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Guide to UK Pornography Laws
Pornography is widely available on the internet, but it is important to be aware of what is ‘acceptable’ and what is not in the eyes of the law. UK pornography law is designed to protect the public, particularly those who do not consent or are unable to consent, such as children and animals.
Pornography offences cover a huge range of areas, including indecent images offences (such as possession of indecent images of children) and extreme pornography. Porn laws overlap with other criminal offences designed to prevent harm and protect the most vulnerable. For example, malicious communications, obscene publications, human trafficking and abuse against animals.
In recent years, the government have also tried to strengthen pornography laws, such as introducing a specific law for revenge porn (disclosing a private sexual photograph or film without the consent of the person in it).
However, not all these laws have been successful. A new law to introduce mandatory age verification on pornography websites has been put on hold for now after an outcry about data protection and practical difficulties in enforcing the law. In another case, the Crown Prosecution Service attempted to specifically label depictions of certain sexual acts as ‘obscene’ but chose to withdraw this list after backlash about freedom of expression.
With such a complex criminal background, it can be hard to tell exactly what porn is legal and what is not. Here, our criminal law experts explain some of the main UK pornography laws and how they are prosecuted.
- Is porn legal in the UK?
- Is there a legal age at which you’re allowed to watch porn in the UK?
- What is extreme pornography?
- What is an ‘extreme pornographic image’?
- What are the penalties for possession of extreme pornography?
- What is the law on child pornography?
- What are the penalties for offences involving indecent and prohibited images of children?
- Is bestiality legal in the UK?
- What is the law on revenge porn?
- What is the law on obscene publications?
- Need advice about pornography offences?
Generally, you can consume porn in the UK so long as the photograph, film or other material does not fall within the wide range of laws and regulations on pornography and obscene publications.
In reality, establishing whether a particular piece of pornographic material is illegal or not can be very difficult. For example, whether the material can be classed as ‘extreme pornography’ might depend on how realistic and convincing the acts depicted are.
Similarly, most people know that it is illegal to possess, watch, make or distribute (share) child pornography. However, some people are not aware that it is also an offence to possess non-photographic images, such as computer-generated images, drawings, and manga comics where the person/people depicted appear to be under 18 years old.
The laws are broad, intended to encompass a wide range of online activities and material which might cause harm. So, it is essential to be very careful when accessing pornography, even when intending to seek out material that is completely legal.
It is not illegal for someone under 18 years old to watch porn. However, it could be illegal for someone to sell or share porn with a child under 18 years old.
Under section 12 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, it is an offence to cause a child under 16 years old to watch a sexual act, including showing them images of people engaged in sexual activity.
Under section 19 of the Sexual Offences Act, it is an offence for a person in a position of trust (such as a teacher or care worker) to cause a child under 18 years old to watch a sexual act, including showing them images of people engaged in sexual activity.
Additionally, when considering whether to prosecute someone for an obscene publications offence, the CPS will consider who is likely to read, see or hear the publication and the potential for it to deprave and corrupt them, with emphasis on whether children are likely to access the material.
Generally, the CPS states that pornography will not usually be prosecuted under obscene publications laws if is it consensual, no serious harm is caused, and the likely audience is over 18. Therefore, making pornography available to children under 18-years old or where children under 18-years old can access it could theoretically result in prosecution.
Participating in pornography
Involving children in the consumption of pornography and participating in pornography-related acts, such as webcamming with a child under 16 (or 18 if the perpetrator is in a position of trust) is illegal. For example, it could be prosecuted under section 10 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 which covers causing or inciting a child under 16-years old to engage in a sexual activity.
Sale of pornography
The Video Recordings Act 1984 (repealed and revived in 2010) regulates the sales of video works, such as DVDs and Blu Rays. This law makes it illegal to sell works that have not been given a legal classification.
It is illegal to sell films (DVDs and Blu Rays) rated 18 and R18 (which can only be sold in licensed sex shops) to under-18s. Films which involve ‘explicit images of sexual activity in the context of a sex work’ will always be rated at least 18. Sex works are those which a produced primarily for sexual arousal or stimulation (BBFC).
Selling pornographic or ‘top shelf’ magazines is not legally age-restricted (unless they have an age-rated video work such as a DVD attached). However, the Indecent Displays (Control) Act 1981 controls how ‘indecent matter’ is displayed in public places. There are only two exemptions to this law which only apply if under-18’s are not allowed to enter the premises.
Retailers should also be careful to ensure that any magazines sold do not stray over the line into obscene publications as these could be illegal to display in public to any person, unless covered up or sold in a licensed sex shop.
In 2019, the government introduced a new porn law under the Digital Economy Act 2017. This law made it illegal to make pornographic material available on the internet on a commercial basis where it is accessible by under 18s. Pornography websites would be required to put an age verification system in place to prevent people under 18 years old from accessing pornography. If websites failed to comply, the law would allow regulators to fine them up to £250,000 or 5% of their turnover.
However, this law was criticised due to data protection and privacy concerns. It also became clear that it would be extremely difficult to implement as the system could be easily avoided using virtual private networks (VPNs). As a result, the government has put the new law on hold.
Extreme pornography laws were introduced in 2009 to ‘protect those who participate in the creation of sexual material containing violence, cruelty or degradation, who may be the victim of crime in the making of the material, whether or not they notionally or genuinely consent to take part’.
The law is also designed to ‘protect society, particularly children, from exposure to such material’ in case it encourages ‘interest in violent or aberrant sexual activity’.
The relevant law is found under the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, which makes it a criminal offence to possess an ‘extreme pornographic image’.
