I can't quite make my peace with pornography

Sophisticated though I think myself, I have decided that I do not understand the sexuality of other people

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"Velma" wrote to me yesterday, in her neat hand, to tell me that I was a pornographer. "You're the one for sex and anything to do with it," she told me, writing as I do for "porn magazines of filth unlimited in its absolute degradation". OK. (a) I have decided Velma is Irish. (b) Velma is not her real name. And (c) I think she is talking about
The Independent, though I did once contribute something about my fantasy desert island to an early edition of
The Erotic Review.

"Velma" wrote to me yesterday, in her neat hand, to tell me that I was a pornographer. "You're the one for sex and anything to do with it," she told me, writing as I do for "porn magazines of filth unlimited in its absolute degradation". OK. (a) I have decided Velma is Irish. (b) Velma is not her real name. And (c) I think she is talking about The Independent, though I did once contribute something about my fantasy desert island to an early edition of The Erotic Review.

Anyway, Velma's letter followed hard on the heels of Don's e-mail accusing me of being a judgmental prude, who really ought to be contributing to the Daily Mail. Don was fed up with my slagging off of Club 18-30 and of television producers who took advantage of drunk young women for their sleazy documentaries. Who was I to force my repressed views on a younger, less inhibited, more honest generation?

They are both right. The truth is that I constantly change my mind about pornography and our sexualised culture. One moment the concerned parent takes over my head, worrying that this is no world to launch young women into. For them I choose a world empty of Asian Babes, Club Reps, cumshots and anal sex. The next day I feel differently. Other countries have had more liberal laws than ours and ended up with fewer rapes and lower levels of sexually transmitted diseases. Perhaps I should be less worried; less paternal.

When Tony Blair was interviewed by Jeremy Paxman last week (terrific stuff, by the way), he was asked about the hundred grand gifted to New Labour by Richard "Dirty" Desmond, the porn king and Express Newspapers proprietor. Did the PM, asked Paxman, know what the Desmond porn mags were like? No, said the PM, he didn't. But, in any case, Desmond owned a proper newspaper and therefore (Blair inferred) his porn business notwithstanding, Desmond was a proper person.

Imagine for a second that the Prime Minister had said that, yes actually, he had indeed read Skinny and Wriggly and that he had thought it rather good value for £8.50 (or however much you pay for such stuff these days).

No, I can't either. I doubt whether Paxman had even bothered with preparing a follow-up question for such an eventuality. This part of the discussion between the two men (who are roughly the same age and of similar background) was based on a shared ambivalence. Other people use pornography, and though we may find it distasteful ourselves, we are reluctant to condemn it outright. We are not anti-sex.

Some 25 years ago, as a student, I shared a flat on a sink estate in Manchester with a couple. The woman was very active in organising the local Young Communist League, and she was also a firm feminist (her beliefs were firm, OK?). And quite right too. One weekend when I was going down to London I agreed that she could borrow my room for some of her YCL comrades to sleep in. When I got back I noticed that there was something different about the books and magazines in my brick-and-plank bookcase. My science fiction was fine and my classics were undisturbed. But a couple of rather explicit books, and my small stock of Forum magazines (these were the days before Shere Hite and Nancy Friday), had been scrawled all over in felt-tip pen. "Why," the writer demanded, "do you read crap that demeans women?" And later on: "Is this the only way you can get it up?"

I recognised the hand-writing as belonging to my flat-mate and it was instantly clear to me that, of the two of us, she was the one with the problem.

I felt this way again a few months ago. In an autumn edition of The Spectator the brazen self-publicist, Toby Young, admitted that he was a user of porn, though he was unusually unspecific about what kind and to what effect. I certainly don't blame him for that, though this reticence made his piece into a classic, evasive "ho-ho, what's the fuss about?" article.

A fortnight later the magazine published an anonymous piece by a 53-year-old woman, who had been married for three decades and who, with her husband, had four grown-up children. In the same week that she read the confessions of Toby Young, she had also discovered that her husband had been looking at mucky pictures on the internet. They were, she wrote with a naïve breathlessness, "pictures of young girls designed unequivocally to arouse sexual excitement".

Now she could not dispel "a disagreeable vision of him sitting there at his desk masturbating over young females...". "If he went off with another woman," she went on, "I like to think that I'd see his point. But he hasn't; he's done something infinitely worse, more disgusting and more tainting".

This article was fascinating for the insight it gave me into the mind of a woman who had never really considered her husband to be an autonomous sexual being.

To her, as to my flatmate, sex was a bracing, healthy (albeit indoor) outdoor activity, when done right. She and hubby had their regular intercourse, what else could a decent man want? Did she really think about (had she ever asked him?) whether he masturbated? Did she not masturbate? Did she have no fantasies?

Sophisticated though I think myself, I have decided that I do not understand the sexuality of others. There are men who like to nail their genitals to a wooden board or have them caressed with a cheese grater. Perhaps Mrs X would have been happier to find Mr X hard at it with a lawn strimmer. If I were her I would be worried by the banality of his secret life. So here I lapse into relativism. The Independent titles employ the splendid Rowan Pelling, editrice of The Erotic Review, as a columnist. It is surely just snobbery and hypocrisy to sneer at the crude photos in dirty Desmond's portfolio, while approving of the pen-and-ink genitalia in Ms Pelling's publication. And hypocritical too to smile indulgently upon gay porn, while condemning het stuff as exploiting women.

Infuriatingly this doesn't solve it for me either. No sooner have I made peace with porn, than I read something by the novelist Tania Kindersley, and find myself nodding.

"Too much pornography," she writes, "and we start to believe that women are gagging for it and men can only get turned on by fisting and fivesomes and women with FF tits who do deep throat. Pornography ... lacks all the things sex should have: joy, abandon, beauty, fun, adventure, laughter." Hear, hear!

Note, however, the dangerous "should". On Monday morning, talking in a café, I finally caught up with the fashion for "freak-dancing" among the young. School dances are having to be chaperoned these days, I learned, to stop boys and girls simulating oral sex and intercourse as part of the "grinding", "doggy dancing" or "front piggy-backing" steps that are now so popular.

It's happening in the US as well. One American parent was quoted in yesterday's Washington Post: "I know when I was a kid, my parents were horrified that I was doing the twist," said Terry Beckmann, "but this seems so much worse".

It always does. And one day, I suppose, it actually will be.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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