Porn in the UK

In the next few weeks Britain's high streets will become home to a string of licensed sex shops. So, when did pornography turn mainstream, asks <i><b>John Walsh</b></i>
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The Independent Online

There's no getting away from it, is there? I open the morning e-mails and discover, to my surprise, a young woman in Heidi pigtails, lying on a divan with her legs spread apart like a spatchcocked chicken, being penetrated by a burly cove in a green T-shirt, above the legend "Live Sex Cum Watch".

There's no getting away from it, is there? I open the morning e-mails and discover, to my surprise, a young woman in Heidi pigtails, lying on a divan with her legs spread apart like a spatchcocked chicken, being penetrated by a burly cove in a green T-shirt, above the legend "Live Sex Cum Watch".

My eight-year-old daughter has stayed up daringly late to watch Big Brother with her siblings and her dad on the sofa. We look on incuriously as Michelle whispers to Stuart that she is dying for it, and starts to fashion a secret boudoir d'amour under a table. It suddenly dawns on me that, in two minutes, my child and I will be watching real people having real sex on the screen in front of us. I shoo her off to bed.

While horsing around with his girlfriend, a pal decided it would be a laugh to photograph themselves in flagrante delicto on his Nokia mobile. Foolishly, he stored the picture in his phone's "gallery" archive. A week later, he went to lunch leaving the mobile on his desk and returned to find the offending picture had been transferred to his computer as a "screensaver".

Visitors to Selfridges, the Oxford Street department store, are used to the blacked-off section of the Agent Provocateur department, where passers-by can peep in at saucy merchandise, as though visiting a Soho strip-joint. But they're still surprised to discover a selection of large dildos on display. Walking in London's Seven Dials, you spot a stylish corset in the window of Coco de Mer. Thinking it would make a charming present for your sister, you enter the premises. At the counter, you discover you can also buy a diamanté whip (£165), a leather blindfold (£98) and a 12-inch school ruler, emblazoned with the words "Teach me a lesson", for a fiver.

Sent on an assignment to the Erotica 2003 exhibition at Olympia - a trade fair for manufacturers of whips, rubber garments and torture furniture and buyers from specialist shops - I discover 67,000 people milling about, mostly general-public passing trade. A husband-and-wife team explain to me the function of the nine-inch aluminium urethra stimulator.

A young friend has her parents over for the weekend. On Saturday night, they stay in with a take-away, a bottle of Shiraz and a movie. Last year's thriller In the Cut is chosen because her mother is a Meg Ryan fan. My friend is mortified, and her parents reduced to jaw-dropped catalepsy, by the blow-job scene, with close-up footage clearly borrowed from a hardcore movie.

A cheap savoury snack is sold as an onanistic perversion in a television commercial, during which a mariachi band tells a bland English tourist her boyfriend is bored with her, that he "want it filthy and dirty and more rude" and cannot resist the "seedy suggest" of pot noodles, which he swallows crying "Oh yes! Oh Yes!"...

You have to ask: are we getting blasé about seeing, or hearing about, other people having sex? Are the images and fetishes of the erotic hinterland, the uniforms and accessories, the flesh inspections and money shots, becoming subsumed into our everyday lives? Is pornography entering the mainstream of British culture? To which the answer is: Don't be ridiculous. Of course it is.

But we don't call it pornography any more. It's become sex-lifestyle. From the images that claim our attention in the street - like the advertisements for Trojan condoms featuring women on the point of orgasm - to the choice of things we can buy, explicit sexual expression has become naturalised. We're encouraged to see sex as part of our everyday public identity, like one's clothing, one's drawing-room furnishings, one's fitness and hygiene regime. Sex is no more regarded as a matter of privacy, secrecy and embarrassment, than porn is a matter of plain brown envelopes, criminality and guilt. We're in a new place now, where private desire and public expression meet.

