When I was in my mid teens, one of my sister’s (underage) friends snuck into my bedroom and saw me jerking off. Years later, when visiting from Oxford, I was approached in the street by two girls I didn’t recognize. They asked me if I was The One Who Masturbated. Yes, PooterGeekers, I am possibly still known as The Only Wanker In The Village Of Wilnecote. After this kind of thing, and my being paid in my early twenties (when I like to think I was rather pretty) for walking in and out of a sexual diseases clinic with a middle-aged professor who looked like Elton John, and my working in an institute where many colleagues knew me by a nickname inspired by an ex’s drunken reminiscing about my genitals, what is there left for me to be embarrassed about? It’s mainly because most Brits find the whole question of sex excruciatingly difficult to deal with that telling tales from my collection of related anecdotes is so much fun.

The practical consequences of Brits’ squeamishness and irrationality about their sexuality are, however, not fun. They are bloody depressing. We live in a country where the natives have to get drunk to the point of dyspraxia to initiate sexual contact (what a helpful state to be in if you want to avoid coercion, unwanted pregnancy, and disease!), where you can be arrested for walking around with no clothes on, but where the law protects your right to ritually mutilate your infant son’s penis before he is old enough to consent. In the UK, people’s moral reasoning about sexual matters, just like their moral reasoning about foreign policy, is characterized by vast ignorance, misdirected suspicion, and sheer fucking stupidity. It has little to do with actual consequences in the world, but a great deal to do with perceptions in minds. Trust me, you don’t know the British until you’ve heard some of their Pythonesque explanations to health care workers for their pathological sexual behaviour.

It seems unfair on Harry, following his well-intentioned post about my short Playboy essay, but I want to take advantage of some of the nasty stuff offered in his support in the comments at Harry’s Place to expand and clarify my argument. Perhaps this is even more unfair when Harry is honest enough to admit himself that he has some undesirable endorsees:

“I’m in agreement with the Stalinist Zin and the Tory Peter Cuthbertson.

I must be guilty of some crime?

Posted by Harry at August 17, 2005 05:35 PM”

Trouble is, Harry wouldn’t let it lie, so I think it’s important to what I have to say next for us to wade through the sweaty stench emanating from his fan club, even though they lost the argument pretty comprehensively over there anyway without any intervention from me. (This might explain the second extended post Harry made.)

Let’s begin with “Zin” and his non-argument:

“Pushing porno brands on underage school kids is an example of the free market unrestrained by public control. It’s obviously wrong and this product should be withdrawn immediately.

Posted by Zin at August 17, 2005 12:24 PM”

Thanks, Zin, for illustrating beautifully the contention of my original second paragraph. Pencil cases with Playboy logos are self-evidently evil and any further discussion is redundant, obviously. So, if you are reading this (or you ever read any of what I wrote), you can stop here.

Now here comes Tory Boy Peter Cuthbertson, waving the old double standard like a Union flag:

“Good post, Harry, but I don’t agree with the idea that this is about girls projecting confidence that might intimidate.

Let’s drop the polite metaphors. By “sexual confidence” what the author really means is “making themselves look easy“. Why would any man find that intimidating? It’s the very antithesis of the unsubservient, self-respecting attitude.

I do agree with Jarndyce’s thinking. I try not to buy from Boots now unless I have to, since they started distributing abortifacient contraceptives to young girls over the counter, no questions asked, and I may make a point of avoiding WHSmith for the forseeable future.

Posted by Peter at August 17, 2005 01:08 PM”

Priceless. We wouldn’t want little girls to look “easy”, would we? They can dress up as fairy princesses, hoping to find a rich and handsome prince, but we can’t have our daughters looking like slags, eh?

“Bobble-hatted Boffin” has an equally healthy way of assessing female worth, but is a little more dismissive than Peter of the threat posed by bunny-branded goods: after all it’s only the ugly birds that dress up like that isn’t it?

“It’s always amusing how behaviour that in a male would be ridiculed or thought strange is regarded as ’empowered’ in a woman or girl.
I once worked with a bloke who wore a Playboy ring. He immediately came across as a sad case who has probably never been laid.
It’s like teenage girls who walk around in T-shirts with words such as ‘sexy’ on them. You’ll notice the genuinely good-looking ones have no need for such tacky and desperate garments.

Posted by Bobble-hatted boffin at August 17, 2005 03:02 PM”

(This point is so penetrating that Bhb has submitted it twice to the discussion.)

Peter then makes a reappearance (possibly in my support) with what he fancies as a bit of “sociobiology”, but I won’t bore you with the pseudoscience. Instead you can enjoy his assertion that only well-bred girls can resist seduction by porn kings:

“Jackie’s right that bright and wealthy parents are often capable of bringing up children so well they behave responsibly even after they visit a pornographer’s house [that’s not what Jackie wrote at all, by the way]. But I just don’t think it follows from this that society should be like an obstacle course that is going to catch out as many children as possible whose parents don’t fit into this category. To paraphrase Zell Miller: we can’t all be born rich, handsome and lucky, and that’s why we need some standards which shops like WHSmith should meet.

Posted by Peter at August 17, 2005 05:27 PM”

It’s not so much the sexism this time, more the unselfconscious snobbery of it that boggles. It was randy old colonels day at Harry’s Place.

Finally though, I do have to quote someone with a woman’s name in “support” of Harry:

“Most of the people commenting here obviously don’t really give a toss about this and are reduced to commenting on the daughter of a friend, have never wondered which fourteen year old of their daughter’s acquaintance will get pregnant next, wondered if the clients of the prostitute dressed as schoolgirl standing in front of them in the corner shop queue opposite their kids’ school also fancy the pupils of the school etc etc. I love Damian’s blog but one day he will cringe at the thought of this.

