Legislating pornography is a thankless task. How does anybody decide which sexual practices are acceptable and which are not? The United Kingdom has just introduced a series of amendments to the law regulating online pornography. As of now, videos produced in Britain for online distribution cannot include people being spanked “hard” on the buttocks; whips are banned; scenes featuring performers urinating on each other are definitely out; and there’ll be no more face-sitting. Oral sex with a woman that “obstructs the airways”, however this is achieved, “is not acceptable” either. Male ejaculation is fine, but not female.
The legislation is aimed at applying the same rules to UK-produced internet porn as applies to DVDs. But it turns out that independent porn producers never bothered producing for the DVD market, precisely because they considered the rules too restrictive, as well as the fact that the sector was overseen by the privately run ATVOD (Authority for Television on Demand, the independent co-regulator for the editorial content of UK video on demand services), which has been accused of accepting mainstream sexual practices, or, in the words of The Guardian’s Zoe Williams, “tolerating degradation, as long is it is happening to women.”
I was already active in fetish clubs, and began to work as a dominatrix. It seemed better than working in a pub or a shop”
The changes to the law have prompted an angry response from civil libertarians, some feminists, and of course, many in the UK porn industry, who interpret this as yet another example of discrimination against women and an infringement of their rights to indulge in whichever consensual sexual practice they see fit. In short: an attack on equal rights.
A leading light in the campaign to resist the new laws is Itziar Bilbao Urrutia, a self-styled dominatrix, artist and activist born in the Spanish Basque city of Bilbao, and who has already won court cases over freedom of expression in the United Kingdom.
She moved to London 30 years ago, and enrolled at art college. “Like all art students, I needed to earn money,” she says. “I was already active in fetish clubs, and began to work as a dominatrix – a woman who sexually dominates her clients for money. It was well-paid, and seemed better than working in a pub or a shop.”
Around 2002, Bilbao set up a website to promote her services. “At that point I started to develop an image, to make videos, and I realized that what I was really doing was expressing myself as an artist,” she says. “Subjects like identity, gender, feminism, sexual representation, alternative sexuality. It was two worlds coming together: my art and my work as a dominatrix.”
Four years ago, she set up Urban Chick Supremacy Cell, a site that offered, for money, fetish videos packaged as political activism, “inspired by women such as Valerie Solanas,” the American radical feminist who produced the SCUM Manifesto. “I adopted the image of a terrorist cell that was calling for absolute feminine supremacy,” she says, adding that she found in fetishism and bondage, domination and sado-masochism (BDSM) a way to express her artistic and political ideas. Her project was part of the Genealogías feministas en el arte español (Feminist genealogies in Spanish art) exhibition held at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Castilla y León in 2012.
Most of the complaints were about female domination websites. That sounded like persecution to me”
But the UK authorities failed to see the artistic merit of her work, and in June 2013, she received a letter from the ATVOD, requesting her payment for emitting “television programs” via the internet. “I took a look at the list of producers they had made complaints about,” says Bilbao, “and I realized that the majority of them were adult fetish sites, and specifically, about female domination. That sounded like persecution to me.”
She then decided to contact Backlash, a group that defends freedom of sexual expression, with which she had been working with since 2009. Backlash then put the matter in the hands of lawyer Myles Jackman, better known as “the obscenity lawyer”, and a specialist in sexual freedom and pornography at the Hodge, Jones & Allen law firm. After months of legal wrangling, and “many interesting conversations about the limits of art with bureaucrats,” to use Bilbao’s words, the courts ruled in their favor, accepting that Bilbao’s site was art, and it reopened this summer.
Bilbao argues that mainstream porn is more harmful than the supposed deviant practices she indulges in
Bilbao says now that the lengthy court case was simply a testing ground for the new legislation that came into effect on December 1. She is now giving advice to UK video producers to fight a law that she says “discriminates against the female gender and sexual minorities: they have now started to catalogue sexual practices,” says Bilbao. “And those that must remain hidden are above all gay sexuality, and female domination. The big porn studios do not bother with this kind of stuff, so they are excluded from the law.” Bilbao argues that mainstream porn, widely accessible on the internet, is actually more harmful than the supposed deviant practices she indulges in. “Mainstream porn is about using women as objects, as sexual caricatures, it’s all about the glorification of the penis.” In short, the UK’s new law is about imposing censorship and government control over the internet: “It starts with porn, because protecting children is always a vote-winner. But it’s not the state’s job to babysit. Porn is the canary in the coal mine.”
Having spent most of her life now in the UK, Bilbao has come to the conclusion that the British are sexually repressed; “just like the Basques”, she adds. At the same time, she says she’s attracted by British people’s sexual hang-ups. “I remember telling my mum that I had started going to fetish clubs. She thought about it for a moment, and then asked me, ‘Are the English really like that dear?’”