There are still taboos: almost everyone draws the line at porn involving children, or animals, or violence. But as soft porn has entered the mainstream, passionate feelings on the subject have begun to seem quaint and old-fashioned. Breasts, genitalia and shots of lovemaking are now a routine part of nightly television viewing. So what? Chill out, don't shrill out. We live in the age of the Shrug Factor.
It wasn't like this 40 years ago. Then porn was furtive - the privilege of discreet gentlemen, of lonely hearts in high-collared macs. Philip Larkin, that icon of the Fifties, writing to his chum Robert Conquest: "Minuit Cinq has some good rears in now and again, and I've taken out 12 months' sub." For consumers like Larkin, the furtiveness of porn seems to have been the point: the frisson was in knowing they were seeing material which most people weren't seeing and would consider shocking if they did.
In the Sixties, as Playboy and Penthouse secured a place on high street shelves, much of the old seediness was lost. Mostly, for all the would- be Hefner wholesomeness, these were still mags bought to wank to. But buying them didn't make you a wanker. Students bought them. Young doctors and lawyers bought them. Men who had girlfriends and sports cars bought them. It was healthy, even virile. It was OK, at least for blokes.
Then came the late Sixties, and feminism, and an onslaught of intellectual credibility - an onslaught not from the repressive Mary Whitehouse generation, but from young women deriding the trade in their own flesh. Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch was oddly silent on the subject (perhaps because Greer had posed naked for a flesh mag), but added weight to a widespread attack on porn's objectification and commodification of the female body. For most young men reaching maturity then, porn seemed dodgy, even alien. We were curious to see it, if shown, but felt honour-bound not to buy it or keep it around the house - that would have been an insult to our girlfriends. Besides, there wasn't the need. Soft porn was still mostly about seeing the naked body, especially breasts, and naked breasts were now more readily visible - on film, on beaches, even at rock concerts.
As the porn industry has grown and its products have hardened, so critics have toughened their attacks. Where the first-wave feminists called it exploitative and demeaning, their successors use stronger words: abusive, violent, a silencing of the female will, a male fantasy of murder and rape. In the US, the chief proponents of this view have been Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon. Both have fought their corner with passion. But even they have begun to seem dated. Indeed, it's been argued that in portraying women as victims and dupes, the MacDworkinites have betrayed feminism - which is about giving women equality and freedom of choice, including the choice to buy porn. Free to choose, so another US feminist, lawyer Nadine Strossen argues in her recent book Defending Pornography, women are buying porn in increasing numbers - statistics suggest up to 40 per cent of porn rental videos in the US are taken out by women. In Britain, publishers have tried to tap a similar market by bringing out soft porn novels aimed at women. What used to be an exclusively boysy preserve has opened up for girls, with an emphasis not on male power and female submission, but on sex between equal, consenting adults.
Overall, though, the evidence is that the porn market is now in decline - it's up against the shrug factor, and is losing. In truth, the excitements of nudity, or of seeing other people having sex, are limited. Even the harder porn available in, and importable from, other parts of Europe suffers this limitation. To watch a woman being penetrated both vaginally and anally at once can be diverting, and even educational in a how-do-they- do-that sort of way. But it won't get round the boredom problem. The woman is aroused, to judge by her moans. The men are excited, to judge by their erections. But the eyes have a glazed solemnity, the bodies a grungy perfunctoriness, as if this were a work-out not a sexual union, let alone an act of love. And if even the participants aren't enjoying themselves, how can the viewer not feel slightly bored?
Porn has its uses: like a pet dog, it can console the lonely; like oysters, it can sharpen a lover's appetite; like cocoa, it can get the restless off to sleep. It has its dangers, too: a blunting of sensibility. It has been a part of most cultures since time began, and over the next 10 years its hard core variants will begin to infiltrate our culture's late-night viewing habits. But in a world of fake-intimacy, it has lost the power to shock. Maybe that's the only shocking thing about porn now - that it doesn't seem to shock at all.
A BUSY LUNCHTIME in W H Smith, Sloane Square, and workers flow in to buy their papers and browse the magazines. Women flick through the glossy pages of Vogue, Elle and Marie Claire while young execs in sharp suits skim through What Car and Campaign. Nobody elevates their gaze to the shelves above where girls, open-mouthed and pouting, adorn the covers of Playboy, Escort, Penthouse and other more salacious titles. Perhaps they're embarrassed to look up - or simply indifferent.
But even if the punters aren't bothered, a group of newsagents certainly are. Last week there was a flurry of protest from a number of newsagents who refused to stock adult material. Despite requests to the wholesaling arm of WH Smith, they still got the standard pre-packed selection. And that included porn: anything from Asian Babe to Shaven Babes Electric Blue. Now though, WH Smith News have finally offered their customers the choice to say no.
It may be a minor victory for certain newsagents but it's hard to imagine this lunchtime crowd would notice or even care if top shelf diversions stayed or went. Take Paul, 27 and a teacher. He went to public school and in his adolescence often used to read magazines like Fiesta and Penthouse. "I did find those images extremely powerful then, I was young and anything to do with sex seemed like an adventure. But I haven't bought a copy for ages - it wouldn't cross my mind.'
