In my formative years, porn was not so easily available. If it was mentioned at all, it was mentioned in the context of 'dirty old men' and those mysterious shops you'd glimpse in big cities like Manchester or Birmingham. They'd have greyed out windows, peeling paintwork, and were usually stuck down dingy Victorian side streets where men called Trevor, probably lorry drivers by day, taxi drivers by night, would visit to purchase things in plain brown paper. It was the same world that Joseph Conrad had written about in The Secret Agent: the kind of shop which 'in the daytime the door remained closed; in the evening it stood discreetly but suspiciously ajar.'
Naturally, a youthful mind wondered about such things but the products of these places would rarely make it into our everyday lives where the word 'Playboy' was really synonymous with the ultimate in erotica. There was English pornography, of course, and you might occasionally seeing examples of it lying wet in the road after it had fallen out of cabs habituated by one of the Trevors. It would be a mangled pulp of pubis and tit. Sometimes, a school yob would bring in a copy and throw it around the classroom where you'd briefly see nasty portends of adulthood: usually pimpled overweight women leaning out the back of caravans with their oddly shapes breasts and haystacked pubes. Personally, I never understood who'd want to look at that stuff. Perhaps if you were into caravans or haystacks...
My own tastes were never that odd. I suppose, if anything, I always had a kind of elevated liberal guilt at looking at pictures of naked women but, at the same time, utter delight if the subject matter appealed to me and what appealed to me was very run of mill. What I suppose I'm saying is that I'm just a normal heterosexual guy who enjoys the female form and could never resist the chance of opening The Sun on page 3 if I found a copy lying around. It was generally stuff that was half seen or seen briefly in passing. It was the Swedish TV ads that Clive James would play on his shows, gratuitous shots of sweaty naked blondes in steamrooms which was funny because it was gratuitous but also deeply exciting because it was gratuitous.
And what was odd, thinking about those years, is how damn erotic things genuinely were back then. Being a huge film fan, I used to buy the American film magazine Premiere from the States and it was there that I first saw the Guess Jeans commercials featuring Anna Nichole Smith. Back in the day of the Guess Jeans commercials, Anna Nichole Smith was without compare. Sod Miss World. The most beautiful woman on the planet was Anna Nichole Smith. She was pure Americana: a condensed version of 1950s voluptuousness. She was an uber Rita Hayworth that made me feel faint just looking at her.
Cut forward a couple of decades. Anna Nichole Smith was dead; her life a morbid reality TV show complete with decrepit billionaire and tales of wanton excess. She had appeared in films of dubious quality with the only memorable moments being brief roles in films such as The Coen Brother's 'Hudsucker Proxy' and a Naked Gun sequel. Yet she had changed like life itself had changed. Gone was the glamour girl who concealed all and instead we had the ex-Playboy model struggling with addictions, a doyenne of excess and of the worst things to come.
Pornography is now prevalent everywhere to the point that reading an article on The Independent yesterday, I had only clicked one link in an article before I was looking at a Twitter page containing pictures so X rated that in the words of Tom Waits, you would have thought you were looking at women without skin. What's even stranger is that nobody seems judgmental about this stuff. Newspapers treat porn stars like they're any other celebrity on the planet; as though we're interested in what they think or say. Novelists, poets, historians, scientists: none are as so well known as porn stars. And the papers love this stuff. As if we care (I don't), we're routinely told what the top search terms are on the big porn sites. In the comments, people laugh about their own (frankly odd) tastes and preferences. When the BBFC wrote up new rules to ban certain types of extreme pornography, The Guardian treated it as thought it were a serious threat to civil liberties. Elsewhere, people responded to the news with a familiar refrain -- 'They'll be banning kissing next' -- as though asphyxiating your sexual partner is the same as giving them a kiss on the lips. Even more startling -- and here I begin to approach the meat (no pun intended) of this essay -- is how much porn culture is entering out lives in causal everyday ways.
Perhaps what I'm writing reveals me to be deeply prudish but I don't believe that I am. Perhaps I'm just part of the last generation who will remember what things were like when sex was still a mystery . Perhaps I'm the only person on the planet who doesn't like what's happening. Perhaps people born into this Brave New World will wonder why I'm offended by the things I see around me. Yet, for the record, I'd like to put this out there that I am offended. My blog is periodically archived by The British Library so, perhaps, some researcher at a later date will come across this blog entry and use it to example the last repressed heterosexual male on Planet Earth.
So let me be clear: sexuality of any kind doesn't offend me. What offends me is the way it's casually debased throughout our culture, thereby robbing it of all the excitement it once had. It also offends me that I have to be faced with it continually. Whereas it was once restricted to places where you had to seek it out, it is these days delivered to your inbox, or placed on prominent display on the shelves of ordinary shops. Whilst something as mild as Page 3 or a few bloke magazines in Tesco can still make headline news because women groups protest about them, hardcore porn seems beyond criticism. Sex has become commonplace, ugly, and, dare I say, debased to the point that it's become wearisome.
