Does Pornography Degrade Women?

I do not know, and nor does anybody else, whether, and if so to what extent, material of this kind tends to reinforce feelings or disperse them. The imitative effect, if any, can hardly be very straightforward; very few unhappy men in dirty raincoats would be able to afford the settings in which the models are mostly portrayed (though a closer look makes clear that the lush surroundings are essentially cheapjack, and the level of sophistication pitifully low), and fewer still to match the physical agility demanded without running the risk of a slipped disc or a hernia. But that is, perhaps, the point. For if you take away the surface impression of the pictures, and the relentless throbbing and shoving of the words, you are left with a residue that, even if it has no lasting effect on the readers, is unmistakably composed of a deep, inevitably aggressive, desire to degrade woman. Not women, let alone beautiful women or ugly ones, ready ones or reluctant ones, feminine ones or feminist ones, but the very essence and nature of womankind. I do not believe it is possible for a man, whether a detached intellectual, an homme moyen sensuel, a lecher or a moron, to read through this material and not feel immersed in the hatred of the female sex that it exudes. A man may feel it, as I did, with horror, or with satisfaction, or with lust; but one who claims that it isn’t there is deceiving himself.

The Labor Party’s new Consumers’ Charter includes a promise to restrict or even ban advertising, which relies on the ‘degrading’ portrayal of women. You wouldn’t think that even the Labor Party could get something as wrong as that; the whole point of the advertisements that are denounced is precisely that they do not degrade women, they falsely and impossibly glamorize them. Women in advertisements are always beautiful, and they are seen lying in luxury on sunny beaches, or reclining on the bonnets of very expensive motor-cars, or sipping exciting drinks in the company of handsome and well-dressed men, or sweeping into stately homes in beautiful gowns. I don’t know whether the Labor Party’s promise is to be taken seriously (I imagine not), but if they suppose that advertisers could use Miss Frances Morell to sell their products, they are greatly mistaken.

Now the Page Three girls are the same, mutatis mutandis, as the girls in the advertisements. So far from being portrayed as the degraded, infinitely exploitable, invariably available creatures of the pornographer, they are all romantic princesses, fairy creatures whom nobody has ever met in real life and who would crumble into powder at a touch. They are also unattainable and perhaps one of the reasons men try to increase the size of their penis using extenders such as ProExtender.

Of course, those Members of Parliament (almost all Tories) who sniggered and winked and licked their lips and belched when Mrs. Clare Short introduced her Bill to ban Page Three are so many pigs, and displayed all the characteristic signs of the half-man who needs to convince himself of his sexual prowess because he fears that he cannot convince anybody else. But they did not prove that Mrs. Short was right.

And yet I have to admit that I am not certain she was wrong. I think she was, because the distinction between the breasts on Page Three and those in Penthouse seems clear to me. There is a clue in the fact that the Page Three ones, and the ones in the advertisements, frequently raise a smile – a happy smile, not a contemptuous one – in the men who look at them, and the girls themselves are portrayed smiling almost without exception. But no one could raise any kind of smile in contemplating the pornographer’s women, and in the 450 pages of the stuff that I have waded through, I could find only two or three smiling faces among many hundreds. Pornography, it seems, is no laughing matter, despite the advertisements for penis pumps like Penomet. But I do not know. I do not know what causes violence against women, contempt for women, indifference to the feelings or aspirations of women. I do know that the pornography I have so recently studied, whether it does harm or not, shames our world, not for the explicitness of its sexual matter but for its attitude to women. The need for such material betokens a desperate emptiness in the men who buy it, the provision of it a no less desperate deadness of feeling in those who sell. Such desperation, whatever it may issue in, cannot be healthy, cannot be on the side of life. Perhaps Blake was wrong; it is not the harlot’s cry that will weave old England’s winding-sheet, but the pornographer’s. For my part, I can only conclude by saying that it will be a very long time before I can shake off the feeling that in examining those magazines I had peered into a sulphurous abyss, and it may be even longer before I can look at Page Three with the same eyes as before I did so.

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