"Pornography is mainstream culture now, the way drugs are," Irvine Welsh wrote last month. "It's almost like punk, pornography, people just do their own stuff. Gonzo-porn - people get together after closing time, go back to somebody's house, shag each other, video it and stick it on the internet. I cannae get into watching other people shag. Too cold and empty. And I don't want to see my fucking spotty white arse going up and down on the internet."

All credit to Mr Welsh for his fastidiousness, but he's an unusual case. If there's one sign that this generation is at ease with the concept of porn, it's in the self-objectification of the "intimate video". In olden times, men and women might watch themselves having sex in a strategically placed mirror. Later, men might take saucy Polaroids of their girlfriends in mid-fellatio, Duchess of Argyll-style. Now, couples with a camcorder sooner or later think it would be a wheeze to film themselves having sex, and run the tape through a television so they can watch themselves on screen simultaneously (a decision regretted ever since by Pamela Anderson, Paris Hilton, Ulrika Jonsson John Leslie, Jennifer Lopez and a multitude of other contrite exhibitionists).

What is going on here? A generation of sophisticated lovers has begun turning themselves, and their partners, into wannabe porn stars and porn viewers at the same time, admiring the on-screen action, the length, the energy, the duration of time, the inventiveness of the mise-en-scène, the arrangement of limbs... We have become familiar with viewing ourselves as objectively sexual beings. Is this why we're no longer shocked by the paraphernalia of sexual deviation? Or can we trace it further back in time?

Ten years ago, Madonna's book Sex tried to shock the bourgeois by taking a trip through the demi-monde of group sex, lesbianism, S&M fantasy and the rest; but the author kept her knickers on throughout, and her journey into the pit of dark desires was derided as a work of sexual tourism - porn as holiday snaps. The film Boogie Nights made the porn industry seem rather harmless and sweet and familial, while the films Intimacy, Baise-Moi and 9 Songs - all involving real, live-action sex by the actors - have removed the barrier that used to separate art-house screen trickery from verité porn fucking.

The word "pornography" has, along the way, lost some of its harshness, its ugly, transgressive connotations. Salman Rushdie is about to publish an essay, "The East is Blue", in a book of photographs by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders called XXX: 30 Porn-Star Portraits. In it he argues that porn can be seen as an emblem of liberty, no less, that a free and civilised (ie non-fundamentalist) society should be judged by its willingness to accept once-taboo images of sexual connection. "Pornography exists everywhere of course," he writes, "but when it comes into societies in which it's difficult for young men and women to get together and do what young men and women like doing, it satisfies a more general need. While doing so, it sometimes becomes a kind of standard-bearer for freedom, even civilisation".

The book (which includes contributions by Gore Vidal, Lou Reed and John Malkovich) was inspired by the death of Linda Lovelace, the 1972 Deep Throat star who became a campaigner against pornography. Deep Throat was, of course, the first porn movie to attract an audience of arty sophisticates who recommended it to their cool, unshockable friends in LA and New York, and who would have been horrified to have found themselves bracketed with men in dirty raincoats. Two years later, Emmanuelle became the first sex film for grown-ups, with its potent image of Sylvia Kristel's pearl-draped breasts above the catch-line: "At last - a film that won't make you feel bad about feeling good."

That anodyne phrase "feeling good" (it's a coy version of "being turned on") sums up the modern commodification of sex and, especially, orgasms. It's suddenly socially okay to buy "Being Turned On". Millions of dollars, pounds and euros are being spent - this year especially - on persuading consumers that it's okay to go shopping for things that will perk up your sack-life, fluff up your foreplay and make your eruptions more volcanic.

One initiative is Hustler Hollywood, run by Theresa Flynt-Gaerke, daughter of the notorious Larry Flynt, the founder of Hustler magazine whose life story became a successful movie, The People vs Larry Flynt. Hustler Hollywood is a chain of "erotic superstores" that started life on Sunset Boulevard. The first UK store turns up next month in the not-very-Ritzy environs of Birmingham; another will open in London next year. The shops will sell sex toys, abbreviated nightwear, things to stick inside your partner and things ditto yourself; but their approach is low-key and discreetly welcoming, as if they're a branch of Waterstones. Couples will be encouraged to shop together for cock-rings and vibrators, and to do it without laughing, fainting or blushing crimson while examining their purchases in the in-store coffee shop. The shop's come-on line is significantly anti-hysterical: "Relax - it's only sex."

