If, as Jay Leno suggested, politics is showbusiness for ugly people, then parliamentary conventions such as private members’ bill and early day motions must be something akin to Warhol’s oft-cited aphorism about everyone having ‘fifteen minutes of fame’.
The majority of EDMs and PMBs often seem to be little more than a convenient means for a back-bench nonentity to stick their head above the parliamentary parapet in the vain hope that someone might just notice their existence…
…and so it transpires that this week’s honourable meerkat is one Claire Curtis-Thomas MP, who appears to have been the MP for Crosby since 1997, not as if anyone outside Crosby appears to have noticed this, and her particular bete noir, which she’s currently hawking around the press after the fashion of a mendicant friar, truns out to be ‘Lad’s Mags’ and the Daily/Sunday Sport, which she thinks should be consider pornography and consigned to the retail purgatory that is the newsagent’s top shelf.
As to exactly why Claire has suddenly chosen to the let the outside know of her existence, one can only speculate, although one has to wonder whether the impending disappearance of her constituency in the next tranche of Boundary Commission changes might not just have a little something to with it, not least as the seat that will replace Crosby – Sefton Central – has all the appearances of being a Tory-Lib Dem marginal.
Other than that, it appears Claire’s most notable achievements since becoming an MP lie in her being one of the few engineers in parliament, and possible the only female engineer, coupled with stints on the Science and Technology, Home Affairs and, since the last election, Trade and Industry Select Committees and the unenviable record of being parliament’s most expensive MP in 2003/4 and second most expensive in 2002/3, much of which seems to come down to her racking up some pretty hefty postage bills. However, and to be scrupulously fair, a qucik look over her voting record at They Work For You turns up a few pleasant surprises, notably rebellions on ID cards, where she voting against the creeping compulsion aspects of designated documents, so she does have one or two things to recommend her.
All that, however is by the by as what I’m really interested in her is her ‘topshelf campaign‘, out of which, just this week, she’s scored herself a short op-ed piece in the Indy – which, amazingly, isn’t stuck behind their usual pay-per-view – plus a piss-poor fluff piece by Zoe Williams over at the Graun, which prompted this nicely constructed evisceration by Matt at Fisking Central (via Antonia).
Now, as regulars might know, MoT is hardly a bastion of political correctness, not because your erstwhile commentator is a seething bundle of isms and ists but simply because I really can’t be doing with all the po-faced euphemisms and other mealy-mouthed bullshit that goes with being PC, even if it does sometimes get me into trouble as, from time to time, I get readers who can’t really tell is I’m for real or just being deliberately ironic in some of my comments.
So, for starters, if Claire is looking for an argument that’ll convince me that the likes of Zoo, Nuts and FHM should be consigned to the top-shelf she’d be much better served by playing on the natural sense of curmudgeonliness that all folks of my age begin to develop – in short, if teenage lads want something to wank over then I don’t see why they should have it any easier than I did at their age or be deprived of the opportunity to learn a valuable skill in the process; that of distracting the newsagent while one of your mates shop-lifts a copy of Fiesta.
Kids today, they just have it way too fucking easy.
That aside, the problem I have with Claire’s campaign is not that I object to here put forward the idea that some sort of age restriction on access to Lads Mags might not have some merit but rather that she doesn’t seem to entirely clear exactly what her campaign is really all about.
The obvious parallel to draw here is between this Claire and the other, rather more well-known Clare (Short) and her campaign to get the tits off page three of the Sun – although she might have been better served in trying to get the twats out of News International… but that’s another story.
The thing with Clare Short is that while I can’t say I agreed with her campaign, simply from the standpoint of not being comfortable with anything that smack of official censorship, at the very least I could respect where she was coming from. Clare’s objection to ‘page three’ was consistently based on her feminist beliefs and principles, so you knew exactly where she was coming from on this issue and why and you could, therefore, respect her views purely on that basis alone. The whole thing was commendable honest, clear and completely above board.
The problem I have with our latter day Claire is that it’s not possible to say the same – drill down into Indy article a little way and you find much the same feminist-inspired arguments about the ‘objectification as women’ that were the hallmark of the other’s Clare’s ruckus with the Sun over a decade ago, which is fair enough, if that’s what she really thinks.
Trouble is, when it gets to the sound-bites that’s not Claire’s line at all – no, when there’s a headline to written it’s stuff the feminist principles cos I’m really only doin’ it for the kids…
Now, again, if Claire, or anyone, genuinely thinks that the content of Lad’s Mags and the Daily Sport is a bit too strong for unrestricted public comsumption by minors then that’s fair enough – its a valid line of argument – but it’s not one that necessarily sits well with the whole principled feminist view of the whole situation.
The fact is that you don’t have to see what some people would consider to be ‘soft porn’ as being exploititive or demeaning to women in order to take the view that it not really the kind of thing that you want to be seeing kids get hold of, so it really makes no sense at all to conflate that view of things with a more generalised objection to porn based on a view that:
Women in these publications are shown only as cheap, contemptible sexual commodities, fit to be subjected to a range of exploitative, violent and degrading activities.
Okay, so might reasonable for society to prefer teenage lads to grow up with a rather more positive view of women but I’ve still never quite seen the logic behind the contention that something that’s intolerable because its allegedly exploitative, violent and degrading suddenly becomes tolerable, or at least more tolerable, simply on account of a birthday.
It’s probably more of a realistic line of argument to say that some of the stuff in Lad’s mags, definitely in to top-shelf stuff, tends to create a rather unrealistic set of expectations when it comes to sex, although probably no more so than the kind of strange expectations that school sex education is science lesson did back in my day, wherin the actual mechanics of intercourse tended to be decribed hurriedly in terms of the penis entering the vagina, following which ejaculation occurs – probably no to far from the truth for most lads the first couple of time, but you would have thought they might just have got around to mentioning the wiggling it about a bit stage in-between…
…which is the bit that most lads picked up courtesy of the traditional art of shop-lifting for ‘jazz’ mags, because the only time you’d hear any talk of thrust in the classroom was during a physics lesson.
