Pornography: Porn In Modern Culture – Part 2

Hello, and welcome back!

What would you define as pornography? Do newspapers like The Sun’s Page 3 pictures of topless young women, or the now deceased Daily Sport newspaper count as pornography? What about magazines like Zoo, Front, Loaded, or Maxim? Are films like SALO, OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM (Pier Paolo Pasolini,1975) pornographic, simple because they are based on a classic work of literature that details explicit sexual acts? In the second part of this extensive, multi-part article, I will focus on the rise of pornography, and the social issues it raised.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, pornography is categorised as being “printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate sexual excitement“. If we go by this rather broad definition, then – in theory at least – cinematic works like BASIC INSTINCT (Paul Verhoeven, 1992), NINE AND A HALF WEEKS (Adrian Lyne, 1986), or 9 SONGS (Michael Winterbottom, 2004) could technically be “pornography”, or at least “pornographic”. Yet, these three works, irrespective of their merits or critical status, would not be – to most people – what they would label as pornography.

Even more adult mainstream titles like DESTRICTED (Marina Abramovic and Matthew Barney, 2006) would fit this limited definition, and yet, we all know that they are not pornographic. By that, I mean their primary motivation isn’t an intention to “stimulate sexual excitement” in the viewer. The films may contain material that could be erotic or sexually arousing, but then many older men found the animated depiction of Jessica Rabbit in the Walt Disney classic WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? (Robert Zemeckis, 1988) a turn-on when she uttered the immortal line “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way”! So such a narrow definition is both flawed and open to interpretation that is unrealistic. In fact, if you examine the world of sexual fetishism, then even the most mundane things can be a turn-on for some people. Bread, tobacco, dressing up as a furry animal, bricks. You name it, someone out there in the Earth’s population, is getting sexually excited by it!

So let us re-define what we mean hear. I am going to use the term “pornography” to refer to material whose content is predominantly of a sexually explicit nature. And by predominant, I mean over 75% of its entirety. That way, we can safely ignore films like DESTRICTED where the intent was not to arouse the audience but to document for the audience material that may be sexually exciting, as a secondary emotion.

With the definition now in place, we are able to examine at a much more intense level, why pornography has become a modern phenomenon! And it is a modern phenomenon, even though pornographic literature and film existed from the 1800’s, as demonstrated in Part One of this article. Whilst pornography has always existed for over 200 years, it was only in the late 1970’s and onwards that the “Porn Industry” really began to gain a foothold in society.

After the headiness of the Sexual Revolution from the 1960’s, there was the Feminist Uprising – not a bad thing – and then society began to allow itself to be more sexually open. People became sexual beings. Free love abounded. Sexuality of any kind was considered “cool”, “right-on” and for anyone, irrespective of who they may have been. If you ignore the early European pornographic magazines that filtered into Britain through Soho in London, via underground importation, then pornography really became public knowledge with the infamous  Obscenity Trial  of the D.H. Lawrence novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” in 1960. Whilst Soho had its own reputation as the den of sin, with all the XXX erotic and adult films, burlesque theatres, sex cinemas and prostitution being rife, other than for those men “in the know”, most people only heard of pornography, without having any real experience of it. Here then, a book was available: something small, insignificant and yet so utterly daring, that the law was telling people that this book was a bomb! A bomb that would (supposedly) corrupt and deprave anyone who read it or owned it!

The beauty of it, was that although it was being judged to be an incendiary piece of work, everyone suddenly wanted to buy it, simply because of its notoriety! (How many of you sought out information and clips, when A SERBIAN FILM started creating headlines on the Internet? I know I did!) If the novel had been published, and no one had mentioned its content, I suspect it would not have been the cause celebre that it became. It would simply have been a peculiar little novel that only the most enquiring minds and classical thinkers would have bothered with. Certainly not the public-at-large, that’s for sure.

Suddenly everyone was talking about that book, those paragraphs, and that scene with the green-keeper in his shed, and the novel rocketed to sell over two million copies by the end of 1960, with a further 1.3 million sold over the following 12 months.

Pornography had arrived, and had gone mainstream in the public consciousness! And they loved every sordid moment of it!

As other forms of pornography began to go mainstream, cinema did so too. In the United States, you had DEEP THROAT (Gerard Damiano, 1972), THE DEVIL IN MISS JONES (Damiano, 1973) and then Hollywood decided to get in on the action, with Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider starring in the arthouse drama LAST TANGO IN PARIS (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972), followed not long after with EMMANUELLE (Just Jaeckin, 1974). Now, pornography become chic all over the globe! It was acceptable for couples to view it.. and to view it together! No longer was this form of – and I use the word hesitantly – entertainment, just for old men, to discover in back rooms, behind closed doors. Society was saying this is okay! Be young, be hip, and be cool! You are now a hedonist and a modern man too!

As cinema became awash with pornography, a new technology was in the wings: home video recorders and players. Why pay to watch a movie in large theatres, filled with the detritus of your fellow human beings, the stench of alcohol, drugs and urine on every seat, and have to worry about transportation, when you can do the same in the privacy and comfort of your own home, for a fraction of the cost?

Suddenly Betamax became available, and then VHS. Now, you could rent what you wanted, whenever you wanted, and view it however you wanted. Whilst Hollywood slowly released a few big-name films, thousands of fly-by-night businesses decided to raid studio archives and release films no one had ever heard of before. And as home videos weren’t stiffled by the British Board of Film Censors (as the BBFC used to be known), now anyone could release anything, and the law was old-hat!

Horror films began seeping through, including many infamous films like CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, S.S. EXPERIMENT CAMP (Sergio Garrone, 1976), and THE EVIL DEAD (Sam Raimi, 1981) uncut and withotu State interference, but it wasn’t long before porn began to gain a foothold too, with the likes of Playboy and Electric Blue releasing adult erotic videos, for people to rent and take home. Sex was now definitely the norm!

Next time, we’ll look at the rise and rise of pornography, and the self-made base of the porn industry itself, in California, which now produces thousands of adult films every year. We will examine how porn has gone from being a grubby and discrete field of work, to a relatively acceptable form of employment for many people, raising millions in taxes, and making millions upon millions in profit; as pornography became normalised, what direction did the industry decide to take, and why some of the decisions it made, backfired horrifically.

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Pornography: Porn In Modern Culture – Part 2

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