Welcome to planet porn

Today, The Independent begins a major new series on pornography and popular culture. The first part looks at how our attitudes have changed over the years - and asks, can anything shock us now?

The very first dirty joke I recall hearing, and getting the point of, as an adolescent in the late Fifties, went as follows. A passenger returning from abroad, and going through customs at what would then have been called London Airport, is asked if he has any cigarettes, alcohol or nylon stockings to declare. The answer is no. The customs officer then enquires if he has any pornography. "Sorry," replies the traveller, "but I don't possess a pornograph."

The very first dirty joke I recall hearing, and getting the point of, as an adolescent in the late Fifties, went as follows. A passenger returning from abroad, and going through customs at what would then have been called London Airport, is asked if he has any cigarettes, alcohol or nylon stockings to declare. The answer is no. The customs officer then enquires if he has any pornography. "Sorry," replies the traveller, "but I don't possess a pornograph."

Yes, all right, you had to be there. Or, rather, you had to be then. Attempts at analysing jokes are usually futile, and frequently funnier than the jokes themselves. In this particular instance, though, the humour is obviously predicated on the notion that, 30 odd years ago, few of us really knew what pornography was - or, to be more precise, how you went about consuming it. Even back then, to be sure, there was an element of exaggeration in the joke, but the punchline must have had an authentic ring to it, since otherwise it would have fallen utterly flat.

Nowadays such a joke, if understood at all, would be regarded as intolerably lame. For, almost without our noticing it, a seismic social upheaval has occurred in this country, particularly in the last decade. Pornography - or what used to be defined as pornography - is ubiquitous.

Come now, you're thinking, let's keep matters in perspective. That pornography is more widespread than used to be the case, granted. That the cinema has extended the boundaries of what can and cannot be shown, agreed. That the first thing everyone does, once connected up to the cyberspatial Tower of Babel of the Internet, is browse its literally thousands of porn sites, no question. But, with the word "ubiquity", you seem to be proposing that pornography has begun to seep into every vacant pocket of our quotidian existence - and there, sir, you go too far.

Do I, though? I'm not referring to the British censors' recent decision to pass for release, with an 18 certificate but without a bowdlerising snip of their normally busy little scissors, Catherine Breillat's Romance, a film whose on-screen sexual candour runs the gamut from masturbation (both male and female) to penetration, from penetration to ejaculation, from the playful manipulation of an erect (sheathed) penis to some rather less playful exercises in sadomasochistic bondage. In a mere five years or so, Romance will doubtless already seem comically tame and old hat - and, if you don't believe me, try to cite a single once-controversial title from the cinema's past that now does not - but, for the moment, even in its more liberal country of origin, Romance remains an extreme case.

No, I mean the fact that (from an inventory that makes no claim to exhaustivity) a prime-time TV soap, Queer as Folk, can show an underage boy being sodomised by an older man and provoke so little media indignation that its producers were probably a teensy bit disappointed. (But then, it's become a truism that the more the tabloid headlines scream "Fury At...!" and "Shock Of...!", the less fury and shock appear to be generated.)

That pricey photographic albums by Robert Mapplethorpe and Helmut Newton - of, respectively, tattooed hunks with their genitalia wreathed in chains and naked women treated unambiguously and unashamedly as sex objects - can be bought in any good bookshop, as they say. That these same bookshops now display increasing numbers of lavishly illustrated histories of male nudes, Japanese whorehouses and other subjects of that kinky ilk. That conceptual artists have acquired a taste for bottling their own urine, wrapping up their own excrement and writing their signatures in their own snot. (I made that last bit up, but it can't be long now - if it hasn't already happened.)

That some of the biggest current successes in Britain's multiplexes have been in the category not of hard-core porn but of what might be termed hard-pore corn: There's Something About Mary, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut and, any day now, American Pie, which you'll have to see for yourself if you want to know the implication of that deceptively innocuous title.

There are two extraordinary paradoxes related to this convulsive shift in British socio-sexual attitudes.

The first is that it has occurred at all, in a country that continues to be saddled with the most repressive censorship laws in the Western world. In a sense, it has all taken place behind the back of these laws which, even before the advent of the regulation-defying Internet, had ceased to be very effective.

What is repressed will always, somehow, contrive to return. As the philosopher Michel Foucault proposed in his history of sexuality, it is repression, not uncontrolled license, that is calculated to reveal to a society its collective erotic potential; or, to put it crudely, when the enjoyment of sex is transgressive, then that enjoyment will only be intensified. Foucault was thinking of Catholic Europe, but his insight is even more relevant to a nation such as Britain, which, just a couple of decades ago, still clung timorously to Queen Victoria's voluminous skirts.

