It is a commonplace that sex became public with the Lady Chatterley trial. The truth of this is of course only partial. For a start, the repressive prurience of that event was peculiarly English. Luckily, liberal thought and the pragmatic vulgarity of the populace saw the prosecution for what it was. That is, an attempt by the same self-perpetuating claque of social and intellectual moralising elitists who had in former centuries banned Christmas and dancing, opposed the emancipation of women, derided Charles Darwin and persecuted Oscar Wilde. Somehow, the verdict was a vindication of the News of the World and Reveille’s guerilla war to make real-life sex readily available to the general public. Albeit within a controlled framework. For the NotW this relied heavily on innuendo that took you to the brink of explicit revelation. The marvellous line ‘our reporter made an excuse and left’ exemplifies this. Reveille, whose glamour girls foreshadowed the Sun’s use of ‘pin-ups’ in mass media, broke new ground in the restrained leer treatment that is a trademark of sub-eds everywhere. This is part of the same British tradition associated with 1940s war films in which on-leave sailors, usually led by Bernard Miles, eye some passing tottie and go “phwoar, she’s a looker Chalky”. Except in 1944, Chalky would end up married to the girl. That denouement however is down to the censors. In real life, as birth and divorce certificates of the era testify, folk just got it on and fucked and paid the price or not as luck would have it.
The next landmark in this revolutionary programme of sexual populism was the arrival of The Sun’s Page Three Girl. At last, the whole family – including the servants – could enjoy the sight of a pretty girl’s breasts without embarrassment. What’s more, the girl featured could well be, probably was, the one next door. The genius of this innovation was simply to capitalise on what was already going on in popular youth culture. Tits and bums were out on the street – Carnaby Street at least – and at pop concerts like the benchmark of all pop festivals – Woodstock. What The Sun also did was completely open up what nowadays we call ‘the discourse’ about sex and its portrayal. The Profumo affair and Christine Keeler in her iconic chair photograph got everyone thinking. A few years later, The Sun fully democratised the nipple.
This year, aWoman’s Hour programme on the BBC featured someone I think was called Beatrix or ‘Bea’ Campbell. The pretext was that this year is the 40th anniversary of Page Three. ‘Is it really that long?’ I thought. Ms Campbell, if it were she, excoriated the newspaper in savage terms. It was curious she should be so vehement about the exposure of breasts in a popular newspaper 40 years after the introduction of this feature. She made it tastelessly explicit that she thought men would take the newspaper to ‘the toilet’. In today’s liberated environment she must be sorely out of touch if she thinks the British workman is going to have wank over a page-three girl. But then Ms Campbell (according to Wikipedia) is a lesbian and revolutionary who seems to hate all men, especially Rupert Murdoch. She clearly cannot accept that to become one of the select group of nymphs known as Page Three Girls is widely seen as a respectable career move and almost as admirable as being a Playboy centrefold.
Campbell’s hatred of The Sun also derives from its history. She recalled the newspaper as having once been a left-wing journal of great respectability. Well, just for the record it rose from the ashes of the News Chronicle that was indeed a worthy Trade Union supporting journal – too worthy to survive against the tabloid Daily Mirror. Re-launched by its hopeful publishers and new backers, the nascent Sun failed to rise until Murdoch saw his opportunity and bought this inky Icarus and made it fly. The tits weren’t his idea but having seen how popular they were, he let them stay. He has always allowed great editors to sell newspapers and love it or hate it, The Sun is very good at what it does. The rest is history.
So what is history? History is like biology. Success breeds success. Ideas replicate. Sex sells. Give the public what we want and we want more and more of it: bigger, faster, harder, cars, houses, computer games and sex. Which is where technology emerges as the great accelerator of our passions. Sex is now on tap, or rather, at the press of a button. Is there a Wii game for sex? I bet there is. Anyway, let it be known that I have hereby, in the absence of other evidence, claimed the rights to the Wii sex fun experience.
It is terrific, mostly, that we should have access to the images of sex that we desire. There are some desires the gratification of which is outside or beyond our personal experience or fantasies. Then again, humans are great spectators, so the representation of sexual activity may even satisfy an inbuilt human love of observation of our own behaviours. This is where pornography comes in. Always a feature of our expressive culture, it has become an exploitative and competitive industry. But then, what hasn’t become just that? Since we are now all consumers whose interests must be served through the provision of more and more choice, why shouldn’t the sex business do the same?
