ATVOD: this is how they shut you up
This is how they shut you up. If you’re producing non-mainstream porn, the British authorities are coming after you. They will threaten you, they will destroy your business, they will publish your real name and they will issue crippling fines against you. The penalties for producing ethically-made, non-mainstream porn are legion.
Pandora Blake had just started turning a profit when it happened to her. After four years of running her own website, a letter came through the door. It was from the Authority for Television On Demand (ATVOD), a shadowy privately-owned regulator. Atvod is supposed to be the watchdog for video on demand services – stuff like 4oD and iPlayer. In reality it is an organisation which uses a twilight area of law to shut down non-mainstream porn, presided over by a man named Pete Johnson, who appears to be on a personal crusade against pornography.
A few days ago, Blake received a ‘preliminary view’ from Atvod about her site, which is called Dreams of Spanking. It features the kinds of videos you’d expect for a site with that name. They found she had broken four of their rules – she hadn’t registered, she hadn’t paid them a mandatory membership fee, hadn’t set up enough protections to stop under-18s viewing the material and she’d featured content which couldn’t be classified by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). Tellingly, they addressed the letter to her real name, but sent it to her business address.
“They clearly did some online sleuthing for that, they had to have spent some time finding it out. So right from the start it’s an intimidation tactic,” she says.
“They could have sent it to Pandora Blake. That’s the name the business is registered under. All mail to my business address is usually under that name and the company is registered to that address. They obviously wanted to psych me out.”
There is a curious pattern to how Atvod identifies the people it targets. It is not universal – but it is there. Typically speaking, people who buckle to their demands are listed under their performer names. People who stand up to them and fight back – even if they win the case – are listed under their real names. Blake expects to be publicly named if she challenges the Atvod ruling.
“That’ll be fairly disruptive,” she says. “My parents know what I do but they have sensitive jobs. We share a surname, so they’re worried about journalists digging around and making life hard. Also, they don’t fully approve, so it’s caused a lot of grief. The moment a journalist starts using my real name, that’s the end of my adopted name forever. That name is to protect me from stalkers, to protect my family and also I guess it’s part of the psychological compartmentalisation which separates the performer part of my life from my real self.”
This is not a punishment for producing porn. And it is not a punishment for failing to follow the regulatory fine print. This is Blake’s punishment specifically for creating ethical, non-mainstream porn outside of the big production houses. When you look at the ruling, it is startling how it punishes her precisely for trying to make a better product which treats performers with respect.
It was while working as a performer in the big production houses that Blake realised she wanted to make something different.
“They were asking me to do pretty boring stuff over and over again,” she says. “So I started to make my own porn. I had storylines I wanted to produce. At first I watched quite a lot of feminist porn. There were very consistent themes, but few were applicable to my niche. They mostly applied an explicit enthusiastic consent between participants in a scene. I wanted something different. I wanted to explore the fantasy of coercion – or consensual non-consent.”
Depicting non-consensual sexual situation, like street urchins being whipped or maids being tied up, meant Blake wanted to make the consent explicit outside of the scene. That led her to put interviews, commentary and out-of-character interaction on the website. It was specifically this attempt to show that the porn was made ethically and involved consenting adults which would get her in legal trouble.
As well as behind-the-scene footage, Blake added performer profiles, discussion boards and started to cultivate a thriving online community. Porn is famously one of the only industries in the world which pays men less than women, but Blake insisted on an equal pay policy for both genders.
The site launched in 2011 and took about four years to get off the ground. There was no investment so Blake had to earn three times the normal amount it took her to live in London just to keep everything afloat and pay for rent, models, camera equipment and everything else. Now, in it’s fourth year, it is turning a profit and winning awards. It won a feminist award and was written up by the Guardian.
Then, last December, the Atvod guidelines came in. As Erotic Review reported at the time, the guidelines ruled out any spanking or pain-play if the injury caused was more than “transient or trifling”.
“It was devastating when guidelines came in,” Blake says. “The choice was basically: move overseas or comply or go out of business. It wasn’t going to be possible for me to comply without compromising the basic principle on which the site was based.”
No-one really knows what “transient or trifling” means. Some say it’s only prohibiting blood, others that it’s welts or bruising, others that it’s an act which causes lasting physical harm. A preliminary review suggests they are taking a very broad interpretation. Atvod itself resists easy definitions for even the most basic categories. There is, for instance, no working definition of what ‘TV-like’ means, so even its remit as an organisation is murky. That’s how they do it. They keep things vague. It means potential targets never know whether they are following the rules. It gives the watchdog maximum flexibility to focus on whoever they want.
“I’d have had to take 90% of the content offline,” Blake says. “The version of spanking which remained would not have been an authentic view of my fantasy, which was the point from the beginning. It would have been a sanitised, mild, censored version of it. I’d have become one of those fake porn stars everyone’s always criticising, faking it on camera.”
Blake’s stars started taking photos of the red marks on their bodies after appearing in her films, but of course it made no difference. Atvod decides how ‘harmed’ a performer is without bothering to talk to them. One of the videos cited by the regulator shows the model smiling and hugging at the end of the performance, but they did not even need to base their thinking on that. They could have contacted her using the details provided on her user profile on the website, but they didn’t bother. Consent does not matter to them. They are uninterested in the feelings of those they claim to be protecting.
Meanwhile, Blake was getting an increasingly high profile. She was on Channel 4 and then the BBC’s Women’s Hour. A week after appearing on the Radio 4 programme, she received a letter from Atvod. She was the only person in the spanking genre who received a letter. She assumes – with good reason – that it was her increasingly high profile which led Atvod to target her.
A couple of weeks ago she received the ‘preliminary view’. It was drafted like a debt collection letter, with big bold warning notices and page after page of details about how she had breached the code.
The document goes into extraordinary detail about how the choice of shots, use of music and editing makes it TV-like. They say the behind-the-scenes features are TV-like. Probably they mean like a special feature on a DVD. It’s not clear. The amateurishness of the operation is quite remarkable.
Here is the crucial element of this strange and old-fashioned story: if Blake had filmed a hardcore gangbang with four men spit-roasting and violently throat-fucking a women, using low production values and without any extra scenes demonstrating the model giving consent, she would have been within the rules. Atvod found against her specifically because she strove to be ethical and responsible and show informed consent taking place. They found against her because she tried to make it look good. The regulator is increasingly acting as a challenger to the very concept of consent in pornography.
Next Blake will make representations – even though she suspects, with good reason, that this is a formality. In all likelihood Atvod will then recommend to Ofcom that she faces sanctions. That could be anywhere between five and ten per cent of annual revenue and, potentially, a ban.
She’ll appeal, but the determination is valid until it is upheld so while she does so the site has to be taken offline. That’ll go on for a year and a half. This is the real injustice – by the time she gets any lawyer to look at her case, they’ll have sunk her by default.
“They win either way”, she says. “If I get the appeal upheld it’ll be in 18 months’ time. I’ll lose my customers. It’s taken me four years to get to this stage and that will be annihilated.”
For years Blake struggled to take ownership over her identity and her sexuality. She found a way of expressing it in a way which others wanted to be part of: something which pushed at the boundaries of what pornography could be and set a higher standard for the ethical treatment of performers. Her reward was to be targeted by a regulatory authority with a dubious legal standing, no clear remit and a highly aggressive technique of closing down those who challenge it. It won’t end with Blake. Anyone trying to make porn outside the stifling straightjacket of mainstream pornography is at risk.
“I had ownership of this thing, this thing I believed in,” Blake says. “And now that control is being taken away.”