What prompted these thoughts was my going out yesterday to buy a birthday card. I wanted a simple card that read: 'Happy Birthday'. I was tired after doing quite a bit of loitering in PC World playing with a Surface Pro 3, so I was going to head into Waterstones for a coffee, a doodle, and a book browse. Since it was on the way, I thought I'd try Paperchase. It is a bit pricey but (supposedly) a classy shop. So I went in looking for a card.
The greetings cards were along one wall to the right side of the shop and they had a fair range which weren't all humorous (the worst kind of cards, usually unfunny and bought by people without any sense of humour). Yet my eye couldn't help but catch sight of a few cards high up. They were obviously high so people of a certain combination of height and age couldn't see them but, being well over six feet, I saw them first. I confess, I wasn't sure what I'd seen so I looked again. They were Valentines cards which read, from left to right:
'Hello gorgeous! Fancy a shag?
'Oh look! You've given me a huge stiffy!'
'I love you like a slapper loves cock!'
'It won't suck itself'
'I love your bush'
'I fucking love you'
and then there was 'Happy Blow Job Day'.
And if you don't believe me, I even took a photo:
With a shake of my head, I walked out. Paperchase has now become a shop I refuse to enter (no pun intended). Am I the only person offended by this? I guess I am.
My feet were tired but I headed back to The Arndale where I knew there was a Card Factory. They're much cheaper and the range of cards isn't bad. I didn't want the walk but, like I say, I was just disappointed at what I'd just seen in Paperchase. So, I arrived at The Card Factory. All I wanted was a card that said 'Happy Birthday'. The selection wasn't great but I found a Happy Birthday and I headed to the till. That's when I saw this card. 'In a recent survey on why Men like Blow jobs, 6% like the feeling, 12% like the thrill...'
Whatever the remaining 82% like, I don't know and I don't care.
Now, perhaps I've just forgotten what life was like just a few years ago but I don't remember this level of smut in postcards. In fact, I don't even think it's smut. There's nothing here that is meant to be arousing. There's no clever double entendre. This isn't the stuff of saucy Blackpool postcard. This is simply blatant and when did we become so blatant?
I've noticed the tendency most of all in comedy. I remember when Julian Clary made a vulgar remark about the then chancellor, Norman Lamont, on the 1993 comedy awards and I had to go and look the word up because I had no idea what it meant. Even now I'm not entirely sure I know what it means but I know for damn certain that I really don't want to look at a picture of it being done. Yet increasingly comedy is becoming like that. You can be sitting there, watching a fairly mainstream act on BBC1, and you end up ten minutes later trying to understand the punchline by typing a strange term into Google because you've never heard the phrase used before but you quickly realize involves three lesbians and a length of tubing.
My liberal sensibilities say: this is no big thing. People are more open about sexuality and what harm is there in that? Perhaps the future will have no such hangups. It reminds me of the old Bill Hicks routine about the ideal commercial that companies really want to run to make you drink Coke.
Back when Hicks did that routine, you'd had thought the future impossible. Now I'm not so sure. Porn is everywhere and it has destroyed whatever it is we had when sex was half-glimpsed and distant. Perhaps the day will arrive when the Christmas ads for perfume will involve full on graphic sex because none of that actually means anything. Without taboo, nothing is erotic. It's just photographs of meat on the plate.
So what I'm trying to express isn't a disgust at sex but the loss of the thrill around sex. Where there is no imagination, there is only physical reality in all its shaved and pimpled banality. Looking out at humanity, you begin to feel that any notion of civilisation was lost years ago. We're just a great humping mass of blubber and juice. I miss Anna Nichole Smith's cleavage and the mild filth of Carry On. I miss the glimpse of Barbara Winsor's breasts when she flashed them on a Sunday afternoon. I miss the mystery and I miss the wit of comedians who could talk about sex without it being explicit. Repressed was always much more fun and human than being comfortable with your body. Yet it's more than that. I miss the chance of comedians to talk explicitly about things and of my being amused and shocked at their words.
Would anybody really be shocked by Peter Cook's skit about lobsters? 'The worst job I ever had was with Jayne Mansfield. You know, she was a fantastic bird, you know .....big tits, huge bum, and everything like that, but I had the terrible job of retrieving lobsters from her bum.'
For all I know, there might be sites out there were you can see a woman pulling a live lobster from her arse. Porn has made everything literal. It has taken that world away from us. Porn has won the world but I just wish somebody would have the bravery to take it back.