Thursday, June 29, 2006


Talk to them now, before it's too late

There's a hell of a ruckus going on about lad's mags at the moment. Labour MP, Claire Curtis-Thomas, who has a piece in yesterday's Independent , has called for them to be put on the top shelf along with all the other porn, while the editors of magazines such as Nuts and Zoo are tripping over themselves to get into tv and radio studios to defend their tawdry rags, claiming that they're not porn at all.

What a laugh. Of course they're porn. Although, of course, the definitions of porn are many and varied, depending largely on how you get your kicks, the last time I looked it was generally accepted that porn is material made with the explicit purpose of arousing your audience. Are they really trying to tell us that there's another reason for filling their pages with naked and semi-naked women? Maybe it's to help with GCSE biology revision?

We all know that the real reason — the only genuine reason — these guys have for crawling out of their caves to try convince us that what they're peddling isn't porn, is to keep them off the top shelf. Pushing them a few feet further up the newsagent's wall will put people off buying them. If people stop buying them, the publishers will close them, and if the publishers close them, certain editors won't have jobs any more. With their flash livelihoods at stake, it's hardly surprising that they're putting up a spirited defence of their chosen path, and if they can persuade a few members of the public that what they are doing is respectable, then so much the better.

As it stands, the mags are displayed down among the women's titles. (It has been claimed that they're often to be found nestling amid the Beanos and Dandys, but I'm a frequent visitor to that shelf and I can't say I've ever stumbled across anything untoward, unless you count the astronomical cover prices on the Simpsons comics.) This positioning lends them an air of decency, making it easier for your average bloke to buy them without embarrassment — end of story. To claim anything else is plain disingenuous.

And it's that disingenuousness that I object to, more than the mags themselves. Though undoubtedly crap and definitely degrading to women, they don't offend me any more than, say, page 3, or for that matter Cosmopolitan and Bliss. When it comes to deciding which offends me more — an image of a naked woman with her knickers dangling off her high heels and a staple through her navel or a skeletal model sashaying down a catwalk wearing clothes I'd need to remortgage my house to buy — I'd probably need to toss a coin. If we're going to get all hysterical about it (and plenty have) then there are lots of magazines that deserve to be elevated along with the lads' ones.

But… to paraphrase Voltaire, though I don't like what they do, I'd defend to the death their right to do it. Well, maybe not quite to the death, but you know what I'm getting at. They may not be lofty examples of what those of us who believe in freedom of expression are sworn to defend, but you either believe in freedom of expression or you don't.

It's not about what you and I think, though, is it? It has been said, ad nauseum, that the campaign to move the mags to the top shelf has been motivated by a desire to protect children. But let's be honest. Are our children really going to suffer irreversible damage if they catch a glimpse of Jodie Marsh's pubes before they're old enough to know what they are, or understand why she would want to get them out for the boys? I don't think so. And anyway, I've had as many awkward questions from the kids prompted by coverlines on women's magazines as I've had prompted by the Daily Sport.

The truth is, it's not really our children that we're worried about when we seek to protect them from images we consider obscene or inappropriate. If we were, we would be talking to them a bit more about the issues involved. I've heard plenty of adults chuntering on about all this, but apart from one short report on Radio 4 I haven't heard anyone actually asking kids what they think.

What 'protecting children' really translates into is protecting ourselves — from the embarrassment of having to talk to our children about what sex actually is. We're so screwed up about sex, so tied in knots by our religious and cultural baggage and repressed attitudes, that even the most liberal among us struggle to talk to our children about sex with any semblance of reason.

Oh, we're fine about telling them about the mechanics of sex. What periods are all about and where babies come from — some of us even manage to brief our boys about nocturnal emissions before their first wet dream, but it's when it comes to discussing the feelings and sensations involved we start coughing and spluttering, hoping that they'll get bored or embarrassed and drift off before we have to explain to them why, as an adult, you would actually want to do something so icky — for fun!

Yet the age when kids think sex is icky is the perfect time to tell them everything they need to know about sex.

Think about it — unless your child is being molested or is otherwise involved in inappropriate behaviour, the likely reaction to 'too much infomation' is EEEEUUUUWWWW!!! It certainly is in our house. And just because they collapse in a a giggling heap when they hear the word orgasm, that doesn't mean they're not taking in what you're telling them. Right now my daughter spends half her time quizzing me about sex, and the other half telling me how disgusting she thinks the whole business sounds. She's eight now, and though she won't believe me when I tell her, I know it won't be all that long before she's starting to have the feelings that will lead to her exploring her own sexuality. And, as anyone who has been an adolescent will testify, that's the point when all communications with her parents will cease, and information about sex and sexuality will come strictly via teen mags and — horror of horrors — her peers.

It is our duty as parents to use the precious years before that happens to cram their brains with as much sensible, positive information as possible before it's too late, then cross our fingers and hope for the best.

If we stopped being so bloody uptight about talking to our children about sex we wouldn't need to get our knickers in a knot about them getting their hands on a bit of soft porn here and there. Instead of howling with outrage and encouraging the government to bring in yet more censorious legislation, we should be talking to our children about the issues surrounding lad mags — how the people in them are portrayed, what they say about us as a society, and for that matter why the standard of sexually explicit, erotic material available in the UK is so lamentable.

We bleat on about the loss of innocence, yet for me innocence and naivity are two sides of the same coin. Naivity is what allows a young girl to get into a car with a gang of boys she vaguely knows and thinks she can trust. Naivity is what allows a young gay man walk alone across a deserted park in the small hours of the morning. Naivity is what allows a young women to trust her older lover when he assures her that having unprotected sex will be okay.

If innocence is naivity, knowledge is power. I'd swap innocence for knowledge any day of the week.

As usual, with Christian-lead moralising (or any religion), it all gets absurd when you start to examine the issue closely.

You know how kids aren't supposed to swear and you're not supposed to swear in front of your kids? I couldn't care less. My son swears, I swear in front of him - it's just words. Guess what - the civilised world has not come to an end. My son has not suddenly become a depraved or violent monster since being "corrupted" by these evil Saxon expletives.

The same goes for sex and porn. When you tried to define porn as "material made with the explicit purpose of arousing your audience" - well, I can think of many things which fit that description which are not considered porn, whether its intentional or not.

Sex is there - you can't hide it away. You can't have life without sex, you can't have sex without life (Rod Stewart being the exception that proves the rule).

What is this nonsense about hiding sex from our poor delicate little children? I'm sure this is what causes so many sexual hang-ups in society. We make it weird by being weird about it.

Of course, it comes from Christianity. And modern perception of children as another species. I'm sure when families lived 12 to a room there was no chance of hiding the facts of life from the little ones.
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