Sex: Up close with the vice squad

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The Independent Culture
Panorama BBC1

Sex and Shopping C5 Eurotrash C4 Hooked C4

Hooked, a tour of addiction in 20th-century Britain, this week got round to sex. It's a waste of ink to point out that the most conspicuous sex addict in Britain is television itself. But I will anyway, because this week, television has been feeding its own ravenous appetite even more than usual. While Sex and Shopping got on with its long lingering look at the porn industry, Panorama exposed the mess that is the Obscene Publications Act. Eurotrash had a quiet week in the company of a German photographer who has snapped the breasts of half the women in the town where he lives. Hooked gave you sex, the oral history. Later this month, ITV takes up the reins in Vice: the Sex Trade. And I haven't even mentioned drama.

For all their variety, these programmes were drinking from the same well: Britain's troubled relationship with sex. The whole joke of Eurotrash hinges on the fact that the laws on pornography are far stricter in the United Kingdom than elsewhere in Europe. We can all recite the list of abstract nouns which form the tricolour of Anglo-Saxon sexuality: pruderie, hypocrisie, lascivite. The icon of France's sexual revolution was Brigitte Bardot. Ours was Barbara Windsor, an innuendo made flesh, who was celebrated in Best of British.

Into this murky landscape comes Sex and Shopping, a series that bears all the hallmarks of Channel 5, being both desperate to lasso your attention and strung out to twice the length it would be anywhere else. In the duration of the series there's a kind of masculine boastfulness - 13 episodes is television's equivalent of 13 inches. You do wonder whether there's that much to say about porn, which, give or take the odd minor tweak in predilection, isn't big on variety. There may be more hardcore sex shops in America than branches of McDonald's, but you wouldn't make even a six- part series about cheeseburgers.

However, Sex and Shopping will be teasing it out. Last week's opener was basically a promo for Vivid videos, the most successful wholesalers of porn in the US. This week brought a profile of John T Bone, a British maker of Hollywood skin flicks and an expat whose exemplary moderation we can all be proud of. "I own the keys to the candy store," he said. "But I only eat the candy that I really like." From the look of him, he probably has to leave room for the pies.

Dropped into these individual episodes are running interviews with people who have (a) views on pornography and (b) an inability to spot a stitch- up from six feet away. It looks decidedly as if some of them - Laurence O'Toole, or the Labour MEP Carol Tongue - have been chosen for names which hardly seem to differ from those of porn stars themselves. Legend has it that porn stars devise names by using their mother's maiden name and the name of their first pet. But John T Bone's stable includes a stud called Dave Hardman. And the female porn stars seem to be named after blameless metropolises. Step this way, Chichester and Salt Lake City.

(I may as well mention here the assistant chief constable of the West Midlands police force featured in Panorama: one Anne Summers.)

It's indicative of Sex and Shopping's mission to subvert that not only are the interviews diced up into tiny soundbites, but also that flashes of graphic activity are sandwiched between them. A typical half-minute sequence may run thus: David Starkey - fellatio - editor of Index on Censorship - masturbation - Teddy Taylor MP. As Lou Reed nearly sang, you got talking head even when they were given head. How many of the impressive cast-list would have agreed to participate if forewarned that a 14-year- old would have the key to the cutting room?

Sex and Shopping is thus the most flagrant case yet of television having its cake and cramming it greedily down its own gullet. There are times when it simply looks like a job-creation scheme for those people who impose blurred computer squares over explicit images. But when it wants to, it has surprisingly sound points to make. It just makes them rather briskly. Panorama needed 40 minutes to explain that police, government, customs and juries all have different interpretations of the Obscene Publications Act, which bans "material likely to corrupt or deprave", whatever that means. Sex and Shopping made the same point in about 90 seconds. And then got back to the computer squares.

We can acquit Panorama on the cake-eating charge. The most it chose to show were shots of reporter John Ware squinting at illegal pornography or, via a hidden camera, of him purchasing it. Ware's argument was that until the OPA is clearly defined and unanimously enforced, images of sex between consenting adults will be confused with what, posing as a customer in a sex shop, he called "something a bit more adventurous". James Ferman, who until last year was head of the British Board of Film Classification, suggested that we should "legalise consenting stuff and concentrate the forces of law on the more disturbing stuff". Jack Straw, who declined to be interviewed, described this approach in a letter as "circular and risible". Ware seemed to think that this was itself risible coming from a graduate cum laude of Sixties radicalism. They can argue as long as they like. It won't stop the internet sneaking in and making pornography unpoliceable.

The problem for the OPA is that there is no actual evidence which links corruption and depravity with viewing sexual images. We could have done with some statistics comparing sexual violence in the UK and, say, freewheeling Holland. Nor do these programmes solve the other age-old question: is pornography a man's world which degrades women? As ever, it depends on whom you ask. Ware interviewed a woman who during a video shoot had been spanked so hard she fainted. Over in LA, John T Bone explained that he prefers "to work with women who like to be spanked and have their hair pulled". Both sound pretty degrading to me, but in one instance the spanking is consensual, the other not. One of the T Bone stable said: "I love it that all these men think that I'm very important. They want to see me. That makes me feel good." She may make dirty videos, but at least T-bone keeps her brain washed clean.

There is only one consensus in this area - that you can't squeeze the toothpaste back into the tube. Hooked told of an age in which sex addicts found gratification harder to come by than the series' other junkies, the smoking and drinking crowd. A sex addict has never had it so good, when he can score a cyberblowjob on the world wide web. The Vivid president talked about making his stable of porn stars "super-marketable". It may not be long now before they are supermarketable.