Style: Another taboo bites the dust

Overnight, masturbation has gone from great unmentionable to advertising sensation. Is nothing sacred? By James Sherwood

Everyone knows that sex sells. The heterosexual variety has been used since time immemorial and more recently S&M and gay lifestyles have been plundered by advertisers. Masturbation, however, has remained a coyly hidden taboo; barely talked about, let alone shown in mainstream advertising.

This may explain why Jigsaw Menswear's billboard ad literally stops where it is displayed traffic. The image, shot by Terry Richardson, is of a Jigsaw-suited male torso in profile. A hand is held at crotch level giving, shall we say, the Universal Sign. As man's most solitary pursuit, masturbation is a very private lad thing (girls never do it, of course). Now, it seems, it is being invited to play its part in popular culture, high fashion and contemporary art.

On the Richter scale of contemporary cultural references, DIY sex has always hovered around the crotch level of Loaded magazine and Men Behaving Badly. Both the men's magazine and the TV comedy were responsible for unzipping the self-celebratory "boys will be boys" culture that has come to be called laddism and the standards they have set have had an effect: research published by the Broadcasting Standards Commission (BSC) this week reports a drop from 39 per cent to 24 per cent in the number of people offended by sex on TV. Yet, according to the chairman of the BSC Lady Howe, "The message for broadcasters is that while attitudes may have relaxed, there is no universal climate of tolerance". And Men Behaving Badly, no doubt aided by the Christmas episode which starred Gary, a clutch of porn videos and family-size box of Kleenex, was highlighted by the Daily Mail as "a prime target" for criticism.

However, in the real world, where Monica's little blue dress and Cameron Diaz's "assisted" hairdo in There's Something About Mary have titillated the public over the last year, masturbation isn't such a big deal any more. While men can enjoy the joke from their side of the fence, women also seem less offended by the odd masturbation gag than they are by the likes of Claudia Schiffer gratuitously stripping to sell Citroens. It is perhaps female complicity that has allowed this rush of masturbation references to appear - while on one level we are obviously, once again, pushing back sexual boundaries, we are also starting to poke fun at lad culture. And women want to join in on that joke.

Chris Bailey, design director of Jigsaw certainly wanted his campaign to focus on perceptions of laddism. "I approached Terry Richardson with the idea of shooting the clothes in context of what guys actually do when they're larking about on a night out: dancing about and having a laugh," he says. But he admits they weren't setting out to look at masturbation specifically. "Terry being Terry, the shots were extreme. He brings daring into anything he does. That hand shot meant many things to many people. It was provocative but it wasn't totally literal. That hand signal was one of a series we used in the campaign. It was a mischievous way of getting people's attention and making them look twice."

It worked. Compared to Juergen Teller's parallel autumn/winter Jigsaw Menswear campaign, which uses naked androgynous Japanese boys, the Terry Richardson shoot is overtly laddish which in itself marks a stark change from the usual fare of men as gay pin-ups or wholesome heteros. Two years, ago Richardson photographed a lad with one hand teasingly shoved down his crotch, though clearly not masturbating, for a Hamnett ad campaign. The Jigsaw campaign is far more explicit.

Its Jack-the-Ladness is played up in its reference to the cheeky truism that big hands mean there's something big going on somewhere not so far away, which Richardson has taken quite literally. "Terry shot the models at an angle which made the hands look larger. Their hands were greased and oily which gave the images a certain sleaziness," says Bailey. "Again, it made people ask questions and that's the whole point. We'll certainly be using the concept of hand signals in future ads. They are international symbols and make strong images. That's what it's all about."

The application of artistic irony to the concept of laddism is not limited to to masturbation. The crass heterosexuality that epitomised those is being played about with in other ways. Symbols from the Loaded lexicon of masculinity are a centrepiece of art mogul Charles Saatchi's "New Neurotic Realism" exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in North London. Photographer Paul Smith chronicles the lad pack mentality in his Make My Night series, drawing on his five years in the army to illustrate a drunken squaddie pilgrim's progress during a night on the beer. In one image the lads form a tableau around a cucumber phallic symbol.

"I think men identify with Make My Night," says Smith. "It's a lot to do with the way we lose our identity in a crowd - how we are pressurised into behaving that way. I was interested in the sexual dynamic in the images. There's a constant reference to sex and I'm intrigued by that side of masculine culture. Two lads fuelled by cheap beer and vodka can snog each other and jerk around with a cucumber without there being anything homoerotic about it."

When reproduced in the British Journal of Photography, the cucumber shot led one reader to threaten to send it to the obscene publications department. "I'd imagine most people have either participated in or witnessed a gang of lads out for the night," says Smith. "By presenting these snapshot images in a gallery, I'm asking questions. I'm asking why men behave that way. I'm also asking the viewer to grapple with modern masculinity. Interestingly, women have said they could either empathise with or recognise what I'm saying in my work."

Both contemporary art and fashion are the fastest litmus test of our culture. High fashion is fascinated by the lad's love affair with his nether regions. Helmut Lang used one of Robert Mapplethorpe's most confrontational images as this season's menswear ad campaign: again, a suited torso in profile, but this time with the private parts hanging from an open zip. Sisley's "Living Dallas" campaign in L'Uomo Vogue showed a crotch shot of a suited wideboy, his signet ringed-hand cradling his member on one page and a headshot of the same guy grinning inanely on the facing page. As Chris Bailey sees nothing wrong with all of this. "There are lots of warped people out there who might take offence and we have had problems with the advertising standards people previously. They need to lighten up."

Even a product as innocuous as Nicorette has tiptoed around masturbation as an acceptable reference, which shows just how mainstream it's become. The current TV ads show a submariner sporting a nicotine patch as he writes in his diary, "Helps overcome urges". Said sailor glances up at a scantily clad pin-up and adds, "almost" to his entry.

Ultimately, the mid-Nineties explosion of laddism, and its ironic aftermath, has broadened the repertoire of imagery exploited by fashion, art and advertising. "In its infancy, laddism was handled full-on and a nerve ending of truth gave it momentum," says Robert Bean, chairman of advertising agency Banc. "Initially Men Behaving Badly, Loaded and FHM celebrated the whole concept of men fighting back. That nerve of truth meant it didn't go away. So in commercial terms, laddism has become institutionalised. It still has the sexiness, naughtiness and excitement. But now it's safe. It's a hot topic, but not too hot for advertisers to handle."

It is in the nature of the beasts that fashion, contemporary art and advertising will instinctively know when its moment has past. But the lexicon of laddism has, at best, broadened our minds and removed another taboo from the ever decreasing stock.

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