Tales From the UK Sexual Underground
By Bruce Barnard
Paperback, 192 pages, 15th November 2005, Headpress, £8.39 (Amazon)
Most Brits are aware of their society's contrary attitude to sex, although it doesn't often come into sharp focus until we visit mainland Europe and get shocked by the more relaxed attitude towards human flesh. Given that debate about sex is often dominated by those seeking to restrict access to pornography (on both ends of the political spectrum), there is a distinct lack of information about the subject. Why and how do some people get into pornography? Bruce Barnard, someone who appreciated whatever pornography he could get his hands on during his deprived adolesence, investigated the UK sex trade in 2005 to try and get some answers.
Don't be fooled; although Bruce knows his pornography, this isn't simply a titillating description of porn sets. His hard-won interviews (unsurprisingly, many in the porn industry are reluctant to chat to any old stranger), reveal open-mindedness and practicality amongst producers and performers alike. Given the danger that many in the industry still face from the UK's confused pornography and prostitution laws, there's a surprising lack of bitterness, but just about everyone agrees that what Britons could really do with is a less hypocritical attitude to sex. Bruce reminds us in his chapter about the BBFC that violence is treated with more tolerance by the censor than sex, despite the fact that the latter, between consenting adults, hurts no-one.
Our laws mean that activities such as group sex, dogging, and the more niche interest of bukkake have to take place in furtively-organised parties, with Bruce's interviews revealing more than one surprise for those who see pornography as a miserable, soul-less, exploitative business. Sandie Caine, a popular organiser of gang-bang and bukkake parties, happily explains that she got into porn after a messy split-up, and found that not only did her bank balance get a boost, but so did her confidence. Giving up her day job, she's at pains to point out that the UK porn scene is a lot more fun than that of the US, with the woman being the star here, rather than the man as in the US. Both her and Bruce don't approve of the more misogynistic porn being produced in the US, and, in my limited experience, the trailers for British porn do indeed seem a lot more fun than their US counterparts, with some titles appearing to be a more explicit version of a Confessions film; no bad thing in my opinion. Sandie is behind the camera nowadays, but Bruce does talk to a performer, who defends herself by explaining that each bukkake session pays more than anal scenes, and that she doesn't have to touch the men involved if she doesn't want to. Bruce's understandable concerns about the hygiene implications are brushed away with the assurance that most men demonstrate a gentlemanly attitude and keep away from eyes, nose and mouth. Indeed, a man who hosts bukkake parties emphasises how the practise is an expression of female worship, although it's impossible to tell whether that's at the forefront of every attendee's mind.
Bruce is an engaging and funny writer, who gets himself into some interesting situations, including a gay porn shoot and his own stint working the gay sex phonelines (having worked out that he's not cut out to be an escort, and that women don't generally phone premium-rate lines for sexual thrills - because if they did, someone would be making money out of it), which are fun to read, although perhaps don't reveal that much of interest. However, his interview with a STD nurse certainly does, in the same way that all hospital stories reveal much that is fascinating about human psychology, and also allows Bruce to point out that our society's outrage about teenage sex sits uncomfortably with the 'tweenage' market, selling sexuality to girls unable to understand it. This also reminded me of the notorious anti-paedophile protests in Portsmouth, where one of the protestors was a pre-pubescent girl, in full make-up. I believe the irony may have been lost on the crowd.
In the course of Bruce's investigations, he encounters the Manager-Boyfriend Syndrome, where men who want to get into porn are guaranteed a career if they bring their sexy girlfriend along, but are often left holding the coats as their girlfriend gets more work than they do. The couple Bruce encounters are unfortunately typical, and he is as disturbed as the reader when he becomes a witness to domestic violence, not least because the only help he can offer is temporary. Although the woman involved does pornography out of choice, she seems sadly in thrall to her real threat.
As well as those producing, performing and selling pornography, Bruce also investigates those who are against it, such as Mediawatch UK and a self-help group for those addicted to the stuff. His interview with John Beyer, head of Mediawatch UK, reveals a confused and impotent man (no, not in that way, he doesn't probe THAT deeply), who clearly is having trouble coping with a more liberalised Britain, and who has considerably more trouble recruiting and leading campaigns than Mary Whitehouse, the leader of The Listeners' and Viewers' Association, of which Mediawatch UK is the modern incarnation. Bruce points out the novelty of this group's alliances with feminist organisations, who would support lifestyles that John himself would almost certainly disapprove of, but presumably puts aside in the crusade against porn. John continually makes erroneous links between mainstream porn and child porn, something which is universally condemned amongst those in the mainstream industry, and it is true that the link is made rather too readily by those seeking to criticise adult porn.
You may notice that I have a lot of sympathy with the viewpoint of the writer, who sees porn as a perfectly legitimate aspect of adult sexuality, but I do think it's a shame that he chooses to indulge in a few stereotypes himself whilst wanting to smash others. Feminism, for example, is treated as one homogeneous movement, when this really isn't the case. Being pro-porn doesn't exclude you from being a feminist; after all, the whole point of feminism was for women to be treated with the same respect as men, and he scarcely seems opposed to that. Also, although he rightly documents the experience of Linda Lovelace with sympathy, he sadly dismisses anti-porn campaigners as being scared of penises, rather than connecting Linda's experience with the anger of these campaigners, who see it as just another aspect of patricarchy. My view, backed by the evidence in this book, is that it's a lot more complicated than that, as women are capable of willingly participating in the porn industry, as performers, producers and consumers. Although I disagree with a lot of what anti-porn campaigners have to say, I do at least respect where they're coming from, and I think the book would have been improved if Bruce hadn't used it to express some of his ill-informed resentment towards those making him feel guilty for enjoying porn.
Another problem Bruce doesn't tackle directly is that his study of the industry is inevitably one-sided, as those who have been coerced into porn are normally prevented from contacting outside parties. Bruce himself explains that the legal and societal status of the sex industry means participants are wary of responding to requests for interviews, as this is a common tactic for stalkers and the like. However, this isn't a fault of the industry itself rather than the crimes committed in its name. Wendy McElory expands on this eleoquently in A Feminist Defense of Pornography. This doesn't detract from the fascinating insights that Bruce provides, though, and although the outcome of his final task, a 24-hour porn marathon, is quite predictable, I'd encourage anyone to read this book, as it provides a valuable balance to the confused picture of human sexuality provided by the UK's mainstream media.