Brow Beat

British Film Ratings Board to Take Harsher Stance on Sexual Violence

Man and woman standing in the woods. Man is holding a rifle.
Wind River.
Acacia Entertainment

A year after British actress Keira Knightley revealed that she rarely acts in films set in the modern day because the female characters “nearly always get raped,” the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) has updated its ratings guidelines so that films with scenes of rape or sexual violence are no longer shown to audiences under 15.

The BBFC’s age rating system has six tiers, starting with a universal U rating, similar to a G rating in the U.S. But where the Motion Picture Association of America’s system jumps from PG-13 to R, the BBFC has a tier in between its equivalent categories: 15, for audiences aged 15 and above. That’s now the minimum rating for movies with depictions of rape or sexual violence, and even movies with a 15 rating cannot depict rape or sexual violence that is “detailed or prolonged.” Films that do will receive an 18 rating instead, meaning that people under 18 won’t be able to see it in theaters or rent it.

The heightened sensitivity comes after the completion of a consultation in which the BBFC surveyed approximately 10,000 members of the public, revealing a general concern for depictions of sexual violence of any kind for films marketed to under-15 viewers.

Prior to the change in rating guidelines, the BBFC guidelines stated:

“Any depiction of sadistic or sexual violence which is likely to pose a harm risk will be subject to intervention through classification, cuts or even, as a last resort, a refusal to classify.” Films with a 12A certificate may contain sexual violence that is “implied or briefly and discreetly indicated, and its depiction must be justified by context”, while in 15-certificate films “there may be detailed verbal references to sexual violence but the depiction of sexual violence must be discreet and justified by context.”

Within the new guidelines, as the Guardian notes, a film like Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner’s Wind River, which was given a 15 rating, would now most likely be given an 18 rating due to the sexual violence in the film. Knightley’s own movie The Duchess, which included strong implications that a woman is going to be raped when she is constrained by a man on a bed, would most likely get a 15 rating, too. It was previously given a 12A/12.

The BBFC’s updated guidelines call into question whether the US will follow suit. While the UK has both a 12A/12 (for audiences 12 and up) and a 15 rating, the U.S. uses the looser PG-13 rating, which is in need of refining. Spider-Man: Homecoming revolves around a character with a young fanbase. Titanic has both nudity and domestic violence. Taken features heavy violence, sex trafficking, and a scene in a brothel. But under the current system, all have the same rating of PG-13.

Still, perhaps the platform most in need of greater regulation when it comes to sexual assault is television. 13 Reasons Why, based on a popular YA novel, shows multiple instances of graphic sexual assault, some prolonged, and is rated TV-MA. Hulu’s The Runaways shows a near attempted rape in the first episode, and is rated TV-14. Downton Abbey is rated TV-PG, but featured a violent rape scene. With sexual violence depicted in a large range of age ratings, it is clear the guidelines for what is and is not allowed at each are blurry.

While the BBFC has not said that the #MeToo or Times Up movements had any impact on the shift, it seems safe to say that the public condemnation of sexual harassment and violence in the entertainment industry and beyond has made the public more aware of and more sensitive to sexual violence. The head of compliance for the BBFC, Craig Lapper, told The Guardian, “Although we operate very strict standards around sexual violence there was an appetite on the part of the public for us to be even more cautious than we are at the moment.”

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