Should we still be shocked by pornography?

The struggles of some Labour Party members against pornography seem as alien now as the Cold War
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It's interesting that the scandal over Richard Desmond's largesse to the Labour Party seems to have moved away from the question of whether he received any favours from the government in return for his generosity, to simply whether the party should accept money from a pornographer. This must be a hard question for Tony Blair, partly because it is a question he has probably never asked himself.

But even if he had stopped to reflect before accepting a donation to his party from Richard Desmond, the owner of the Daily Express and various porn magazines, Mr Blair probably thought that pornography is now such an acceptable part of British society that nobody would want to cast the first stone by raising the question.

This is one of the most striking aspects of the way our culture has changed in the last 10 or 20 years – that pornography has come in from the cold. A sanitised, cleaned-up version of pornography is available absolutely everywhere, and even the dirtiest version is only as far as another click of your mouse. Even if you have never bought a copy of Asian Babes or Megaboobs, even if you've never rented anything out of the vast "adult" section of your local video shop, you can't be immune to the influence of pornography. It has got in under the wire – it's everywhere.

Ali G can giggle with porn stars and nuzzle their breasts on prime-time terrestrial television. All those lad magazines have been pushing a twee version of pornographic images for years. Lap-dancing clubs, the darling of every low-budget documentary team and eager tabloid feature writer, have been springing up over the years to provide a more acceptable version of ratty old strip clubs. Britain's rules on film censorship have been sufficiently relaxed to allow cinema releases for films such as Intimacy, with its candid shots of fellatio, and even Baise-Moi, in which actresses who previously worked in pornography are shown having real sex in sticky close-up.

In this climate, in which pornography has never been more widespread, more acceptable or more profitable, the former struggles of some members of the Labour Party against pornography seem as alien now as the Cold War. Who now remembers the campaign that Clare Short waged against Page 3? In 1986, Short introduced a 10-minute rule bill that sought to make it an offence to "publish in newspapers pictures of naked or partially naked women in sexually provocative poses". She saw this as part of a long-running campaign that she believed would one day have a real effect. "There is no quick legislative fix available that will suddenly cause pornography to disappear. But I look forward to the day when those who produce it and use it are treated as furtive outcasts rather than just as 'one of the lads'," she wrote in 1991.

How utterly doomed that ideal looks in retrospect. It is much, much harder now than it was 10 years ago to imagine those who produce pornography ever being seen as furtive outcasts. More than ever, they are just one of the lads, even in Clare Short's own party.

In this society, in which "partially naked women in sexually provocative poses", far from disappearing, have entrenched their position in the fashion pages and in the paparazzi shots of most magazines in the newsagent, Tony Blair must have thought that nobody would find the idea of a pornographer putting money into the Labour Party at all exceptional.

And indeed, many of those who are now gasping and stretching their eyes are probably people who don't really see anything wrong with pornography, but who simply love to hear the words Megaboobs and New Labour in the same sentence, and who love to see Blair squirming with embarrassment. But the dismay that is being expressed over the fact that New Labour is happy to get close to a man who makes his profits out of the exposed bodies of young women nevertheless shows us that a very real unease with pornography still exists. And this is the case, despite all the mainstream acceptance of pornographic images.

Why is this? It is because, although pornography does have a palatable side, it also has a darker side. People who occasionally read pornography or click on pornography in the comfort of their own homes and the privacy of their own computers may never need to confront this side. But the darker side still exists, both in the production and consumption of pornography. As long as pornography is seen as merely laddish fun, it is hard to ask those questions that feminists used to raise so vehemently, about how much financial exploitation and physical aggression go into persuading so many vulnerable young women to expose their bodies to the pornographers' cameras.

I'm not talking here about women who decide they want to spend a year or two lap-dancing or posing for photographers and can then decide they want to move into other work, but of the young women who never have the freedom to make a real choice, who never feel they are in control. You only have to pick up on the story, say, of one of the actresses in Baise-Moi, who lost her virginity on the set of a pornographic film, to remember that there is a place where all the fun and games of pornography still shade into mere exploitation.

And although most people now agree that pornography is fine and dandy in its place – on a cinema screen that we choose to visit, or in a magazine that we choose to buy – what happens when it spills out of those controlled places and floods into other areas?

Who, for instance, would choose to be in the position of Beverley Ward, who was the only woman among 400 workers in the Nissan plant in Tyne and Wear? The 24-year-old sander has just won her case at an industrial tribunal after being forced out of her job because male colleagues wanted to watch hard-core pornography throughout their lunch breaks.

Her supervisor accused her of "causing disharmony among the men" because she wanted the films turned off when she was in the room. "For the first week I didn't say a word to anyone," she said. "I hated it so much I went to sit in the toilet cubicle to have my lunch. I just couldn't take it."

When pornography is used in this way, it is much harder to see it as just part of a playful, mellow society with no hang-ups. Indeed, now that our society has, thank god, got over its prudery about pornography, we can see clearly that pornography is OK, just so long as no one is being forced to watch it and no one is being forced to make it. Is it old-fashioned to say this?

It won't be old-fashioned until there are no more Beverley Wards sitting in the toilets while their colleagues watch hard-core films, and until there are no more vulnerable women pushed into opening up their bodies for pornographers against their will.

The furore over the fact that this Government has accepted profits from even mainstream pornography suggests that people do remain ill at ease with the exploitation that persists in the industry. But surely the answer is to confront the reality of pornography, not just the detail of political funding.