Posted by mrs s at August 18, 2005 02:29 AM”

The implication here seems to be that there is some connection between girls buying Playboy-branded merchandise and teenage pregnancy and paedophilia. I’m going to mention teenage sex later, but the latter connection parallels delightfully the rapist’s “she was asking for it” argument. With so many old sexist lies being given a fresh airing that classic had to make an appearance eventually. Whodathunkit? A Left-wing website publishing chauvinist crap?

Let me make it clear: I don’t think it is something to celebrate that children are buying into a soft porn empire, but I don’t think it’s worth this media gibbering and handwringing (and two successive posts at Harry’s Place) either. It especially disturbs me that the people the original Guardian article holds up as fighting against the advance of the Playboy brand are part of a tradition that has subjugated women and twisted their sexuality in cruel and destructive ways for centuries.

I made the comparison with mainstream women’s magazines in my original post because no one seems to get het up about little girls going around in T-shirts with “Cosmopolitan” or “Elle” across the front of them, even though, as I argue, the content of the magazines they promote is far more damaging to women than the content of Playboy.

Playboy itself is not, as Harry puts it, “arriving in British schools” precisely because it is still illegal to sell it to minors. Playboy owns a brand with “adult” associations like many others coveted by children. When I was at school they used to sell sugar cigarettes in the corner shop. Thankfully they don’t any more, but I’m sure many adults now look back on that sort of thing with an indulgent nostalgia, even though, as I’ve pointed out in PooterGeek’s comments already, smoking kills people and soft porn does not.

And there is the nub of the matter. Playboy is cheesy, dated, and probably already uncool on the playground, but it is fundamentally harmless. So the best arguments that Harry and co can come up with are “the bunny means porn and porn is bad so bunnies for girls are bad” and “I don’t see why I should be forced to explain porn to my children”. These are so feeble that they have to resort to comparing the Playboy logo with the swastika, Playboy with Al-Qaeda snuff videos, and demand that Jackie D admit she wants to legalize heroin—as if that had anything to do with the price of cheese. You don’t have to be a libertarian to view this hysteria with suspicion. It’s Gitmo=Gulag all over again.

Often the real reason for such reactions is the equivalent of the “yuck factor” in questions of bioethics. People reach “moral” conclusions for aesthetic reasons. They don’t object to the Playboy logo appearing on children’s products because of any substantive damage that might follow from it, but because it makes them feel yucky.

Let me just repeat the central truth for the hard of thinking.

Soft porn does not kill people.

Masturbation does not make you go blind. (Well, not for very long.) Looking at naked cheesecake does not turn men into rapists. Paying aspiring “actresses” six-figure sums to drape their tanned flesh across dodgy 70s interiors does not oppress women. Hugh Hefner is not the anti-Christ. And Playboy is a thousand times more pro-women’s emancipation than the vast majority of the “appropriate” reading material that parents have been happy to put in front of their children over the past 30 years.

Let’s look at real harm. In my first post I wanted to make a comparison between the things we are supposed to fear children being exposed to and the things we are supposed to be comfortable with them being exposed to. It disgusts me, for example, that we still raise little girls on stories of sleeping princesses in high towers. Tosh like that has done and will continue to do far more harm to women than a bunny logo on a pencil case. I’m not saying that bunny-pencilcase-owning girls see themselves as the next Playboy Playmate™, but what kind of self-image is most likely to lead an underage girl to have unsafe sex she doesn’t want with her pushy (usually overage) boyfriend: the fairytale vision that no princess can be awakened from passivity without the kiss of a prince, that she isn’t complete without a man? Or the belief that she is an untouchable babe? Playboy models (and pole-dancers for that matter) are literally untouchable, unavailable, and make a very good living indeed without being obliged to have sex with anyone.

When media commentators expressed their outrage at Britney Spears getting to number one in the singles chart by dressing up as a soft porn schoolgirl and inviting her boyfriend to hit her one more time she was legal; she was a virgin—as were the vast majority of the girls on playgrounds across the Western world imitating her. Often the reason adult males find those kinds of “gyrations” disturbing (like at least one commenter at Harry’s Place does) isn’t because they are afraid that they might lead to the little girls wanting to have sex before they are ready, it’s because they’re afraid they’ll lead to men wanting to have sex with the girls. It’s understandable that this view is widespread since it is aligned with religious and political “thinking” that has been used to crush women and girls over the last two millennia. Come to think of it, there’s something distasteful about the idea of underage girls having functioning clitorides as well. And little boys having sensitive foreskins. I wonder what we can do about that…

It isn’t soft porn-branded merchandise that puts underage girls in abortion and GU clinics; it’s usually booze and hormones and peer pressure and older males who know exactly what kind of fluffy romantic guff we fill girls heads with and exploit it to get exactly what they want from them. Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? was written forty-five years ago by a 19-year-old woman and an older man. Most girls who admit to losing their virginity under the legal age report regret. Some don’t. Often minors have sex because they are curious and horny. A large minority suffer no lasting ill effects. Scary isn’t it, boys?

Girls turn into women. Women have sex. This transition does not take place overnight. Many men want to have sex with young women. Many men find it difficult to reconcile these ancient facts. As a result, issues that combine sex and little girls shut off higher brain activity in such males and they resort to reasoning about them with a primitive ganglion somewhere in the reptilian part of their nervous systems. Luckily for me, I fancy adult females (and Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It), and I don’t have a young daughter, so it’s a hell of a lot easier for me to be relaxed about all of this stuff, but even secretly fancying little girls would be no excuse for the sort of misogynistic drivel being written to justify a gut discomfort about a rabbit on a ring binder. Grow up, people, you’re embarrassing Harry. And it could be embarrassment, for the want of anything real to worry about, that is his original problem.