James Harkin: Why can't the British make better pornography?

It's fast food to the haute cuisine of erotic art. As part of a controlled diet, it won't make us go blind

Last week saw the launch of the latest attempt to drag British pornography upmarket. Scarlet, a top-shelf magazine aimed at young women between 20 and 35, promises its audience reviews of the latest porn movies, stories about having sex with strangers on trains, and a sex toy - presumably strapped to its cover - for those who can't wait to open it up.

One can only wish the whey-faced, innocent-looking ladies on the Scarlet editorial team the best of British luck, but the omens do not look good. Only last month saw the closure of Rowan Pelling's Erotic Review, the latest in a long line of attempts to drag British pornography out of the gutter. The Erotic Review was always a pretentious misnomer. This was pornography aimed at geriatric colonels with a nagging predilection for corporal punishment. In the end, there simply weren't enough of them about.

Today and tomorrow, in a unique contribution to British industry, the Institute of Contemporary Art, in London, brings together an international panel of some of the finest pornographic minds to brainstorm the future of British pornography. It has already met with resistance from the usual quarters. "Porn at the ICA splits art world", spluttered the strap-line in one of our more salacious Sunday newspapers yesterday. Did it really? Or was this just a naked attempt to exploit our dysfunctional relationship to porn?

My suspicion is that the journalists who are confecting outrage about pornographers at the ICA are backing a loser. The battle to censor pornography - waged by an unholy alliance of traditionalists and radical feminists - has been deservedly lost. Now, if anything, the malaise is deeper.

Many of us are happy to use pornography in the absence of anything else, but retain a stubbornly awkward approach to the genre. While the Scandinavians are happy to put porn in their trolley as part of their weekly shop, we Brits furtively scan the smutty magazines available on the top shelf before rolling one inside our daily newspaper. And while Americans can ogle home-grown, hardcore porn on cable TV, we Brits make do with the imported, oil-buffed bodies thrown our way by Channel 5. We are no good at buying porn or making it - and consequently we don't enjoy it as much as we should.

Pornography is like fast food to the haute cuisine of erotic art. Most of us can do with a little fast food now and again, if only to fill a gap. As part of a controlled diet, it is entirely harmless, and unlikely to make us go blind. Moreover, the production and distribution of pornography plays an important and largely unacknowledged role in modern economies, not only because of the cash it generates but because of the technological innovation it stimulates. At each stage in the development of the world wide web, pornographers got there first and showed everyone else how to do it. Scarcely any of them were British.

The first decade of the 21st century will be seen as the decade in which erotica moved deftly upmarket. In France, where sex is the equivalent of a national sport, they are already making Olympian efforts to upgrade their stocks of porn. Po-faced Parisian thinkers like Catherine Millet are happy to do their bit, writing good prose which is indistinguishable from pornography. With her book Porno Manifesto, the new porno star Ovidie is pointing the way to a more liberated, less neurotic approach to the satisfaction of our sexual desires.

But while the French treat themselves to a literary-erotic renaissance and the Americans democratise visual pornography with hand-held cameras, the British remain in thrall to lame innuendo and shivering readers' wives. Why do we retain such a stubbornly dysfunctional relationship with the business of turning ourselves on?

Perhaps the iconography of porn has so blurred with the rest of our popular culture - our advertising, our reality TV shows, our tabloid newspapers - that we find it difficult to titillate ourselves without laughing or ironising. A more healthy attitude to pornography, it is worth reminding the puritans, might even help to put it back in its place.

Maxim Jakubowski, an authority of British literary porn, argues that there has been not a single piece of good erotic writing in Britain for the last 15 years. Only 10 per cent of the stories for his latest Mammoth Book of Erotica, he says, have been written by Brits.

One of the most popular staples of literary London is the annual Bad Sex Awards, where braying bookish types can be found guffawing at poorly crafted sex. But what about the inauguration of a Good Sex Award, awarded to the filthiest and most verbally or visually articulate attempt to turn us on? Inspiration, if it is required, could come from past masters: from fantasy novels like Pauline Reage's The Story of O, or the sophisticated erotic photography of Robert Mapplethorpe.

Like nervous teenagers at the cinema, the Brits are happiest when laughing over images of sex. But national pride now demands that we grow up and get to grips with how to do porn properly. After all, in a supposedly weightless world in which much of our industry has migrated elsewhere, the porn industry offers one of the few remaining opportunities for rewarding manual labour.

The writer is Director of Talks at the Institute of Contemporary Art

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