Meeting report on event of July 8th 1998

Pornography has several dictionary definitions. -The word derives from Greek, Porn -(Prostitution) and Graphier - To write. The word originally applied only to works depicting the lives and acts of prostitutes. As people who work in the pornography industry do so for money, does film and photographic pornography qualify as prostitution (sex for money) in its own right? More recently pornography has come to mean the depiction of erotic images words & pictures specifically to stimulate sexual excitement and arousal. Question? Can something be erotic but not pornographic? Can we talk of sex acts without sounding smutty, clinical, biological, crude or pornographic? Can something be erotic without being pornographic?

I held up a typical picture of a Daily Star page three girl. Everyone agreed that this was a soft core pornographic image. We were less certain as to whether the model depicted was exploited as a sex symbol, as she may have committed herself to naked poses as a career ambition, and may well be on a lucrative income as well. I next held up a Renoir nude study of a female model, and asked if this too served as an item of pornography. At first no one agreed on this, believing that Renoir was demonstrating knowledge of female form and anatomy that the page three photographer lacked. As one girl said, the Renoir portrait was a work of art, whilst the page three girl was ‘just a woman with her tits hanging out’. I pointed out that I had chosen Renoir instead of other artists because he was once quoted as saying ‘I paint with my penis’. Renoir was trying to capture the aspects of beauty that turned him on sexually, and gave him erections. If our definition of porn is work intended to stimulate arousal, Renoir qualifies as a pornographer just as much as the page three photographer.

We asked whether pornography is guilty of reducing women to sex-objects. Stand in any newsagents and watch the men browsing the top shelf magazine, such as Razzle, Spank, Penthouse, Playboy, etc, and watch them as they look from the magazine to the next attractive young lady who walks past, before looking back to the magazine. Are they trying to picture the girl in the shop in the poses depicted in the magazines? Are they seeing her literally as a sex object, nothing but breasts, nipples and vaginal erogenous zones? I held up a picture by Rene Magritte called The Rape, which depicts a surrealist woman’s face composed just of her sexual components, (breasts for eyes, vagina for a mouth), it was a shocking image that none of us could regard as a ‘turn on’.

The problem with porn is that it takes sex out of social context and makes everyone look as if they are having unlimited sex, without inhibitions, in a world of multiple orgasm, permanently erect penises, able to come and come again, without fear of rejection, elbowing someone in the ribs, premature ejaculation, brewer’s droop, and where condoms don’t exist, let alone the likelihood of the partner getting impregnated or catching sexually transmitted diseases. All too often the porn-consumer will be left feeling sexually inadequate because his/her own love life isn’t like that.

The best research material for studying porn rather than consuming it comes in feminist works, which are polarised between women who want porn banned, and feminists who see pornography as healthy. Sheila Jeffreys (Australian Feminist) says pornography is ‘propaganda of women hatred, which teaches the second class status of women.’ From seeing porn as representational of violence, subordination, and violence towards women, it is a short step to concluding that porn causes and perpetuates violence against women in real life, but as Gore Vidal wrote, "The only thing pornography is known to cause directly is the solitary act of masturbation, and its only immediate victim is English prose."

Can porn be positive in effect on society? Many men, gays and a growing number of heterosexual women find sexual release through porn, which channels and directs what might otherwise become a more uncontrollable desire. Cut off someone’s supply of porn and they may well seek other more dangerous ways to express their views. Porn mags carry contact ads, so a man who is into bondage or S & M can find a partner into same. If he just asks a girlfriend or wife,, he risks provoking horror and disgust instead of agreement and consent. The very drive to ban porn or force it underground could be counterproductive. Many couples have resuscitated stale bland sex lives through mutual shared use of porn. Watch in newsagents & video shops how many couples browse through the porn selection together and how many women buy porn for husbands & boyfriends. Porn shows that the missionary position no longer holds dominion. It makes sex adventurous and fun. It promotes the value of sex for more than just procreational purposes. Sex is continually reinvented. Porn shows what the Karma Sutra missed out.

