The new dirty mac brigade

Who are the real sad gits - those who seek some quick relief from a dirty video, or the cultural and literary elite who now think that porn is profound?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

‘The intent of a sex film is sexual arousal. That is not the intention behind this film.’ So said Sue Clarke, director of communications at the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), as she explained why the BBFC bigwigs decided to pass Michael Winterbottom’s full-on 9 Songs uncut. In case you haven’t heard, 9 Songs has 35 minutes of real, sweaty sex, fellatio and cunnilingus filmed in gritty close-up, between American newcomer Margot Stilley and Brit actor Kieran O’Brien (a little disconcerting for those of us who remember O’Brien as one of the poorly kids in the 1980s BBC drama Children’s Ward).

The BBFC, not previously known for its open-mindedness, says 9 Songs is good to go because it is sensual not sexual (1). And if its intention had been to sexually arouse rather than to explore ‘the development of a relationship between two people’? Presumably the self-appointed BBFC – which has a Sir and a Lord in its ranks – would have prevented it from going on general release by giving it a Restricted 18 certificate, meaning it could only be sold in licensed sex shops with all those other films whose filthy business is sexual arousal. The BBFC’s attitude to films with hardcore sex seems to be: you can look but don’t touch (yourself).

I’m all in favour of films being passed without being chopped, and wish the BBFC would extend its attitude to 9 Songs – ‘adults should be free to choose whether or not to see it’ – to all other films (2). But the BBFC’s distinction between this explicit sex film that (allegedly) makes you think, and other explicit sex films that make you want to have a wank, says a lot about today’s topsy-turvy attitude to pornographic material. It sometimes seems as though hardcore sex is everywhere, passing uncut through the BBFC’s plush offices, on display and up for debate in posh art galleries, made cool by Hollywood, and theorised over in academic tomes; yet those who use porn for what it’s intended for, a cheap three-minute thrill in the privacy of their own home, can still be frowned upon. What’s going on?

Until 1984 the BBFC was known as the British Board of Film Censors, and spent its days making rulings on penises (which could never appear more than ‘slightly tumescent’) and vaginas (inner labia could not be shown but outer labia sometimes could be) (3). Yet in recent years BBFC officials have passed films that, in the words of one critic, straddle ‘the bridge between art and pornography’ (4). No cuts were made to Catherine Breillat’s Romance, an arthouse French film starring an Italian porn actor (Rocco Siffredi), or to Lars von Trier’s The Idiots, which shows penetrative sex. In 2000, the BBFC finally passed Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1976 interpretation of the work of the Marquis de Sade, Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom.

Hollywood may still balk at showing a penis, never mind a slightly tumescent one, but it also has developed a fascination with the pornographic. From The People vs Larry Flynt, starring Woody Harrelson as the founder of Hustler magazine, to Paul Thomas Anderson’s sweeping epic on the 1970s LA porn scene, Boogie Nights, to the recent Wonderland, starring Val Kilmer as the doomed 80s porn actor John Holmes, Hollywood has a new breed of hero – the porno-hero, cool, trashy and interesting. According to one critic, these films show that porn can reveal something about the human condition (5).

Porn has even made it into the hallowed halls of Britain’s art establishments. This week the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London is hosting a series of debates under the heading ErotICA, featuring such illuminaries as Ovidie, a French porn star and author of The Porno Manifesto, and the people behind Ben Dover, a series of porn films where the leading ladies are asked to….do I really need to spell it out? This isn’t the first time the ICA has dabbled with porn – when Zadie Smith was writer-in-residence there in 2001 she edited a book entitled Piece of Flesh, for which five young writers were invited to contribute ‘porno-stories’ (6).

And porn has become fashionable. Having tired of ‘heroin chic’, the fashion world apparently moved on to ‘porno chic’ in the naughty noughties, using pouty models with garish make-up to shift their wares (7). A 15-year-old friend of my 15-year-old brother wears a t-shirt that says ‘Porn star in training’, apparently available to buy in teen clothes stores on any high street.

