Pornography Part One: From saucy maids to, er, saucy maids, British readers are easily pleased, says Hester Lacey
"In olden days a glimpse of stocking / Was looked on as something shocking ... " and traditionalists will be glad to know that this is still the case - up to a point. The olden-day flapper who's managed to get her skirt most frightfully hitched up while bending over to peek under the bonnet of her car wouldn't sell today. Stockings alone no longer do the trick. They have to be combined with sleazy nylon garments with strategic holes in them, enormous vibrators (or suggestively-shaped vegetables, or ice lollies), explicit language, gynaecological photography and truly excruciating jokes and puns (the "humour" is almost the most painful part of wading through a few volumes of Hustler, Razzle, Fiesta, Knave, Escort and the rest).

Should you wish to indulge, what can you expect to find between the glossy covers? Playboy is one of the few top-shelf publications which includes more than spreads (quite literally) of naked women. Its advice page, for example, could prove jolly useful to the socially inept. As well as sex queries, it addresses burning problems like "What does VSOP mean on a cognac bottle label?" and "Should I lift weights before or after swimming or running?"

Most girlie mags, however, make little more than a token nod towards anything other than naked lovelies. The odd car review, tucked away in very small print on a page towards the back, is about it. The more down- market the title, the more likely it is to feature page upon page of "readers' letters" - supposedly true experiences, that typically take place somewhere like the pub or the supermarket or on the golf course. Such locales, where of course just anyone might easily happen to have a sizzling spur-of-the- moment encounter, are perennial favourites.

Shafts, poles, orbs, moons, globes, pegs (both tent and coat), tufts and clefts tend to play a huge part (snigger, snigger) in these meandering screeds. The unwary might imagine they had mistakenly bought Scaffolding Weekly or an astronomy or camping or gardening mag. There is also quivering, juddering, throbbing, shuddering and screaming on a near-seismic level. If half the stories were true, it would be impossible to nip out for a pint of milk or a jog in the park without falling over a compromised couple (plus the local cricket team / nurses' home / OAP bowls team queueing up to look on and / or join in).

The nation could learn a wholesome lesson from the stringent economies practised in some of the sleazier magazines. Forget Cindy Crawford and Pamela Anderson; Cindy from Chelmsford and Pamela from Purley are the ones gracing their pages, and readers are encouraged to help fill the pages by sending in explicit photos of their own partners. "What British users want is the girl next door," says David McGillivray, author of Doing Rude Things (Sun Tavern Fields pounds 9.95), a history of British soft porn films. "Women in porn mags are fantasy figures, but we don't like the Californian chocolate box images. Pamela Anderson is popular, but she's not a serious fantasy - she's not available. But Doreen from Dorking just might be. It's typically British to feature readers' wives - in no other country do you find anything like that."

In "speciality" publications, the same elderly "schoolgirls" appear, re-vamped as naughty maidservants and then again as naughty secretaries, all being spanked over and over again in the same issue. The men, not having to take all their clothes off, are easier to disguise: a toupe and a different shirt and hey presto! the naughty boss becomes a naughty teacher, and so on and so on.

Apparently, though, dismal standards are exactly what the British porn connoisseur is after. "British porn is the lowest of the low," says David McGillivray. "I'm fascinated by why people consume this low standard stuff when much higher standard material is available."

Do people actually wade through all that turgid prose? "Yes, and they don't mind how bad it is. That's what we're used to and that's how we like it. I don't know why - reviewers of my book pointed out that although it was a good factual history, it didn't explain why people liked what they do. And I concur. No one understands it."

Raunchy junketings that appear to have been muttered into a crackly dictaphone, then transcribed by someone whose first language is Serbo-Croat are a far cry, however, from porn's rather more elegant origins.

Michael Goss of Delectus is a dealer and publisher of "quality erotic literature". "Porn has been around for centuries," he says. "You could say that one of the earliest pornographers was the Earl of Rochester, during the Restoration - though one generation's pornography is another generation's literature. Look at Lady Chatterley's Lover, for example, which is now considered a literary classic. Porn was first published for profit around the turn of the 18th century - novels, stories and pamphlets. It was from around 1830 that most of the porn that is any good starts to appear. In those days it was a very gentlemanly pursuit - most people were illiterate, so it was written, published and distributed by the aristocracy. I think most gentlemen had a locked cabinet of beautiful leather-bound volumes," he says nostalgically. His dream find would be an intact personal library with an aristocratic crest stamped in each volume.

The invention of photography meant that elegant volumes illustrated with fine line drawings were abandoned in favour of saucy photos of ladies in their undies caught all unawares. "As soon as there is a new medium, pornography exploits it," explains Michael Goss. "It was similar with the moving film, and now with the Internet."

