From the cave paintings in Pompeii to fly-on-the-wall footage of Pamela Anderson, images of PORNOGRAPHY have gripped imaginations throughout the ages. Theauthor of Pornocopia has a peep at TV’s most daring documentary to date and considers the future Of Words: Laurence O’Toole
WHEN CHANNEL 4'S MAMMOTH SIX-HOUR HISTORY OF PORNOGRAPHY comes to our TV screens, you could be forgiven for crying, 'enough, already!’. The last year or so has seen a bevy of British TV shows about the skin trade; indeed sex on TV is fast becoming as much of a broadcasting staple as the gardening, DIY and cooking slots.
But, whereas shows like Weird Weekend, Suburban Boogie Nights or Sex And Shopping were pretty tawdry items, seeking a quick fix of titillation and titters, the aim of Pornography: The Secret History Of Civilisation is distinctly higher. ’I think anyone tuning in for a bit of oooh-errr is going to be disappointed,’
remarks Pornography’s producer Fenton Bailey. ’The series is tasteful to a fault.’
The viewer is led on an entertaining, full- blooded journey through time to the key hotspots
in the history of lewd expression. Kicking off with graphic cave paint- ings, the rude sculpture of Pompeii and the explicit line drawings of the Kama Sutra, onwards and upwards we take a gander at bawdy Renaissance novels, saucy Victorian lithographs, erotic photos, primitive stag movies and onto the hardcore porn cinema of the 19705.
The series features interviews with luminaries of the Boogie Nights era like Marilyn Chambers and Georgina Spelvin who were the real stars of porn when it was viewed as an up-and-coming American film genre. Often made like 'proper’ films - running at feature length, with storylines, dialogue, sets, costumes and explicit sex. By the late 705 there were around 1000 sex cinemas across the US with adult movies accounting for approximately 20% of the entire motion picture industry turnover.
All this was to change with the arrival of video, however, taking adult films out of the red light district, into the ’adult section’ of neighbourhood video stores and, ultimately, people’s living rooms. As Joy King from US porn producers, Wicked suggests: ’People are far more willing to admit they like our product in the privacy of their own home.’
Today, American video porn is a four billion dollar a year industry with a quarter of sales directly generated by women consumers. Accordingly, the sex retailing landscape has been smartening up its act. This spring in Los Angeles, Hustler of Hollywood opened for business. On the site of a former Blockbuster, Hustler is the latest in a burgeoning line of new style ’erotic boutique’ that feels closer to a Gap shopping experience than the rancid, seedy sex shops of old. All bright lights and gourmet coffee franchise to go with the vibrators, videos and saucy underwear, Hustler even has its own sales legend
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emblazoned on every shop assistant’s T-shirt: 'Relax, it’s just sex!’
For those who can’t make it to Hustler, fear not, there’s always the internet. The history of pornography is also, ineluctably, a history of evolving media with porn being a key driver in the invention of new media technologies from the printing press to the World Wide Web. (Porn folklore has it, that the day after the guy first invented the camera, he got his partner round to pose naked in order to test drive his new machine).
During the 905, the porn industry has pioneered many advances in internet technology like video streaming, deluxe on- line shopping mall designs and secure payments systems, as well as inspiring the design of an array of blocking software like Net Nanny
Adult sites pulled in somewhere between S700million to S1bil|ion in revenue during 1998, causing profits in video porn to stutter for the first time in the 905. Internet Entertainment
Group (IEG), one of the Web's most successful adult companies, made SSOmillion in 1998. IE6 is best known for the on-line distribution of the 'Honeymoon Sex' video clips of Pamela Anderson. Making a cyberprofit is a tricky business. With so many on-line, non-pornographic sales ventures struggling to make it into the black, publications like the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal, eager to fathom the secrets of e-commerce, have been queuing up to appraise the commercial achievements of cyberporn. In
this way, the net’s ’dirty little secret’ has also become a
bit of a guiding light.
Looking to the
future, the great leap forward to seamless internet broadcasting beck- ons. The next gen- eration of superfast cable modems and digital subscriber lines will see cyberporners offering delivery of full motion, feature length hardcore movies down the line direct to the customer's computer, or even their TV.
Where there’s porn, invariably there’s proscription. Labour are seriously anti-porn. Since coming to power, a moral distaste, combined with an authoritarian streak, has seen the Government issue banning orders against late night, encrypted satellite porn channels like Rendezvous TV, as well as abruptly discontinuing a policy of mild liberalisation of porn videos initiated by the previous Tory government.
Though British TV's current infatuation with porn is mainly about bumping up the ratings, it may well prove to have unintended side affects. By simply covering the subject extensively and repeatedly, programme makers have contributed to a gradual demystifying of porn, not only showing how it works as an industry, or as a viewing experience, but how porn as an alternative point of view is subject to state suppression.
Arguably, the mainstream’s ongoing porn cbverage is consonant with the wider, gradual emergence of censorship and freedom of speech as political issues of some significance. So. don’t just gawp at the semi-naked people on your TV screen this autumn, think of your civil liberties, and how little this Labour administration values them.
Pornography: The Secret History Of Civilisation starts on Channel 4. Thu 14 Oct, 10pm. The updated edition of Laurence O’Toole's Pornocopia: Porn, Sex, Technology And Desire is published by Serpent's Tail, Thu 14 Oct, £9.99.