How to Have Sex is a British drama, written and directed by Molly Manning Walker, in which 16-year-old Tara visits Crete with her friends for a wild, alcohol-fuelled summer holiday. The film was submitted to the BBFC for a cinema classification in August 2023, with a 12A request from the distributor.
How to Have Sex contains frequent strong language (‘f**k’) alongside milder terms including ‘dick’, ‘pissed’, ‘tits’ and ‘shit’. There is also a fleeting glimpse of very strong language ('c**t') printed on a man's t-shirt at a nightclub. The BBFC’s Classification Guidelines allow for the use of strong language at 12A, but only if it is infrequent. Very strong language is not permitted at 12A at all. The film’s language, however, is comfortably accommodated at 15.
The film also reaches the 15 level in terms of its presentation of sex. There are scenes of sexual activity – including one in which a man masturbates a woman in a semi-public setting – and it features strong visual and verbal sex references, which are occasionally crude. BBFC guidelines allow for moderate sex references and brief, discreet portrayals of sexual activity at 12A. At 15, depictions of sex and associated references may be much stronger.
In addition to strong language and sex, How to Have Sex also features scenes of drug misuse. Young people are shown inhaling nitrous oxide from balloons, and there is a scene in which a character grinds up cannabis and subsequently smokes a joint. Again, while too detailed for 12A, the film’s scenes of drug misuse are acceptable at the 15 level.
The film’s scenes of sexual violence are more challenging. These include a scene in which a young man, Paddy, urges a reluctant Tara to go skinny dipping with him on the beach. He removes her clothing and it is implied that they have sex off-screen. A subsequent flashback sequence shows Paddy thrusting on top of Tara as she grimaces in discomfort; her consent is ambiguous. Later, after a night of clubbing, Paddy climbs into bed with Tara and rapes her while she is hungover and dozing.
The BBFC has always taken a cautious approach to classifying sexual violence, and in 2019 we adjusted our Classification Guidelines to be even stricter in this area. This was in response to increased concern from audiences about such scenes, which was clearly demonstrated in the findings from our 2018 guidelines consultation. We consult on our guidelines every 4-5 years, seeking views from over 10,000 people from all across the UK, to ensure that our standards remain in step with audience expectations. In the 2018 research, sexual violence was the area of greatest concern for all audiences surveyed. In addition, our annual student surveys have shown year after year that sexual violence is the number one issue of concern for teenagers.
The viewing team carefully considered the relevant scenes in relation to the BBFC’s current guidelines, which state that at 15 ‘there may be strong verbal references to sexual violence but any depiction of the stronger forms of sexual violence, including rape, must not be detailed or prolonged.’ Citing the scenes’ brevity and the lack of any gratuitous detail, as well as their strong narrative justification, the team recommended a 15 age rating but referred the film for a further viewing by senior staff.
The film was viewed again by the BBFC’s two Compliance Managers, as well the Chief Executive, President and Vice Presidents. They unanimously agreed that the film’s scenes of sexual violence were defensible at 15. All felt that the film had educational value for older teenagers in its nuanced exploration of the issue of consent, and recognised the responsible and sensitive way in which it engages with this theme. The BBFC always seeks to ensure that the films we classify reach the widest audience that is appropriate under our guidelines, and all those involved in the classification decision felt that to classify How to Have Sex 18 would restrict it from the audience for whom it will have the most relevance. Accordingly, we classified the film 15, with the content advice ‘sexual violence, strong language, sex, sex references, drug misuse’. An extended description of content issues in the film is available on our website and app.
The film was subsequently viewed by the Advisory Panel on Children’s Viewing (APCV), an independent body of experts in child welfare and development which advises the BBFC on issues concerning the interests of children and young people. The APCV unanimously supported the 15 rating for How to Have Sex.
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