Porn came to the masses in the Fifties under the guise of "photography" magazines, "naturist" publications, and "informative" medical films. But it was in the Sixties, after the obscenity trials of Oz magazine and novels like Last Exit to Brooklyn and Lady Chatterley's Lover, that the trickle became a flood. Sadly, says Michael Goss, quantity didn't mean quality. "There are two levels of consumer. Those who prefer books tend to be well- spoken and well-educated. But top-shelf mags and videos appeal to the lowest common denominator." According to Nigel Wingrove, director of video distribution company Redemption, part of the problem may be that the British have never taken porn seriously enough. We went from surreptitious glimpses of naked bodies in National Geographic magazines and naturist films like Naked as Nature Intended to films like the seminal Confessions series, starring Robin Askwith as the naughty window-cleaner, etc etc. One of his projects is reissuing Sixties and Seventies "X" rated films. "They are part of English cinema history, but many of them are not erotic at all - they are stupid. For some reason, English erotica can't function unless it resembles a raunchy Carry-On film where it's terribly funny when knickers fall down. The Italians or the French would set it up to be sexy, not funny. That's why `continental films' used to be so much in demand - for ages you couldn't mention the words `Swedish' or `au-pair' without nudging and winking."

So if one generation's porn is the next generation's literary classic, what contemporary material will remain in the archives? Perhaps not very much. "Erotica used to be by people who could really write," says Michael Goss. "Most manuscripts we get sent today just aren't good enough. Because of the subject, people think they can get away with no style or content. In other genres," he adds sternly, "they wouldn't even expect to get away with it."

But it was in the Sixties, after the obscenity trials of Oz magazine and novels like Last Exit to Brooklyn and Lady Chatterley's Lover, that the trickle became a flood. Sadly, says Michael Goss, quantity didn't mean quality. "There are two levels of consumer. Those who prefer books tend to be well-spoken and well-educated. But top-shelf mags and videos appeal to the lowest common denominator." According to Nigel Wingrove, director of video distribution company Redemption, part of the problem may be that the British have never taken porn seriously enough. We went from surreptitious glimpses of naked bodies in National Geographic magazines and naturist films like Naked as Nature Intended to films like the seminal Confessions series, starring Robin Askwith as the naughty window-cleaner, etc etc. One of his projects is reissuing Sixties and Seventies "X" rated films. "They are part of English cinema history, but many of them are not erotic at all - they are stupid. For some reason, English erotica can't function unless it resembles a raunchy Carry-On film where it's terribly funny when knickers fall down. The Italians or the French would set it up to be sexy, not funny. That's why `continental films' used to be so much in demand - for ages you couldn't mention the words `Swedish' or `au-pair' without nudging and winking."

So if one generation's porn is the next generation's literary classic, what contemporary material will remain in the archives? Perhaps not very much. "Erotica used to be by people who could really write," says Michael Goss. "Most manuscripts we get sent today just aren't good enough. Because of the subject, people think they can get away with no style or content. In other genres,'' he adds sternly, "they wouldn't even get away with it.''

France: home of Europe's only school for aspiring porn film directors. French taste runs to sophisticated soft-focus entwinings in villas and explicit sex scenes on late-night television. The Cinema Latin, the most famous porn house on the Left Bank, closed in September 1994 after 55 years of filth. It was said to have owed its success to the fact that it was so close to the Senate. According to Left Bank legend, le Latin's most faithful customers were right-wing senators, incognito in Hermes silk cravats and Burberry raincoats, researching their next outburst about "the decline in the moral standards of the nation". Nowadays the senators can do their research by video-recording the late show on the TV station Canal Plus. Prime ministerial candidate Edouard Balladur shocked guests at a lunch he staged for women journalists during the last set of French elections. "I've never seen a pornographic film," he is reported to have told a guest. "Tell me, what are they like?"

Germany: generally free and easy in matters sexual, this does not mean they condone smut. Thanks to the federal prosecutor in Munich, CompuServe subscribers worldwide no longer have access to 200 dubious Internet newsgroups. The Germans told CompuServe it would be prosecuted if it did not stop allowing citizens to indulge their unnatural tastes. Because CompuServe is an international network, it had no option but to pull the 200 offending newsgroups from its world subscription base of 4 million users. Usually, though, German society prides itself on its "natural" and generally unhung- up attitude to sex. Naked, bouncy Frauleins being chased around by overweight Herrs suit the national taste. Their satellite television channels are remarkably explicit. Even back in the Sixties, the Germans were ahead of their time: Pamela Green, the prolific soft porn star who in 1964 was a witness in an indecency trial, recalled that she usually had to shave before a nude scene. "It was considered indecent to have pubic hair," she said, "unless the film was for Germany. Then it was considered indecent if you didn't have it." Erich Honecker, noticing his authoritarian regime was not entirely popular with its subjects by the mid-Eighties, decided to win back the working classes by spending precious currency reserves on importing Petites Folies, a French porn series full of buxom chambermaids and well-hung plumbers. When his possessions were gone through after his death, it was discovered that he had kept the whole set for private viewings (plus other offerings not considered suitable for the working classes).

