Public porn: when you can, and can’t, view and have sex in public

Not here, you don’t! Shutterstock

Pornhub’s latest annual statistics once again reveal some interesting trends in the viewing habits of its UK users. The good news is that the UK’s taste in pornography appears to have matured – quite literally: “MILF” is now the second most searched for term among British Pornhub users. This follows my 2016 article about the dangers associated with the rise in searches for “teen” porn, a search term that remains popular globally but no longer features in the top 20 UK searches.

In 2017, we saw increased interest in bondage porn and this trend continued in 2018. In fact, people in the UK are 28% more likely to search for bondage porn than other users.

But interest in watching sexual activity take place in public is growing, too. In 2017, I noted a rise in searches for the very specific practice of “British amateur dogging”. The new statistics for 2018 now reveal that the more generic “public” search term has made one of the biggest gains in the UK – moving up 13 places.

A search for “public” porn takes Pornhub users to content featuring sex in public spaces, by both professional porn actors and amateurs. Viewing pornography featuring public sex is obviously lawful – so long as the participants are consenting, are over 18 and the images created are not “extreme”. But offences may be committed if people engage in sex acts in public.

In England and Wales, sexual activity in public is not a specific sexual offence – unless it takes place in public toilets or a person exposes their genitalia with the intention that someone will see them and be caused alarm or distress.

Common law

Those engaging in public sex acts do, however, risk falling foul of the common law offence of outraging public decency. In England and Wales, it is an offence to engage in behaviour that is lewd, obscene or disgusting – that is, behaviour which would shock “reasonable” people – in a place where it may be viewed by the public.

Indeed, this offence has been deployed many times in the last few years to criminalise inappropriate public sex, from masturbation in a supermarket and in the window of a private house, to oral sex in a shopping centre, sex in a takeaway and on the street.

Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 also makes it an offence to engage in disorderly behaviour within the hearing or sight of a person who is likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress.

‘Don’t show me that in here!’ Shutterstock

“Hidden camera” pornography is also a growing threat, with private sex acts and intimate images captured and made public. Despite the term not appearing in the Pornhub statistics, these videos may be widely available on the site. Capturing any private sexual images without the consent of the participants amounts to the offence of voyeurism . (“Upskirting” is also likely to become a specific offence in 2019.) The “disclosure of private sexual images” – when such images are shared with the intention of causing distress to those featured – is also an offence, criminalising what is popularly known as “revenge porn”.

On the move

The Pornhub statistics also point to an increase in the popularity of viewing porn on portable devices, with a rise in the UK and globally in porn accessed on smartphones. The portability of devices also makes viewing pornography in public a possibility and early in 2018 we saw reports of women coming forward to say they had been exposed to pornography in public spaces – particularly on public transport.

Few would consider watching pornography in public acceptable and this was an issue considered by the Women and Equalities Committee in 2018 in their inquiry into the sexual harassment of women and girls in public places. The committee recognised that viewing pornography in public was a form of sexual harassment, stating that:

Technological developments and widespread use of mobile devices means that viewing pornography on public transport has developed as a new form of sexual harassment in public. Policy needs to take account that public transport is not an age-restricted space; any pornographic material viewed in this space is therefore potentially seen by children.

The committee recommended that wifi on public transport should block access to pornography and it should also be prohibited through individual internet connections. This would do little, however, to stop people viewing pornography that they had already downloaded.

There are also few options for tackling this issue through the law. Outraging public decency is – once again – the most fitting offence if the viewing alone can be characterised as “lewd, obscene or disgusting”. A statutory offence under the Indecent Displays (Control) Act 1981 also makes it an offence to publicly display any indecent material – legislation which could also be used to tackle unsolicited “dick pics”.

If public sex is your particular peccadillo, the law does not seek to prevent you from indulging outdoors, or viewing such images online. You must, however, choose your location wisely.