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The R18 certificate represents a film or video classification given by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). It is intended to provide a classification for works that are within British obscenity laws, but exceed what the BBFC considers acceptable for its 18 certificate. In practice, this means hardcore pornography.
Under the terms of the 1984 Video Recordings Act all non-exempt videos sold or distributed within the UK must be given a certificate by the BBFC. The distibutor must decide whether a video is exempt. Uncertificated recordings are not illegal, regardless of content (except where the content is actually illegal itself), but supply (i.e. sale, rental, loan or gift) of them is. The R18 certificate is the most restrictive of the certificates, and films given this certificate may only be shown to adults in licensed cinemas or sold on physical media direct to the buyer in person in licensed sex shops. According to the BBFC there are currently around 250 such licensed shops. While the restrictions prohibit supply via mail order services, they do not generally apply to other platforms such as streaming media/video on demand over the internet or mobile phone networks, web-based content and hotel television systems i.e. any transaction that does not involve the supply of physical media. The only exception is when the content is delivered as part of a television broadcast, which comes under the jurisdiction of Ofcom, who outlaw the transmission of R18 material.
The BBFC specifies in detail what kinds of acts are permitted to be depicted in works receiving an R18 certificate, and which are not. In particular, it prohibits:
- Works judged to be illegal under the Obscene Publications Act 1959.
- Material deemed likely to encourage an interest in "sexually abusive" activity, which can include adults role-playing as non adults.
- Depiction of non-consensual acts (including role-play).
- Use of bondage which prevents indicating a withdrawal of consent (e.g., gags).
- Infliction of pain which may cause lasting physical harm, whether real or simulated.
- Penetration by any object deemed likely to cause physical harm.
- Depiction of any sexual threats, humiliation or abuse, even if consensual, unless clearly depicted as a consensual role-playing game.
R18 does allow for the depiction of most sex acts, including vaginal sexual intercourse, oral sex, masturbation, and anal sex, between any combination of men and women, and some allowance may be made for moderate consensual BDSM. As of 2008, the broadcasting of R18 material is prohibited, even on encrypted digital channels. Most cuts made by the BBFC are in the R18 category (e.g., 13.6% of R18 videos were cut in 2011, compared with 7.5% for 18, and 0.5% or less for other categories).
History of the R18 certificate
The R18 classification was created in 1982 in response to the recommendations in 1979 of the Home Office Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship chaired by Sir Bernard Williams. Originally it was only used for films featuring simulated sex only, but the BBFC found itself forced to award R18 certificates to hardcore films in 2000 after a series of legal appeals and a judicial review of those appeals.
The introduction of the R18 certificate for hardcore films is widely seen by observers as a reaction to more liberal attitudes in British society to pornography, the de facto legalisation of the import of hardcore pornography (but not its sale) across EU member countries because of customs law harmonisation, and the widespread availability of unregulated pornography over the Internet.
Material prohibited in R18 certificate works
Although consensual sex acts between adults can be shown in explicit detail in R18 pornographic works, the following is prohibited:
- Any images of minors (under 18) or young participants without adequate proof of age, even if not taking part in the scene: in one case an R18 was cut for sight of a photo of a person's children which came into view while they were having sex, and in another shots of children playing on a beach intercut with lawful adult sexual activity were cut. Eastern European pornography is usually not submitted to the BBFC due to their lower ages of consent for sexual images (14-16), but is available illegally from some shops (images of 16-17 year olds are considered "child" pornography in the UK as of 2003, even though they are over the age of consent of 16 in the UK).
- Roleplay where one participant plays a child or incest is featured, and rape fantasies (even if all participants are in fact consenting adults). Much of Marc Dorcel's low budget work and many U.S. "barely legal" films are prohibited from UK release under this rubric.
- Rough sex such as spitting, hair pulling, and gagging during fellatio - strong verbal abuse may also be removed if continuous and seen as dehumanising.
- Penetration with large or dangerous objects, or those associated with violence- scenes involving power drills attached to dildos, imitation firearms, ice cubes, spiked spheres, hammers, pool cues and many other items have been cut.
- Urolagnia- simple urination is permitted but urination onto or into a person, licking or drinking the urine, or urinating while masturbating will be cut; urination by a woman while she rubs her breasts and female ejaculation have previously been removed.
- Expulsion of enemas onto a person, licking/drinking enema fluid, any sight of faeces or vomit, protracted focus on menstrual blood- only one live action work has been cut for scenes involving menstruation, and several Japanese animations;.
- Use of illegal drugs during a sex scene.
- Promotion of dangerous fetish activities.
- Verbal references to rape, incest or childhood sexual activity or development within the sex scene.
- Sight of serious injuries or blood after sado-masochistic scenes; dripping of hot wax; images of bound and gagged performers (as they cannot withdraw consent).
The acts include those deemed likely to contravene the Obscene Publications Act 1959. Depiction of urolagnia, fisting and various hardcore BDSM acts were deemed legal in January 2012 in R v Peacock; it is unclear as to whether the BBFC will revise its guidelines, but they announced that they are discussing what to do next.
The BBFC has previously granted 18 certificates for movies containing short scenes of unsimulated sex, such as Catherine Breillat's Romance (in 1999), Virginie Despentes's Baise Moi (in 2000) and Patrice Chéreau's Intimacy (in 2001).
In October 2004, the BBFC granted an 18 certificate for Michael Winterbottom's movie 9 Songs, which features a number of explicit scenes of unsimulated sex. However, the DVD extras for this film were given an R18 certificate.
In late 2004 a group of video distributors appealed to the Video Appeals Committee (VAC) against the BBFC's decision to award R18 certificates to 9 films that the distributors wished to be reclassified as 18. A press release issued by the BBFC on 20 July 2005 announced that the VAC had dismissed that appeal.
- BBFC FAQ - What does the 'E' symbol mean, and it is an official category?
- bbfc - the official website of the bbfc. classification for entertainment, movies and video games
- Knowing it when you see it:
- House of Commons - Culture, Media and Sport - Minutes of Evidence Hansard, paragraph 25."
- BBFC press release 20 July 2005
- BBFC press release 4 July 2006