Italy: porn seems to be a step on the way to a parliamentary career. Ilona Staller (aka La Cicciolina, or the Little Dumpling) served four years as a Radical Party representative in the Italian parliament after a highly successful career baring all on film. Veronica Berlusconi, wife of Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister, took a similar route to political significance. The First Lady's past soft-porn film career was aired in its entirety on Italian television, including The Magnificent Cuckold in which she appears topless and Twilight where she stars as a wife who discovers she is a lesbian. Italian viewers like telly shows with chorus lines of sequin-enhanced bare-breasted girls, or "quiz shows" where the women take their clothes off.

Japan: according to a survey carried out by a Japanese magazine, Japan is the top global consumer of pornography. Even general interest magazines carry photos of naked women, often tied up in bondage, and most of the tabloid papers carry hard-core sado-masochistic serials. Manga comics show cartoon women in sexually humiliating roles. Hard to believe that porn regulations are strict, most of them stemming from the anti-obscenity laws introduced since 1868 in an attempt to appear "civilised" in Western eyes. Pubic hair is taboo, and the government employs scores of housewives and students to ink out the relevant bits in imported copies of Playboy and Penthouse. World-famous paintings have been impounded at Narita airport and sent back to their country of origin because they dared show the unshowable. Madonna's clingfilm-wrapped book, Sex, was kept in Customs for weeks while officials deliberated over which pictures the public should be allowed to see. Sexual harassment of female colleagues leads to the sack, so in establishments called "sekuhara", men pay to touch up women dressed as office workers. College girls and housewives can make pin-money waitressing in "no-panty coffee shops" (floors are mirrored). One of Japan's leading female porn stars, Anri Inoue, has started a political party that campaigns for rights for women in the Japanese sex industry; she was "ready for a career change" after starring in porn videos.

Netherlands: licensed brothels and hard-core porn are readily available. The most exclusive brothel in Maastricht even has a helipad for rich international visitors to buzz in and out. But oddly enough, even in this most liberal of countries, the open display of pornographic material has never been legal. This has always been tacitly ignored by vendors and police alike, but Amsterdam's right-wing Mayor, Schelto Patijn, has decided to enforce the law. As of last month the police will seize all offending "materials" and transgressors will be fined up to pounds 1,000 or face two months in jail - much to the fury of Amsterdam's sex-aid pedlars.

Russia: formerly a non-starter, but since the break-up of the Soviet Union the Russians have been making up for lost time. The porn industry is booming. Magazine stores offer photocopies of Western porn, entrepreneurs have started a brothel and pornographic publishing house in Count Leo "War and Peace" Tolstoy's former estate, and Russian-language Playboy is advertised on television. Russia's first Playboy centre-fold, Anne- Marie Goddard, was Playmate of the Year in 1994. Dating agencies flourish and one doctor left medicine to make his fortune in soft porn, founding the Institute of Erotic Training. Russian has no words of its own for "prostitute", "erotic", "orgasm" or "sex" (or, more likely, it did have those words, but 70 years under a Communist regime that regarded such concepts as unthinkable drove them from common usage). They don't let this hold them back however; they have adopted the English words.

United States: much porn in America is protected by the First Amendment, which ensures freedom of speech, much to the rage of anti-porn campaigners such as the feminist Catherine MacKinnon. Attitudes to it are contradictory: the lonely or perverted can dial up porn telephone lines to talk dirty or switch to a 24-hour "blue" cable television channel in New York, but Newsweek magazine once blurred out the breasts of a topless Heidi Fleiss, and even NYPD Blue was banned in several states as pornographic when it was first broadcast. There is a basic tolerance for the sex industry provided that private individuals foot the bill, but considerably less patience when the taxpayer is contributing. Citizens were alarmed when a huge stash of pornographic pictures was secretly stored by a lab employee on the computer system at one of America's three nuclear weapons laboratories - the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, which undertakes nuclear weapons design, biotechnology and energy research, and nuclear and non-nuclear defence research. Spokesmen for the lab assured the public that there were "no national security issues at stake".

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