Philip Larkin and how internet porn began in 1963 (sort of)

Lady-Chatterley-006

1963 was a remarkable year. Among the glut of cultural and historical anniversaries — Dr Who, the assassination of JFK, Billy Liar and Oh What Lovely War! — we should I reckon be marking 50 years since the invention of sex, as per the Philip Larkin poem:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

The second verse holds the key word – Shame:

Up to then there’d only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for the ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.

It’s easy to forget the depth of shame that covered every aspect of young people’s sexual lives till then. Novelist, Fay Weldon recently told me on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour programme how her generation was weighed down by terrifying ignorance and shame of their own bodies and sexuality: “We didn’t even have the vocabulary to explain or understand our bodies. We were so ignorant.”
The Pill and the busting of 50s attitudes seemed hugely liberating. But Weldon, a hugely successful copywriter in the 1960s before she became well known as a feminist and novelist, saw first hand though how quickly corporations ,aided by manipulative advertising, appropriated the language of freedom and “choice” to keep men and women consuming, often to the detriment of their health. She fell out with her advertising bosses when, given the growing scientific evidence about lung disease, she refused to work on cigarette campaigns.
Betty Friedan’s landmark book The Feminine Mystique was all about the link between consumer culture and the epidemic of depression among women in America’s affluent society.
The line I always remember from Friedan’s field research is: “Clean sheets twice a week are now possible.” Labour-saving gadgets, such as washer dryers, she saw, could create new anxieties and guilt, like much of the beauty industry. The Pill, rather than a pure a liberation, could also become a false choice that merely made it harder for women to say No, without being labelled frigid.
I suspect Philip Larkin, himself a big user of pornography, would have been rather unbothered by the bitter political row today over internet opt-in controls to limit access to online hardcore porn. But the debate is deadlocked over the idea of “freedom”. The powerful modern instinct for free choice – itself a product of the 60s rebellion against 50s authoritarian culture – has pitted us into a false battle of Mary Whitehouse “censorship” versus joyous Steve Jobs-style” choice”, accessed through a variety of cool devices.
Such campaigners for freedom tend to ignore some questionable marketing practices of brands like Apple and Google and the unintended consequences of assuming children are equipped to make decisions in the same way as adults.
A school sex education teacher recently told me how some very young and vulnerable teenage girls she has counselled believe the new HPV vaccine means they’re “safe” to have unprotected sex with multiple casual partners. They don’t question the idea of having so many partners at such a young age. Or why teenage boys pester them to perform acts they’ve seen in porn.
Back in the 80s the Aids tombstone campaign terrified my generation of teenagers. It didn’t stop us having sex. But it probably encouraged us to think a lot more about it before we did. And to demand barrier protection with every new partner.
The word “ignorance” featured in that famous government campaign – Don’t Die of Ignorance. Now under the banner of choice and free will, we kid ourselves that we are no longer ignorant, nor ashamed (though sadly growing religious minorities continue to raise their children in traditional ignorance). But I wonder how else we should describe our general refusal to question the sexting culture in which so many of our young women and men are growing up under such pressures to perform?
We used to dismiss the Cassandras who warned about children being targeted by junkfood brands, until Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me exposed the connection between marketing and illhealth. Why else is the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges (representing just about every UK doctor) battling against a very powerful foodmanufacturing lobby, for a ban on all junk food advertising? Sex, like food, should be a joyous part of life. The battle to liberate it from the false mystique of consumer choice may be the one we need to write books about and celebrate 50 years from now.

A version of this piece first appeared in The Big Issue Magazine in March. Packed with features, it’s journalism worth paying for and is available from street vendors across the UK.

Further reading

Philip Larkin: Annus Mirabilis poem

1963: A Remarkable Year equality battles on race and gender from the (AARP)American Association of Retired Persons website

Witness: The Feminine Mystique BBC World Service Feb 2013

Faye Weldon on her adventures in Mad Men era advertising

Loaded magazine ex-editor: Now I’m a father I bitterly regret it (June 2012)

Academy of Medical Royal Colleges calls for ban on junk food advertising Feb 2013

 

 

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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