Arts: Time to shrug off the dirty mac

You won't find porn videos in Blockbuster, but that doesn't mean they're soiled goods.

This August, several dozen high-powered scholars, as well as lawyers, legislators, health care experts, film-makers and porn stars, will be heading to Los Angeles for the World Pornography Conference. Organised by California State University, the four-day conference will look at pornography from all conceivable angles, speakers ranging from Richard Green MD, of Cambridge University, on "The Role of Expert Testimony in Obscenity Cases", to Mistress Brandy on "Bondage and Domination: Past and Present". Several feminist campaigners will appear, including Nadine Strossen, President of the American Civil Liberties Union and author of In Defence of Pornography, and Linda Williams, PhD, who lectures on porn movies at the University of California.

Such developments reflect the fact that a lot of Americans watch blue movies, and not all of them wear dirty raincoats. For millions, pornography is no longer a demonic entity, but something to be rented on a Saturday night in. Twenty years of video culture have seen adult films move slowly from the red light district to the adult section of the neighbourhood video store. Recently, the Video Software Dealers' Association, representing the whole American industry from Disney to porn, published a customer poll in which over a third wanted their local video store to have an adult section.

Many retailers are only too happy to oblige. On average, it takes 22 rentals of a tape like The English Patient for a video dealer to break even. It needs only six rentals with a porn tape because they are cheaper to buy in and can be hired at a premium rate. The logic is hard to resist. What's more, if you are an independent outfit and a major chain such as Blockbusters moves into the neighbourhood - a company with a strictly no-porn policy - then your adult stock is the one thing that may keep you from going under. In 1997, the number of porn rentals from general video stores topped 600 million in America. It's little wonder The Economist ran a cover story on the industry earlier this year.

Examples of porn's growing mainstream appeal finds porn stars Heather Hunter in the next Spike Lee movie, Jasmine St Claire on the Larry Sanders Show, and Janine fronting ad campaigns for leading-edge fashion company Fresh Jive. Accordingly, Adult Video News, the industry trade magazine, recently declared "porno is going mainstream more than ever before".

The conference's tone will not be anti-pornography. In part, this is because anti-porn campaigners have declined to participate, but it may also be some indication of how the general mood is changing. A decade ago, the common view was that pornography was sexist, violent and represented the most serious threat to female emancipation. More recently, studies into the possible link between porn viewing and anti-social conduct have proved at the very least inconclusive. In 1990, the academics, Guy Cumberbatch and Denis Howitt, reported to the Conservative government on the state of research and observed that: "Inconsistencies emerge between very similar studies... many interpretations of these have reached almost opposite conclusions."

Among feminists, there is a profound lack of consensus. While high profile campaigners like Andrea Dworkin argue the latter, others, such as London-based Feminists Against Censorship, and the numerous women porn actresses and film makers - people like Julie Ashton, Nina Harley and Veronica Hart - beg to differ.

And then there are the growing ranks of women porn fans. The Nineties has seen the successful launch in the UK of women-oriented porn magazines, such as For Women and Desire. Last year, American video porn had a turnover of $4 billion, with a quarter of business generated by women consumers.

Meanwhile, here in the UK, explicit porn movies remain effectively illegal, regularly seized and destroyed by the police under the Obscene Publications Act. And then at the end of last year, the British Board of Film Classification gave certificates to a handful of graphic sex movies, such as Batbabe and The Pyramid, featuring, for the first time restrained scenes of hardcore sex.

It's this word "hardcore" which causes alarm. In reality, hardcore mostly means depictions of adults having sex. Once people realise this, they generally stop fuming. Not so Jack Straw, however. The BBFC's passing of Batbabe was criticised by the Home Office "in the strongest possible terms".

Earlier this year, Chris Smith banned Eurotica, a company selling access to a porn satellite TV service beamed from Denmark. In a recent interview on GMTV, when Tony Blair was quizzed about Labour favouring a "nanny state", he declared that he was "all for live and let live". But not when it's porn.

These levels of government restriction are out of step with virtually the rest of the Western world, and a fair portion of the British population. A recent British Social Attitudes Survey found the public less exercised than a decade ago over representations of "straightforward, mutually pleasurable sex, however explicit it might be".

Labour has yet to acknowledge this cultural shift. Meanwhile, the police, by their own admission, regularly face difficulties securing convictions because juries at obscenity trials often fail to find scenes of adults having sex obscene. The success of Boogie Nights, as well as TV's unflagging Eurotrash, suggests a viewership unfazed by the idea of porn, and who may even be into it. The extensive range of certificated adult softcore videos available in Virgin and HMV, and softcore cable TV channels and Internet sites, suggests that porn in the UK is slowly coming out of the shadows. Last November saw the inaugural Erotica trade fair at Kensington Olympia, selling erotic books, prints, videos, sex toys, even waterbeds. Highly successful, it was followed by a second fair at the larger main arena at Olympia last month.

Although there's no sign of a change in the law, Brits seem to be voting with their feet, remote controls and modems. In contrast to the disdain which greeted the recent launch of the Euro, porn is one thing for which a lot of us are more than happy to embrace continental ways.

Laurence O'Toole's book `Pornocopia: Porn, Sex, Technology and Desire', is published by Serpent's Tail, price pounds 13.99 hardback.

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