Also appearing next month in the mainstream shopping circuit is Harmony, a store that's actually empowered by law to sell pornographic items. The Ann Summers sex emporium (only two doors away on Oxford Street) isn't legally allowed to sell the "more technical items" of hardcore hardware along with its peephole bras and aphrodisiac creams, but Harmony is allowed, which makes it the first properly licensed sex shop to appear on British high streets. Like the Hustler franchise, it's desperate to emphasise how normal it wants sex shopping to be: how comfortable people should be while inspecting a specially-angled sex chair (will the floor manager demonstrate it?) and comparing the tensile strength of handcuffs. "It's not about sex any more," said Harmony's Maud Rousseau: "It's about lifestyle".

The same can be said, amazingly, of The Raymond Revue Bar, London's first "legal nude cabaret" and the nation's quintessential strip joint since 1958. The choreography and costumes (and in some cases the ladies) changed so little over the years that the clientele (weary businessmen and their Japanese clients) stopped coming. Now the premises, in Brewer Street, Soho, is about to re-open (on 10 September) as Too 2 Much, a nightclub devoted to "polyamorous indulgence" featuring music, contemporary drama, a lewd cabaret, a harpist, a topless saxophonist and a predominantly gay clientele. "We've retained our full-nudity license," said Too 2's Gary Dahling, "and I should imagine we'll use it sometimes, but it'll be in the form of vignettes, not a full-on strip". It's not about sex any more, you see; it's about polyamorous indulgence.

Amid all these circumlocutions and evasions, it's nice to find someone who's unreconstructedly old-fashioned about sex: he knows, like Yeats, that "love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement". That's why the Hon. Jasper Duncombe is soon to start flogging porn movies in public lavatories. Duncombe, eldest son and heir of Lord Feversham (who owns Duncombe Park and a 13,000-acre Yorkshire estate, neither of which Jasper is very likely to inherit), is the owner of a porn magazine called Relish XXX, which distributes adult films to high-street stores "by the pallet-load", and also, charmingly, sells its publications to NHS sperm banks.

Duncombe is trying to install DVD vending machines in pub gents at £6 a throw; they're currently testing audience response in 15 hostelries. Pub toilets, of course, have carried condom-vending machines for years. If Jasper's initiative comes off, horny drinkers could be faced with a difficult choice at closing time. Do you spend three quid on condoms and go on the pull? Or six quid on a movie and go home? Do you opt for real or virtual sex?

Which brings us back to Salman Rushdie. In Muslim countries, where the sexes are segregated and there's no more chance of pulling a sex partner than of visiting a pub, porn is indeed an emblem of liberation, a subversive window on human engagement.

The rest of us, living in less repressive states, can see that it represents the lowest level of human engagement, because it emphasises the mechanical, athletic side of erotic attraction and downgrades, or makes redundant, the emotional, tender, quirkily personal territory of relationship that makes us most vulnerably human.

All the shopping choices in the Harmony and Hustler world, all the technical wizardry of penile splints and vaginal eggs, the chamois whips and ormolu shag-divans, will not advance by a millimetre our ability to love or understand or even enjoy each other. Sex should be about more than retail decisions. Our sexual nature is more complex and delicate than wallpaper or kitchen utensils. Orgasms are a different order of experience from a Radox bath or a low-fat yoghurt.

Yes, porn has become part of the weave of our lives, but we don't have to embrace it. We don't have to stroll around the sex shop, or beg to watch on television our neighbours' midnight rodeo. "Porno is littered with the deaths of feelings," wrote Martin Amis in Pornoland. "Porno can never be mainstream, partly because of the contrarian nature of the form. For porno to become mainstream, human beings would have to change". We don't need to.

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