Then again, the whole legal framework around sexuality and pornography is raddled with hypocrisy anyway. Sex is legal at sixteen – with consent, obviously – but porn, even of the old-school soft porn variety is a no-no until you hit eighteen, which seems to me to make no sense at all unless the period from 16 to 18 is supposed to be some sort of apprenticeship stage where you’re expected just to stick to the basics – I’m guessing that thrust gets a mention in school sex-ed classes these days – before moving on to the advanced stuff a bit later on.
The other slightly sureal aspect all this for me is the suggestion that there’s somehow an equivalence between the likes of FHM and the kind of mags you actually find on the top-shelf in newsagents. That may well be the case in relation to WH Smiths, which I can’t say I recall ever really carrying a significant range of top-shelf stuff – Playboy and Penthouse always seemed to be the limits for Smith’s – soft porn, sure, but also soft-focus and with a few ‘artistic’ pretentions. Rarely, if even, can I recall ever seeing Smith’s selling even the slightly stronger brit-porn mags like Fiesta or Mayfair… you had to shop-lift in John Menzies to pick up those.
Head down to your local independent newsagent, these days, and things look very different from when I was I was teenager.
Back then, pretty much as much as you could get away with in terms of pictorials was the classic ‘solo girl giving the shagpile an airing’ look – to get hold of anything more explicit without a trip down to Soho in those meant you were limited to a strictly black and white magazine called forum, which was about the size of one those booklets that Reader’s Digest used to post out in obscence quanitiies, nver to be read by anyone with the merest shred of personality. If you taste’s ran to anything more exotic then either got lucky with the latest ‘Reader’s Wives’ or you could forget it.
These days the dividing line between legal and illegal in terms of what you can get away with on the top shelf seems to be a matter of couple of millimeters’ this being distance that the tongue is required to remain away from actually touching the stiffy, and the range of different material on offer in your average newsagent cum convenience store – straight, gay, fetish ,etc – seems to be enough to exhaust even the most dedicated consumer, and that’s without even touching on the whole realms of satellite porn channels and, of course, the internet.
These things are relative, of course, but even the most in-your-face Lad’s mag is still as far, if not farther from, the kind of stuff you find on the top-shelf, these days, than page three was from the average top-shelf mag of 20-25 years ago.
Let’s be frank here – and I don’t mean that twatty government-fiction of a Frank, either – if what you’re genuinely concerned about is kids getting hold of explicit material then you’d be better off legislating to ban the supply of internet connections to parents without a mandatory piece of net nanny software and the training to configure the fucking thing properly – getting all fired up over the nipple count in the current FHM is really just pissing in the wind on this one.
Somewhere off the back of all this there’s a sensible and adult debate to be had about pornography and its position in society, the kind of debate that looks at liberalising some of the present regulations on content while putting in place effective and sensible restrictions on access, and most importantly of all, as with what should be the approach to prostitution, providing adequate protection in law for industry workers.
Somwhere is all that, there may well be room to consider whether anything can be done to channel society’s routine surfeit of overheated teenage testosterone in the direction of a somewhat more positive view and appreciation of women – but if there is something that can be done then I very much doubt that’s it going to revolve around sticking Lad’s mags on the top shelf – you’d think that by now we’d have all got the message that prohibition simply doesn’t work.
If anyone’s looking for an idea that might have some effect, then I’d suggest you think more in terms of the growing market for porn aimed primarily at women, much of which is being made by women producers and directors and which tends to offer an much more naturalistic and in most respects romantic/erotic view of sex and sexuality than the usual kind of ‘let’s see how many orifices we can fill and get the camera in real close’ kind of stuff that dominates much of the material that’s produced, directed and aimed at men. As a good friend of mine noted a while back, when she’s watching porn with her girlfriend (and no, that’s not a typo) they can tell within the first few minutes of scene whether the director was male or female without checking the credits simply because, as she put in her usual forthright manner, ‘real dykes just don’t shag like they do in the movies’.
(I ought to say, in addition, that based on personal experience of the university I attended, there was no quicker or more effective means of getting well-rid of any illusions or pretensions of political correctness than a weekly drinking session in the SU bar with the girls of the LGB Soc, most of whom could, on their own, out un-PC a battallion of Royal Marines and who were all the best drinking buddies for it – so there…)
Who knows, maybe there a partial answer somewhere in that – keep the age restriction on the more extreme stuff at 18, maybe even up the restriction to 21 on really in-your-face material, but allow 16-17 year olds to have access to the kind of naturalistic, genuine, erotica that’s becoming increasingly popular amongst women, the kind that depicts sex as mutual, and dare I say, loving experience. If anything, its much more logical response than simple prohibition to the Claire’s question about:
what message does it send to boys and young men about the value that society places on women?
Is it not better to give a postive message that values sex and sexuality than no message at all – especially if one believes that what teenagers see in magazines, on TV or on the internet has any significant influence on attitudes? Who know, given, a slight more enlightened view of such things and you might even end up, for the first time in British history, with a generation of young men who not only know what a clitoris is but where to find it and what to do with it when they get there – which has to be a improvement over the current situation.
Like it or not, porn is, these days, a bona fide industry – you may not like the product but you can’t pretend either that there isn’t a massive.and highly lucrative market for or it or that, these day, there aren’t a hell of lot of women making a damn good living out of it at all levels of the industry and not just from being the product itself – all of which makes the kind of obvious gesture politics of Claire’s top-shelf campaign look rather banal and futile, however well intentioned it may be.