Classifications of sex on screen: how have attitudes changed?

In this blog BBFC Compliance and Education Manager, Sarah Peacock, explains how the BBFC’s approach to classifications of sex on screen has changed over the years.

Sex on screen, and how it’s classified, has always been a hot topic – not just for people watching at home or in the cinema – but for the BBFC too.

Back in 1916, our first President introduced 43 ‘Grounds for Deletion’ which examiners would use as guidance when recommending age ratings (back in those days, only ‘U’ for Universal or ‘A’ for Advisory existed). “Nude figures”, “offensive vulgarity, and impropriety in conduct and dress”, “excessively passionate love scenes” and “bathing scenes passing the limits of propriety” all feature on the list, and would be cut from any films containing such scenes. This just shows how much attitudes towards sex have changed – and how these have shaped our policies over the years.

But if we skip to 2021, over 100 years later, it’s fair to say that the BBFC’s approach – as well as attitudes and trust of the public – have changed significantly. Issues of sex can now be rated though all the categories, from kissing and hints of innuendo at U or PG in films like Paddington or Shrek, all the way through to unsimulated sex in 18 rated films like 9 Songs and Nymphomaniac Vol. 1.

In 1999-2000, we introduced our first ever Classification Guidelines. Every four to five years we run a mass public consultation and ask people what they think of our ratings, and adjust our decisions accordingly. Back in the early 00s, people told us they wanted scenes of BDSM to be classified 18, and strong nudity 15.

Over the years we’ve seen people become more liberal when it comes to sex, with most feeling comfortable that sex scenes can be rated either PG or 12A/12 – depending on the details, or lack of.

In our latest guidelines research in 2019, which followed shortly after the #MeToo movement, it was clear that attitudes towards sexual threat and sexual violence had moved on. Although we already classified such content restrictively, people told us that certain depictions of rape in particular should recieve a higher rating. Ridley Scott’s latest blockbuster, The Last Duel, is rated 18 for this exact reason – under previous guidelines it would likely have been rated 15.

Even though there is generally a much more liberal attitude towards portrayals of sex at the mid teen categories, one area that people told us was still a concern was the language of pornography – and they thought this should be restricted to the 18 category; for adults only. Sausage Party, rated 15, for example, might receive a higher age rating if it were submitted to us for reclassification today.

A common question we get asked is whether we classify portrayals of same sex relationships differently. The answer is a firm no.

We classify sex scenes the same, regardless of sexual orientation. Love, Simon, which is a heartwarming coming out story, is rated 12A/12 and features moderate verbal sex references throughout, including non-graphic references to masturbation, penis size and levels of sexual experience – all of which are very acceptable at the 12A/12 category.

Ultimately, we believe that adults should be free to choose their own entertainment – and our age ratings, especially the junior categories like U, PG and 12A/12, are there to help parents make informed decisions about what’s right for their family.

If you want to know exactly what content is likely to contain, then just check our website and app. We also have a whole range of resources to explore on the education pages on our website to help teachers start to explore these topics with their class.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: