"To write, as I have, with an enthusiasm for something so loathed in certain quarters is maybe asking for trouble," acknowledges Independent, New Statesman and Daily Telegraph contributor Laurence OToole in his introduction to this excellent survey of "porn, sex, technology and desire". Hes certainly seen enough of the stuff during his three years intensive research, as evidenced by his familiarity with such industry lingo as "reverse anal cowgirl" (dont ask) and "blow, dog, mish, pop" (the standard formula for sexual variation in the average hardcore porn flick), and a review of the best porn movie ever made (The Opening of Misty Beethoven, apparently) that can only be described as "in-depth".
But as OToole knows only too well, this is a book that could not have been published ten years ago, especially by such a progressive imprint as Serpents Tail. In the late ’80s, anti-sex feminists like Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon had liberal thinking on the subject by the balls, as it were. Bristol South MP Dawn Primarolo introduced a Private Members Bill aimed at restricting the sale of pornographic materials, while Off the Shelf campaigners regularly invaded Smiths to tear up the publications that offended them. One of the great strengths of Pornocopia is the way in which it teases out the roots of the shift in attitudes that has brought porn into the mainstream in the 90s.
O’Toole identifies the turning point as the shameful behaviour of Liberty then the NCCL in briefly overturning its longstanding policy in favour of freedom of expression to support parliamentary action on porn. This so enraged those who objected to feminism becoming associated with censorship (ironically patriarchal societys traditional tool of choice when it comes to silencing dissent), sexual puritanism and the great British dread of erotic representation, that it led to the formation of Feminists Against Censorship. Liberty promptly did a dramatic U-turn and the newly empowered pro-porn feminists, emboldened by the backlash against Victim Feminism, ensured that the Dworkinites outlandish claims about the alleged harm caused by pornography never went unchallenged again. Or as one left-wing porn enthusiast quoted by OToole puts it, succinctly: "Anti-sex feminists were such a disaster because they managed to police the left with regard to sexuality and desire, while not really stopping much porn from being sold. So people were probably still buying their magazine and having a quiet wank, rather than going down to the Labour club and having an argument."
The history of porn is also the history of censorship, and as OToole notes with exasperation, "There are times in this perpetually frowning nation when it seems some people simply cant get enough restriction." Through a wealth of fascinating archive material and interviews, he reveals how the meddling state doesnt even trust its own citizens to recognise the dangers of filth. Juries have always been obstinately reluctant to label any material "obscene", which is why the police prefer to go to magistrates for forfeiture and destruction orders. Consequently, all claims about the amount of "filth" flooding the country are untrustworthy as theyre based on untested definitions made up by cops and customs officers to justify their actions.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the field of kiddieporn. Anyone who objects to ever-increasing censorship in this panic-prone society is used to the immediate accusation of defending child pornographers, since the censorship-oriented mindset seems incapable of recognising that child sex abuse illegal in every country in the world is the crime, rather than the image, which is merely a record of the crime that should be used to prosecute offenders. But OToole takes the argument further by exploring what materials are actually out there, in magazines, videos and on the Internet.
Child pornography was legal only in Denmark for a brief, insane period in the late 70s. Virtually every pornographic image that has been seized since then derives from that era. These are constantly recycled for each new medium, including CD-ROMs and the Internet. A 1992 academic study concluded that virtually no new child pornography had been produced on a commercial scale anywhere in the world over the last 15 years. Ironically, the main producer of paedophile materials in America is the US government, which for many years published the contact magazine Wonderland as part of an ongoing entrapment project. Most of the photographs branded as child porn in this country are not pornographic, deriving from naturist journals and art publications. But as a number of dispiriting high-profile cases have shown, the zealots have ensured that any image of unclothed children is now assumed to have been made with sexual intent.
This is unquestionably a highly partisan book, and while OTooles self-selecting band of anonymous Internet chatroom chums provide a voice that is all-too-often absent from the debate – that of the user they arent entirely persuasive in supporting his thesis that theyre happy wankers rather than sad ones. But if he helps to discredit puritans of left and right, who dishonestly exploit genuine concerns to further their hidden agendas, we might finally be able to have a real debate about what he rightly describes as "the dread of the power of the image in Western culture".
[This review previously appeared in Venue magazine]