LEADING ARTICLE:Phone call from a heavy breather

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The Independent Online
First they came for the alcoholics. Then they came for the drug addicts, the gamblers, the children in distress and the suicidal. Yesterday they came for the pornaholics, when the first known help-line was opened for men "addicted to pornography". Peter Baker, a co-founder of the Men And Porn Group, said that the line - a five-minute taped message offering understanding - was an important first step to some men in admitting that their obsession with pornography is a problem.

It is tempting to snigger. Mr Baker himself is the health and fitness editor of a new men's magazine, Maxim. The cover of the June edition advertises a story entitled "What can a lesbian teach you about sex? (If you reckon the answer is 'nothing', you'd better read on because you sure as hell could learn a thing or two)". There is also a feature on "dream jobs", including nude photography, scrutinising ladies' lingerie and owning topless bars. Not pornography, but hardly the right stuff for the New Man.

And isn't the notion of porn addiction itself a bit far-fetched? Do men really get cold turkey if prevented from riffling the pages of Big and Bouncy, or suffer withdrawal symptoms if the brown paper bag turns out to contain last month's copy of Military Modelling? Ann Mayne, of the Campaign Against Pornography, doesn't believe it. As far as she is concerned Mr Baker and co are just a "pathetic and insular bunch of men who feel sorry themselves". So far as this particular CAP is concerned, pornography not only exploits those who take part in it, but is part of a process whereby many men degrade the women with whom they are in partnership.

This overlooks the likelihood that Mr Baker has a point. Large numbers of men look at pornographic videos, pictures or books at some time in their lives - far more, probably, than are suspected by wives, girl- or boy-friends.

There is a perfectly makeable case that almost all pornography is harmless and indeed positively beneficial in that it nourishes harmless fantasies which might otherwise express themselves in a more malignant form. It is, however, equally likely that like other powerful appeals to the human appetite, it is possible for the craving for pornography to become, like any addiction, unhealthy.

Of course some of the more unforgiving feminists will see in this reasoning an attempt by New Men to hijack the pornography issue and turn it their advantage. But, as with the recent rediscovery of the issue of male health, the admission that there is a problem of men and pornography is a good thing. Whether or not Mr Baker's phone line catches on.