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The Real Great British Porn Experiment Began in 1970

19/06/2013 13:48 BST | Updated 17/08/2013 10:12 BST

Last week I attended Generation XXX, a symposium on internet porn organised by Eleanor Mills, Associate Editor of the Sunday Times, and featuring Gail Dines, Professor of Sociology and Women's Studies at Wheelock College Boston, who delivered an impassioned and hard-hitting keynote speech about the spread of the multi-billion dollar porn industry into our lives and the lives of our children.

The following day Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton and Hove, ran a debate in the House of Commons on the subject of media sexism, and with an impressive presentation of evidence, hard facts and anecdote pointed out the harm that normalised 'Page 3' style sexism does to our society.

The two issues are connected along the same continuum, from root cause to inevitable result: the publicly visible spread of casual porn throughout the media over the last few decades, to the easy accessibility of abusive porn throughout the new 'public space' of the internet today.

Gail Dines called internet porn a great 'cultural experiment' in the sense that our young people are the first generation for which the world of violent and degrading porn is so easily accessible. The real great British porn experiment actually began much earlier than that though, in 1970 when an image previously described as 'porn', available only within age-restricted publications on the top shelf, was first placed in a mass circulation non age-restricted daily newspaper.

It was the generation who came of age in the Seventies who were first conditioned into the message of porn and it started when the Sun, with the introduction of Page 3, gave explicit permission to the general public, young and old, to view women as sexually available commodities.

Pre-1970 we had the non-porn arena and the porn arena, and they were separate. Porn was unseen but easily available in mainstream retail outlets for those who wanted it. 1970 changed all that. The establishment of daily porn as an entitlement began then, and over the years has proliferated in the public space, with images on the front covers of newspapers like the Sport and the Star, and the introduction of 'lads' mags' displayed openly and no longer restricted to the top shelf, despite the fact that their covers and content are far more 'pornified' than that of the old 'Playboy'.

What happened was a change in semantics which allowed porn in to the public arena under a different name. Porn models became 'glamour models', porn mags became 'lads' mags', and therefore no restriction was needed. The public dehumanising objectification of women has continued unchecked under the guise of 'being something else'. We don't even notice when a magazine full of half-naked young women blatantly calls itself 'Zoo'.

Every image we see has an underlying message which we unconsciously absorb, and as Gail Dines pointed out, when viewing images 'there is something about the human mind and brain that needs to believe they're true'.

The image of Page 3 is designed to create a specific fantasy of a sexually-willing available young woman. She displays her naked breasts invitingly and pouts or smiles direct to camera. In so doing she makes eye-contact with the (supposedly male) viewer, creating the illusion that she is in relationship with only him. As an illustration of what this means, and borrowing the Sun's own language: Amy, 19, from Plymouth enters into a willing one-to-one sexual relationship with, say, Frank, 61, from Stockport. Frank, having been invited in, is then able to spin his own particular sexual fantasy in relation to Amy, and Amy's expression will not change throughout. In other words she will remain willing and happy whatever Frank chooses to do.

Page 3 establishes this basic fantasy that women are objects to be used, and that crucially, they enjoy it. Abusive porn extends that fantasy into physical abuse and graphically illustrates it with real actors. The illusion of porn is based on the same premise that the Page 3 sub-text suggests on a daily basis and in a public culturally-condoned form.

When society has already established the position and role of women (and implicitly the normal relationship between women and men) through images young people unconsciously internalise, it's hardly surprising that they think internet porn reflects 'real life'. If we are to tackle the harmful influence of porn on the net, we need to be looking at both ends of the continuum.

Ed Vaizey responded to Caroline Lucas last week with a protestation about the importance of 'freedom of expression'. Perhaps we should decide, as a society, whether we are happy to allow two groups - media moguls and the multi-billion dollar porn industry, to have all the 'freedom' and dictate that freedom to the rest of us.

Isabel Hardman in the Telegraph last week gave us this insight into the attitude towards Page 3 by some of our M.P.s in the House of Commons:

'[Page 3]... makes the girls look like pointless airheads with its "news in briefs" bubbles next to their nipples. Earlier this week, one informed readers that "Kelly is not surprised at the huge backlog of migration cases" and went on to quote G K Chesterton. There is, though, a group of MPs who like to read these bubbles out loud over morning coffee in the Commons tearoom. Mainly they are men. And those women sitting nearby get rather irritated to hear their colleagues mimicking airhead voices.'

As we begin the debate on the impact of internet porn on Generation XXX and look for solutions, maybe our elected representatives in government could start by recognising their own complicity in the normalisation of culture's harmful messages about the role of women.