Women make up 40 % of the US adult video retail market. Sadly, many films on sex education, books promoting safe sex, and magazines like gay times, end up on the top shelf amidst issues of Razzle & Spank.

Christians don’t like any aspect of sex & fornication, so porn to them is positively satanic. Its stars and people in the field are no better to an evangelical Christian than whores and pimps. The question of legalised, decriminalised prostitution is another matter. There’s clearly a market for it.

Porn has to pass the censors. Sometimes censors, the policing moral guardians of society go overboard. In 1934, Australian censors banned Superman & Batman comics from import as they corrupted children. The ban stayed in force until 1960. Porn mostly gets an X certificate. If no certificate is awarded, sale, ownership & distribution of the product is illegal. Stuff depicted brutal sadistic acts, fisting, or hard-core sex with animals is only available illegally. Porn attracts more moral indignation and cries for a ban than violence or bad language. Toning down excessive violence would actually benefit society much more than trying to outlaw porn, which mostly depicts people being nice to one another. .

Sometimes porno magazines carry serious articles on general issues to attempt to gain respectability. Clement Freud, has written articles for porn mags, and so has Stephen King. Sometimes pornographic imagery has spilt over into the mainstream. Mills And Boon stories depict very sensual encounters for women audiences. Xena; Warrior Princess (TV series) depicts the adventures of a powerful S & M Dominatrix figure, in leather mini skirt, and carrying various viscous weapons, and often carrying a lesbian-sub-text). Men are usually dumbed down to increase a sense of Xena’s strength. Many feature films depict explicit sex scenes that would not be out of place in a pornographic movie; (see Basic Instinct or The remake version of The Postman Always Rings Twice for examples.

A history of Porn - Pliny described how a Greek statue of Aphrodite (Goddess of Love) by Praxatales, was attractive enough to be sexually molested by one male admirer. that got you in trouble. There are many Greek songs celebration mammoth Dionysian orgies. The ruins of Pompeii have many paintings of Bacchanalian orgies. Ovid wrote a Book Of Love, a sort of Westernised Karma Sutra, itself a book on Tantric mystical wisdom. In the middle ages many books were about sex crazed nuns & priests and their hypocrisy towards their sexually guilty parishioners. De Sade wrote a great deal of sadomasochistic work, and his name was the source of the word Sadism. The rise of the printing press increased the output and accessibility of such work. In the 18th Century, porn lost much of its literary inventiveness, and more often divorced sex from other social contexts. Censorship and obscenity backlash has a later history. In 1727 there was a landmark first prosecution of an article deemed sexually obscene. In 1857, Britain introduced the Obscene Publications Act. In 1868 this was finally given a definition, as applying to work having "a tendency to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences.’. The earliest picture postcards, from France depicted naked women. In the straight faced Victorian era there were 57 porn shops on London’s Holywell Street alone. The rise of photography & cinema opened a new media. By the 60’s there were hundreds of adult only cinemas. Video killed them off and cheapened the quality of an already low budget medium of expression. This decline is well captured in the 1997 film Boogie Nights, though the film totally fails to refer to the other factor in porn’s decline in this period; the awareness of AIDS. With video, anyone with a camcorder and a willing group of actors/actresses can make porn. It is now more secretive and anonymous, and tacky, cheap and tawdry than ever before. Spend £10 and make it look like £11.

Asked if porn should be banned members were clearly opposed to censorship. There is clearly market demand for pornography, and trying to restrict that market could be a terrible mistake, just as the prohibition of alcohol proved disastrous in America in the 20’s & 30.s. Much is still rightly illegal, child pornography, extreme sadomasochism images, depictions of buggery and sodomy, bestiality, etc, are all likely to land the pornographers in jail (for making such films, promototing them and even for buying and owning them).

We frequently see soft-core porn, as that is what is on sale in High Street newsagents, but hard-core porn is not something most of will ever come across, as that is only generally sold in specialised shops. Hard-core porn doesn’t show nudity and simulated sex, it depicts people doing sex for real. On the whole, I am happy for such activity to go on unobserved, unfilmed and without us having to watch it at all, but if someone likes that sort of thing, good luck to them.

Arthur Chappell