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?

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