Sadly, the emphasis on instant gratification, constant variety and ever-greater value for money does not necessarily deliver better quality. Ryanair is a good example of this. The airline does of course earn grudging admiration for its total iconoclasm. In return for cheap fares the passenger gets treated with contempt. They do offer you the Girls of Ryanair calendar that may be bought on its flights and which is currently being advertised. Miss January, who features in an ad I saw in the Observer (yes indeed, you may well wonder) is doubtless a credit to her godparents. As portrayed, she presents like one of those models that used to feature on calendars on the walls of dodgy car service stations. I think this is deliberate. She is definitely a girl you might retreat to the plane’s loo with, especially if she is typical of the flight attendants on board. Maybe the airline is having a laugh with its male customers. Maybe it says something about the Ryanair view of the passengers’ tastes. But there is no question that the days of the wholesome ‘naughty but nice’ pin-up are gone. Even a magazine fragrance ad has to imply that the people shown have just had, are having or will shortly have sex.
This is not very surprising given the availability of pornography. Even the nymphettes of our provincial towns are given to phoning enticing pictures of their intimate bits to selected audiences. It probably doesn’t matter too much and I hate to find myself in the same room as the repressives of our society such as Bea Campbell. Nonetheless, I wonder if the populism and democracy of our new sexual imaging capability isn’t getting a tad too lowest common denominator. In the old days, even the cheap 8mm loops tried to provide a bit of context. Boys meet girl(s), they all go to a flat and take their clothes off. There was often a bit of humour. Above all, it felt a bit amateur and actually, slightly silly. This was notably true when girl met horse, dog or pig. Those Danes, how can anyone eat their bacon? Then there was a brief period in the 70s when real features were attempted – Deep Throat, Devil in Miss Jones, Behind the Green Door, The Opening of Misty Beethoven and so forth. The screenplays of these wouldn’t have won an Oscar but they had characterisation, narrative and not a little eroticism. Nowadays, whilst you can get pretty much anything in the ‘who the hell gets excited by that?’ line, the mainstream seems to be pretty homogenised. It has to be acknowledged that production values are high, in the sense of film quality and location (except German porn which perseveres in a Ryanair approach: it’s basic but it gets you there). Everywhere in pornland there will be a progression of oral, anal and multiple partner sex. There will not be a storyline. There will be explicit acknowledgement that the viewing context will probably be solitary and will result in a good wank. Most of all, the women (and they are invariably extremely attractive – do they all come from Eastern Europe?), however sexually receptive they might seem to be will be often be treated remarkably roughly.
Perhaps most significantly in the context of commodification has been the elision of the telephone chat line with digital TV. In this service the lonely male can watch a nearly made it Page Three-type tyro porn star writhe about on-screen and – I think this is right – phone her to either listen or converse. It certainly won’t be light chitchat about football. So of course, very soon that girl on the third page of your digital newspaper will open her sweet lips and speak just for you. The caption writers will be redundant. Then too, there are all those women who used to populate ‘Readers’ Wives’ pages in top-shelf mags, now on webcam. There are not enough hours in the day.
Of course, it is all only play-acting. But as the primary models for the development of sexual understanding and good manners in the young, these movies and services are far from ideal. They suggest a bundle of competencies and desires and a process of engagement, which are pretty unrealistic for the average seventeen-year-old to expect or attempt. True, the films and phone lines are not intended for this group, are not educational in purpose and probably reflect a certain visceral truth about male and female psychosexual relationships. But we know the kids see and use them.
The main reason for feeling slightly depressed about this is that the portrayal of sex has become victim to what I call the ‘Bernard Matthews’ syndrome. You start off with a flock of really fine and tasty looking birds with the potential for happiness and then you shove them into a factory and turn them into turkey twizzlers. We are developing a couple of generations of citizens who don’t understand good food, or good sex. Life is a spectator sport. Watch Jamie Oliver on TV with a KFC Bargain Bucket. See Monika Sweetheart on Channel X and resent your girl friend for not wanting to swallow or not liking to take it up the bum.
Sadly, populism and accessibility do not produce quality. As the man said, nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the public. Whilst accepting that the style and content of pornography is a market issue, I can’t help wishing for a Jamie Oliver or even a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in the porn business. Except that since women are the subject, object and apparently willing and decently paid suppliers – why not a female style-setter a la Elizabeth David. But please, not Nigella.