The second is the gradual evacuation from the argument of the great, immemorial division - pornography or art? It's not, as once was true, that there's a grey area between the two; rather, the entire area has turned grey. The aesthetic justification can be, and has been, used to defend Romance (even if, in truth, the film is indefensible tripe), but not even its greatest fan would dare to make a similar case for Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Yet it no longer matters. These debates, once so passionate, have receded into our cultural history. Even the fuss and to-do that, no more than three or four years ago, surrounded the release of David Cronenberg's Crash and Adrian Lyne's Lolita seem now to belong to that dim, unknowable past when Lady Chatterley's Lover was prosecuted for obscenity, and Nabokov's Lolita had to be published surreptitiously in Paris.

Nor is it only a question of culture versus pornography, or of art versus trash. Look no further than this very newspaper in which you are reading my article. Nowadays, with fewer and fewer exceptions, print journalists are free, should the context require it, to bandy about all those four- letter words that were once, and not so long ago, the exclusive preserve of speech. In some cases, it's true, they're still gingerly handled with the oven gloves of inverted commas - if, for example, it's an interviewee who has used them - in other cases (the laddish magazines, even Time Out) not necessarily. I repeat, all four-letter words, not excluding the last to resist common usage, "cunt", which has started to appear on the pages of "family" newspapers divested of the asterisks - "c***" - that it always used to have to don, like the star-shaped falsies worn by demurely old-fashioned strippers.

Depending on your tolerance of untrammelled linguistic freedom, this may be either a good or a bad thing - language exercising its immemorial vocation of honestly reflecting the textures and trappings of the environment from which it has sprung, or the end of civilisation as we know it.

In either case, what has been insufficiently remarked upon is the degree to which it represents a radical switch of priorities in the relationship between the written and the spoken idiom. For the first time in the history of that relationship, the public idiom has overtaken the private where licence of usage is concerned. Thus individuals who would never dream of using the word "cunt" in their private verbal exchanges now risk finding themselves confronted with it on the printed newspaper page.

If I've dwelt at such length on the liberalisation and legitimisation of four-letter words, it's because, in the arts, they have historically functioned as an Open Sesame to ever more candidly graphic depictions of the sexual acts that they were originally coined to define. It's practically an axiom that, where the word "fuck" goes, the act cannot be far behind. Certainly, in the cinema, the arena of sexual liberty and repression about which we are most familiar, rules governing what can be said have always set precedents for what can be seen.

If, as is patently true of contemporary Britain, the words are everywhere - in newspapers, in films, in novels, on television (and not invariably after the famous nine o'clock watershed) - then it would be strange if the acts themselves had not become increasingly visible, and their representation increasingly graphic. Hence, just as the public discourse is becoming, for many of us, raunchier than the private, so, in a complete reversal of former practice, what we can currently watch on a screen - be it in a cinema, on a computer, on video or TV - goes very much further than anything we ourselves are likely to get up to in our own lives.

We've come a long, long way since the Fifties, when Otto Preminger's film The Moon is Blue was condemned by the American Catholic League of Decency because of a line of dialogue which had the nerve to include the apparently incendiary phrase "a professionalvirgin"; when the vast majority of ordinary people traversed their lives without ever having access to a single image of simulated or unsimulated sex; when any manifestation of outright nudity on a cinema screen was unheard-of; and when, for an adolescent like myself, the only, forlorn hope of a glimpse of it elsewhere would have been in the glossy pages of National Geographic magazine or in some exotic television documentary.

Even the relaxation of censorship during the Sixties drew the line at anything "smuttier" than tasteful full-frontal nudity, beyond which it seemed the arts, and the cinema in particular, were destined never to venture. For a number of years, in fact, the basic, crude difference between art and pornography was that, in art, nudity was an end, a closure, rather than a beginning, whereas, in pornography, it was a beginning rather than an end. Now there is, in principle, no difference at all.

So where do we go from here? If attitudes continue to change as inexorably as they have done in the past, if usage, whether verbal or visual, continues to evolve exponentially faster than all concerted endeavours to regulate it, who knows what we'll be reading and watching in 20 years time?

All one can say is that, if we were permitted a premonitory glimpse of it today, it would probably make our hair stand on end. Personally, I refuse to get too fussed. Instead, as in every such case, I remind myself of the Repeal of the Corn Laws. So much agitation, so much aggravation - yet who today even remembers what it was all about?

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
From Mean Girls to Mamet: Lindsay Lohan
theatre
Sport
Nathaniel Clyne (No 2) drives home his side's second goal past Arsenal’s David Ospina at the Emirates
footballArsenal 1 Southampton 2: Arsène Wenger pays the price for picking reserve side in Capital One Cup
News
Mike Tyson has led an appalling and sad life, but are we not a country that gives second chances?
peopleFormer boxer 'watched over' crash victim until ambulance arrived
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
tv
News
i100
Travel
travelGallery And yes, it is indoors
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
The Tiger Who Came To Tea
booksJudith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Account Executive/Sales Consultant – Permanent – Hertfordshire - £16-£20k

£16500 - £20000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Senior Management Accountant

£40000 - £46000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: Global publishing and digital bu...

Semi Senior Accountant - Music

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful, Central London bas...

Day In a Page

Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

BBC Television Centre

A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

My George!

Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world