methodology was very robust. This was qualitative rather than quantitative research. The research looked in depth at the issues raised by depictions of sexual and sadistic violence in films and videos. One on one
interviews and focus groups lasting three hours in length are more appropriate for exploring the issues around sexual and sadistic violence rather than a more superficial piece of quantitative research.
The research does not purport to demonstrate that certain depictions of sadistic and sexual violence definitively cause harm. Proving harm from media effects research is always contested. There are difficulties in translating laboratory results to real
life. But the public's perceptions of possible harm are important. This is not only because they may have real life experience of harm but also because classification decisions need to be in line with public expectations for regulation to enjoy public
confidence and therefore be effective.
Perhaps the BBFC could decypher their unhelpful words describing the new policy by saying how the new policy would affect classifications of the films in the study if they were to be resubmitted today.
The BBFC have released the latest Podcast. Episode 9: Imitable Techniques.
There is the usual interesting current news section and a feature on the censorship of imitable techniques (kids hiding in tumble dryers, hotwiring cars, making light bulb bombs and martial arts weaponry).
There is also an illuminating interview with David Austin, Assistant Director, Policy & Public Affairs, speaking about the recent BBFC 'research' to survey the opinions of 35 ordinary film viewers.
He was a little unconvincing though. He starts off well, explaining very clearly that BBFC censorship for adults is based on removing content illegal by the laws of the land and content that is harmful. Notably Austin did not mention the concept of
censoring material on the basis of public opinion.
He explained that a current basis for cutting sexual violence was research by psychologist Guy Cumberbatch, but this was now 10 years old. So the BBFC embarked on a 18 month project to update the guidelines, culminating in a survey of 35 lay people's
Austin did not explain how the opinion of a small group of inexpert people could possibly define what films are actually harmful. Nor did he offer the alternative that the BBFC now censor according to public opinion, rather than the aforementioned
legality and harm.
Then he moved seamlessly into claiming that the surveyed views of 35 people were in fact 'public opinion'. I can't imagine that a statistical analysis of the 'research' would support that idea that a sample size of 35 people would have any statistical
Austin was asked the very important question about the practical effects of the new guidelines, especially as there is no practical indication whether the BBFC are 'tightening up' the guidelines or not. Just that the BBFC will take more factors into
account, some supporting censorship, and some mitigating the need for censorship. In fact nearly all of the British media has reported a 'tightening up' of guidelines.
Austin was asked what recent decisions would have been made differently as a result of the changes. He answered by urging listeners to take note of the following table in the BBFC 'research' paper.
The Killer Inside Me
18 uncut or 18 with cuts
I Spit On Your Grave
18 after cuts
Mixed ranging from 18 uncut to rejected
The Human Centipede II
18 after cuts
18 with cuts or rejected
A Serbian Film
18 after cuts
18 with cuts or rejected
The Bunny Game
Presumably this is an indication that most films will be unaffected but that the highly controversial or sexually violent may be more strictly censored.
Perhaps we will get to see soon if someone decides to try and release the new Maniac remake.