Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Won't somebody think of the children!

Dangerous to innocent minds?
Many years ago, on a family holiday in Cornwall – at Polzeath, where you can actually ride the surf on a body board – days on the long, golden sands were punctuated by parental observations about a man who always seemed to be near us on the beach.

He was middle aged and, if memory serves correctly, he was with his own family. What made him worthy of repeated comment was his choice of swimwear.

Because he was sporting very brief briefs.

I can’t remember who started the comments, but I suspect it was my mother. The briefs were a problem precisely because they were brief.

Memory conjures up my mother suggesting, in all seriousness, that my father should report him to somebody – even the police. For wearing the sort of briefs that you’d probably have seen on Mark Spitz in the pool.

This would, indeed, have probably been around the time of Spitz’s great triumph at the 1972 Olympics, or maybe a year or so later at most.

Given the paucity of evidence on the matter and the notorious unreliability of memory, I can only conclude that my parents, and my mother in particular, considered such attire too ‘revealing’ for a family beach.

But there is a moral to the story. Quite simply, the only reason that I remember the incident at all is because of parental outrage.

I didn’t go around, at the time, staring at men’s crotches and lewdly contemplating the degree of bulge contained by tight bathing briefs or tight jeans.

It is entirely likely that I would not only not have remembered the incident, but would not even have noticed the man himself in the first place had it not been pointed out with such prudish indignation.

It was my mother who looked and saw, not a man in bathing briefs, but, in effect, sex.

But then again, this was a parent who insisted that one of her daughters should not be allowed to bathe for most of a holiday because she was having a period and could not possibly be allowed to use tampons (it’s fairly obvious why those were considered verboten).

Of course, it’s quite amusing now to consider the belief that a simple bulge, even covered by the tightest of clothing, has the capacity to corrupt and deprave.

Does it work the same for boobs or is it just man bits?

Or would that largely depend on the sex of the children that one believed were likely to be corrupted, in combination with a belief that they were – obviously – heterosexual?

Actually, when I first saw ‘man bits’ – not in the flesh but in a picture in a magazine that was found in a train carriage on a school trip – I was both shocked and fascinated.

It wasn’t as though I was going to find out what they looked like in pretty much any other way.

But after that, the fascinated bit meant that I went looking: there was a large newsagent that I passed on the way home from school in the evenings, and it had magazines aimed at women – Playgirl, I assume. I’d browse them surreptitiously, until the day I was spotted and harangued by a member of staff, and never went in again in a state of massive guilt.

A few years later, doing ‘voluntary’ service at the local psycho-geriatric hospital, I spent lunchtimes dragging a petition against porn around for people to sign.

I cannot for the life of me remember precisely what had set off this particular outburst of prudery, but I do remember being told off by one of the senior doctors, who asked me whether I’d really ever seen porn (deep embarrassment and a mumbled ‘yes’ and then the story of the magazine on the train and how shocking it was) and why did I think it was so bad (more red-faced mumblings).

In retrospect, it was probably the case that he’d quite quickly been able to diagnose me as being well on the way to becoming a very screwed-up and conflicted individual where sex was concerned.

If my most intense religiosity had faded by that point in my life, it had not died. It was just a few years after being carted along to service after service of a two-week evangelical ‘crusade’ in Thameside had produced the intended and pretty much inevitable result, given such sustained emotional overload (blackmail).

It would also not have been long, one way of the other, from a trip, made with bus-loads of my father’s parishoners, to the Blackpool Winter Gardens to hear Billy Graham preach in person.

It was also only a short time before I had a wildly kinky dream that actually produced an orgasm as I woke, and left me in a state of deep shock and confusion for some considerable days – the sort of experience that I could tell nobody about because of the abiding conviction that sex was a synonym for sin.

It was only a year or so later that I discovered, from a book, that puberty doesn’t just change you physically. Later, I challenged my parents over it, but they found it impossible to believe that they hadn’t given me all the information that I needed.

When I told them that I had felt ‘unclean’, like a leper, they merely responded that I could always have talked to them about it. Perceptions, eh?

When, eventually, my parents moved away from the area, I decided to stay and try to carve out my own life there.

On my first night alone, I slunk into a local ‘private shop’ and bought a magazine.

Guilt and fascination and sexual need make a damned unholy alliance, believe me.

But I’m not just penning this for the sake of idle nostalgia. It has a real and entirely serious point.

How much of the current mantra about the ‘sexualisation’ of young people is actually in the minds of those who worry about it, just as the fear that somehow my sister and I would be corrupted by a man in skimpy bathing shorts was entirely in the minds of my parents?

There are issues, I think, with the increased commoditisation of everything, and that includes our bodies, but this is not what those involved in campaigning on the issue are on about.

How much does all this moral panic actually make young people more aware than they might otherwise be? And then, of course, make porn even more taboo and even more ‘sexy’?

How much damage does the absence of proper sex education in the UK cause? And it is worth specifically mentioning faith schools, where not only are lessons unlikely to provide genuine information, but where other lessons are also more likely to create problems, while the parents of pupils at such schools are also probably less likely to offer open and clear and non-judgmental messages on sex and sexuality.

Blaming pornography is simply one more excuse for the ridiculous degree of frankly dangerous prudery in this country; for a general squeamishness about discussing sex properly and openly with young people; for an unhealthy overregard for religious sensibilities and a concomitant disregard for the health and wellbeing of young people themselves.

Elements of what passes for a ‘debate’ are even still couched in terms of ‘innocence’, as though sexual knowledge ends that – as though, indeed, children are ever non-sexual beings.

An infant may not be able to orgasm or get an erection, but they will play with their genitals precisely because it is pleasant. Attitudes of guilt and fear, convictions about sex being dirty – these things are foisted on them by adults, not by pornographic images.

I got over the conflicts and the guilt; eventually – a good two decades plus after being shaken by that dream.

My therapy – self-prescribed and administered – included writing the filthiest stories I could (it was an added bonus when they got picked up by a publisher and, as a friend put it, I got paid for my wet dreams).

I looked at porn too – what a delightful revelation and boost to the self-esteem it was to discover that there were men out there (and other women) who actually liked the more Rubenesque figure.

Because that’s not something that mainstream culture suggests at all. Quite the opposite: mainstream, non-porn culture is more interested in feeding your insecurities and thus enrolling you in the sort of lifelong self-hatred that has you spending money on diets and gyms and all manner of ‘cures’ in the hope that, one day, you’ll be able to start actually living a life that you dream of.

Nor is it just aimed at women and girls, but increasingly at men and boys, as businesses look for and create new markets.

But wouldn’t it be nice if we actually had a world where the chances of the sort of screwed-upness that I experienced were reduced?

Well, don’t make the mistake of imagining that getting rid of porn is the way to do it. Because it jolly well isn’t.


  1. It's a terrible shame you weren't a member of the Lancaster Swimming Club. The waterpolo team used to practise after the girls' swimming session (if you waited until after the practice you got an extra swimming session and if you strung it out until 8pm Hendersons Fish & Chip shop would have opened with the best and freshest of the fry - Mrs Henderson fried in beef dripping, which I have always believed contributed largely to her very long run as Labour Mayor of Lancaster). Lancaster Water polo team at that date, I can assure you, would have considered the briefs shown on Spitz as practically bloomers.