An extreme pornographic image is one which is:
- Grossly offensive, disgusting or otherwise of an obscene character
- Portrays in an explicit and realistic way any of the following:
- An act that threatens a person’s life
- An act that results, or is likely to result, in serious injury to a person’s anus, breasts or genitals, or
- An act that involves sexual interference with a human corpse (necrophilia)
- A person performing an act of intercourse or oral sex with an animal (whether dead or alive) (bestiality)
- An act which involves the non-consensual penetration of a person’s vagina, anus and mouth by another with the other person’s penis or part of the other person’s body or anything else (rape or assault by penetration) and a reasonable person looking at the image would think that the persons or animals were real
Whether an image is pornographic will fall to the magistrates or jury examining the image. The intention of the suspect is not considered important – i.e. it does not matter whether the image is possessed for the purposes of sexual arousal or not.
Because the depiction must be ‘explicit and realistic’, artistic materials are not likely to fall within this offence.
Where the extreme pornographic image contains a child, the suspect will usually instead be prosecuted under laws relating to indecent and prohibited images of children.
The maximum penalty for possession of extreme pornography involving necrophilia and bestiality is two years’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine or both.
The maximum penalty for possession of other types of extreme pornography (such as pornography depicting rape, a threat to life or serious injury) is three years’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine or both.
Where the sentence is longer than two years’ imprisonment and the offender is over 18, they will usually also be subject to notification requirements (put on the sex offenders register).
Pornography involving children is made illegal by a number of laws. The main laws are those on indecent and prohibited images:
- The Protection of Children Act 1978 makes it illegal to take, distribute, show, possess or publish child pornography
- The Criminal Justice Act 1988 makes it illegal to possess an indecent photograph or pseudo-photograph of a child
- The Coroners and Justice Act 2009 creates an offence of possession of a prohibited image of a child
Indecent images of children
Very often, offences for the possession and making of indecent images can be applied in the same case. Possession means physically or digitally possessing an indecent image, for example, as a paper photograph or as a file on a computer or mobile phone. Making has a broad definition that not only covers the production of indecent images (such as taking a photograph) but downloading or saving an indecent image.
The suspect’s intention is important when prosecuting for indecent images. For example, if someone is maliciously sent a file and they open an indecent image of a child by mistake, they are unlikely to be convicted.
If the indecent images are live-streamed, for example, the suspect accesses chat rooms or overseas pay-per-view material, they can still be held to have made indecent images of children, even if there is no forensic trace left on the suspect’s devices.
Prohibited images of children
A prohibited image is targeted at non-photographic images of children, such as computer-generated images, cartoons, manga images and drawings. However, the offence does not include ‘pseudo-photographs’ where an image is produced that appears photographic. Pseudo-photographs are covered by the laws on indecent images.
Possession of prohibited images has the same meaning as indecent images.
The maximum sentence for possession of a prohibited image of a child is three years’ imprisonment.
The maximum sentence for possession of child pornography under the Criminal Justice Act is five years’ imprisonment.
The maximum sentence for taking, making, distributing, showing or possessing child pornography is 10 years’ imprisonment.
Find out more about indecent images offences and how our sexual offence lawyers can help.
No. Bestiality porn (often incorrectly spelt as beastiality porn) falls under extreme pornography law.
The law makes it illegal to possess images of people performing sexual acts on an animal, whether dead or alive. It is the task of the judge or jury to decide whether an image is pornographic.
Bestiality pornography can also fall within the Obscene Publications Act 1959. Guidance from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) states that where an act shown in a publication is illegal, it is likely to be obscene.
Revenge porn used to be prosecuted under a range of laws, such as the law on malicious communications. However, in 2014, a new law was introduced to specifically criminalise revenge porn.
Revenge porn is the distribution of a private sexual image of someone without their consent and with the intention of causing them distress. The law covers online porn, such as uploading images/videos to social media and pornography websites, and offline, such as sharing images/videos via text.
Being convicted for distributing revenge porn can result in a maximum prison sentence of two years.
Find more information about revenge porn offences and how our sexual offences solicitors can help.
Some types of pornography can fall under the Obscene Publications Acts 1959 and 1964, as well as other porn laws. This law criminalises the publication (and possession where intended for publication) of ‘obscene articles’ (such as images, films, sound recordings and written material), which would tend to ‘deprave and corrupt’ those who consume the material.
Examples of obscene publications offences include:
- Possession of extreme pornography
- Taking, making, distributions, publishing or possessing indecent images of children
- Revenge porn – disclosing private sexual images without consent
In 2019, the Crown Prosecution Service also attempted to specifically label certain sexual acts sometimes depicted in pornography as obscene publications. However, this list attracted backlash for criminalising acts that are arguably not harmful and can be practised safely by consenting adults, such as bondage. Therefore, the CPS removed this list and now provides a new test for checking whether certain pornographic material is an obscene publication. The material is unlikely to be obscene if:
- It features consenting adults where the consent is made clear
- No serious harm is caused, physical or otherwise
- It is not otherwise linked with other criminality
- The likely audience is not under 18 years old
This suggests pornographic material which falls under other laws, such as extreme pornography, will always be obscene.
Where an article falls under the laws on extreme pornography, the suspect will usually be prosecuted under these laws. However, cases that are not caught by the extreme pornography law may sometimes be prosecuted under the obscene publications law instead, as the net for what counts as an obscene publication is wider.
Similarly, an article depicting people under age 18 is likely to fall under specific child pornography offences.
At JD Spicer Zeb, we are a team of criminal defence experts. If you or someone you know has been accused of an offence relating to pornography or other sexual offences, contact us as soon as possible for clear, practical advice about your options and expert representation at the police station, during investigations and at court.
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If you are a victim of child sexual abuse or at risk of offending, please contact the Lucy Faithfull Foundation for advice.
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