Paul is completely unfazed by the sight of a topless model posing in Playboy. "Basically, I find the image anodyne," he says examining a soft- focus photograph of Kona, turning to the camera, smiling invitingly and showing her breasts. "It's really no different to what you'd see in the Sun. She's got a good body. I think I'd be a pretty weird bloke if I found the picture offensive." In the same photo-spread, Kona appears in full- frontal shots, none of which Paul objects to. "I can't say it's a turn- on, although 10 years ago I would probably have found the images quite exciting. Now I'm older it all looks less provocative and seems more acceptable." Does he feel the same way about the liberal breast quota in the mainstream male glossies? "I've definitely noticed more nudity in all the magazines. I can't pretend I dislike the pictures in Loaded and GQ or even Playboy. It's not titillation though - more an appreciation. But just because I enjoy them doesn't mean I'm going to look at all women in an overly sexual way. I like some of the images but they don't influence my attitudes."
David, 28, a marketing manager in London, also expresses a certain nonchalance. "Magazines like Playboy and Penthouse seem really old-fashioned, especially to men of my age. You can tell by the advertising it's all aimed at 50- year-olds who fancy themselves as wealthy, macho, connoisseur types. In this format none of it seems relevant. To be honest, the girls on Baywatch are more alluring." He feels his response is partly a privilege of his gender. "I can see why a woman would find pictures in Playboy and other magazines offensive," he says. "All the models are presented as passive bimbos with no personality."
But Paul disagrees and can't understand why either sex should disapprove. "It's not demeaning to the women taking part. If anything, the naked model is empowered. She's exploiting me as much as I'm exploiting her."
Male neutrality is perhaps more understandable than female indifference. Do younger women feel that issues surrounding porn are irrelevant and out of touch? Again, the shrug factor comes into play.
"The whole thing leaves me cold," says Julie, 27, a production assistant. "There are better things around to get outraged by. It would never enter my head to take a moral line: it's up to women how they want to make money."
Julie's last boyfriend used porn regularly which she didn't mind at all. "I'd only be upset if a partner used it secretively or got into really hard-core stuff. I'm not averse to any of it. I think it can be quite a tantalising sexual aid." What angers Lucy, a 29-year-old solicitor, is the idea that, as a woman, she should automatically identify with feminist issues surrounding porn. "Why should certain images provoke a reaction in me just because I'm a woman? If models pose in a certain way for the camera, it doesn't mean men will assume all women behave like that. It's a specious claim."
Ruth, a 30-year-old market researcher, actually seems unusual among her peers by virtue of her heartfelt disapproval. She is unhappy about her partner who continues to buy porn magazines. "All the pictures appeal in the same way. From Page Three to hard-core, the model's expressions seem to say, `You can have me. I'm yours.' It not real and it encourages men to treat women like slabs of meat."
Perhaps Julie and Lucy's responses are typical of the post-feminist tide of thought. Unlike the radical activists of the Seventies, this younger generation have enjoyed a less protective upbringing and are perhaps more at ease with their sexuality. They've seen the flaws in certain feminist arguments; they feel that an image of a woman showing her genitalia isn't necessarily oppressive.
It seems that staunch feminist outrage has now been replaced by a climate of
apathy. As John Jordan, founder of the Men and Porn campaign group, explains. "Younger people are less questioning of porn. They don't look at the images in terms of what they may signify. They're less critical on every level, from political issues through to gender rights," he says.
Corinne Sweet, counsellor and writer on pornographic issues, also believes there's been a generational shift in views. "The heat in feminism has gone out, largely because the ideas have become assimilated into the mainstream. Younger people are actually more sophisticated in respect to male and female roles."
It was only when I spoke to people of their parents' age that porn provoked a stronger reaction. Mary, 49 and a therapist, was far from indifferent. "There's a lot of talk about porn liberating men and women, but how can it be when no women own the publishing companies or control the industry? That's why it's exploitative - it's a man-manipulated market," she argues. `I'd be more convinced if women were making the real money - rather than the odd pounds 500 to pose for pictures."
Heather, a 44-year-old mother of three, also has concerns. "There is something off-putting about walking into a newsagent and seeing all those girls glowering down. And if I'm on a Tube I would feel offended if a man next to me was ogling a Page Three. Saying that, I think Playboy is quite harmless and I certainly wouldn't worry if I discovered my sons read it. I'd be more embarrassed than concerned," she admits. Her 46-year- old husband Hugh's response, is more of a return to form. "It's sad but I really don't feel strongly either way. I don't think any of the stuff in WH Smith is offensive. But then I haven't looked at it all - if I did perhaps I'd change my mind."
Corinne Sweet argues that many people, especially women, would be shocked if they actually examined the range of top shelf pornography. "Men know what's in these magazines. But women really aren't aware. It's still not part of their world." Nigel Williams, author of Laid Bare - A Path Through The Porn Maze, agrees: "A lot of people don't realise what pornography really is - they have an image of a glamour-type magazine. But once they see the nature of the material, they soon reform their opinion.'
But as the influence of lad culture proliferates, younger men and women may be less willing than usual to express critical opinion. In today's atmosphere it may be construed as prudish or - worse - politically correct. Much easier to take an ironic stance. As Sweet points out: "It's all very subterranean at the moment. But even if everyone is chilled out about it, I think on a very deep level pornography is a glue in human relationships. As long as men's sexuality is still being shaped by it, women have got a battle on their hands." Whether it's a battle that enough women feel passionate enough to fight is another question.