It’s official: porn has become cool. But there is little to celebrate in today’s penchant for porno-culture. It hasn’t come about as a result of some positive impulse to challenge censorship or break the rules or have a bit of the old sexual liberation, but rather because in our ‘anything goes’ age society no longer feels able to make moral judgements. It is doubt and uncertainty about what is right and wrong and where to draw the line between public and private that has given rise to the porno-age.

Consider the BBFC’s refusal to censure even the sex-fest 9 Songs. The busybodies have not become champions of free speech – if they had, they would do the sensible thing and abolish themselves. They’ve simply lost the moral plot. On 9 Songs, a BBFC spokesperson said: ‘The board doesn’t make moral decisions, because what is morally wrong for one person is not morally wrong for another.’ (8) That’s a remarkable thing for the BBFC to say, an organisation that once had an unofficial ‘Mull of Kintyre rule’ on penises, which meant cocks could never be shown anymore aroused than the extent to which the Mull of Kintyre protrudes from Scotland (look at a map and you’ll see what it means). Yet in our relativist age, the BBFC, like every other institution of public life, is unsure whether its morality is any better than anyone else’s.

That the ‘new openness’ is driven more by official doubt than by a clamour for liberation is clear from the fact that the BBFC remains petty and censorious – but only on what it considers to be safer ground. So it recently cut 10 seconds from the French arthouse-cum-porno flick Baise Moi (translation: Fuck Me) because the sex depicted included ‘pain and humiliation’. The arty sex of 9 Songs is okay, but rough and ready sex is not. Feeling its moral authority being sapped, the BBFC is forced to look for new lines to hold, in this case on the depiction of anything resembling sexual violence. And we can expect that the more the BBFC loses its moral bearings the more, and harder, it will clamp down on what is still seen as unacceptable, in a desperate bid to anchor itself at a time when ‘what is morally wrong for one person is not morally wrong for another…’ This is about deep moral uncertainty, rather than openness or liberation.

What we have today is the transformation of this uncertainty into an apparently positive porno-fest. Society’s inability to make a clear distinction between art and porn, or between private acts and public depictions of them, is experienced as being somehow playful, daring, sexy – to the extent that literary figures, academics and curators now celebrate porn, or erotica or hardcore or whatever, claiming that it says something profound about the human condition. No it doesn’t – though their fascination with it reveals something profound about our dumbed down and degraded culture.

Ironically, the new porn-celebrators snobbishly look down their noses at the old porn-users, distinguishing between their own superior and enlightened appreciation of porn and the grubby fumbling of the dirty mac brigade who scour Soho for titillating and exploitative films. For example, as film critic Mark Kermode notes, the BBFC has a tendency to pass foreign-language films that show hardcore sex because it has a ‘bias in favour of the arthouse and its middle-class audience’. That is, in favour of those who can watch hardcore sex without being tempted to pleasure themselves into a coma or commit an act of violence against the nearest woman – unlike the masses, who, according to the BBFC, can apparently be ‘excited’ into an ‘aggressive response’ upon watching violent pornography (9). In this skewed view there is good porn that is appreciated by good people, and bad porn that bad people can’t wait to get their greasy mitts on.

Sorry, but I’m with the old wankers on this one. At least they use porn for the only thing it’s vaguely good for – getting yourself off when there’s no alternative. They don’t entertain any illusions about porn being important or interesting. Their wank is a few minutes of stolen and guilty pleasure, rather than a life’s work.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Free speech

(1) Winterbottom’s sex film passed uncut, Empire Online, 19 October 2004

(2) This will open the floodgates to hardcore porn, Telegraph, 24 October 2004

(3) The BBFC, pornography and censorship,, August 2000

(4) Ai No Corrida, MovieMail, 2000

(5) Boogie Nights: Fact or Fiction?, Good Vibrations, March 1998

(6) See ErotICA, ICA, October 2004

(7) Why porno chic is riling the French, Business Week, 30 July 2001

(8) Key three unfazed by real sex in 9 Songs, Guardian, 25 October 2004

(9) The Limits of Sex, Sight and Sound, July 2001

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Topics Politics


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