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Have you been watching porn?

We champion digital rights at the same time as we champion sexual freedom because we know that the two are perilously entwined.

Credit: London Porn Film Festival. All rights reserved.

Last night, we opened our doors and welcomed the queer and curious crowd to the Horse Hospital for the second installment of the London Porn Film Festival. We were extremely proud to open with Local Heroes, a selection of shorts either made in the UK or produced by British pornographers.

Last year we began this festival in a climate of fear and anxiety; we were emulating the Berlin Porn Film Festival, with the hope that we might foster a kind of mini-Berlin on these shores. But we also did it because of the Digital Economy Act 2017, a set of regulations that formed part of the government’s digital strategy which included “age verification” for adult websites, and which received royal assent shortly after the festival.

Age verification essentially means that in the future, you will need to provide proof that you are over eighteen before you can access adult websites. This is to prevent children stumbling across pornography while looking for Pokémon. The technology to enforce this policy was going to be handed over to a large corporation called MindGeek.

Who are they, you might ask, and what right do they have to assume so much power over who can access pornography? MindGeek are the world’s largest internet porn company, owning hundreds of streaming sites and studios, and the plan was that they would develop the age verification technology and in so doing keep a detailed record of the porn-surfing habits of millions of Britons, directly linked to their personal information—not only on their own sites but also on thousands of others.

Besides the blatant invasion of privacy, risk of data leakage and problematic surveillance involved, what alarmed us about this bid to “save the children” was how it compounded other pieces of legislation: the Audiovisual Media Act of 2014 (which spawned face-sitting protests outside of Parliament) and the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, which obliges your internet service provider to retain a record of every website you visit for twelve months among other things.

True, the Digital Economy Act has been delayed. This was a victory for campaign groups such as ORG, who have long championed digital rights and understand the subtle implications for marginal, undesirable and underrepresented groups in society, as well as the potential for abuse. But it is still law. And buried deep within a press release dated March 10th 2018, the government announced that despite this delay, its:

“priority is to make the internet safer for children...we believe this is best achieved by taking time to get the implementation of the policy right. We will therefore allow time for the BBFC as regulator to undertake a public consultation on its draft guidance which will be launched later this month…It is anticipated age verification will be enforceable by the end of the year.”

Hence as a festival we continue to operate in a climate of uncertainty; the films we are screening form part of a culture that is slowly being forced into the shadows through economic strangulation and murky legal waters. Just as with Section 28—a piece of homophobic legislation that created fear and encouraged misinterpretation—so the Digital Economy Act casts a shadow over the future of queer feminist porn.

But unlike last year, we are feeling much braver. The festival now lasts for four days, and we have Pandora Blake as our guest of honour, a forthright producer, performer and campaigner (who, if we’re honest, was also one of the key inspirations for starting the festival.) The Local Heroes programme shows that we have a healthy British queer porn scene that is steadily expanding, plus, a keen audience who are willing to step outside the norm and experience porn collectively, with other queer people, in a badly needed queer space.

Several of our programmes directly address this issue of collectivity: All the Babes depicts group sexual activities and features several shorts that show how collective exploration can validate queer identity. Transhuman Romp addresses how we might transcend ourselves and our bodies.  We are lucky to have an incredible Latin American Post-Porn programme, with kick-ass films from all over South and Central America curated by writer, filmmaker and academic Erica Sarmet, which are particularly relevant in the wake of the political shooting of black queer councilwoman Marielle Franco.

Where the UK porn laws seek to “save the children” by curtailing the freedoms of consenting adults (and give everyone the nagging sense that they are being watched) as a festival we hope to empower participants to create their own films that reflect their politics and desires; make an explicit link between digital and physical freedoms; make sex education relevant to people’s actual desires and bodies; and ensure that politicised queerness (which remains a political fight) is defended as a valid life choice, with all of the radical structural and systemic critiques it contains. Oh, and we want to provide wonderful screenings in which we can experience queer feminist pornography anew.

Because—at the risk of sounding like a particularly insidious shopping list—there are a raft of incredibly worrying surveillance trends in the UK that we think will work in concert with structures such as age verification, which by itself isn’t the (whole) problem. Recently, Grindr revealed it had shared users’ HIV statuses. Facebook has been in the dock for inappropriate sharing of user data with shady company Cambridge Analytica, which is suspected to have disproportionately affected the EU referendum.

Article 13, which part of the EU’s copyright directive, would force internet companies to scan everything users upload in an attempt to curb copyright infringement. The government has proposed that immigrants be exempt from knowing what information is held about them. If you want to know how your data is being gathered more generally, read up on PRISM, MUSCULAR, and TEMPORA (all revealed by Whistleblower Edward Snowden) and SOCMINT. These are deeply worrying and wide ranging programmes of surveillance that have become part of our everyday lives. Surveillance is not the exception, it’s the norm, and although it’s not possible to protect yourself completely you can take some precautions.

The fact that governments and corporations are overstepping the mark and invading the private lives of citizens is nothing new. The demonisation of pornography goes hand in hand with the limitation of other freedoms. As our culture shifts towards fear, surveillance and caution, we hope that the London Porn Film Festival will be one node in a greater network of resistance.

This resistance doesn’t have to be limited to spiky actions like shutting down airports or invading parliament. Resistance can also be self-development: consciously and actively choosing to create and consume the work you wish to see in the world, or, as our programmer Max Disgrace put it on opening night, joining this “community of agitators.” In community we are simultaneously sex workers, porn performers and producers; migrants, primary school teachers, filmmakers, artists and activists; fat and thin, affluent and poor, and from many different cultural backgrounds.

We’ve attended demonstrations such as the recent Women’s Strike on international women’s day, which saw political rage and joyful solidarity among differing groups; and we’ve seen campaigns to end detention, defend the Picturehouse strikers, and support sex workers seeking full decriminalisation and trans people acting for better policy around the gender recognition act and against cisnormativity.

We champion digital rights at the same time as we champion sexual freedom because we know that the two are perilously entwined, and that it’s crucial that our intersectional struggles employ a variety of tactics. To paraphrase the famous queer saying about the relationship between the personal and the political, “between the sheets and on the streets:” our fight is on the screen and on the green. Join us!

About the authors

Rude Jude, Ingo Cando, Epiphyllum Oxypetalum and Max Disgrace are organisers of the London Porn Film Festival, which was established in 2017 in response to repressive UK porn laws. In the spirit of the Berlin Porn Film Festival, we aim to bring queer porn to the people in spite of an increased climate of fear. The festival takes place from 12 - 15 April.

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